Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

04 Sep 2006, 1:42 a.m.

Steve Yegge & "Clothes For the Soul"

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2006 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

I generally enjoy Steve Yegge's blog posts; you can find lots of adoring swooning to that effect in my archives from the past year. Recently he posted some thoughts that weren't out of the ordinary for him: "Clothes for the Soul", he called it.

A few of his claims:

  • The ability to use technology to change the human body, cosmetically and in less visible ways, is growing.
  • Lots of people in the US get squeamish about such actions, especially regarding being open about having such work done on one's own body.
  • We shouldn't be so squeamish; all the squeamishness springs from stupid, nonapplicable, irrational sources.
  • Other radical new ideas that cause defensiveness in people, ideas which Yegge also wishes to promote, lie in the technical realm; once people understand/agree with the "Clothes for the Soul" thesis, it will be easier for Yegge to get those readers to understand and accept those revolutionary tech ideas.

Please do let me know if you think I'm leaving out something absolutely essential, or misrepresenting these claims.

Well, I have thoughts on how our bodies and minds and social relationships interact. Anyone who's read sci-fi, or been nonwhite in the US, or nonmale or nontall or nonthin, has done a fair bit of musing on the topic. I've read an interesting NYT article on gender transitioning. I've thought about how awesome an orgasm-button implant or "a truly effective aphrodisiac for women" or "a neurobiofeedback machine that could help women learn to be superorgasmic" would be. But I think about tradeoffs, too. I think about the monoculture problem, and tonsillectomies and thalidomide, and gender imbalance and destabilized societies, and the fact that the mind is what the brain (receiving information from the rest of the body) does. And if we could flip, ad hoc, through all the bodies that the human race could offer us, would we take advantage of the available diversities of experience? Or would we have a race to the bottom, ending up with a severely narrowed point of view, a new and more stifling conformism? Well, outsiders will always play with 0wnz0ring their bodies, with drugs, tattoos, piercings, Atkins, and beyond; they'd dare to experiment with out-of-fashion body types, but I doubt most people would buck the crowd.

But! Even considering the problem with mind-body duality, or taking any kind of nuanced view on the unalloyed good of the cutting edge in bodymod, puts me on the wrong side of Steve Yegge -- because he raises the logical rudeness shields at the end of his piece and throughout the comment board. He condescends to people who ask questions, or who are addressing the world as it is, not as he imagines it might be. He calls them sheep.

The point of the article is that YOU are a SOUL. Your body -- including your race, gender, genetic makeup, all the things I know nothing at all about as we interact through the internet -- they're effectively just accidents. They don't matter. So you should be able to change them.

I would indeed like to be able to change some things about myself, in my mind and in my body, and am making slow progress towards them.

But, if I am a soul, I am a contingent one. An accident, a sperm and an egg meeting, created me. In fact, nearly all births of humans have been accidents in that way. And the accidents - gender, race, geography, teacher lotteries, weather, accent, car crashes, books being checked out from the library -- make us who we are. The accidents do matter. I can't extricate my soul from my past any more than water can extricate itself from wetness.

Yegge writes, "You're holding on to notions like 'race' and 'gender' that may literally be meaningless words within 100 years." He later takes off the qualifier:

...notions of "race" and "gender" are going to be obsolete in 100 to 200 years, hence racism and sexism will be roughly equivalent to pants-ism and shirts-ism...

It would be completely awesome for men to be able to switch into women, physically and psychologically, with a quick bit of outpatient surgery. I'm talking the ability to conceive and give birth, lactation, height and weight shifts, Venusian temperament, longer lifespan, the whole deal.

But until everyone can have kids, or no one has to (the dependable existence of willing incubators?), gender has a lot to do with who can depend on never getting pregnant and who can't.

Steve Yegge's focus on cosmetic Swatch-watchability tells me he thinks he's a brain in a jar. This is weird, since he's so aware of his body in another context. Then again, maybe he just thinks of it as a tool to manipulate.

He notes that he can't tell a person's race or gender over the Internet. Is he also blind to class in text? In his audience? (Race, gender, and class: the interconnecting triumvirate of historical analysis.) And does he think we won't have face-to-face contact in two hundred years? An interesting claim, but I'd want to see a plausible roadmap to getting rid of all our meatspace social needs.

And heck, there is pants-ism! And shirts-ism! If I go shirtless on a hot day, I'm breaking rules. If I wear pants instead of a skirt or dress, some people think I'm less womanly.

Generally speaking, though, I think it's pretty obvious to most rational people that the trend is towards having control over how you look, and there's nothing wrong with making yourself look better. If a change makes you happier, then it will almost certainly make the people around you happier too.
Well, who decides what's better? The "duh" answer is "you do, duh," but I am not an atom. Society influences me, and just as sexism in India and China plus sonograms turns people to selectively abort female fetuses, lookism in the US plus easy bodymod might have ill effects.

But Steve Yegge has declared logical rudeness on anyone who asks for clarification or details on his utopia. He strongly implies that anyone challenging him simply doesn't understand his claims. From the comments:

Jay, poor Jay, you're really having a rough time. I'm sorry this is so hard on you! Take a deep breath. Thaaaaat's better. Calm.

And there's more of that in the comments. I was really shocked and disappointed by the disrespect Yegge shows to people who challenge his claims; he calls them mad, scared, or uninformed.

I wouldn't have paid as much attention to his post and associated comments had he not earned so much respect from me with his many previous posts. The way he's treated his commenters on this seems out of character for him, so maybe this whole exercise is a prank. Either way, I'm wincing.