A Note on ‘Smashing the Binary’

“All western culture rests on the murder of the mother.”

Luce Irigaray

perseus-and-medusa

As many of us have observed recently, trans ideology – and its associated arguments and rhetoric – is what we might call a ‘scavenger’ or ‘magpie’ discourse. My sense is basically that it’s reverse engineered – a set of central claims fashioned to achieve political objectives, which have then been backfilled with whatever bits and bats of argument were needed to appeal to the woke, give succour to misogynists, and create the general impression that it makes some kind of sense. Although I don’t think the entire discourse is academic – we have no clear, or complete, academic genealogy for its development – it is certainly true that many of these bits and bats come from the academy. And one of the most important of these – particularly, I think, with respect to why many academics have been so mystifyingly receptive to this pile of incoherent wiffle – is the idea that trans ideology is doing the venerable, emancipatory work of ‘smashing the binary.’

What I want to do here then is think through what ‘smashing the binary’ would or should mean in its original context, and to lay out the fundamental conceptual mistake in how it’s being thought in trans ideology. My claim – surprise! – is that this conceptual mistake is so dramatic that when trans ideologues and their allies wheel out some vague-ish claim that they’re leading us to liberation by ‘undoing’ or ‘challenging’ binaries, they are, in fact, repeating exactly the problem that the original critique of ‘binaries and why they are bad’ was trying to address. What this comes down to is that people don’t understand the distinction between ‘a binary’ and ‘a difference.’ And in some sense this whole stupid clusterfuck – at least insofar as it is attractive to leftish thinking-people who should know better – rests on that confusion.

So first off, ‘binaries and why they are bad.’ As I laid out here – the critique of binaries descends from Beauvoir and Derrida, through the deconstructive strand of post-structuralist thought, and is central to French post-structural feminism. The central idea is that Western thought is structured around a series of conceptual oppositions, and that these oppositions are gendered.

They look something like this:

binary

There are several thing to note about these binaries. The first is that they are hierarchical – the masculine term is privileged over the feminine term, that is, it is conceived as being better. The second is that they are defined by conceptual opposition – and this is where the concept of ‘othering’ comes in. The inferior terms of the binary are understood only as negations of the superior term – as things which lack the privileged qualities of the superior term (non-men anyone?). The significance of this is that the binaries inform the understanding of the people who are defined in opposition to the one who defines; a process by which the white male subject defines his others – women, and the non-white – as an inferior negation of himself. This conceptual mechanism has historically underpinned violence and exploitation aimed at people on the ‘wrong’ side of the binary. Ergo, binaries are bad.

Now we get the conceptual clanger made by intersectional feminists and adherents to trans ideology. The whole point of binaries is that they are conceptual discursive oppositions laid on top of natural differences. The effect of laying a binary on top of a difference is that it effectively denies being to, or erases, the inferior pole of the binary, because the inferior term in defined only as a negative mirror-image of the superior term, and is not granted reality, or given worth, in itself. The remedy for this, according to French feminist thought –  that is, the way you ‘deconstruct binaries’ according to the intellectual tradition that thought hardest about it – is to insist on the reality of both parts of a natural difference, and to refuse the way they are hierarchically constructed in discourse. That is, according to French feminism, what you do is to spend a lot of time thinking through what women are, and what women’s lived experience tells us, in order to challenge the construction of ‘Woman’ as simply ‘the Other of Man.’

And this is where it goes completely, utterly off the rails for the woke. Instead of granting reality to both sides of the difference, and working to move our discursive structures away from the way our culture codes those differences, trans ideology has decided to try and abolish the difference itself.  That they can’t grasp the distinction between ‘a difference’ and ‘a binary’ is demonstrated by the fact that they keep referring to the sexual difference between male and female humans – which is a difference in kind between two types of humans – as ‘a binary,’ or even worse, as the ‘gender binary.’ (*Headdesk*). What is so interesting – and distressing – about all of this, is that this act of not grasping that a difference-exists-which-is-not-a-binary, is structured by the basic patriarchal conceit which underpins the whole binary structure in the first place. That is, the inability of the patriarchal subject to relate to anything that differs from itself in without imposing its own projections onto it. As we’re all well aware from our interactions out there, what informs this inability to grant reality to a difference – and to allow that the purportedly ‘inferior’ term of a ‘binary’ might exist as its own difference – is good old fashioned patriarchal narcissism. A way of relating to anything that differs to itself only through an inverting mirror – and that cannot conceive there could be any other way of relating across difference.

For the well-meaning woke, it seems like this is all opaque. Binaries are bad, and so, the thinking goes, to abolish them we need to get rid of the difference that underpins them – a conflation which depends, as so much of the bad-thinking in this debate, on the inability to understand the distinction – and inter-relation – of nature and culture. What can’t be imagined, because the patriarchal structure of hierarchy, othering, and domination has made itself look so. damn. natural., is that there could be differences which were not made into hierarchies. And so, the story goes, if we want men and women to relate equally to each other, the only possible way could be pretending that men, or actually, really, womenare not.

This is evidently absurd – both because a) the difference between males and females is not made by discourse, and b) the way it is coded in discourse is not given by the difference, and to think it is, is to mistake narcissistic patriarchal opposition for reality. Moreover, for those driving this discourse – and who are merely leveraging the well-meaningness of the woke – the whole point of trying to abolish sexual difference is to allow the being of female people to be easily appropriated by male people. It is, in fact, the existence of sexual difference that serves as the basis for resisting the patriarchal binary, because it is the existence of sexual difference which grounds the claim that the female has its own being, outside the definition imposed upon it by patriarchal opposition.

When you abolish that difference, what actually occurs is a re-doubling of the erasure of the female effected by the binary itself, and a repetition of the appropriation that erasure has always allowed – because if there’s nothing there in the first place, how on earth could anyone be appropriating it? One thing this debate has made screamingly, terrifyingly, evident to me is the rightness of the French feminist assertion that – within the binary conceptual structure of Western thought – women do not actually exist. If we did, our being would never have been so easily handed over by nearly everyone concerned, and the appropriation we are resisting would never have been so easily caricatured as an act of illegitimate hatred.

Which is all to say, well-meaning woke, you’ve been played. And as for the rest of you misogynists….

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34 comments

  1. Thank you for this, an excellent deconstruction of the misguided mission “smashing the binaries”.

    Females exist. It is a biological reality, and that reality is not something that can be erased by the dominant class wishing themselves into, even though this is what is being attempted (the legal erasure of the category of female humans). Female humans will continue to exist in reality, but not legally (which is the construct). Discrimination against females still exists, therefore that distinction between female and male humans needs to be acknowledged, not erased.

    Woman is an adult human female. Not the New Goth. Not a costume.

  2. This is both concise and brilliant. I’m afraid it’s so beyond the Queer theory folks’ ability to conceptualize that they will never wrestle with it. But it may yet overcome them. I do hope you’re coming out with a collection of these essays.. I know a TON of people who would buy it.

  3. One of the many inconsistent things that has always struck me about the “binaries are wrong” adherents is the ease with which they dig into a position of “you are bad and therefore I am good, my good-ness depends on your badness”. Very childish, narcissistic mentality.

  4. “the difference between males and females is not made by discourse”

    One of the reasons why we need decent science education.

    “One thing this debate has made screamingly, terrifyingly, evident to me is the rightness of the French feminist assertion that – within the binary conceptual structure of Western thought – women do not actually exist.”

    I don’t know enough about this to say for sure, but would wonder whether this binary structure is really one that has risen out of Western thought rather than the male psych. They have to create woman as other to fulfil their need to be the superior being. It is why it is so very deep and personal to them to insist that women are male creations who must not assert an existence aside from that demanded by themselves, the little gods that they wish to be.

  5. Some women have XY chromosomes. If so, then the binary is fallacious.

    Each chromosome bears genes. The “X” chromosome bears genes which, among other things, code for the development of ovaries, etc. The “Y” chromosome bears genes which, among other things, code for the development of testes, etc. While practically implausible, it is possible for the male-encoding genes to be borne by an “X” chromosome. Likewise, it is possible for the female-encoding genes to be borne by a “Y” chromosome. Therefore, some women have XY chromosomes & some men have XX chromosomes; the binary is fallacious.

    A possible response may be that woman-hood (and man-hood) supervene on genes rather than on chromosomes. That response will not save traditionalists regarding the metaphysics of gender and sex. While practically implausible, it is possible for a chromosome to bear male-encoding genes and female-encoding genes. So, if gender supervenes on genes, then there are people who are genuinely both male and female.

    So, if gender supervenes on chromosomes, then some women have testes and don’t have ovaries (because those women have an X-chromosome which bears testes-encoding genes). If gender supervenes on genes, then some people are genuinely both male and female (because those people have chromosomes which bear both female-encoding and male-encoding genes).

      1. Also, stop instrumentalizing intersex people to support your nonsense, it’s really pissing them off.

        Also, the existence of Jaffa Cakes doesn’t mean that cakes and biscuits don’t exist.

        Also, IT’S NOT A BINARY IT’S A DIFFERENCE YOU FOOL. How about you actually try to understand what I’m saying rather than immediately defaulting into your trans ideological faux-sophisticate gibberish?

        It MAKES NO DIFFERENCE to the existence of two general classes of humans if not every single one of them instantiates all the characteristics of the class. There are still two classes of humans, the ones that get pregnant, and the ones that impregnate – that is the basis of our social organization, and no amount of scientific-sounding babble about edge cases will change it, any more than the existence of edge cases to *every single category* that exists in the world changes their existence.

        This is ALL political. And it is both ontologically suspect, and politically reprehensible, to attempt to erase the existence of a class of oppressed persons in the interests of members of the oppressor class. END OF.

      2. You explain much about the dialectic between the woke and the asleep, but you don’t explain why you class male-to-female trans people as impregnators or why you class female-to-male trans people as the pregnant. You write ” [sex differences are] a difference[s] in kind between two types of humans,” but this is a controversial point and you don’t justify it here.

        I believe these edge cases undermine the idea that sex differences are kind-related. If the capacity to get pregnant were kind-related, then all women – all individuals of “woman” kind – would have the capacity to get pregnant. Some women do not. Therefore, either those individuals are not in fact women (which is absurd), or the capacity to get pregnant is not a kind-related property.

        The kind-interpretation of sex differences is unjustified. If you appeal to the biological capacity, then you mis-classify the infertile. If you appeal to chromosomes, I’ve addressed that. I’ve also addressed appealing to genes directly. By inductive inference, each kind-related appeal caused misclassification; therefore no kind-related appeal will correctly classify all individual men and women. Ergo, the difference between men and women is not in kind. It would be absurd to find out that sex and gender differences are both (a) differences in kind, and (b) misclassify individuals. To me, the most plausible response is to give up the idea that sex and gender differences are differences in kind.

        I am happy to agree that there are sex and gender classes. Why do you classify trans people the way you do?

      3. Look, I have this argument all the time – I’ve already explained it countless times and you will find a long footnote in the Butler essay that explains it. Deviations in particular instantiations of a class do not invalidate the general characteristics of a class. Humans being born without legs does not mean humans are not bipedal. Albino zebras does not mean zebras are not striped. Mugs that have lost their handles does not mean that mugs do not have handles, and does not make a mug without a handle something other than a mug. Male people are the class of humans that impregnate, and female humans are the class that get pregnant. There has never been a human child born from anyone other than a female, and there has never been a child fathered by anyone other than a male. The fact that some people are infertile is irrelevant. The fact that there an infinitely tiny number of edge cases is irrelevant. Reproductive roles are the basis of the social organization of the sexes, and if you want to change how we layer culture onto those roles, you have to do some serious intellectual work to understand the mechanisms of domination, and not waste time playing make believe about abolishing something you cannot abolish.

        No amount of reverse-Platonic nonsense will change it. You don’t understand how concepts work – because none of us have a fully comprehensive account of how concepts work, and how they map onto the world. But I can tell you it’s not only by essences – it is not by a member of a class having to instantiate all the characteristics of a class. It might be a cluster, or a function, or family resemblance, or all that and essences rolled into one. The point is that we do it. We do something, all day, every day, that we don’t have an adequate philosophical account of. The fact that you think you come come up with some fancy philosophical footwork for the purposes of proving that we don’t do something that we do do, and that we can’t grasp classes when we manifestly can, is a joke. Does Xeno’s paradox prove that movement doesn’t actually happen? No. It doesn’t. It proves that Xeno made a fucking mistake.

        This is just reverse-Platonism. You’re just stuck with a basic concept of essences and their negation, and you think you’re doing something rad and edgy because you’ve worked out that things don’t precisely work by essences. Well fucking done. They work some other way. Because meaning still exists. This is what no one ever fucking understood about deconstruction – the point isn’t that there is no meaning, the point is meaning doesn’t work *like that.* Like, seriously, why do I have to spend my time arguing with a bunch of blue-haired grad students haven’t even got past fucking Plato? Go and read the Philosophical Investigations at least.

        And anyway, none of this matters. As I’ve said, the fact that this is being leveraged against only *one* concept, and against only one group of persons, is purely political. You are invested in abolishing the class of person to whom I belong. And you think that is an act of justice. Own that. Own the fact that you think men’s feelings matter more than women’s existence, and we should give our existence over to men because otherwise it will hurt them. Just be fucking honest.

        Seriously, the fucking balls of it, for you, to come along with your arrogated sophisticate bullshit, like you are the only person in the world who understands concepts, and erase my existence in men’s interests. Where on earth did you get the idea that erasing the existence of a class of persons, against the vociferous objections of that class of persons, was an act of fucking justice? The fact is, none of this shit would be tolerated for a single damn second were it not all about male people trying to erase and appropriate female people. That is, the very fact that any of this crap is even being entertained is evidence of exactly the thing you are doing mental gymnastics to deny – that is, that there are male people, and female people, and that male people hold power over female people. Now, fuck off.

      4. You have not provided a justification for biological essentialism.

        Biological essentialism is a flawed concept. You are an ostrich feminist, keeping your head in the sand, refusing to recognize counterexamples. Some men get pregnant. Some women impregnate. Period. If your feminism cannot cohere with male pregnancy, your feminism is wrong.

      5. I don’t need to provide a justification for the existence of male and female mammals, any more than I need to provide a justification for the existence of mountains, tables, roses, cars, or step-ladders. It’s called reality.

        Some trans men (i.e. female people who identify and live as men) get pregnant. Some trans women (i.e. male people who identify and live as women) can impregnate. That is, female people get pregnant, and male people impregnate. If trans women were not male, and trans men were not female – there would be no trans-ness, the trans rights movement would not exist, and none of us would be having this insane conversation.

        If you want to run a rights movement to campaign for the end to discrimination, and to provide all the relevant social services and support for trans people, you would have no opposition. Instead, you have decided to attempt to redefine reality to outlaw the existence and recognition of sex – and you don’t care about what effect that has on anyone else. That’s why we are opposing you. Any female person can choose to live as a man, and any male person can choose to live as a woman. It makes them a trans man, and a trans woman. Why is that not enough – and why must the whole of reality be redefined – to pretend that it isn’t so?

      6. “I don’t need to provide a justification for the existence of male and female mammals”

        The justification requested is for biological essentialism, not the existence of individuals. Surely it is possible mammals exist while simultaneously our reason for categorizing the individuals as mammals is wrong.

        When I say some men get pregnant and some women impregnate, I’m not referring to trans people. I’m talking about home grown natural men and women.

        I’m not intending to wade a redefinition campaign. I’m worried there are counterexamples to the definition as it is. I am not intending to philosophize for the sake of trans people. I see an impasse: biological essentialists are wrong about biological essentialism, a consequence of which denies trans authenticity, and it is good to correct and remove the flawed concept: biological essentialism: man essentially is someone who impregnates, and women are essentially the pregnant. That essentialism runs afoul of experience (for non-trans reasons, I’d like to reiterate). There are non-trans men who get pregnant, and non-trans women who impregnate.

        Pretend Diogenes told Plato that he had seen a kangaroo. Since kangaroos are featherless bipeds, the essence of man can’t be in featherless bipedalism. I’m saying the essence of man can’t be in impregnating.

        You will probably think I’m crazy. Plato would have thought Diogenes crazy to talk about kangaroos. Plato would have accused Diogenes of spinning a myth about some fantastical creature. If Diogenes actually saw a non-human featherless biped, Plato’s accusation wouldn’t redeem the essence of man as a featherless biped. That concept would be flawed through and through.

      7. Concepts don’t work by essences. The identification of male and female humans is not essentialism. Biological essentialism has no meaning – all you mean is, categorizing things by essences is wrong. Correct. That’s not how categories work. They work some other way, so your critique of whatever kind of essentialism you keep wheeling out to abolish sex is meaningless, unless you want to abolish the meaning of everything and we’d all be floating around in a big pile of grey-goo. I keep explaining this to you.

        I’m getting really fucking bored of this. You’re all like Plato standing on his head. I’m not a Platonist. Plato is wrong. So the refutation of essences has no impact on me whatsoever. Things still exist, we are still able to identity and name them. Go figure.

      8. And no – I don’t think you’re crazy for coming up with some edgy anti-essentialism. I think you’re arrogant and stupid for thinking you have come across the most sophisticated idea in the world and you’re going to blow someone with 20 years of philosophy education’s mind with it. And I’m really bored of endlessly pointing this out to you, one after another, with your fancy philosophical toy that you think will reduce the world to rubble – when it does nothing, because it wasn’t the right theory in the first place. Feminists-think-Plato-was-full-of-shit-shocker. Who would have thunk it?

        Go and read some Aristotle, and Derrida’s whole critique of Plato, and then some later Wittgenstein, and then some sexual difference feminism, and then think really really hard about why anti-essentialism maybe isn’t the conceptual dynamite you think it is. And while you’re doing that, please, spare me.

      9. I was wrong. I had interpreted your adamance on pregnancy as a biological essentialism. You state that men and women are different kinds of humans, though. What kind of difference do you think a difference in kind is?

        The difference is not grounded in essence, and it is not grounded in discourse. You’ve clearly stated that the difference is in reproductive roles. We agreed the reproductive roles are not essential, though.

        I think I understand your perspective, then. Sorry it took so long.

        I think your view admits that the concepts are mutable, and demands we don’t change the concepts ourselves, because it would cause social consequences.

        If the concepts were immutable, the trans movement would be an attempt at the impossible, trying to change the unchangable. Since the concepts are mutable, the trans movement is viable.

        That would explain why it is an all political issue. The disagreement between you and me is like a disagreement between Yes-In-My-Backyard and Not-In-My-Backyard. You don’t want the trans factory, because it will pollute the air and spoil the water. I want the trans factory, because it will cleanse the air and purify the water.

        We are talking past one another, because we don’t agree on and aren’t talking about the political consequences of the trans movement.

      10. Why do differences in sexual roles cause differences in kind? Do you have more information on that? I’d like to learn more about the passage you write, “the sexual difference between male and female humans – which is a difference in kind between two types of humans”.

      11. The difference in sexual roles don’t *cause* differences in kind… they just *are* a difference in kind… Look, nobody has a fully comprehensive theory of how words/concepts/categories work…it might be that there is several things going on at the same time that enables us to categorise and name… pattern recognition, compare and contrast, the role of functionality, how things are positioned in relation to their context and the space in the world they occupy. When I say I am not a Platonist, what I am saying is that it is evident that essence is not an adequate or comprehensive theory. It seems very likely that some element of essence – i.e. recognising identity and difference is a necessary feature of distinguishing any object from any other…if we couldn’t do that, everything would be goo and we’d not be able to get out of bed without standing on the cat. But, essence is not adequate, because things can fail to instantiate characteristics of a category and still be a recognisable part of that category, and because essence doesn’t account for either function, or the contextual nature of meaning. I’m an Aristotelian/Wittgensteinian/Derridean/Sexual difference feminist. In large part for me then function is form. Things do different things, and they have different forms that make that different doing possible. Men and women have different forms because they do different things. The fact that not all of them are able to perform that function is as relevant as the fact that a chair with a leg missing can no longer perform its function – it doesn’t make it something other than a chair, and it doesn’t mean chairs don’t exist, and that they’re not generally sitting things, that have a form for sitting on. And sure, you might not like the idea that that analogy implies infertility is a form of brokenness. I don’t like it either. Neither do infertile people – for whom infertility is sometimes very painful. But we don’t make pain go away by rearranging reality to play make believe. Make believe is never an ultimately useful response to any form of limitation or distress. Witness. Compassion. Social support. Emotional Processing. Holding. All of those things. Make believe. No. This is relevant to this whole conversation.

        The bottom line is this. This is a social movement that has dedicated itself to rearranging reality and demanding that everyone submit to this rearrangement. That, in itself, would give me serious pause – even were the rearrangement demanded not so fundamental both ontologically and politically. You are never going to succeed ultimately on the basis of the abolition of sexual dimorphism. Because it’s fucking delusional nonsense. It is 2+2=5. And because it is 2+2=5, the entire intellectual system erected on top of it is intellectually bankrupt, and, moreover, the system *has* to be enforced by totalitarian means. The bullying, and denunciation, and silencing, and tantrums when people do not comply – this is *all* baked in. This is all because of the 2+2=5. If this movement was not based on a fundamental denial, there would be no need for any of these egregious political tactics. You could stand in the clear light of day, and the justice of the cause would ring out, and that would be all there was to it. Instead, it’s all hate-speech, and smearing, and blocking, and trying to get people fired if they step out of line. That’s no justice I want anything to do with – and I don’t trust anyone who thinks it is.

      12. I was worried about my “causal” phrase. At first I had a longer comment that asked about why sex differences “are/cause” kind differences.

        That aside, thank you. I understand what you are saying. I’m not sure on why you say it. Maybe the phenomenology of sex differs. I don’t experience sexed bodies as different in kind. Your 2+2=5 analogy doesn’t fit, because the basic truth I witness is something like “All people are of the same kind.” From my perspective, you are demanding a rearrangement of the furniture of reality in order to fit neatly into this-kind and that-kind.

        Maybe this is not resolvable at all. I’m just a student, at least, and I cannot imagine how progress from here is possible.

        Not all differences are differences in kind. What about sex differences make them a difference in kind? Is it a basic truth you witness? Do Aristotle/Derrida/Wittgenstein specify sex differences as differences in kind? Is it am empirical truth of western society that sex differences have been for centuries treated as kinds, so the fact of kind-good has become ontologically real?

        I’m sympathetic to trans ideology, because I lack the requisite kind-hood experiences. This is probably uncommon, given your characterization of trans ideology. Maybe I am a victim of trans ideology. Not that you know me, but do you think that can happen or explain why my experience is backwards from yours?

      13. I think you will say sex differences are kind-relevant ones, because they are differences in function: “Men and women have different forms because they do different things”.

        If individuals could change form by changing function, then trans issues would not be an issue: when a person transitions from performing the impregnating function into the pregnancy function, that person gains the form of woman (and loses the form of man).

        Changing function is possible. Individuals have their forms, because the individual has proper function. It is not the case that individuals have their functions, because the individual has a proper forms. Suppose scientific biology developments occur such that trans people can acquire the pregnancy function. You would have to admit that this man is now a woman, rather than simply being a mutilated man.

        So, your ideological stance on trans issues prohibits you from saying that the individual’s form changes when the function changes. If function changes without form changing, we don’t know “men and women have different forms because they do different things.” It might turn out that women have male form and do the pregnancy function.

        1. It is possible for an individual’s function to change.
        2. If it is possible for an individual’s function to change, then either form changes when function changes, or form does not change when function changes.
        3. If form changes when function changes, then men can become women.
        4. If form does not change when function changes, then we don’t know “men and women have different forms because they do different things.”
        5. Therefore, either men can become women or we don’t know “men and women have different forms because they do different things.”

        As the kids say these days, “Where is the lie?”

      14. Ideology is making the socially constructed look natural. The accurate description of natural phenomena is not ideology.

        If you want to turn the recognition of sexual dimorphism into ideology, and the belief that sexual dimorphism does not exist and is not ontologically and politically significant into truth, you are beyond help – both intellectually, and, because you are erasing the existence of a class of oppressed persons against their explicit will, also morally. That’s all have to say to you.

      15. No, actually I also have this:

        The thing you’re not understanding, is that you seem to think that our philosophical models change reality. They don’t. They’re just our efforts to describe how certain things come to be how they are.

        First you tried to use an essentialist argument to argue that things are not what they are. Then, because I said I think it has something to do with function, you tried to use a functionalist argument to argue that things are not what they are. In so doing, you committed me to a form of functionalist essentialism I don’t hold – I merely said I think function has something to do with it… but I don’t think it explains it, or is even how we do it. The point of these philosophical model is not that they determine how we use concepts in any way whatsoever. They simply don’t, and you can play jiggery-pokery with them all you like – you can spend the next three weeks trying to convince me that roses are daisies, and chairs are stools, and plates are cups, and all your arguments will change not one thing about the world, or how we actually categorize it. Sure, there’s a bit of wiggle room – and some peoples place lines around certain things in slightly different places, but you people are all so drunk on the idea of social construction that basically your brains have fallen out. And you’re bringing the humanities into disrepute in the process, something else that’s really pissing me off about your nonsense.

        All these philosophical theories are just our attempts – and not very good ones – to describe or explain how we are able to do something that we do, all day, every day, and have done, for hundreds of thousands of years, long before we ever tried to think about *how* we do it. Yes, there is some relation between form and function. But just because you drink wine out of a coffee cup, it doesn’t make it a wine glass. You have to actually check your thought doodles against the world, because it’s the world that tells you whether you are talking shit or not. It’s not our thought doodles that decide what the world is. Concepts are made *between* us and the world – and the resistance of the world is the limit to both our overweening fantasies of mastery, and the bulwark against tyranny. We’re not fucking Gods. We don’t make the entire world *with* our minds. And to think we do is just one more form of an age-old life-denying patriarchal domination fantasy – otherwise known as, dangerous bullshit.

      16. Can men become women? What do you believe? What does the world tell you?

        I think your use of the “2+2=5” metaphor suggests “No, men cannot become women.” Never can 2 and 2 become 5.

        I think your political focus suggests, “It doesn’t matter whether men can become women, because men shouldn’t become women.” It would be an invasion of private spaces, for example, for a man-become-woman to feel entitled to restrooms and other private female spaces.

        The two answers differ importantly from one another. If you affirm the possibility, then you have a relevant response to Dr. Kathleen Stock’s recent article in The Conversation. Dr. Stock argues mere self-identification is or ought to be insufficient for legal status as a woman. In response, surely both (1) becoming a woman is not mere self-identification and (2) becoming a woman is our ought to be sufficient for legal status as a woman. Then the debate transitions to whether men are in fact becoming women.

        If you deny the possibility, then I agree with you that it is wrong for men to try become women, because it is wrong to try the impossible.

      17. If a person’s sex and gender can change, then having laws founded on immutable sex and gender is unwise.

        If sex and gender cannot change, then we need some explanation for why it cannot change, since almost all other properties can change.

        Until an explanation surfaces, politics and law should allow for mutable sex and gender. The fact that politics and law haven’t been so structure is problematic.

  6. Brilliant and enlightening. For sure: mistaking narcissistic patriarchal opposition for reality is NOT going to end well…

  7. Thank you for this – you’ve articulated something that I’ve been struggling to put into words recently, that it ought to be possible for us to recognise and embrace differences between persons without assuming that these differences make anyone “better” than anyone else.

  8. Diogenes: Just because there is a small variation in a dichotomy does not make the dichotomous nature invalid or nonexistent. It’s pretty understood that in all characteristics, acquired or genetically programmed, there are some overlaps and there are some deviations. Whether these provide an improvement in the current reality is best determined retroactively; in the meantime, people and animals cope with what nature gives them — kittens can run around on six or seven toes, people can have certain parts of their body damaged at conception restructured, etc.

    What fascinates me is the inability of people in this debate to recognize that both a material history and biological difference are interfunctioning. If there were no oppressive history between men and women, any variations in sex might be a matter of biological concern, but wouldn’t affect the debate about men’s and women’s relationship change. But the truth is — and Queer Theory has contributed to disregarding this basic reality — Men have oppressed women for some thousands of years, based on their reproductive abilities, or their perceived reproductive disabilities. Therefore, men have written into society that women are lesser, and their choices must be dictated by men.

    In the last 50 years, that assumption has changed — not very much, because thousands of years of cultural adaptation doesn’t get eliminated on the say-so of a few academics and their students, even if they had the best interests of all human beings in mind, and they’ve made it very clear they don’t. Declaring that “things have changed” simply isn’t making change, regardless of wishful thinking about the nature of structures and their deconstruction. Few post-structuralists would assume that; only the postmodernists, the privileged elite, feel they can disregard both history and oppression in order to bring the group they favor forward, and do that at the expense of other historically oppressed groups. I am not sure if deep misogyny or simple fantasy drives them more; I can only see the damage it does to half the human race by trying to recruit them to an astroturf movement which provides neither solace for most of its members nor respect for anyone who doesn’t by into a movement which is far more like a religion than a theory.

    There are methods by which trans women and trans men can be accepted and protected, within adapted versions of social expectations currently existing. Over time, the importance of gender is likely to draw back. But by insisting on absolute dichotomies, and assuming that there is no overlapping bell curve so that dichotomous thinking is completely worthless and therefore the non-existence of difference, constructed discursively or biologically or any other way, is self-evident, people who have spent their lives and internalized their ancestors’ lives feel invalidated. Under these circumstances, there’s little possibility of compromise or cooperation, and the largest group, or the one with the most traditional power, will win. I’m waiting to see which that is: men as a group, destroying women’s lives, or people adjusting to their own bodies, ignoring the dysphoria of a few.

  9. @Diogenes–Biological essentialism is a concept from second wave feminism that labels the patriarchal tendency to ascribe natural, inherent differences in personality, aptitude, proper social role, etc., to people based on whether they belong to the male or female reproductive class. Feminists–the real sort, not the fun kind–reject essentialist views that claim women are only doing what’s “natural” for them when they conform to patriarchal demands to be submissive, center men, accept second-class status, etc. In fact, the chart in this post is a pretty good representation of biological essentialism as understood by radical feminists, but in recent years trans activists seem to have appropriated the term and twisted its meaning.

    In other words, you’ve accused Dr. Jones of biological essentialism for arguing against biological essentialism and thereby helped prove her point that some people are so immersed in a hierarchical view of the world that they can’t imagine any differences existing outside of that hierarchy.

  10. Brilliant! It’s refreshing to find such a rigorous, complex take on the topic.

    (Also, reading descriptions and criticism of platonism in a number of your posts has made me finally understand what went wrong in my own graduate school career–most of my professors were platonists in their thinking, and I wasn’t, so that’s why it often seemed as if we didn’t live in the same reality. Thank you for solving a mystery that’s been haunting me for two decades. It would be useful for graduate students in every field to take a course in schools of thought.)

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