This article from NPR touts a few examples to implicitly argue (is that something a news article–from a purportedly unbiased source–should be doing?) that gender-neutrality is the wave of the future. If you’re not on board, the underlying message says, you’ll get left behind.

Such rhetoric reminds me of one of Wendell Berry’s most convincing critiques of industrial agriculture. Berry claims that the fallacy of inevitability (my words) undergirds much of the “get big or get out” mindset that characterized industrial agriculture for more of the 20th century. The fallacy works like this: the leading authority (in the case of industrial agriculture, it was the US Farm Bureau, backed by Cargill and Monsanto and a host of other ag conglomerates) paints a picture of the future as the inevitable fulfillment of a particular ideological trajectory. This trajectory is then labeled “progress.” Consequently, everyone who looks to such an authority for counsel, moral exemplars, or even just legal authorization to conduct business is instructed to align herself with this ideological trajectory.

So what’s the fallacy? There’s no argument involved–that’s the fallacy. The argument in favor of this ideology is supposed to be: “it’s inevitable.” It’s inevitable that monoculture conducted by the biggest and most efficient farms will feed the planet. It’s inevitable that gender-neutrality is the most just and humane way to order a society.

No one knows the future. These claims are predictions, not arguments. By definition, therefore, they’re impossible to contradict. (To contradict them, one would need to posit an alternative prediction of the future, but such a claim would be equally invalid for the same reasons.)

The most insightful comment in this article comes from a neuroscientist at Chicago Medical School:

“Sex differences are real and some are probably present at birth, but then social factors magnify them,” says Lise Eliot, an associate professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School and author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps and What We Can Do About It. “So if we, as a society, feel that gender divisions do more harm than good, it would be valuable to break them down. “

Now, I think it’s simplistic to paint the issue in such bleak utilitarian terms. In other words, it’s ridiculous to think we could tally up all the pros and cons of gender divisions–then make a decision about how to order our society based on the statistical results.

But Ms. (?) Eliot has a point. Gender-neutrality ought not be ushered in as the “wave of the future” until a strong argument for its superiority over gender divisions has been made.

More importantly, I think Lise’s first comment paves a path for us: “Sex differences are real and some are probably present at birth, but then social factors magnify them.” OK, so we’re all on board with the fact that sex differences are biological. The next question we must ask is, “Should biology limit or in some fashion order our social conceptions of personhood–or not?”

It seems to me that most “progressive” thinkers want to liberate humans from their biology. After all, biology is just another restriction on the infinite, autonomous “I.”

Indeed, there are some instances (I heard the other day on NPR that 1-5% of all children are born transgendered) where biology seems not to give a clear pattern for development (or at least not “clear” in the way we’ve traditionally conceived it). So yes, we need to restructure our understanding of personhood to account for this very natural, very human experience.

But the exception seems to prove the rule in this case. Are we really going to buck all that we’ve accomplished as a culture (think briefly about the gender-specific metaphors in our language: toss out Chaucer, toss out Shakespeare, toss out Melville…), to reorient society around this 1-5%?

Sure, let’s accommodate this unique experience and identity–but should we centralize it in the new and improved edition of Western culture we’re erecting?


2 responses to “gender-neutrality.

  1. Here’s a bit more from Lise:

    “Lise Eliot, the neuroscience professor, is not so sure about total change. ‘Perhaps I’m too old-school — or fussy— to argue for the elimination of men’s and women’s bathrooms,’ Eliot says, ‘but certainly employment forms and loan applications should not require gender information. Also, if parents did not buy into the gender stereotyping of children’s toys and clothes, kids would stay open-minded longer during childhood. The goal is to keep girls physically active, curious and assertive, and boys sensitive, verbal and studious.'”

    Isn’t it possible to challenge potentially harmful gender-stereotypes without doing away with gender full stop? As a “sensitive, verbal, and studious” male, I would have appreciated more encouragement in these realms during my childhood. But to achieve this end I doubt the need to question to their core the very categories “boy” and “girl.”

  2. Pingback: jm reynolds on gay marriage in new york | the fuller's field

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