Sunday, 9 September 2012

Can We Do Without Gender Identities?

Here's a quick one. Can we do without gender identities? Could our biological sex be irrelevant to our self-understanding? Could my sense of who I am not take my sex into account? I don't think so and below are some Taylor-inspired thoughts as to why.

Taylor argues that our identity is in large part our sense of where we fall in relation to matters of human significance. It is about where we locate ourselves in moral/evaluative space. Here's how he puts it in The Ethics of Authenticity;

"When we understand what it is to define ourselves ... we see that we have to take as background some sense of what is significant. Defining myself means finding what is significant in my difference from others. I may be the only person with exactly 3,732 hairs on my head, or be exactly the same height as some tree on the Siberian plain, but so what? If I begin to say that I define myself by my ability to articulate important truths, or play the Hammerklavier like no one else, or revive the tradition of my ancestors, then we are in the domain of recognizable self-definitions.

The difference is plain. We understand right way that the latter properties have human significance, or can easily be seen by people to have this, whereas the former do not..." [Emphasis added]1

So then, it is understandable that peoples' identities include things like being good at football, or being a conservative, or knowing a lot about the Bible, or being born in a city famous for its musical culture, or whatever. These relate to things of human significance. But how about gender identities? Do these relate to things of human significance?

Being a woman or a man is clearly not just a mere physical fact that one should get over. It's not comparable to, say, just having a strong big toe, or having a mole on your back. These are trivial things. But being a man or being a woman is hugely relevant to important human endeavours, namely the whole package of mating; the attraction, the sex, and (at some point) childbirth and child-rearing. It is humanly important that there are men and there are women – that there isn't just one sort of human. The kind of beings that we are makes this important.

By applying Taylor's insight we can see that gender identities exist (at least partly) because of the significance that is found in biological sex. So as child grows up, he or she learns that social space consists of men and women. As the child's self-awareness grows he/she gradually become more conscious of which part of social space he/she is in. The child learns, “I am a girl” or “I am a boy”. More than that, he/she learns that it is significant which he/she is. That it's not a throw-away fact about them. It is a fundamental part of their identity – of who they are.

Gender identities will be around as long as biological sex carries human significance. And you should be careful about forecasting the demise of that any time soon. We can rightfully challenge the kinds of gender identities our culture has developed but it's unlikely that we can do without them.

1Taylor, Charles. The Ethics of Authenticity. Harvard, 1991, pg35-36.

1 comment:

rolo said...

Amen, brotha. One of the most disturbing, yet interesting features of our postmodern world has been the persistent attempt by many to deconstruct gender altogether. Gender may be a socially constructed concept, but as your blog post points out it's a concept with a significant biological basis which many seem to forget about. As Christians I think we need to make it clear that God did in fact create two different sorts of people; male and female. Overall, I think your post offered much needed clarity on this point.
As someone who leans feminist and is also gay, however, I agree with you that gender exists as an essential and good part of human society, but I'm curious as to how significant you think gender actually is? Must we fight for a hard line between masculinity and femininity or can we minimize the difference between the to a degree that they are only slightly different?
I know you say it's just fanboyism for Charles Taylor, but Martin I know the signs. You can't fool me. If you need help coming out of the closet, I'm here for you mate. I am here for you.