I have written on gender in this blog before, and it may be worth having a look before reading on here, because today's stuff branches off from the basic critique.
The problem of gender takes many forms, of which a brief sample may include:
- 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.
There is a worldwide struggle against many of these, even if only some people identify gender itself as the source of those ills. Indeed, the primary question of gender divides those struggles, at best compromising their focus, at worst confounding them into an ugly free-for-all. Some, the essentialists, do believe that there are inherent social differences between men and women, and would conduct the struggle according to these models as they see them. Others reject that binary altogether, considering those models to be constructs in themselves and seeing the struggle as one of transcending them.
In other words, these people all have different narratives. Ask them to look at our world and tell the story of gender on Earth, and each of their stories will be different. Their beginnings and predicted ends will be different – the liberation of humanity, or the end of the world? Their genres will be different – a heroic tale, or an epic tragedy, or a textbook? Their characters will be different, their settings will be different, and the assumptions on which they rely will be different.
I have made no secret of my own perspective. I stand firmly against essentialism: against the idea that the biological categories of male and female deserve any significant direct implications on our social arrangements. I do so first because we are each different, and second because we are each joined by our common humanity – and thus must suspect any such social division of our species as the herald of a repressive assault upon individual liberty and the collective good alike. From this division comes judgemental attitudes, pressures on people to be who they are not, and the punishment of those considered different. No-one should have to live their lives in that shadow. Essentialism is gender, and the bedrock of so many of its catastrophes.
Of course, the real villains have quite different narratives of their own. The rapists, the fundamentalists, the patriarchals, the morally panicked, those convinced that one sex should dominate the other or that sexual diversity is sinful – theirs are the narratives so obviously heinous to everyone who is not a cannibal that to discuss them now would be a waste of time.
Instead, let's look at some problems in the narratives on the better side of the struggle. Narratives which, though we may come to see sense in them with all the best intentions, are in the end more trouble than they are worth. They may even appear reasonable or effective at times; but their destiny is only to soak into the roots of the great gender parasite, to nourish it, and to lengthen its harvest of human souls.
In this short series of articles, I want to deal with three general varieties of these narrative problems – three myths, which I have called the Myth of Natural Origin, the Myth of Modernity, and the Myth of the Others. This first article will consider the first, the Myth of Natural Origin, while subsequent entries tackle the other two. In each case, let us explore we will never resolve the problem of gender so long as we rest on these illusions.
1) The Myth of Natural Origin
The first myth is the myth that gender is natural. It is simple on the surface yet profound in the depths, which may be why it is so pervasive but so hard to justify. Unpacking it requires great care, for there are extremely sensitive terms and concepts involved.
What makes a thing “natural”?
First, we should be clear on what we mean by nature. It is not enough to say that something is natural because it exists, nor because of some authority – any authority – declaring that it is. The first is tautology, the second politics. Instead, let us define it thus: a thing is natural if it is of this world – that is, if it has come to exist, as a product of reality, without interference from outside the system. We shall return to what 'outside the system' might mean later.
Second, we should remind ourselves that gender is different from sex. Sex refers to biological differences, gender to socially constructed ones. “Male” and “female” are sexes; “masculine” and “feminine” are genders. Thus to question gender's place in nature is not at all to suggest that sexuality, indeed one of the pillars of life on Earth, is also not natural – and while checking to make sure, note especially the splendid diversity of those sexual configurations, which are so varied that no one sexual model can be put forward as more standard than the others. These models of sexual interaction, so far as they occur outside societies of animals, have nothing to do with gender. Gender, as something socially constructed, by definition first requires societies.
Third, the fact that some animals do live socially, and do exhibit gender problems such as sexual violence or the subjection of females, is not enough to regard gender as natural. Existence alone, once again, is not a sufficient criterion for this; it must be shown conclusively that that thing came about without interference from outside the system. On top of that, we humans are so gendered ourselves that we can hardly trust our own kind to study and understand those creatures impartially, in the full nuances of their own contexts and ways of thinking and feeling, without allowing any of our own human assumptions, including gendered assumptions, to cloud our lenses.
Fourth, even if we were to take gender in other animals as natural, a massive leap is required to conclude by extension that gender in humans is natural – a leap we are not equipped to make. Over hundreds of thousands of years we have become exceptionally complex, diverse, and capable of more than enough logic and empathy to realise that gendered repression is calamitous for collective humankind and for each and every one of us. Conflict and alienation between two halves of our species benefits no-one, and certainly not the species itself. We can guess what we like about other animals, but for ourselves at least, we can know it is repressive. We can know it causes hurt. We have had centuries upon centuries to learn it – there has been no excuse not to. And that we would not only persist in gendered cruelty so harmful and meaningless, but spawn entire moral, legal and civic systems to perpetuate it – that is a mockery of sanity that must make us question how far our problems can truly be the products of a functioning universe.
And so the alternative echoes again. Outside the system.
Can gender be natural?
The basic problem with the “gender is natural” position is the same as with any other “X is natural/unnatural” position, including statements about human nature: they are impossible to prove or disprove with our present understanding. What it comes down to is that we really know sod all. Humankind has learnt a great deal in recent millennia, but our records of our own history are only reliable so far back, and when it comes to the vast extent of our reality's space and time, the totality of our secure understanding scarcely bears mention. From where we are now, we simply do not know of what might or might not have happened in the billions-of-years-old story of all-that exists – indeed, to even think at that scale challenges imagination.
Of course this makes it equally impossible to conclude that gender is unnatural. But it does leave the question wide open, and invites us to ask: if gender is natural, then how did it come about? And if it is not natural, then how the heck did it come about?
“Gender is natural” arguments usually stand upon one of two foundations. On the one hand there is the religious foundation, typically resting on gendered creation stories, the Genesis narrative of the Christian Bible being a case in point. Even if not held as literally true, these come to reflect the values preferred by those who tell them. In other words, “gender is natural because I want to believe it is natural”. That is to say, a normative statement; a choice. There are many things one might say to that, but it adds little to our current empirical concern, so let's leave that for another discussion.
The other foundation is more interesting: the attempt at a scientific, value-impartial explanation. The eternally-cited framework here is Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, which must be one of the most frequently and tragically misinterpreted triumphs of our scientific heritage. By these readings, gender is both context and output: sexually differentiated roles and behaviours both shape and result from a contest for survival and reproduction, typically with aggressive male agents competing for passive female resources – sex as something women “have” and men “want”, or as Catherine MacKinnon eloquently captures it, 'man fucks woman: subject verb object'.
There are multiple problems with this inference. Life is not just some contest for survival, properly defined; not the “survival of the fittest” yanked from a whole other context and tacked clumsily to this one. It is observably not the case that survival and reproduction are the absolute priorities for all living things, nor would they result in gender inequality and conflict even if they were. Only at the pinnacle of wilful ignorance can we reduce all life to mere machines of self-preservation and reproduction, and suggest that all social activity and behaviour is a function of that; and only by leaping across a whole series of those pinnacles could we claim that a species fighting a gendered war with itself does any good for its prospects in the world.
This is especially the case with complex life forms like ourselves, capable as we are of our multitude of values, beliefs, ways of thinking and feeling, and above all, our propensity to value each other as ends in ourselves. We could point to the many systems of ethics, of law, of philosophy, we have developed to assert that, but they all come down to very basic human senses: that we experience or have record that certain things feel terrible, and do not wish others to feel them either; that we can understand that to harm others is to harm ourselves, as it motivates others to harm us back; and more than anything else, that we can love.
Of course, this does not undermine evolution itself. Evolution occurs over tremendous timescales, ever buffeted by the winds of chance, random mutation, and physical and social environments that are always changing, every second, every year, every era, perpetually reshaping the terms of life and the meaning of biological fitness with a chaos far beyond any one generation's ken.
It does, however, leave evolutionary mechanics next to irrelevant at the level of the here and now. Ask yourself, honestly, if there is seriously nothing worse to you than death. There is so much else that is important to us aside from survival and reproduction, be it freedom, or integrity, or the chance to express and fulfil ourselves, or the people or creatures or gods or objects that we love and the health of our relationships with them.
That is why attempts to apply evolutionary mechanisms to our lives tend to become normative instead: that is, an argument not that we do live according to them, but that we should. We all know well what manner of people have thought like that, and sought to make it happen, and we know exactly what harrowing anguishes lie down that road cemented with blood and paved with bone.
Why raise these echoes of European eugenics and Nazism? To indicate the pinnacle of our complexity: because as repugnant as these choices were, these were choices on a formidable normative scale, and a scale on which most of us, thank goodness, prefer other choices. A choice of nothing less than what it means to be human. Of what we want our species to be.
It has been within our abilities to think about that and act on it for at least tens of thousands of years, which makes it finally beyond imagination to suggest that concerns of natural selection and biological fitness account for the gender madness our kind has acquired. Strong life, fit life, is diverse life: capable of creating and adapting against as many different shocks and surprises as possible. Strong life, fit life, stands together: cooperates against universal threats, rather than turning upon its own for no reason.
Genderedness, by selecting against those who do not conform, acts to make us the very antithesis of this. It makes us weak. Divided. A fearful, feckless, faceless half-human race of ones and zeroes, squandering its strength, energy and self-control by panicking at every difference and policing and violating its own members. In evolutionary terms, we might call that a regression.
We must get beyond the idea that gender is a natural thing. Not only because we have not a clue if it is or is not, but because to proceed as if it is is paralysing our search for the actual causes of the gender problem and its worst manifestations. As with arguments about human nature, the appeal to “nature” does more to close an argument than win it: it masquerades as a conclusive explanation while in fact telling us nothing.
“Nature” does nothing to explain why men have become generally larger and stronger than women, and even less to explain why such a hideously disproportionate apparatus of social norms and expectations have grown up to associate men with reason, power, aggression and violence, and women with emotion, vulnerability, weakness and submission. It tells us nothing about why so many men and women comply with these stereotypes without resistance, even while it destroys them.
“Nature” tells us nothing about why societies segregate male and female spaces, or impose certain dress codes on men and women, or pressure men and women to want certain body shapes or sizes. It tells us nothing about why so many jobs or functions in society are considered the exclusive preserve of men or of women – usually of men.
“Nature” tells us nothing about why “masculinity” or “femininity” exist, nor about why the content of those constructs is what it is; nor does it tell us why hostility is shown towards homosexuals, transgendered people, or the many others who do not conform to gendered expectations.
“Nature” tells us nothing about the invisible, suffocating and occasionally bloodthirsty rules we have set up around male-female social relationships, and why those who cannot or will not dance the dance at best must give up all hope at finding intimate companionship, and at worst are slaughtered like carrion. It tells us nothing about why we assume the models of monogamous heterosexual marriage and the nuclear family are best for everyone, and stigmatise those it does not represent, such as same-sex couples, polyamorous people, single-parent families, or people who plain don't like marriage.
And “nature” tells us nothing, absolutely and utterly nothing, about why rape exists; how it can exist; or how it is sanely possible that any human being can will themselves to violate the body of another human being, less still take pleasure from their agony or walk away with impunity knowing that society will blame the victim for it.
Frustratingly, in spite of all this, from a purely empirical standpoint we can only conclude that gender may or may not be natural. That is all that the hard evidence right now permits us to know – it is possible that gender might be natural, but the conclusive conviction that it is is absolutely a myth.
Beyond the evidence, we are left with values, influences, and intuition, which vary between us all. Are these worth anything in confronting the “gender is natural” myth?
Outside the system
From here I can only speak personally. I will fully admit that what follows is but my own subjective impression – emotions and instincts as fallible as anyone else's and hardly scientifically admissible. However, I can only admit that I cannot, as a human being, look upon the aforementioned gender nightmares and find them anything less than downright freaking abominable.
From any angle. From any perspective. It could be because of their logical and ethical bankruptcy, as just discussed – tormenting and weakening our species, hounding and excluding the different, an evolutionary regression, a source of so much suffering. Or it could be a nauseated revulsion at the extremes our kind employs to regulate gender and sexuality: the rape, the enslavement, the stonings, the lashings, the mass hysterias, the atrocities against people's bodies and souls, and the plain-as-daylight odiousness of the people who carry them out and call them righteous. Or it could be a more personal bitterness and rage, at how so long as this world is like this, my own prospects have been thoroughly screwed over by a gendered paradigm of behaviours, relationships and male-female interaction totally alien to me, and often altogether abhorrent.
But beneath that – beneath all of that – there is something else. It is something I have had for longer than I remember, and that I was certainly never taught. I do not know what to call it, aside from some deep, irrepressible sensation I get in the presence of gendered forces; a feeling akin to that of trying to breathe in the sudden absence of air, or of losing molecular contact with the world around me – as though when I look upon gender, I am looking at something that is not capable of existing.
Something that does not belong in this reality.
That is the best I can do to give what is meant by outside the system, because words inherently cannot engage with it – words are of the system of which this is not. It is a thing of which, at the most elemental level, it simply does not make sense that it could exist upon the fundamental fabric of the cosmos; something upon which everything you know about reality breaks down, to leave only madness, a universe insane. There is simply nothing I am aware of – no logic, no intuition, no chain of causes and consequences – by which I can imagine our gendered paradigm coming into existence in our reality, without something foreign to reality having acted upon it.
I do not know what that would mean; what this something that cannot be something could be. I dread to consider the magnitude of what it might imply. But I have found nothing, absolutely nothing, that begins to demonstrate to me even the faintest hint of some natural basis for the horrors we have visited upon ourselves with our gendered creations; and until I do, I cannot suppress this suspicion that they are wrong at a level unparalleled in our most hellish imaginations.
If gender truly is this brand of abomination, I doubt we will identify it soon. But we can do ourselves all a favour by rejecting, or at least suspending, the notion that the problems of gender have a sane and legitimate place in the natural history of our world, until such time as we have the evidence to consider it.
Coming up in Part Two of this series: the Myth of Modernity.