Online Gender Workshop, as ever, is brought to you by your friendly, neighborhood Crip Dyke.
Hopefully, in our last workshop entry, we got an understanding of what social construction is, and what it isn’t. I’m a firm believer, as I said in that post, of people being better educated about social construction theory so that they can understand what is and isn’t being said when someone asserts, “Donkey is a social construct”.
Well, not so often donkey, but you get the drift. If you’re still unclear on social construction, revisit that last workshop. The comment thread should be open through January 2016 if you have any questions.
But now that we have a handle on what social construction is, what the heck is it good for? The answer, unfortunately, is, “Less than too many of its proponents think.” In particular I wish to address one argument that I find commonly made by people who find social construction theory exiting, but who poorly understand it. The argument in plain language might be presented like this:
Since gender is socially constructed and sex is socially constructed and they have (at least some) definitions that frequently overlap, we should dispense with pretense and simply merge the two concepts. Sex, therefore, should be equivalent to gender and vice versa (or, alternatively, sex should be subsumed into gender).
For too many, as I said in the last thread, understanding is poor precisely because too many people have discussed it only or primarily in relation to gender and sex. Many people seem to believe that the social construction of gender is something rather special about gender, possibly even something rare. When someone with this view becomes convinced/aware that sex is socially constructed, that person will occasionally be struck with a wonderful idea: let’s just set sex == gender.
The reasons for advocating this, and the presumed benefits, probably vary quite a bit from person to person, though variations on certain motivations or presumed benefits probably do occur with some regularity. It’s quite difficult to know for sure, not least because i don’t often read this argument in a book-length work with room to make a solid case. It’s far more common to hear this argument articulated in conversation. When I do hear it in conversation, it’s invariably poorly thought out. Nonetheless, certain aspects of the argument recur in a way to make me almost ready to believe in the Enlightment’s Clockwork Universe of which Leibniz was so fond.
Though I put the argument in plain language above, let’s break it down a bit more precisely, in a manner that will probably be familiar if you’ve heard anyone attempt to make a case for making sex subordinate or equivalent to gender:
- Gender is a social construct
- Sex is a social construct
- Boundaries set by social constructs are arbitrary
- The concept of gender which we have socially constructed overlaps with the concept of sex which we have socially constructed.
- The amount of overlap is arbitrary, given #3.
- [Insert benefits of conflation here – one common one is that “there is a lot of confusion between the two concepts, and there need never again be a question about which one to use if they are equivalent” but really there are quite a lot of benefits which might be asserted]
- And, hey – They’re both Social Constructs!
- THEREFORE why not rivet sex onto gender? We can do it!
This is a crap argument. It relies on poor understanding of social construction and on the common misperception that social construction is something rare. This latter misperception is used to make the fact that both gender and sex are socially constructed concepts appear to imply that there must be an even deeper, closer relationship between the two concepts than can be perceived on the surface. X is socially constructed! is not a deepity when properly understood. However, because social construction is so frequently understood only poorly, X is socially constructed! can function rather like a deepity, and does in the bad argument we’re discussing.*1
Moreover, like creationists do when discussing evolution or cosmology, the proponents of this argument rely on fallacious equivocation centered on the word arbitrary. Arbitrary here, as it does when discussing evolution or cosmology, means undirected, with no set goal. It does not mean random or unconstrained. So although the definitions of sex and gender indeed do overlap (indeed some definitions of sex and gender already set the two equivalent) the distinct definitions that do exist exist as they do for reasons.
While many things about cosmological development are dependent on previous conditions in a manner that makes the idiosyncratic placement of this galaxy or that globular cluster appear random, those developments are not random. They are arbitrary. They need not have turned out that way, but when they did turn out that way it wasn’t because of an extradimensional die roll. Moreover, when discussing arbitrariness, we tend to forget how constraints operate: Certain things about the earth are arbitrary, and indeed seem almost random to us since we can’t know enough about all the possible initial conditions that affected the earth’s present mass. But there was never a chance that the mass of the earth would take the form of a cube. No, once we achieved a planetary mass sufficient to cycle carbon, water, minerals and more in a manner necessary for the eventual evolution of a species intelligent enough to name the planet, that mass could only take the form of an oblate sphere with certain topological variations that are minor compared to the major radius of the earth.
Likewise, the final form of the concept we have packaged within the word sex is, indeed, arbitrary. But there are limits to how far society was likely to stray in constructing the concept of sex.*2 To observe something of the arbitrary nature of conceptual distinctions and something of the constraints that limit flexibility, let’s look at a series of words much longer than two:
- Air Traffic Corridor
I think it’s clear that we could construct a definition that is reasonably close to a definition of gateway but is large enough that many physical doorways would be candidate referents. Perhaps a definition like:
A passage that can be closed off at need, typically with a post on either side that help support the closable barrier or barriers, but through which one can travel to get from one distinct area to another distinct area.
That’s reasonably close to a definition of gateway, and yet clearly many doorways would meet the criteria. Since all concepts (and as we saw in the comments of the last thread, all definitions are concepts, therefore all definitions) are socially constructed, we could easily construct an argument of the same form as that which advocates sex/gender collapse, but designed to advocate gateway/doorway collapse.
But we can also construct an argument of the same form for doorway and foyer, since these two concepts are closely related and have overlapping definitions. How about
A small area designed only or primarily to be transited upon entrance to or exit from a building.
Again, it’s not a perfect definition of doorway or of foyer, but remember that the original argument for sex/gender collapse wouldn’t be necessary if a single definition already perfectly represented the meaning of both sex and gender. We need only show the “special relationship” of social construction and some overlap in definitions.
Foyer/hallway is even easier:
A small area designed only or primarily to be transited upon entrance to or exit from some portion of a building.
Eventually we see that each category can be collapsed into the category immediately before (if any) and immediately after (if any) and that this process can be continued until we have only one category remaining. The definition for that might be something like:
A physical space intended to be transited on the way from an origin to a destination.
Now, if we accept an argument of the form above that advocates for sex/gender collapse, we’re left inconveniently unable to justify any resistance to removing distinctions between foyer and air traffic corridor.
The argument we’re discussing isn’t fallacious, exactly. It doesn’t attempt to logically entail the conclusion that sex == gender. Rather it is an attempt to persuade that uses vague awareness and vague ideas of social construction to make the conclusion more attractive than it would otherwise be.
As a persuasive argument, it does not typically do what a logical argument would be required to do (and a good persuasive argument would possibly do anyway): set up conditions under which collapsing our concepts of sex and gender would be mandated. If it did, it would have to say something about the value of the benefit exceeding the value of any costs. But the argument typically doesn’t deal with any costs. It evades the concept of cost in part through its equivocation on arbitrary.
It seems intuitive that if the final concepts were random, that their couldn’t possibly be any cost to changing the concepts. But even if the final concepts were random, this isn’t so. The constraints most relevant here are the needs to express communicative intentions and the utility involved in making certain distinctions, given the availability of other words and concepts otherwise available.
Let’s start with the constraint of communicative intentions: People have come to rely on the ability to communicate certain ideas with certain terms. Even if you take away the words, people will still wish to express the ideas…and they will find ways to do exactly that. This is most easily found in writings that use the phrase biological gender.
I cannot tell you how much I hate that phrase.
It is found only in the writing of people who intentionally collapse gender and sex. Eventually they find the need to talk about the part of their collapsed concept that only relates to bodies. Since sex == gender, they’ve eliminated use of that word and are thus forced use the cumbersome two word phrase biological gender where their peers continue to use the extent, shorter, and entirely sufficient sex. The mere existence of the phrase biological gender proves that there is a need to talk about reproductive aspects of bodies with a term that handily encompasses male, female and any other human sex categories. It is these needs that serve as constraints on how far the terms can be conflated and collapsed. If there is a need to distinguish the runway from the freeway, humans will find a way to distinguish them. We will come up with ways to get across our communicative intentions, and if enough people share the intent to communicate something sufficiently similar, and if that intent occurs often enough, we will even invent words standardized to communicate that particular intent. Since there is clearly a need to talk about sex, humans will find a way to do that: even the humans who would like to collapse sex and gender.
The only question, then, is do we have enough good reasons to talk about our sexed bodies to justify refraining from collapsing sex into gender, leaving speakers who have the intent to communicate something like our current concept of sex with the responsibility for inventing their own work-arounds? I think it’s clear that the answer is yes. I think that the phrase biological gender proves the answer is yes. But just in case you had any doubts, go ahead and return to an earlier Online Gender Workshop that asks you to wrestle with communicating important things to people who can’t parse the differnce between “sex” and “gender”, people for whom saying, “I have a cervix,” is equivalent to saying, “I occupy a social role that encourages wearing high heels, and I happily think of myself as a woman.”*3
I resist the conflation*4 of sex and gender because without solidly different concepts it becomes impossible to reliably express the predicament of a man born female or a woman born intersex. But I resent any argument for conflation of sex and gender that seems to assume that mere social construction and certain overlapping definitions implies that maintaining distinct concepts is either untenable or unjustifiable.
Articulate any advantage or advantages you can dream up for conflating sex and gender. Any at all – the sky is the limit. If you hit four advantages, go ahead and stop unless you feel absolutely compelled to add just one more.
Articulate any advantage or advantages you can dream up for carefully distinguishing sex and gender as consistently as possible, with gender reserved for discussing psychology and sociology and sex reserved for discussing biology. Any at all – the sky is the limit. If you hit four advantages, go ahead and stop unless you feel absolutely compelled to add just one more.
In performing the two parts above, you may consider social construction favorably or unfavorably, and you should feel free to have different ideas about the costs and benefits from any ideas I have expressed or that you think I’ve expressed.
Finally: currently English-speaking society neither conflates nor consistently distinguishes sex and gender. Articulate your opinion of whether it would be worth conflating sex and gender OR whether it would be worth consistently distinguishing sex from gender. Pick one. An argument against conflation need not be an argument for consistent distinction (i.e. you can, if you like, prefer the status quo). Assume, for these purposes, that you are discussing whether or not the change you prefer or oppose is a change everyone would make (or not make) if you but decide the change should be made. So in terms of whether or not the change would be “worth it”, you don’t have to consider that it might not be worth making the effort yourself since you don’t know how many people would join you (and thus may not understand that you have conflated or distinguished the terms). No, for this exercise, you are the god of language. Revel in your power.
Moderation Note: I’m not liking how my moderation rules have played out in the past couple of exercises. An iron clad rule of deleting comments from all who don’t do the exercise first isn’t working out. Sometimes I want to preserve a comment that isn’t making a good faith effort to engage for random reasons. I also note that the exercises can be intimidating and some people who do engage the material in good faith aren’t actually doing the exercise. Finally, I worry that some people who might add useful comments are simply not contributing because they are attempting to honor the instructions and don’t feel they have time to do the exercise justice or are confused about the exercise or otherwise have a barrier to performing the exercise but not to providing at least some useful commentary.
I went with a very simple rule because I didn’t want to ever appear arbitrary. I felt that if I appeared arbitrary, some people might run to PZ and ask him to step between myself and an excluded commenter. Although I still do want to avoid creating work for PZ, I’m no longer convinced I can avoid making decisions that won’t appear to at least some commenters to be arbitrary and/or unfair. So, fuck it. I’m making the arbitrariness explicit.
The rule now is, engage with the actual material of the workshop in good faith. Performing the exercise will be an obvious sign of good faith, but it is not the only possible sign. Note that if your first post does not appear to be engaging the material in good faith, I may not actually delete your comments right away, but you will have far less leeway in future comments than someone who starts out well. There are times and places for wide-ranging discussion. Workshop posts with exercises are crafted with a specific discussion in mind: they are not those places.
*1: But since you’ve read the last thread, you understand the idea of social construction thoroughly and well, right? Right?
*2: I don’t think those limits are calculable, though one could get a rough idea by finding the closest equivalent concept to English sex held by monolingual speakers of as many different languages as possible.
*4: Conflation is here used to mean either/both one of sex or gender being subsumed within the other as well as sex and gender being set equal to each other.
Previous Online Gender Workshop exercises can be found in these posts: