Thursday, 4 December 2008

On difference and diversity

I was tracing back on hits to this site and came across a discussion of one of my previous posts. This was a very strange experience and one that I have never had before - seeing two people intelligently dissecting something that I had written some time ago.. It was very gratifying, even though there was much disagreement with my position. I would recommend any who are interested to visit the site, but here is an extract:
The kernel of the argument, of course, is summed up in these two sentences: “There is nothing important that I can do that a woman can’t. This cannot be said in reverse and here is the taproot of male insecurity.” Aside from the obvious problem inherent in this position — what it may or does imply regarding women who cannot have children, or choose not to, as well as that regarding lesbians and, especially, transwomen — there is the debatable proposition of the first sentence. At the very least, one such thing exists: the ability to help another man (perhaps a son, perhaps someone else) come to terms with his body, his sexuality, and his self-concept as embodied, and in terms of such. Women do not experience what it is like to have a body of our type; even for transmen, the experience is limited. Guiding a boy, or a man, through these processes is something that only another man can do.

There are things unique to us, as there are things unique to ciswomen, and to transpeople, and to gays, and to lesbians, and to bisexuals as well; to the dominants, and to the submissives, and to the polyamorous, and to all the others among us. There are important things of which all of us are capable, things specific to us and to ours. Does it do justice to any of us to draw such a distinction, based on a biological capacity, especially when it is one that is less than universal — one that one may, by choice and with intent, refuse to embrace or enact?

I posted this in response, but will expand a bit afterwards:

My beliefs are based on my experience. When I was a considerably younger man, I was a single parent, bringing up my son from early infancy until he left home. In the early years, when my life seemed to consist of little less than sleepless nights, shitty nappies, teething and vomit as well as the more pleasant things such as giggling, snuggling, watching the joys of discovery and growth etc, the nearest thing I had to a peer group was young mothers. Sociologically and economically, my role at that time was as near as dammit feminine.

But it was not female. Often, the women I was with woulld seem to forget that I was a man and would talk about physical processes and experiences that were impossible for me. Prior to this, I had thought that gender was purely a social construct - but this no longer seemed convincing.

This experience laid the foundations for the rest of my life and has guided all my explorations. It forms the base on which my beliefs now rest. I do not consider that I was in any way a worse parent because of my biological sex - but also could not pretend that, although my current experiences were largely identical with my peers, there were not fundamental and unbridgeable differences.

There are two problems that can arise when looking at these differences. One is to deny their importance and the other is to privilege one group over the other. It is the latter that our culture has done. This is what I was addressing in my post - and suggesting a reason for it. For most of the historical period, women have been seen as those who give birth - this has been seen as their role, and often the only justification for their existence.

Sometimes, as a mark of devotion to a deity, they will be encouraged to forswear this role and become sanctified virgins. Other causes of childlessness have, have generally been seen as either the results of curses or marks of transgression. Whatever the case in an individual women, however, the general rule remains - women’s role is to reproduce. Yet women are inferior and subject to the authority of the male. Thus the male asserts his power over the power of reproduction. It is a wise man who knows his own father, it is said. It is therefore an even wiser thing to do to ensure that only one man has access to the mother. That way, the mystery of reproduction can be domesticated by the man.

This is not the way it has to be. You mention other culture where the gender roles are less rigid and biologically based. I agree. But my feeling is that any suggested remedy for the disease which so afflicts us must take account of where we are - not where we would prefer to be. I may be wrong in my diagnosis of causation, but that does not mean the patient is not profoundly sick.

What I want to address is the issue of non-heterosexuality that was brought up in the extract. It is true that not all women choose to have, or are able to have, children. Many women are lesbian and, if they have children, bring them up as a couple. It is also true that transwomen were born in male bodies but have now changed to one degree or another.

The gender norms are now much more fluid than they were. But this is recent. The prevailing gender norms have been in existence for millennia - the exact number being a matter for debate - and are encoded in the language. In order to describe new phenomena new words have to be coined. Thus, it was not - despite my possession of a first class degree in English gained as recently as 1996 - until I started this blog and surfed around others, that I came across the prefix "cis" to describe women who were born female. To expect this sort of thing to have filtered into the subconscious of the mainstream culture in which most people swim is unrealistic in the extreme. Things are moving and many are starting to question but the cultural base from which this questioning starts was laid down by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and their precursors way, way back.

The response to the negative biological determinism of our ancestors has been a tendency to deny that biology has any part to play in the construction of gender. This is dangerous in that it denies basic and, in the current state of our knowledge, unavoidable facts and limitations. Human beings have the right to define themselves as they wish - but, if, in doing so, they set up goals that are physically impossible, all they will achieve is personal pain and disappointment. A transwoman cannot, as yet, be a physical mother (just as a transman cannot be a physical father). This does not mean that she should not adopt but it well might preclude entry into groups which are created to address issues experienced by those who feel they have been seen and treated from birth as breeding machines.

The vast proportion of human existence, however, is not sex or gender dependent. We are all born and we will all die. Along the way we will experience many things - among them may be love, fear, disappointment, rage, hunger, thirst, terror, despair, joy, happiness, ecstasy, pleasure, pain etc. I believe, however, that it will only truly be possible to focus on what unites us when we have fully examined and accepted what divides us. This is true even if what we see in ourselves may not be completely palatable. For our true beauty lies in our diversity - we are all different. Women may conceive, but men fertilise. That is also valuable - otherwise sexual reproduction would not have evolved. Trans, gay, lesbian, polyamorous, monogamous, celibate, woman, man, black white, young, old -we are all human. Let us celebrate that and move away from envy, jealousy, separation and fear.


Infra said...

There are a couple of points that I'd debate -- such as the roots of the binary, seeing as even in the Hippocratic corpus, from what I recall, there was a concept of the sexes as multiple, along with the ability to change from one to another; homologue theories, such as those of Galen (recently reworked by Lowndes-Sevely) were also influential, blurring the boundary lines.

A lot of how we seem to define the male and the female (and especially the masculine and the feminine) seems to date to the 18th and 19th centuries. That's based on my own research, at least. But this is not to say that the concepts didn't exist at all previous to that; just that they seem to have meant different things, and were interpreted in different ways.

The question of how we actually viewed ourselves in the past is a complex one. ANE studies highlight this: the conclusions reached by those who study it directly often differ, substantially, from those based on Greek sources describing its cultures. Sacred prostitution is a good example, as some ANE scholars contend that it didn't actually exist. Sex was used in religious contexts, according to them, but prostitution was not. Their argument is that this argument is based upon a misinterpretation of second-hand Greek sources.

Medieval sources are another area in which analysis is sorely lacking, and in which the same kind of disagreements exist.

Additionally, our conceptions of power affect this, as does our inclination to privilege text over iconography. But this is all just to illustrate the context of the criticisms I've raised.

I agree that certain concepts haven't permeated the mainstream. As you pointed out, the prefix "cis-" is rare to hear; I'd only encountered it within the last several years, even though trans* issues have been a subject of personal interest for much longer.

I agree that the move toward a strongly constructionist view, in addition to being unsatisfactory in terms of the development of self-concept -- this being, as I recall, one of the criticisms of queer theory -- tends to downplay pivotal aspects of our experiences as embodied individuals. It has its pitfalls and dangers, just as is the case with too heavy an emphasis on biological factors (seen in its extreme form in things like evo psych).

It all boils down to a question that's both elegantly simple and eminently difficult, I think: what do we use, and what do we need, in order to define ourselves and come to an understanding of who we are? It's likely only when we have an answer to this that we become capable of understanding where we stand in the context of difference. It's only then, maybe, that we even become able to conceive of difference as such.

I certainly won't argue with your point that the vast majority of our experiences are shared in type. But are they shared in quality? What we experience may be the same, but what about how we experience them -- about how they affect us, and the meanings with which we imbue them?

I suppose that this is why I view a focus upon certain biological differences, especially in regard to reproduction, with some suspicion. It helps us identify difference, and it's a step toward valuing it. But it can also -- as in your noting of Aristotle -- lead toward a certain inhibition of the fluidity necessary for living within the context of difference. It gives us guideposts, but they can become pillars, simply because they are so obvious, so consistent, and (in most cases) so unchangeable.

I think that we're in agreement on this point, but are approaching it from different directions.

So... how do we address this? Speaking for myself, I'm far from sure. But I'm also inclined to think that a pivotal part of it is to focus, not upon biological difference itself, but upon the ways in which this affects our perceptions and our relations: what opportunities it opens up for us, what risks it makes visible to us, and so on.

I came across a reference once, a philosophical approach, that suggested that our bodies, and our awareness of being within them, shapes how we think. It shapes, maybe even determines, what it is possible for us to think. I've come to agree with that as a result of my own explorations. And I'm inclined to think that if we're going to come to an appreciation of difference, that's where it has to start.

Perhaps, in our own ways, we're both speaking to that possibility. We might just be approaching it in different ways: from the inside out, or from the outside in.

Brian Charles said...

I agree. I don't think that our basic positions may be that far apart and am feeling stimulated by the points you raise. I would like to address them but feel that I would prefer to do this in the body of a main post. That way, perhaps someone else would feel tempted to contribute their own take on these questions. So that is what I will do.