Jan 22, 2019

'The freedom to be, or become, a gender'

of gender in any individual’s sense of self.

-- Baroness Hale, President of the Supreme Court

In 2016, writer Sara Ahmed interviewed American academic Judith Butler for the journal Sexualities. The interview meanders around various topics, such as the formation and performance of sexual identity and the construction and institutional boundary policing of academic disciplines, but rebounds repeatedly off the central item of interest to both interviewer and interviewee – namely, Butler herself. In response to a question about professional, academic vulnerability, Butler has this (among much else) to say about how early in our lives we become vulnerable to the labels and expectations of others.

If, for instance, we think about gender assignment as ‘being called a name’ then we are affected by gender terms before we have any sense of what they mean or any understanding of what kind of effects they have. Indeed, this follows, I think, from the fact that we are affected by the ways we are addressed, and those modes of address start early and against our will; they are there, as it were, from the start. Sometimes those modes of address embrace and animate, but they can inaugurate a chain of injury as well.

In this passage, the labels and expectations that matter to Butler are gendered. On Butler’s view, our vulnerability is universal, but not everyone who is vulnerable (i.e. subject) to gendered modes of address is injured by them. A problem arises, for Butler, not with gendered terms, but with the imposition of the incorrect gender terms. On that view, I am not intrinsically harmed, there is no injustice done against me, by the imposition of certain gendered terms of naming which go on to shape and channel my psychological development; I can only claim to have been so harmed if I grow up to strongly disidentify with the specific terms assigned me. To put it more plainly: if someone calls me a bitch, that is an injustice only inasmuch as I strongly feel I ought to have been called a bastard.

This line of thinking is again plainly evident in Butler’s recent New Statesman piece, where she repeatedly references ‘gender freedom’ as the ability to choose one’s gender: ‘one may be born a female, but become a man.’ The problem, on this view, is that we ought not to force gendered modes of address on children and young people because we don’t know whether they will grow up to identify with the terms we choose (typically the terms aligned with their sexed body). We should wait and find out from the child themselves how they choose to identify in future.

This approach seems perhaps eccentric but basically innocuous: what’s wrong after all in not imposing our ideologies on infants? But it betrays a way of thinking about gender that is not simply misguided, it is deeply injurious to the absolute majority of people – especially women – who don’t go through a process of pointedly rejecting their identification with the feminine gender and don’t take steps to switch to the opposite, masculine gender (become men) or to the still ill-defined and ambiguous “non-binary” identification. To illustrate by analogy:

Say you happen to be a Nazi bureaucrat during the 1930s in Germany. If, as part of your administrative role, you slap a yellow star on a non-Jew, the injustice does not reside in the misidentification. The non-Jew might object that he is ‘no one of those people’ and feel aggrieved – they have been, to use a parallel construction to ‘misgendered’, ‘mis-raced’. From outside the logic of Nazism, however, we see that the problem here is not that there are ‘those people’, the abject and inferior ones, whom it is our responsibility to correctly sort into the proper category in order to achieve a just disposition of racial identity. The injustice, instead, resides is the existence of a system of thought that divides people into castes, and a system of symbols that enforces the division. If you wanted to make sure that no non-Jews were ever injured by being forced to wear a yellow star, you'd abolish the yellow star.

If you keep the system but enact a bureaucracy to help non-Jews avoid the injury of being forced to wear a yellow star, you're not protecting them from harm: you are legitimising a system in which their humanity can be abolished by a piece of yellow (or pink, or red) cloth. Similarly with gender, if you protect gender as a system, but enact a bureaucracy to help some people avoid the injury of being coerced into a specific status, you are seeking to protect the hierarchy in which some people's humanity can be abolished by perceived reproductive potential. And yet the demand Butler reiterates in her NS piece is for ‘the freedom to be, or become, a gender.’ The system, overall, remains unreformed - but a certain amount of movement is permitted between categories. This is the epitome of confusing movement with progress.

In other words, gender theory is not a solution to the problems of coercive gender, but merely a loophole. A loophole that allows some people to opt out of gendered expectations and judgements at the price of people's humanity remaining held cheap. Because if there is no greater majority – or at least some stable group of people – who live the normative gender expectations to the full, including the physical and psychic violence that makes them legitimately subject to, there can be no subversion of a repressive norm such that ‘gendered life can be an expression of personal or social freedom.’ There is no need for a bureaucracy that, in Butler’s terms, would help avoid injury for the few people who feel they have been harmed through mis-designation to the wrong gender category.

At issue as well is a question of autonomy, conceptualized not through individualism, but as an emergent social phenomenon: how do I name myself, how can I establish my status within the law or within medical institutions, and to what extent will my desire to live as a particular gender or within an established gender category be honoured by those who claim to ally with me but who position themselves against my desire to be named and recognized a certain way?

Now clearly, if you conceive of yourself as an autonomous individual in a world of autonomous individuals, there is no problem there: in theory everyone could use the loophole described above. But once that move is made, one forfeits the right to speak and think about ‘political freedom’, as Butler does. Because politics exists only between connected, embedded people. There is no politics of one. Conceptually, an ethic that depends on atomisation for its enactment has no business claiming the mantle of ‘justice’, let alone ‘social’. Pragmatically, the escape hatch of transition-for-some only embeds others more deeply in a system of violent repression.

Butler’s conception appears to be that oppression, at its root, is an injury to the self: the nature of oppression is in that it limits the individual from expressing their authentic self. This is in contrast to the traditional conception of oppression as a material framework of deprivation or curtailment which limits people’s ability to live a maximally flourishing life in material and economic terms such that they can, within that enabling framework, choose to actualise their self. It’s a kind of inverted Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, with food, shelter and security taking a lower rung to self-actualisation and fulfilment. In the example of Nazi Germany, the reason that the injustice, for Butler, would properly reside in the non-Jewish person being made to wear the yellow star is that they are being denied the freedom to ‘have their desire to live as a particular race within a system of race’ is respected. The properly Jewish person – in Butler’s conception, the person who ‘self identifies’ with Jewishness without coercion – is left to their own devices: there is no place in the self-actualisation framing to decry the fact that their material wellbeing, their right to work and participate in civic life, is being curtailed: the key moment of oppression is not in what a system does to you, but what it calls you while so doing.

The current debate about the amount of movement that should be allowed to individuals within a violently oppressive system – gender – is a distraction from any consideration of reforming or even abolishing that system. The ease and rapidity with which our institutions of power – epitomised by the epigraph to this post, which is a quotation from this Supreme Court judgement regarding a transgender woman’s right to contact with her Orthodox Jewish children – have adapted to accommodate gender ideology should add a pinch of salt to any claims about its revolutionary potential.

As linguist Deborah Cameron notes, while we argue about who should and shouldn’t be called a woman, the assumption that men are the default human beings is going entirely unchecked – and ‘a gender revolution that does not challenge the default status of men is not a feminist revolution.’ While Pope Francis calls for gender essentialism and Judith Butler calls for ‘gender freedom’, feminists should, and do, call for complete liberation from gender and its attendant coercive apparatus.  

Jan 10, 2019

First, catch your hare: on biological explanations for differences in sex roles

‘A knife is a weapon or a tool according to whether you use it for disembowelling your enemy or for chopping parsley’
Elaine Morgan

“Would innate psychological variation (on average) between the sexes be incompatible with radical feminism? If there was a degree of such innate variation, what would the implications be for radical feminism and gender criticism?”

When faced with this question (or something very like it – I had the original questioner help me reconstruct the phrasing) last week, I swerved in what was probably an infuriating way and said that not only is the question itself not answerable with current knowledge, it is ‘une question mal posée’ – a question which interrogates premises that are themselves incorrect or inconsistent.

It is important to understand what the main objection of radical feminism to the social system of gender is. I have written about it here, but to summarise: the moral and political problem, for radical feminists, rests not in men and women having different roles or exhibiting different tendencies and behaviours, but the hierarchy of value that we have attached to any perceived differences, before then naturalising those (perceived) differences and making the value judgements a de facto class system.

I emphasise ‘perceived’ differences, because any conversation about the average tendencies or capabilities of people rests on observation of their behaviour. And the main problem with saying anything definitive about gendered behaviours is that we don’t have any stable idea which behaviours are which. In what follows below I attempt to demonstrate by example that our collective judgements are simply too unreliable to be able to correctly identify average variations between the sexes, never mind interrogate their origins.

Consider that when girls in childhood play with small anthropomorphic figurines made from wood, plastic and fabric, we call them dolls. When boys play with anthropomorphic figurines made of the same materials, we call them action figures. When men use natural materials like marble or metal to create objects of aesthetic value, we call it art. When women use natural materials like wool or clay to create objects of aesthetic value, we call it craft. This is true even in cases where men and women are using the same materials to create the same types of objects: in traditional Moroccan practice, for example, weaving carpets by hand is a women’s job but weaving fabric by hand is a men’s job. The men’s job, because it is performed by men, who anyway control the majority of financial resources, was more highly valued and more invested in, creating a discrepancy in availability of materials and complex tools which led to the development of the brocade industry. Brocades could then be made with silk and gold thread (because the men making them had more capital to invest), making them more lucrative and perpetuating the economic discrepancy. The result is that carpet weaving is considered a crude domestic craft, but brocade weaving is an elite industry. Both ‘roles’ involve putting threads in rows and then pulling other threads through.

Nor do we demand consistency of ourselves when we tell ourselves stories about why certain seemingly-related tasks are associated with men and bring financial rewards, whereas other tasks are associated with women and bring no financial benefits and the expectation of more free labour. Consider the prevailing narrative of our prehistoric ancestors. Most lay people (and a not-inconsiderable portion of experts, too) have a picture in their heads of a rigidly segregated savannah on which men hunted and women gathered. Hunting was dangerous and prestigious. Gathering was easy, opportunistic, and taken for granted. The fact that at least as much knowledge must be invested in distinguishing between ripe and unripe, or safe and poisonous plants, or knowing which parts of the environment they favour in different seasons, is at least as great as the expertise needed to track an animal to it lair. Or even the fact that hunting is an uncertain activity and it is likely that gathering supplied the majority of critical calories to the group and staved off starvation if hunting failed. That’s low hanging fruit. Here are two much greater paradoxes with the standard ‘man the hunter’ narrative:

When we think of prehistoric hunting, we tend to think of stuff like mammoths and bison – big game, basically. But the majority of hunting done by hunter-gatherer groups is not running pell-mell after giraffes; it is trapping (rabbits, monkeys etc.), netting birds or raiding their nests for eggs, and fishing. That’s true of even modern hunters, who only do it for fun. Many more people fish or rabbit course than ride to the hunt. This type of hunting doesn’t require big time investments, stamina or going too far afield. Certainly your average rabbit is not that much more exotic a foodstuff than your average apple. And guess what, it turns out that women did a lot of this kind of hunting, as you would expect – as well as participating in the stereotypical big game kind. You can certainly check a couple of lobster traps with a baby on your back, or whatever limiting function w imagine held women back from hunting (evolutionary vegetarianism, perhaps?). Well, guess what again: when activities such as catching small rodents were recorded among hunter gatherer groups, they were called… Gathering. Because women gather, men hunt. So if a woman is doing it, it’s got to be gathering. I haven’t heard of anyone calling climbing for coconuts ‘hunting’ just yet, but what do you want to bet that someone somewhere has written about it as a more complex, more intrepid, altogether more Manly activity than mere collection of yams?

[Two examples of the above classification practice can be found in this one paper about the Bakola of the Congo region: while gathering is ‘reserved mostly for women and children’, ‘the important tools regularly used for gathering include machete, which functions at the same time as a weapon for killing animals’ – but no mention is made of these animals being ‘hunted’ (earlier in the paper the author also talks about reptile meet being desirable but mostly killed by happenstance upon bush clearing, another activity undertaken by the ‘gathering’ women). Honey collection is classified as ‘gathering’ in the paper, but when describing the honey gatherer the author uses the pronoun ‘him’, without explaining what observations led to this seeming discrepancy with other gathering activities. Other examples abound in the literature.]

The second paradox has to do with agriculture. The standard picture or the development of agriculture is that it was a technological advance made by men. Certainly by the time the dust settled on the Agricultural Revolution (if it can be said to have settled yet, which is by no means certain), men in the majority of known cultures controlled not only the surplus produce of farming, but the rights to declare ‘ownership’ of land and of the people who work the land. Further: at some point before or during this process, men have arrogated to themselves the right not just to farm vegetables, but to farm people. By controlling and trading the reproductive potential of women, men guaranteed not only the food supply, but the labour supply too.

Here’s a question nobody seems to ask: how the hell did they do it? How on earth did men go from running after bison to knowing which grasses had kernels that were good to eat and which were, well, grass? How did they know which berries didn’t kill you and where in the forest they grew? How did they know what the ground looked like above a promising bit of tuber, and how deep to dig with their digging sticks? Did women write some sort of Neolithic Encyclopaedia of Gathering and, I dunno, gift it to men?

The fact is that if we accept the man-the-hunter, woman-the-gatherer narrative, we’re pretty tied up with the idea that the first cultivators of crops – even in a small way, by clearing a few weeds around a promising patch of vegetation – were women. That agriculture was invented by women. Agriculture is possibly the greatest human revolution of all time, a way bigger deal than writing or putting people in silly suits on the moon. Agriculture changed the entire world, rearranged species, transformed or destroyed or created whole ecological niches. And if we believe that women were doing the less prestigious activity in the Palaeolithic, we have a pretty big explanatory gap to fill with regard to how come they suddenly lost their interest in plants by the Neolithic. It’s the carpet/brocade thing at wok again: whichever is the more valorised and lucrative activity, it is instinctively ascribed to men.

These two paradoxes are central to a wide complex of stories we tell ourselves about the past (others are connected to things like pottery: if women were in charge of cooking, they are likely to have been the nes to invent pottery, and therefore to have been the first to use kilns. Then why do we think the technical improvements to kilns that set the stage for ore smelting were made by men?). The doll/action figure duality is a problem with the stories we tell ourselves about the present. But the inconsistencies in how we look at nature don’t just affect how we look at human behaviour. We even gender basic inanimate processes.

Everyone knows that sperm are mobile and eggs are motile, and that sperm race towards the egg and all compete to be the ones who fertilise it, right? Well now. What if I told you that the egg, sensible creature that she is, actually sits there serenely and uses a complex biochemical mechanism to first attract, then identify the most viable sperm, and once identified, actively seizes and envelops it? The ‘choosy egg’ hypothesis is slowly beginning to gain ground among experts, and the fact that it’s only happening slowly, on top of the fact that nobody has ever thought to actually check what the egg does, from the beginning of embryological science until now, tell a woeful story about not only our ability to interpret what we see, but our willingness to even look.

I am a rationalist and a materialist; I believe in evolution, in biology, in systematic archaeology and in careful evidence gathering as a means of arriving at, if not The Truth, then at least a fair enough approximation of a correct interpretation of reality to enable us to successfully operate in the world and continue to improve people’s material circumstances. As such the stories above are not a rejection of archaeology, or biology, or even the toy industry (although the latter can go to its room and think about what it’s done with regard to the Pink Apartheid of girls). But when people challenge me to definitively say which parts of our behaviour are Nature and which are Nurture, how much of sex difference in behaviour is capital-E Evolution and how much is capital-S Socialisation, I always want to take them back to the beginning and say: define 'behaviour'. 

It’s only once we understand that we interpret data through stories, and that those stories can be distorting, contradictory, or absurd, that we can really start the work of picking through the evidence to decide whether there even are significant behavioural changes between the sexes. And it’s only once significant behavioural changes consistently isolated and defined that we can start asking ourselves, and developing the complex methodologies for answering, the question ‘how much of sex difference is genetic?’ Until then, we’re dealing with mythology, not fact. Mythology, let’s be clear, is much more powerful than fact. That is why my personal efforts are directed at busting the myths than ‘proving’ any new facts about women’s brains or maths skills. And that’s why I give people annoying and seemingly evasive answers to their reasonable-sounding challenges about sex difference.