This post will rely on a single individual as an example of so-called “gender critical” thought: Holms. Holms writes frequently on FtB, and has been engaging in a long back-and-forth with myself and many others over on Mano Singham’s blog recently. (This conversation is happening on the same blog post where Mano suggested the value of discussions of horizontal hostility.) I have been growing steadily more uncomfortable with the exchange because it long ago veered away from any discussion that might illuminate how and why horizontal and intra-community hostility develop within a particular group. While Mano has made no move to shut the conversation down or even to express any specific discomfort over the thread, I think it is respectful to a blog owner to have the conversations suggested by a post, and to start your own thread somewhere else if you want to have a different conversation. Thus this post.
The phenomenon I want to discuss begins with a discussion of Holms’ definitions of “man” and “woman”:
I have actually said that ‘man = adult male human’ and ‘woman = adult female human’ are the current meanings as determined by common use.
I have objected to the idea that these are the current meanings. Obviously there are multiple definitions of “man” and “woman” or we wouldn’t be discussing our definitional conflicts. Holms’ seems oblivious to this simple truth. But after articulating that other definitions do exist, I express my most important objection to Holms’ definition, which I feel represents the definitions used and advocated by many so-called “gender critical” people quite well. Though I’ve also expressed this objection in other places, this is how I phrased that objection in the relevant comment of mine in that thread:
Using woman as a synonym for “vagina haver” just gives people an excuse to investigate women’s genitals. I refuse to participate in that.
Holms then responds this way:
But the alternative is to use ‘woman’ to mean ‘person who matches / willingly embraces female cultural expectations’ or perhaps ‘person who considers themselves to be a woman’. The former I reject on the grounds that it necessarily requires and maintains cultural expectations placed on the sexes, the latter on the grounds that it is self referential and thus meaningless.
So Holms apparently accepts that there are ethical problems with using sex to define womanhood. There is no contesting this argument against the morality of defining womanhood on the basis of sex. Rather, Holms attacks the alternatives. The apparent argument is that if the alternatives are worse, we are forced to accept the least bad option.
So what are the weaknesses of the only other options Holms sees? The first objection to the first option is also a moral/ethical objection:
it necessarily requires and maintains cultural expectations placed on the sexes
The second to the second is not moral, but rather a intellectual objection to a categorization system that is not sufficiently logical and meaningful:
it is self referential and thus meaningless
To put it bluntly, this would seem to be a feature rather than a bug. Currently we can objectively confirm that gender roles exist, as undesirable as they are. At the moment then, autonomously placing oneself inside or outside one or more gender roles is not meaningless. People know what those roles are, and can make coherent sense of another person articulating that they fall within or without a particular role.
However, it is true that as more and more people abandon the confinement of gender roles, the meanings of those statements of belonging become less stable and less coherent. In a distant future with these meanings destabilized, “I am not non-binary” can just as easily mean that one is binary in the sense of combining the features of two genders at once, that one is binary in the sense of fitting well within the traditional binary system (and thus fits well within the confines of only the category of “man” or only the category of “woman”), or even that one is not non-binary because one sees oneself as participating in a world that already has more than two standard genders, and thus to say one is not non-binary might be an affirmation that one is non-trinary (or a similar word for a more complex gender system with even more established roles).
A coherent system of sexism, at least as we have known it, becomes less and less possible over time in this case. Eventually, with no ability to classify genders at all, gender categories truly become meaningless, and there can be no sexism at all. In other words, Holms is wrong about the meaninglessness of gender categories right now – they would mean something even if we (meaning those of us in the anti-sexism camp) were to embrace individual autonomy. Additionally, to the extent that Holms could ever be right, this would be a good thing and not a bad thing.
There is, of course, an additional benefit: it is the nature of oppression to remove self-determination. As a community of anti-oppression activists embedded in a larger society engaged in oppression, embracing self-determination is the position directly counter to the nature of the oppression we face. No strategy is perfect, of course. There are people who are scared of making decisions, people who, psychologically, feel that if they made a choice to articulate their membership in the category “woman” that that would somehow make it more acceptable for men to beat them, rape them, or otherwise oppress them. But this last method has by far the most liberators potential, and is the only one not plagued by horrible moral problems. Nonetheless, Holms explicitly rejects it.
What response does Holms then make to this world in which no definition of “woman” or “man” is acceptable to someone who takes Holms’ position? Well, this…
[T]he occasions where it is necessary to ascertain someone’s sex are rare: medical checkups, competitive leagues for sport, that sort of thing. Otherwise, there is no need for an ‘investigation’ as to the contents of someone’s pants before referring to them as a woman or man. If you meet someone, a cursory glance is almost always accurate — a surmise on incomplete data is not a bad start. In those instances where the person says otherwise, I’m not particularly wedded to the idea of calling someone what I believe them to be over their protest, even if I privately think of them as man/woman.
This is, frankly, both stupefying and immoral. Read this bit again:
If you meet someone, a cursory glance is almost always accurate — a surmise on incomplete data is not a bad start.
But a cursory glance used to categorize people is an appeal to stereotypes: it can be nothing else. So when Holms high-mindedly argues that the line we must not cross is not protecting genital privacy, but forbidding use of stereotypes (“The former I reject on the grounds that it necessarily requires and maintains cultural expectations placed on the sexes”), this is merely the prelude to articulating that in practice we must define who is a man and who is a woman based on nothing more than stereotypes. If Holms has a genuine moral objection to “requiring and maintaining cultural expectations placed on the sexes”, then Holms is immoral by Holms’ own code – and unrepentantly so! If Holms never had a moral objection to using steretotypes to determine womanhood or manhood, then Holms is arguing dishonestly.
The best possible interpretation of Holms statements is that Holms’ stereotypes are better than your stereotypes, and Holms’ uses them with more skill, therefore Holms’ stereotyping carries no moral hazard. But Holms has never argued that these definitions are intended to be personal and idiosyncratic, with others using their own definitions. In fact relying on idiosyncratic definitions dependent on the quality of the stereotype and the skill of the stereotyper would result in a unique definition for every unique speaker of english. In short, this brings about the logical incoherence Holms fears would come from self-determined membership while reinforcing the legitimacy of stereotyping. The definitions change from person to person, but not a single soul gains control over one’s own self. Instead, every single person gains a tiny tyranny over whether others they perceive are men or women or some other gender for exactly as long as they perceive them.
Weirdly, there is some level of exception to this, but it is not a rule:
I’m not particularly wedded to the idea of calling someone what I believe them to be over their protest, even if I privately think of them as man/woman.
Note here that there is no real concession to self-determination. While Holms is not particularly wedded to overriding others assertions that they know themselves better than Holms knows them, there is no rule that this must be or even should be generalized. In this model, whether or not your assertions (that you know yourself better than an unfamiliar observer knows you) will be accepted is a favor to be granted or withheld at the discretion of the stranger. For decades we have been fighting the feminist fight to allow women to determine for ourselves our own stories. We have fought at the level of names, keeping our own rather than having society force upon us the name of a man. We have fought at the level of titles, insisting that words like chairman invisibilize the contributions of women. We have fought to give control over the culturally accepted story of what typical experiences of abortion might be back to the women (and a few others) who have actually experienced abortion. But Holms is here now, and ready to say that no one gets to define their gendered experiences themselves. One is only legitimately gendered by someone else, the outside observer. That outside observer might deign to accept your statement, if they’re not “wedded” to their stereotypes. But let’s not forget that this is a choice the observer is empowered to make. How feminist! How liberated!
It is, frankly, disheartening to see people (that – from all appearances – actually do care about ending sexism) fighting for what they consider immoral, what they consider “meaningless” and what our history tells us is the exact opposite of ends toward which women feminists have worked for decades.
And yet, it is not actually surprising. We know, objectively, that no one defines “woman” and “man” strictly according to sex. There is no english speaker in the world who has ever refrained entirely from using those words to describe specific people unless and until they have investigated the genitals of the object of their language. A similar categorical statement can be made truthfully should “female” be defined by chromosomes instead. Like Holms, nearly every english speaker around the world identifies women and men via stereotypes, not biological sex. Like Holms, many of them might articulate that they define women by biological sex. But merely because people say a thing does not make it true. The majority of people making this mistake at least have the excuse of ignorance. But those who, like Holms, embrace such a definition as part of a “gender critical” rejection fo stereotypes as inherently unethical and then continue to rely on stereotypes because rejecting self-determination is more important, those persons have indeed taken a position that is thoroughly, obviously morally bankrupt.