A Clowncar Named Gender

There’s a new battle over gender. The old procedure of assigning gender at birth based on sex, and then imposing fairly rigid norms and expectations based on this assignment, has now come under suspicion. Instead a new approach advocates for greater choice of the individual over their gender identity, presentation, and treatment. The appeal of this latter approach is obvious- who doesn’t want more freedom, and who likes being told what they should do?

Too much ink has been spilt over this topic, too many shitty articles, but I still think that the full extent of these two approaches have not yet been fully examined and articulated. Here I draw on traditional philosophy to see what can be made of them.

I. Beetles, Toothaches, and Squares

To begin, I offer three examples from philosophy to prime the reader’s intuitions. They’re tricky, but I promise they’re revealing.

1. In his Philosophical Investigations, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein created this thought experiment: Imagine a group of people each with a box with something inside, and they all call whatever is inside their respective boxes a “beetle”. However, no one has seen any other box apart their own, so they have no idea about what “beetle” means to anyone else. We might still talk about it, but it is clear that any communication between them is bound to be either uninformative (“I have a beetle in my box”), or misleading (“My beetle is better than yours”). This thought experiment shows us the importance of shared assumptions and information that make communication possible. Even if the box-havers wanted to help each other figure out what they meant, they would need a shared language to make themselves understood (“My beetle is black and round“)

2. The beetles above were tacitly assumed to be a real object, visible to anyone who looked. The situation gets more complicated when when we use language in a more internal way. To use another of Wittgenstein’s examples, assume you had a toothache but had no word for toothache or pain. Take a moment to see how difficult it suddenly gets to describe this obvious internal sensation to others. But if you and your listeners knew what pain was, and how to use “pain” in language, then suddenly it becomes much easier to indicate that you have a toothache. Wittgenstein explains that “an ‘inner process’ stands in need of outward criteria.” Even the internal experience of pain, if it needs to be intelligible to anyone else requires a shared external criteria.

3. Both beetles (whatever they were) and toothaches were assumed to be things that are obvious and intelligible to the individual, but just difficult to communicate to others. An example from Quine’s Word and Object complicates even this picture. If a group of people clustered around (what to us is) a square tile, none of them would actually see a proper square. Instead they would all see different scalene quadrilaterals, depending on how far they were and what their angle to the tile was. If everyone insisted on characterising the tile according to their individual perspective, there would be no agreement at all with each other, or even with themselves at different spatial orientations and locations. Instead of prioritising any particular person’s perspective, an agreement to characterise the tile by how it would appear to someone right above it (namely, a square) enables communication about it. This might be unfair to those who were particularly far away because their perception would be very far from this ideal, but that is the price to pay for interpersonal communication.

Of course, the square tile story isn’t how we usually behave- we don’t usually debate the merits of different possible conventions and then come to an agreement. We just adopt and use tacit conventions that have already been given, and these structure the way we understand the world. So it isn’t that I see the tile as a scalene quadrilateral and then decide or will myself into seeing it as actually a square, but I see it as a square from the beginning. To see this, ask yourself what would you say if you were asked “what shape is this tile?” Arbitrary conventions shape the way we see the world, even if we often can’t always state the implicit assumptions made.

II. Implications for Gender

Coming back to gender, the new approach favours assigning gender based on how someone identifies. The ideal here seems to be the individual engaged in solitary reflection, who identifies their authentic essence inside, and declares it as their identity. This means that I can identity as “male”, “female”, “non-binary”, “agender”, “bigender”, etc., and importantly, don’t have to justify my choice of identity to anyone (including myself). The act of identification suffices.

I’m going to argue that there is, in fact, good reasons to be skeptical about this approach. The three thought experiments above show that the individual-in-isolation model is a deeply misleading way to think about identity for two reasons, as pointed out by Charles Taylor in The Politics of Recognition:

The first is that the genesis of the very tools we use to identify ourselves- the words, the rules, the images- aren’t our personal inventions, but rather given to us. While change in norms is certainly not rare, it’s one thing to argue for a change in our shared norms and a whole other to reject the idea of a shared norm itself. We have had the good fortune of growing up with somewhat clear distinctions between what it means to be male and female, a distinction passed down through art, culture, parenting, peer pressure, public norms, etc. If people are able to describe themselves as non-binary, it is because the binary is perfectly intelligible to them, even if unacceptable. We need to know what the beetle is before we can reject it.

But what will happen if we all adopt the new approach, and identified ourselves based on no rigid social norm? Everyone would be identifying themselves by how they felt of course, but what determines this feeling can vary. It might be the aesthetics, it might be restrictive norms, it might be an inclination to make conceptual boundaries fuzzy. Whatever be the reason, it seems clear that if this were an option available to people, and if people actually made the choice to identify based on how they felt rather than according to a publicly articulated external norm, then the system gets increasingly decoherent. The problem becomes stark when you stop thinking about ourselves, and think about the generation right after this freely identifying one. What tools will they have to grapple with identity, when all that is left is a fragmentary universe of concepts?

Even now, the problem doesn’t seem insurmountable- granted, there might be multiple, inconsistent usage of words. But children can just learn the different usages, and use this new flexibility to their advantage!

But this forgets the thought experiments above. If there were a fully formed gender essence inside us, and we only needed words to articulate this, then words having inconstant meanings wouldn’t be a problem. But we need gender conventions, both to serve as a base off of which we can work, and to enable any kind of substantive thought about who we are. Scalene quadrilaterals are too ephemeral and flimsy to give us the kind of stable concepts needed to think.

Moreover, to be male or female, has traditionally never been just about you as an individual, but rather a way of relating to other men and women. If fragmentation of shared norms occurs, then these aspects of gender- the shared, multi-generational, and inter-subjective roles and responsibilities- go away. What you’re left with are empty words repeated, a carapace of a once substantive system.

III. Our Liberal Conscience

We have two distinct sources of value confronting us- one that involves group identity and cohesiveness, and one that involves inclusion and diversity. We, however, seem bent on denying that these are in tension, and for quite understandable reasons- who wants to be the nosy bigot who denies people what they want to be? As good liberals, our agreed upon ethos is captured nicely by Mill’s Harm principle- people should be left to do whatever they want unless they’re harming someone. But what this argument tries to show is that people can act in ways allowed by this principle and still cause a massive loss of value. Our moral tools need to be reexamined.

This is emphatically not an argument about specific individuals and whether this approach to identity is good for them. It is in fact quite likely that the extended freedoms that come with these new identities benefit people, they they now have new ways of describing themselves, and can see new possibilities for themselves. But this simply doesn’t seem sustainable over time, or replicable over wide swaths of society. Maybe people will make choices that will maintain the coherence of gender, but this seems like a toss up at best. The worst case scenarios include an age of gender malaise, gender abolition, or a conservative gender pushback.

Now that I’ve sorta sketched out the problem, what should we do? Should we just settle for the old gender system? Risk Decoherence? I have no idea.



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