Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Poor discourses on sexuality and gender

ElinorBurkett, What Makes a Woman?
MassimoPigliucci, on Nature/Nurture
RichardFriedman, How Changeable is Gender?

(See my earlier post Defining Sexuality for more information)

Two of the more ubiquitous phrases about sexuality and gender identity are “trapped in the wrong body” and “born this way.” With the first phrase you can sidestep the developmental and nature/nurture structure to some degree, such that it does not particularly matter the way in which one has arrived at being trapped in the wrong body. But much of public thinking on the issue has the second phrase flow into the first. One is “trapped in the wrong body” because one was “born a certain way.”

The born this way narrative is problematic for several reasons but the main problem is just that much of what is usually encompassed when we think of sexuality and gender is in no way directed by genes in such a way. Thus making it impossible that one was literally born that way, any more than the idea that certain individuals were born to exhibit slave behavior. Within certain social worlds certain genetic factors may determine that one is a slave. Given a certain social world, one with a vagina (genetic) may always wear a hat. Or behaviorally, given a certain social world, one with a penis may always cross their legs when they sit. From a descriptive point of view, the “born this way” narrative creates difficulties for imagining the social constructing of one's identity and behaviors from the given genetic entity. You may be able to skip the nature/nurture question if “trapped in the wrong body” is some stand alone thought, but there is good reason to think that it is not. 

A good deal of the trapped in the wrong body discourse is going to show the problem with discussions that pass over the sex/gender distinction. The saying “trapped in the wrong body” often encompasses, or seems to encompass, something like “my body was meant for a dress.” When we have conflated the phrase “trapped in the wrong body” to include the idea “my body was meant for a dress,” we have reified and passed beyond reflection the idea that certain bodies just correlate with certain contingent social structures. So, trying to rescue the concept of trapped in the wrong body as a useful descriptive project, such that it is doing useful work in describing our selves, is bizarre. 

Furthermore, whatever work the phrase or idea is doing in the development of our thought and belief processes is going to be equally bizarre. There comes a time when you should realize that you root for the Yankees because of the random social contingencies that have developed your self and your social world (such that your social world has lots of people rooting for baseball teams). Whereas most of us readily accept the social contingencies and accidentality of our selves as regards team and sport affiliation, when it comes to other equally contingent behaviors (the social convention of baseline gender relations, for instance), we seem to be unable to readily maintain our awareness of those influences on our identity. It is simply who we are. And of course the latter contingency has far more impact on our lives, as compared to whether we choose to continue caring about our society's sport or our hometown team.

As with our slave example, if we take the social world as some rigid given, then it may make sense to derive socially contingent behavior or identity from genes. One was a slave because one had black skin (or any other kind of narrow genetic marker). Of course there was no necessity to one being a slave because one had black skin, it was merely a contingency of the social world (but also one where a heritability study may show meaningful value). Within sexuality and gender discussions, embracing our cultural and institutional world as it is given takes away from the possibilities of imaging a different world, and thus from creating a different world. And we must accept that as individuals and as collectives we can greatly change such a world, ignore such a world, or that we can create microworlds. In all of these cases we are not playing by the baseline cultural and institutional milieu of what we see around us today. And it will necessarily turn out that the set of genes that make us up would turn into widely differing individuals than the ones we see today. Most of our desires and our identity positions can radically change given a different cultural milieu. Most of our public discussion of gender and sexuality issues has a poor understanding of that complex dance about the creation of our selves within the world that we find.

On a broader level, our poor gender and sex discourse mirrors much of our identity and characteristics discourses. Especially important to me is our inability to appropriately analyze socialization/education of knowledge as regards the development of skills and knowledge. An individual's skills and knowledge are part of their identity, and they can be created very differently within individuals, as Malcolm Gladwell hinted in Outliers. We can of course do sex and relationships (etc.) far better as well, probably even for people who do not dance by societal norms or who ignore the general moralizing of sex. On that note, we can start by biologizing sex and seeing it as the simple, stupid act that it is.

 One example: The antipathy of many U.S. heterosexual men towards the kissing of and body contact with other men may be very ensconced in the character of these individuals. Such behaviors and feelings may be a given to their identity. Even if the U.S. homosexual/heterosexual structure flows from (or sits on top of) some innate biological differences, and the now present antipathy of some males towards certain kinds of contact flows from the erecting of that matrix, it is questionable what is gained politically, socially, or personally from the closing off of that explanation. What is lost by seeing the cultural instigating of these psychologies (dislike of kissing other males) by contingent social structures? I am confident that one could create societies where intense antipathy was not created in some people by the mere thought of kissing another man. Such a world would create a different developmental structure within those individuals. It would socially construct different identities, it would create different individuals. We should be able to tell useful stories about how different social worlds create different individuals. Obviously, I think such great antipathies towards male-male contact are absurd, but again we do not have to moralize or problematize such. I believe all we have to do is imagine different ways of being and most people will agree that those different social worlds may be useful. I do not believe people enjoy imagining their selves in societies that are repressive, or ones where if they happened to have been a slightly different person they would have been repressed for very bad reasons.

The key here is open, useful description. We do not need empty tag lines like “born this way” or “trapped in the wrong body” that make such basic descriptions quite muddy. Reflecting on the structures of the self has enough structural obfuscation without ensconcing identity positions in dubious ways. Also, it is questionable that such shallow tag lines are where our social and political gains are coming from, though we do live in an idiotic social climate. Seeing the social contingency of our desires or dislikes should not dissuade the argument that we should be much more accepting of most identities, of most people, of most behaviors. It also does not prevent us doing the work of undercutting the moralizing of nature in empty ways. 

On the transgender argument, we can embrace that Jenner wants to play a different role, believes her self to be different than what she has portrayed previously, but we can do so without closing off the complex formation of identities or closing off understanding the contingencies of our cultural and social structures. Gender and sex is precisely a place where socially contingent factors get intertwined with previous biological structures in an inexorable way. It becomes even more inexorable when we allow discourse obfuscating ideas to proliferate. Such socially contingent factors as wearing a dress and appropriate bodily contact are a large part of our identity, our brains, and our desires. Ideas such as being born this way, where “this way” seems to include dress wearing, does not help clear thinking. The phrase being “trapped in the wrong body,” where it seems much of what is meant is gender expression, is a strong reinforcing and closing off of the body/gender givenness of our present time. That present is one where we act and perceive within those discourses, almost always without seeing the contingent links therein. Which is precisely the reason why when we turn to describe that world, we need discourses that do not continue such seamless portrayals of the given sex/gender correlations. We need those contingencies to be ripe within the brain. Or else we end up with bad claims, like our boys just always loved blue. Parsing identities that are immersed in a social world, especially from within that world and interacting with such people, is immensely difficult.

To clarify, there is good reason to think these discussions themselves flow into our psychologies and development. To speak of the body (sex) and have it assumed that one means the wearing of dresses is to blur the gender/sex distinction, and to create it as given within our thoughts. The standard idea about sexing the body of someone you meet, that is, how we immediately try to categorize the person before us as male or female (~man or woman), is something that seems correct for most of us. And for much of that process we take the social coupling of gender/sex for granted. If such identification markers are significantly disturbed, if we have less context and less categories to interact with, we have less behavior that we can express. This is especially true for those of us who have been raised in a rather ordered world, where our behavior towards others can be helpfully ordered by having other people marked, either by sex or any of the other stereotypical markers that we rely on. On some kind of social program level it may make sense that one wishes to revel in the order that we created. Females wear dresses and are to be treated and spoken to and desired in certain ways (or not so, and vice versa). Even if one likes such order and argues we keep it going, when it comes to actually describing human beings (identities, desires, bodies, etc.), descriptions are going to be hopelessly tangled if we continue to use such political language. In the end, shortcutting our best descriptions of our selves leads to the creation of poorer worlds and poorer selves. It's also just bad science/philosophy.

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