Tuesday, March 11, 2014


The effect of this concept on our lives has many facets and accesses to our psyches.  For one, many languages have a so-called grammatical gender, where every object is considered to be in the same group as either the human male or female (some, e.g. German, also have a neuter).  There is also the biological/social idea that lies behind the grammatical categories: human beings are either male or female, and each one has particular characteristics.  "Gender" for people, then, is something that you present to others and/or something you feel yourself to be.

The gendered categories of gender are something we have inherited from the Greeks and their rational approach to knowledge.  Other languages outside of Europe have different categorical divisions in their experience of the world, although I believe they all separate men and women.  Some might try to argue that this separation is merely technical, grammar related, and has nothing to do with how we see ourselves, each other, and the objects that are forced into a group with us.  But, that does not appear to be true.  As reported on Lexicon Valley some time ago, by giving objects the grammatical attribute of human gender, we also give them human attributes associated with that gender.  My question is, where do these attributes come from for people, and is their association with objects the root or just a reinforcement of this attribute distribution?

How do we decide on our gender as human beings?  The simplest way is assignation by physical build, based on the genitals presented at birth.  However, there is a number of people who seem to present one gender but have characteristics of the other in other areas.  Some babies do not present a clear physical gender.  Some people have physically presented one gender, but mentally or emotionally are connected to the other.  Then, there are some who do not identify with either gender, calling themselves gender queer or third gender.  Our society is clearly binary in this respect.  Although we can accept the idea of a trans-sexual, most of us refuse to entertain the notion that a person could have no gender or something like both.  We acknowledge physical hermaphrodites, but expect them to "choose a side".  Where do the ideas of both or neither come from if our society has so clearly established the binary choice of male vs female?

We also know that the characteristics associated with each gender are not stable over time and change through time and in different cultures.  The rigid gender roles that social conservatives wax nostalgic for are mainly a product of the Industrial Revolution in the West, with the changing demands on individuals and families and shifting environments for living.  Some "primitive" societies have been more egalitarian, and just a few as close to ungendered in their expectations of individual behavior as biology might allow.

The burdens of biology was a theme hammered on again and again in the meeting, with the main issues being the inefficiency of reproduction and the inherent unfairness of judging worth by physical appearance.  It is understandable to some extent; by dividing society into separate strata, each with its own sphere and possibilities to contribute, competition is limited.  One competes only against one's "like", not against all members of society.  One contributor asserted that since our idea gender is social, it can be changed, but that change is difficult since it requires some risk-taking on the part of the authority.  Many men in a position to hire women will hesitate, since his hire's failure will reflect badly on him, moreso than if he had hired an incompetent man.  It is a symptom of a prejudiced society, although the fact that the opportunity to hire somebody from a different stratum exists is a positive point.

In terms of pure gender division, we seemed to agree that the actual behaviors are driven purely by societal expectations, not by any natural inclination.  An example given by one participant was his ideas of what "feminine" people do versus what "masculine" people do, in which carpentry did not fall into the feminine category.  He was shocked when he met a Swedish friend of his wife's who was a carpenter, a woman, and a straight woman.  His previous social conditioning had told him that people who perform those kinds of activities are "masculine", so either biological men or lesbians.  He also mentioned his wife's scolding him for his assumptions as a difference in what he had been brought up to expect in feminine behavior, since his society is more male-dominated and men direct while women tend to listen submissively.

Towards the end, the opinion came out that our constructed reality can evolve much more rapidly than our biological reality.  This has an impact on any sort of prejudice, probably.  The tribe demands a loyalty that precludes any idea that individual happiness has more moral weight than the survival of the tribe.  Anyone who is different may be a threat.  Our ideas about gender may have made good sense in the past; they could have been the basis for survival under certain circumstances.  But in modern Western society, how much does it matter what gender anyone is?  There are still jobs where brute strength is a requirement; we can freely admit that people of a certain gender category tend to be physically stronger than those of another.  But, why ban all those outside that gender outright?  There are enormous numbers within that gender who don't meet the requirements of physically demanding positions, and a few in other categories who do.  There are good reasons for those of the other categories to stay away, reasons most likely based in social expectations and reactions than on pure objective fact.

In the end, we didn't make any sort of decision about anything.  What is gender, how is it decided, we were bogged down in the social effects rather than the causes.  Well, that can only mean a return at a later date.

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