The Philosopher's Eye

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Undoing Gender: New Experiments in Social Deconstruction

‘The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, “It’s a girl”,’ the American politician Shirley Chisholm once said. Exposed in this insight is the miraculous power of language; all that is required for something so fateful to be determined is not biological nature, not even social imposition, but, simply, speech. So seemingly simple is this mechanism, in fact, that some are doing their best to change it. It was revealed this week that a pre-school in Sweden has decided that the use of gender-specific pronouns such as ‘him’ (‘han’) and ‘her’ (‘hon’) is to be prohibited, in favour of gender-neutral terms, in an attempt to reduce the effects of linguistically determined gender-stereotyping.

The school, aptly name Egalia, is tackling an issue which has been firmly on the feminist agenda since Dale Spender’s influential book Man Made Language appeared in 1980. There Spender argued that, far from passively capturing the way that the world appears to us, language actively constructs the way that the world is. More specifically, the state of language, according to Spender, structures the world in a way that promotes males and inhibits females, whether by exclusion, alienation, control, or construction. The claim was supported by the famous studies in linguistics carried out by the American anthropologists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, whose extensive research on Native American languages led to the hypothesis that the structure of language restricts and determines our cognitive categories. It is hard to report an event in English without using the tense-marked words that the grammar requires, and it is hard to encode a fact in Hopi without marking its testimonial status, that is, whether it is first-hand knowledge, second-hand, third-hand, and so on, as required by the structure of the language. Importantly, it makes it hard to think outside of these limits, and, consequently, hard to behave outside of them. The way that we mark gender according to our grammatical structure is no different, an assumption which the new Egalia policy operates on.

Not everyone is convinced of this revolutionary scheme, however. Jay Belsky, a child psychologist at the University of California, Davis, was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying:

The kind of things that boys like to do – run around and turn sticks into swords – will soon be disapproved of…So gender neutrality at its worst is emasculating maleness.

But Egalia are not the only ones to have challenged gender stereotyping recently. Last month, Canadian parents David Stocker and Kathy Witterick hit headlines by announcing that their new born child, Storm, would be raised as ‘genderless’. The decision, they claim, concerning Storm’s gender will be down to Storm, if and when Storm decides. It may be a controversial approach to parenting, but the couple claim that:

If sex is what is ‘between the legs’ and gender is what is ‘between the ears’, neither is confused for any of our children.

What we noticed is that parents make so many choices for their children. It’s obnoxious.

Once again, however, not everybody is so sure of the idea. Both Professor Melissa Hines, a neuroscientist specialising in gender development, and Dr. Brenda Todd, a Clinical Psychologist and lecturer at City University, pointed out that it may be a little too ambitious to try to make a significant impact on the systematic construction of their children’s identities, because a child’s development is by no means determined just by what happens in the home. Until a wider societal change is achieved, once into the big wide world there is no hiding place for those seeking to live free from gender and all of the restrictions and expectations that come with it. Perhaps a schooling in Sweden is little Storm’s best chance…

 

Related Philosophy Compass Articles:

 

A Field Guide to Social Construction

PHILOSOPHY COMPASS

Volume 2, Issue 1, January 2007, Pages: 93–108, Ron Mallon

 

Reviving Whorf: The Return of Linguistic Relativity

PHILOSOPHY COMPASS

Volume 4, Issue 6, December 2009, Pages: 1022–1032, Maria Francisca Reines and Jesse Prinz

 

Ideal Womanhood in Chinese Thought and Culture

PHILOSOPHY COMPASS

Volume 5, Issue 8, August 2010, Pages: 635–644, Robin R. Wang

About David Woods

David is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Southampton. His main research interest is the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, as well as the philosophy of religion, the problem of evil, optimism and pessimism, and post-Marxian critical philosophy.

5 comments on “Undoing Gender: New Experiments in Social Deconstruction

  1. Jonathan
    June 29, 2011

    Your last paragraph states: “Both Professor Melissa Hines, a neuroscientist specialising in gender development, and Dr. Brenda Todd, a Clinical Psychologist and lecturer at City University, pointed out that it may be a little too ambitious to try to make a significant impact on the systematic construction of their children’s identities, because a child’s development is by no means determined just by what happens in the home. Until a wider societal change is achieved, once into the big wide world there is no hiding place for those seeking to live free from gender and all of the restrictions and expectations that come with it.”

    But what about the biological differences between the sexes? The assumption is made that gender has no relationship to sex.

    Isn’t it a bit curios that society is very excited and even anxious to learn about new ways that our biology and genes may determine aspects of our lives (such as the “God gene” determining religious belief) but angry and disgusted to entertain the idea that sex might have some determined role in our lives. Very curios.

  2. Jonathan
    June 29, 2011

    Hmmm, a thought popped into my head. I wonder if we don’t just choose the explanation (genesdidit vs. societydidit) that best fits our social agenda.

    Now the question is are we prone to look for evidence confirming the genesdidit/societydidit theory because of some genetic or social cause? 😉

    • David Woods
      June 29, 2011

      Thanks for your comments, Jonathan. Obviously, sex carries with it certain biological imperatives, and I would agree that it ought to be no shock that biology has a hand in determining aspects of our lives. The question, however, is which aspects of our lives it determines. Whether we mensturate or we produce sperm is, of course, a matter of biology. Whether we have long hair or short hair, wear dresses or wear trousers, play with dolls or with toy guns, however, is not necessitated by our biological nature. It is expected that the latter of each of these will be taken up by males and the former of each taken up by females, but people such as the parents of the baby Storm mentioned in my post have decided that Storm and their two other children should be allowed the freedom to make such decisions according to their own taste, not the expectations that come with their sexes. The point that Professor. Hines and Dr. Todd make is that, whereas while their children are still young and in the home a sufficiently liberal environment can be easily created and sustained, the parents of Storm have no control over the outside world which begins with school. There is only so much one can do.

  3. Jonathan
    July 1, 2011

    David,

    You said: “Whether we have long hair or short hair, wear dresses or wear trousers, play with dolls or with toy guns, however, is not necessitated by our biological nature.”

    But isn’t this the sort of argument that Homosexuals want to avoid? Don’t they want to argue that their homosexual lifestyle is not a choice but a genetically/biologically determined choice?

    Of course I’m simplifying a bit, but I don’t think I should need to spell it all out. The majority of homosexuals don’t act like “men” (as the popular culture perceives manliness) who happen to be sexually attracted to men. Rather, homosexuals, in addition to being sexually attracted to men, tend to act more like what the popular culture perceives to be effeminate.

    Various homosexual groups have fought very hard spread the message that it’s not just a lifestyle choice. It’s who they are. It’s in their genes.

    Thus, it seems to me, that the whole homosexual argument leans against the idea that things we usually associate with maleness are just accidents of culture. How did those accidents occur in the first place? Well, following the logic of the homosexual argument, doesn’t it look like actions we associate with being male/female (or effeminate/masculine) are biologically/genetically inclined?

    • David Woods
      July 5, 2011

      Thank you once again for your comment, Jonathan.

      My words which you have quoted, I believe, do no damage to those who argue that homosexuality is biologically determined. Just because one advocates that some of our qualities are socially determined, such as those which I have pointed out in your quotation, does not mean that one has to advocate that our other qualities are socially determined. As I indicate in my previous reply, certain aspects of us are biologically determined, other aspects are not; homosexuality may be a case of the former, it may be a case of the latter, but certainly one is not committed to placing homosexuality in either merely by virtue of identifying aspects other than homosexuality which are socially determined.

      There are a few more things I feel I must point out.

      Firstly, I would query the assumption that homosexuals want to avoid the suggestion that sexual preference is biologically determined. I would imagine that a significant amount do, but I would also be unsurprised to find that many prefer to regard it as a freely made lifestyle choice unrelated to their biology, or perhaps would put it down to social and environmental causes. Certainly, one cannot be so sure that there will not be a diversity of opinions.

      Another point you make seems to do more in favour of the social determinist you appear to be trying to argue against. You appear to suggest that homosexual men are inclined to act more like women. If this were true it would follow more easily that gender roles are not decided by sex, seen as it would be an instance in which a (biological) male acts more like a (social) female. That the majority of homosexuals do not act like men is, however, unsubstantiated in the first place. (There is probably some truth to the claim that homosexuals do not act like men who happen to be attracted to men, but only for the reason that many homosexuals are attracted to females).

      I want also to pick up on a suggestion that is perhaps only implicit but is no doubt worthy of being noted. You mention that homosexual groups have fought hard to convince people that homosexuality is ‘not just a lifestyle choice. It’s who they are. It’s in their genes’. Now, there is the suggestion here that a lifestyle choice is not a contributing factor in who one is. I would dispute this assumption, and suggest instead that lifestyle choices can be constituents in our identities just as much as matters of genetics. It is perhaps our intolerance to the idea that non-necessitated choices are just as legitimate aspects of who we are as our biological constitution that forces certain persecuted groups into claiming that the relevant aspects of their lives are necessitated. That is, homosexuality and other qualities can be both a lifestyle choice and who we are.

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