The first article in this series challenged the myth that gender is natural. Today we confront a second myth.
But first, let us first remind ourselves of the general forms the problem of gender takes. Some of these are as follows:
- gender inequality;
- gender conflict;
- the subjection of women in almost all spheres of public and private life;
- hegemonic relationship dynamics;
- hegemonic family structures;
- hostility to sexual diversity;
- the mistreatment of people who are not biologically male or female, such as intersex people;
- the mistreatment of people who do not conform to masculine or feminine gender expectations, the consequences of which include exclusion, alienation, mental health problems and suicide;
- and the abomination that is rape, among others.
The myth we will look at today is this: that the problems of gender are traditional – and that as societies progress to become more enlightened and modern, they overcome these problems.
But before we begin, here is a cute bear for no particular reason.
Now then. As with “nature”, there are loaded concepts involved here. Terms like “traditional”, “progress” and “modern” are stacked to the sky with baggage to declare. But at their most literal, they together imply something very simple – indeed, that is their problem. They imply a straight line. A straight and singular path of development, on which human societies advance through time, and on which the further they travel, the smarter, wiser, fairer, and just generally better they become.
At first glance that may sound accurate enough. We are, perhaps, better off considering ourselves “elderly” in our 80s, and not in our 20s as a few thousand years ago. A lot of us have access to things like advanced medicines, traffic lights, washing machines, solar panels and video games now, making our lives safer, easier and more enjoyable than the lives of our ancestors who did not. There are a few irritations unique to our time as well – say, the escalating ecological disintegration of our planet, and the triumph of a greedy, materialistic, exploitative and violent market fundamentalism – but if we ignore minor things like that, the general impression that as the centuries have elapsed, the experience of human life has, on the whole, improved.
And so the narrative goes for gender. A society where there is less rape is more modern than one where there is more rape. A society where men and women both have opportunities to participate in political life is more advanced than one whose national cabinet is a masculinised lair of misogyny. A society which grants equal legal recognition to diverse forms of the family is more progressive than traditional societies where you get arrested for living with someone of the other sex without being married, or beaten up by religious police for holding hands. Where is the problem?
Well, consider statements like these.
“Those people still treat women like chattel.”
“Why is this medieval law still in place in the twenty-first century?”
“That country is stuck in a time warp.”
I have emphasised the temporal references in these statements. As examples they are abstract, but still typical of what you find in serious news, commentary, or roundtable discussions on the gender problems at issue. I have heard this sort of language even from the most intelligent and courageous of people, whose credentials and ethical integrity in the struggle against gender are beyond reproach.
But something about that phrasing still makes me feel ill.
History is Not a Blob
The immediate problem is this. If we recall, that gender and its problems have no convincing basis in nature; that they are at once so harmful to human individuals and societies, yet at once so prevalent; that things like rape, the subjection of women, and the persecution of sexual diversity can only be properly called abominations; then we must conclude that they are as abominable at any time in the past as they are now.
That is to say, a place does not still treat women like chattel; if it ever did it was already in violation of the universe. A law that forbids cross-dressing or cohabitation without marriage, or punishes rape victims, is not medieval, nor does existing in the twenty-first century make it worse than in any other, because it is already infinitely offensive to life regardless of when it exists or existed, and it always has been, and it always will be. A country which mutilates children's genitals, or where political and military life is either the preserve of men or imposed through conscription, is not stuck in a time warp so much as stuck outside of time. We are talking about things that should never have been able to exist.
Do not worry, however, if you were not convinced by the “gender is not natural” conjecture and cannot relate to this. There are more than enough empirical reasons alone to suspect this purported relationship between gender and time.
The basic problem is that as the “gender is natural” myth is based on bad science, this “gender is traditional” mirage takes shape from a lousy approach to history. At its core, it is selective reductionism. That is, it grossly simplifies, and thus misrepresents, both the past and the present – and in so doing reduces the vast and colourful heritage of humankind on Earth to a singular, writhing, amorphous, stern and remorselessly violent blob of authoritarian patriarchy.
Lousy history. The first thing you should notice when you look at the past is that it is in fact huge. The second thing should be that we know so little about most of it – both because of the limits of our records, especially for societies which did not write or whose artefacts were made of perishable materials, and because we are such masters of confirmation bias (i.e. seeing what we want to see) and of doctoring our pictures of the past to suit our values, interests and arrogances in the present. But even from what remains, we can observe that, although yes, almost every society has a sorry history of gendered repressions and atrocities, these were very far from uniform. Examine the history of any society and it will be seen that there are times when they were better on gender, and times when they were worse; and that these fluctuations were driven not by the turning of the clock, but by the bitterest of confrontations of changing interests, changing values, and struggling currents of kindness and cruelty.
To forget this complexity is not only sloppy but dangerous. If instead we feed the reductionist (and often essentialist) blob of gendered horror, it then explodes back on the history and splatters all over our collective consciousness. Its embodied assumptions and prejudices seep through the gaps in our knowledge, saturating them with the illusion that the past was just generally, with only half-mythic exceptions, a time when gender inequality, conflict, and regulated conformity to rigid social roles were ordinary. We re-interpret, reject, ignore or simply forget any records even potentially contradicting that. And in doing so, we poison the study of history, spiking it with the gendered contaminants of life today just as the nationalists spin their past atrocities into glorious acts of heroism, and the religious fundamentalists portray their own faiths as intrinsically peaceful and others' as incorrigibly bloody.
And now the converse: the selective reduction of the present. While the “gender is traditional” narrative portrays tradition as a singular gendered amoeba, it portrays the present in contrast as a radiant, coruscating triumph of education, technology, and liberal values. These, the narrative goes, have equipped us to smash the shackles of gender subjection like never before, breaking free of tradition's restrictive, rapacious morass, and raising our arms to embrace a sunlit present which, as far as gender is concerned, is freer, safer and more tolerant than any time in our history.
The actual present is as follows. Rape, and rape culture, infest almost every society in the world, while politicians, moral authorities, the police, the courts, and social services in even the richest and most liberal countries remain comprehensively inept at stopping it or participate to sustain it. Men still dominate the political, military, academic and sporting landscapes of virtually all countries – on the one hand, particularly in the military, they may be forced by law to become killing machines and die for miserable causes because they happen to be men, while women find their paths to these fields obstructed, inundated with ridicule, or straightforwardly blocked. Homosexuality is punished by law in almost half the world, is discriminated against in virtually all of it, and in a dozen countries faces the death penalty. Children are still segregated by sex in many schools, and treated differently in all aspects of life on the basis of whether they are boys or girls. So rarely can men and women, girls and boys, interact with each other free from the influence of visible or invisible rules around how they are supposed to relate, or what they should or should not express to each other. Humanity drowns in a sea of overlapping gendered pandemics – domestic violence, emotional abuse, sexual slavery, sexual apartheid, female infanticide, “honour” killings, “morality” police, gender-related mental health problems and suicides, bride kidnappings, human trafficking, genital mutilation, unequal laws and wages and sizes of meals and recognition of evidence in court, hegemonic and arbitrary body image standards, failed relationships, child custody battles, and cultural media saturated to bursting with the same gendered tropes, ugly stereotypes and male-female relationship dynamics repeated over and over again.
But what is the present's most extraordinary characteristic of all? It is that these impossibilities, this caterwauling rampage of a thousand abominations, is allowed to fade into the background noise of social and political life: to the ticker-tape headlines, the corners of the inner pages of newspapers, and the protests of people whom the mainstream tells to just calm down, and asks: can't you see that we are a modern society now, where men and women are more equal than ever before? Would you prefer to live back in [arbitrary period], when [stereotyped culture] used to punish people like you with [horrible atrocity]? Can't you stop making a big deal about nothing? When are you going to just, you know, calm down?
An Earth with nothing on it might be an improvement over that. Yet that is what we call democracy, enlightenment, modernity, and liberal bloody values.
Let's look up some actual history. Are men, women, and diverse individuals and families closer to equality under Putin's Russia than they were under the less maniacal phases of the USSR, or even the Tsarist period? What if we apply that question specifically to, say, Chechnya? Go and look up what Ramzan Kadyrov has done to it as far as gendered repression is concerned, in the present, and try imagining what could make a society more gender-heinous without it driving you to a nervous breakdown. Do homosexuals and others with non-heteronormative sexual identities or orientations live in safer, more inclusive conditions in Uganda, Nigeria, Belize or Malaysia today, or did they in the centuries before British imperialism injected their societies with fear of sexuality and of the sexually different? What of all the other lands transformed and civilisationally butchered by European colonialism, such as in Francophone North Africa, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean or the Pacific Islands? Were the women of Afghanistan freer under the Taliban in 2000, or the monarchy in the 1920s? What about gendered repression in that artificial construct called Iraq, say in areas currently controlled by ISIS, compared with under the Abbasids or the Ottomans? And what of the rigorous traditions of women in combat, such as in the Kingdom of Dahomey, or the Kurdish Peshmerga, or the ancient Amazons – how do these compare with the masculinisation of armed power in most nations today?
None of this is to suggest that even the superior examples in all these comparisons had a gender record better than downright deplorable. What it makes quite clear, however, is that societies do not necessarily get better at gender over time and can just as easily, rapidly, and unexpectedly get much, much worse. And they can do so, moreover, while wearing all the trappings of modernisation.
It also enables us to look at the aforementioned gender deplorableness through the ages in a more suitable light. Too often, we accept them as simply how we were: those timeless cultural images seared into our minds, of dominant men and submissive women; of women as spoils of war; of witch-hunts; or those pseudo-scientific dogmas which once portrayed women as lacking in mental faculties, taken for granted as though authoritative fact, and used to justify denying them property, the vote, or participation in political, social or economic life. We must recognise that these were not so much reality, as broken reality. Not intrinsic to us, but chosen. We must look upon this past with faces lined not with stone, but torrential tears of shame, and hold our ancestors responsible for what we can only recognise as disgraces, disgraces of incomprehensible magnitude, and disgraces as elementally odious for being carried out then as they would be if they happened right now.
One final, crucial oversight of the “gender is traditional” myth is that it ignores the diversity within all societies. In any society, in all times and places since gender appeared amidst us, there would have been those suspicious of it, and critical of it, just as there are now – and just as there remain in every society today individuals as bloodthirstily sexist or heteronormative as at any time before. For conversely, even in the most tolerant and gender-equitable eras, there seem always to have been the haters, the zealots, the control-freaks attempting to reawaken the abomination of gender from its dreadful slumber; and too often they have succeeded – perhaps, as is usual, with the sponsorship of self-regarding political or business interests. But even when the abomination's whispers clouded the minds of masses into hysteria, to set loose the most utterly appalling gendered atrocities – from Nanjing to the former Yugoslavia, from Dhaka to the eastern Congo – there were always the dissidents, the activists, those who hurtled through the shadows or stood tall in defiance to save as many people as they could, who said no to corrupt authority, who told the majority it was wrong; those who put their lives, or far more, on the line to roar the gendered horror back to the pit. And when societies recovered to relative sanity – when the demons of gender receded – it was the courage and sacrifice of people like those, not some purported long-term trajectory of progress, to which those societies owed their gratitude.
It is always important to understand things in the context of the moral conditions in which they took place. But we must remember that those conditions are not literally of the times at all, but rather of the people in them, and the conscious choices they made. And no matter how the clock of the universe reads at any given moment, it is reasonable to expect that any sane person in that moment can understand that there are some things no guise of morality can ever fit. So it has always been, and always will be, for the inequalities, conflicts, subjection and sheer pain of the things that issue forth from the maws of gender.
Modernity as Arrogance
There is one final problem with the gender-and-progress narrative, and that is the much bigger beast on whose hide it is but one of a thousand scales. We might call it a problem not so much of history as of meta-history – that is, of how we conceive of history, of our journey, itself.
A story is not a straight line from A to B. Rather it is an unfolding webs of tangents, shocks and surprises that twist in complex directions we cannot always understand, because the frames of orientation themselves change too. Otherwise it would not be a story – there would be no journey, nothing to tell. And our story is one of the most complex of all.
There are two models of the human journey which have both been disastrous. One, especially favoured by people pessimistic about human nature, considers it cyclical. We go round and round in circles; nations and revolutions rise and fall; we soar to the skies upon our hopes and dreams, then plummet into the spiked pits of reality; over and over again in a spiral of miserable futility. It is a model made of cynicism, which tells us to swallow our despair and accept the injustices of the present, for any attempts to correct them inevitably land us with worse.
Frankly, if that is our lot then we may as well all drop dead. However, our concern today is with the opposite model: that which presents our journey as a sequence, a progression from primitive to modern, whether in knowledge, or technology, or prosperity, or moral values.
This, though on its face optimistic, underpins one of the most upsetting disappointments of our time: that thing we have called development. The history-is-a-sequence model is not solely to blame for its blunders – we also have to consider the paradigm's hijacking by market-fundamentalist economists, and the legacies of the colonial division of the world between North and South, among other things. But at the core of development, at least for most of its reign as a keystone concept in international politics, is precisely this narrative that societies can be measured against a linear yardstick – calibrated, of course, to the journeys of the societies that designed it – and according to this, be called “more developed” or “less developed”, or worse still, “developed” or “developing”, as though all societies walk on one trail through time and can be compared by their relative positions upon it.
This too is ahistorical, ignoring the effects of histories – often colonial histories – and the diversity both within and between societies. But as anyone who has had their present or future decimated by IMF shock therapy or structural adjustment programmes will tell you, its implications are hardly limited to how we look at the past. Never mind either that, as we have considered, a society in which gender problems exist may have moved backward from its starting point.
Those societies which measure themselves the highest on this scale like to refer to themselves as modern. Therein lies the heart of this myth. For modernity, very simply, means the present, as compared favourably to the past. It is no more than to attach the most gratifying of value judgements to our image of ourselves here and now, relative to the past; and in the process, to turn our backs on the entire catalogue of hideous present inadequacies we have herein discussed.
In literal terms, modernity is a nothing. Anyone can think themselves modern, in any time period, and think so with equal validity – that is, none at all. Even were we to attain a wonderful state of love and magic with lots of happiness and peace and fuzzy animals, there would always be room to improve. The very concept of modernity is nothing but the hubris of the present, spun to sound respectable. That is just what we need in a present like this, is it not?
And that is why I call the gender myth in question the Myth of Modernity. Because the idea at its root is that there is such a thing as modernity at all: a landscape of glorious furnaces of progress, which, as we draw closer to it, radiates liberating heat that blasts off our gendered baggage. The myth is that this modernity exists. It does not. And so long as we believe that it does, we will always believe, by definition, that modernity is us; and so will we puff out our chests at our ancestors, while persisting nightmares, including those of gender, leech through the human soil and pollute the prospects of the future.
Those ancestors probably thought themselves modern too. If the dead can see, they are surely humbled by hindsight. If the dead can speak, they surely warn us not to repeat their hubris – if only we, the living, will listen.
Traveller, there is no path, the path is made by walking
So if history is neither a blob nor a line, what does that mean for us, and our struggle against gender?
Two beacons, glowing in the mists of time. A beacon of hope, and a beacon of warning.
The beacon of hope blinks through gaps in the terrible history of humanity's gender repressions, gender conflicts and gender atrocities. It signals to us: yes, you have been terrible – but not always terrible, not uniformly terrible, and not terrible in the ways the essentialists would have you believe. There were times when you were better. You can research the history, discover these times, and learn from them. You may not know gender's causes, but you can dig up plenty of its drivers, especially in its intersections with forces you can so easily prevent if only you properly valued their costs: thuggish nationalisms, moral panics, mass hysterias, bad spirituality, economic abuse. Your science and technology may not make you superior to your ancestors, but they do provide all the equipment you need to disperse the illusion that gender has any inherent connection to 'tradition'.
But heed the beacon of warning. It signals to us: destroy your complacency. Abandon the myth of continuous linear progress, for it is a lie. There is no invisible railway of time on which you can simply ride to victory against the terrors of gender. Your struggle will not win itself; the outcome is not written in the stars. Instead, take responsibility. The awareness, the criticism, the better examples and choices you must make – these require a courage for which no fate can substitute.
If nothing else, think again if you have thus far made statements about gender with those unwitting references to time: when you suggest its barbarities are unacceptable for still being present (rather than being present at all), or reflect a medieval society (rather than a failed or broken society). Little words like those may seem trivial, but it is on these very trivialities that the gender abomination gorges itself until its tentacles are so fat they fill up our entire social backdrop, and thus settle in our minds as normal. Gender belongs neither in the past, nor in the present: it comes to them, from outside of time.
And ultimately, gender inequality, gender conflict, gendered discrimination and horrors like rape cannot be “progressed out of” by modernisation, any more than a ghoul can modernise out of undeath or urine can modernise into water. Gender's existence is a brokenness that transcends time; no sooner is it written in the pages of our story than its eldritch ink rots the whole book to muck, no matter what chapter we are in at that moment. It is thus not enough, for us who fight it, to concede it the past as a price for the future; because then we give it a place in our story, when we must give it no place at all. It does not belong, whenever and wherever.
Hopefully the whenever now invites closer scrutiny. As for the wherever, we shall explore that with the third myth: the Myth of the Others.