Sunday, May 20, 2012

Gender is two overlapping bell curves

When the gametes that eventually turn into you split and determine your sex, mother nature casts a die for each characteristic or trait you could conceivably link to sex.  On some of them, you will exemplify your gender's side of the spectrum to an even greater extent, on some of them you'll be pretty much normal, and on some of them you'll probably fall even below (or above) the other gender's average.

I'm talking only of genetic tendency toward something, not necessarily actual manifestation of those traits.  I don't intend to imply that genetics is the sole determinant of our behavior or even inclinations.

And of course, not every distribution of traits are going to look like a bell curve.  The same arguments hold whether we're talking about a power law distribution, a bell curve, or a ton of the other statistical models I'll get around to wikipediaing eventually

The point is that gender is neither ontology nor destiny, but probability.

So men tend to be more athletic on women than average.  Surely this is influenced by socialization, the way we encourage boys to participate in sports more than girls, and a ton else.  We can't be sure since we can't really control the variables- it's not clear how we would even raise a cohort of children with n gender roles thrust upon them even by accident- but I don't think it's absurd to think that this is at least partially genetic.  Nevertheless, outliers and exceptions smack us in the face all the damn time.  I'm 5'8", weigh 130 pounds, and have very little upper body strength.  Outside of cardiovascular endurance, where I'm significantly above the norm even on my gender's bell curve, I probably fall below most women's athletic prowess.  Conversely, Abby Wambach and Marta outperform all but the best men in their field.  We can hem and haw over whether a woman's ceiling in these kind of sporting contests are the same as men's, but the existence of diversity is undeniable.

I keep coming back to this formulation of sex, which is the only one that I can see that squares with the facts of the matter, whenever I read something like,

Humans are a part of nature and gender roles are natural roles. If being expected to carry my moms shopping because I’m naturally stronger than her is 'oppressive' to you, then you’re a useless banana.

and I can't help but think, "which women, which men, under which circumstances?"  Sure, it makes the most sense for me to bring in the groceries on most nights, but it wasn't really true a few months ago, when I had to use a walker for a few months after getting hit by a drunk driver.  Nor would it particularly make sense if mom were a professional soccer player.  A gendered division of labor might have made sense when most employments were backbreaking, but don't make much sense in an information economy.  It's just absurd to say that this kind of utility maximization is a fundamental fact of the universe rather than a contingent response to fluid and ever-changing circumstances.

And I think this holds true for the implicit as well as explicit claim in that linked post- that such roles are not simply answers to utilitarian questions but ones of fundamental meaning and identity.  That, to borrow from Meno, the virtue of a woman really is fundamentally different from that of a man- as is the virtue of a dog from a lion.  But if 1.) genetics at least partially influences our potential, 2.) virtue is about the fulfillment of that potential, and 3.) the genetics of gender works as I say, that it influences but does not entirely determine that potential, this cannot be true.  It becomes clear that the ideal versions of ourselve are very similar to the actual manifestation of characteristics as influenced by gender.  Gender becomes, I say again, neither ontology nor destiny, but probability.  Our virtuous, actualized selves will be correlated with but not determined by our sex chromosomes.

The evidence for this is pretty obvious, too.  Just take a jaunt down to your local gay bar and have a chat with one of those happy, productive, and charismatic drag queens- if you keep looking, I'm sure you'll find at least one.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Women aren't the only ones with a stake in the success of feminism

Maybe my perspective is skewed by the fact that I'm a queer and not very gender conforming male, but I've never viewed the feminist project and the ability to achieve my goals as at all divergent. My concerns as a man are not antagonistic to the concerns of feminists; they're complimentary. I have an investment in the dismantling of patriarchal institutions, even if that investment is less than that of many women.

The world sucks for men because we are browbeaten by our peers, by the system, into a straitjacket of restrictive gender norms that play into the worst parts of our nature. It sucks for women because the men produced thereby are brutish and uncaring, and to a large degree run the world. We're fighting for the same damn thing- the right to be fully human in a society that would reduce us to our genders. They have the same solution- smash the patriarchy, inculcate norms of masculinity that are either not as destructive as the ones we have currently, or do away with those norms altogether.

I am not saying, of course, that this is the whole of the feminist project, that all social ills that feminists are concerned about will be solved if we can break the Gordian knot of the social dynamics of performative masculinity. But it is a significant part of the project, and one which men stand to benefit from as much as women.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Epistemic High Ground

The following was posted as a comment on The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, entitled, "Can Men Discuss Sexism?"

It is within the bounds of productive discourse to try to sway people towards certain kinds of testimony or evidence. It is not an intolerable act of silencing to put forward the claim that we should listen to scientists over lay people when discussing quantum physics. And I do think that members of minorities are in a better position to comment on these topics than those from the majority.

I don't doubt that many members of minorities react emotionally to things specifically affecting their communities, but this does not destroy their epistemic high ground, for multiple reasons. Firstly, such a critique downplays the way emotional responses can compromise the thinking of the privileged, and paints them as the objective determiners of truth. In examining my own responses to critiques of my privilege and the vitriol that tends to come from both sides in a debate like this, it's hard to resist the conclusion that both sides are emotionally invested, and on the grounds of your own argument, compromised. The privileged really are emotionally invested in downplaying the importance of their privilege. I'd rather live in a world where my professional accomplishments were solely attributable to my own talent and drive, not the ways in which the system is designed to promote people like me at the expense of those not like me, and there's definitely an emotional impetus to maintain that fiction.

Secondly, your critique glosses over the ways in which emotional response can actually be helpful in determining truth. I think that this is particularly true in matters of social justice. Emotional responses are typically how we determine what order of magnitude an injustice is on, and I don't think that there's anything wrong with that. The problem is that otherwise natural feelings of empathy can be tainted by the action of privilege. It's just a fact that many who do not see the effects of, say, gang violence on a daily basis can easily emotionally distance themselves from that fact because it's happening to people who aren't like them. A full emotional understanding of how this injustice affects real people isn't a cognitive defect, it helps us accurately assess just how important such an issue is.

And there's the obvious epistemic advantage: hands-on experience. While it can often be tainted by confirmation bias and the standard pitfalls of reasoning from anecdotal evidence, ceteris parabus the person who is being done an injustice will likely know more about it than the person who in unaffiliated with the situation. Go to the source.

So, if we are a member of a privileged group participating in a discussion on oppression, what does this mean for us? I don't think it means that we have nothing productive to contribute to the conversation. But it does mean that we need to have the intellectual humility to defer to the experts, particularly on the bare facts of the matter. You might find it inconceivable that the respectful and helpful police officers that you've lived around all your life behave brutally toward your black friends. But you have to realize that you're not really in position to know how the police treat people of color, if you're not a person of color yourself. It's not simply related to elements of fact, though, but on understanding why certain reactions that may seem odd can be valid. Emotional responses of women feeling threatened by certain actions may look completely irrational to you, but you should acknowledge that you were not born into a world in which society saddled a good deal of responsibility to deter your own sexual assault.

This is not to say that assertion of epistemic high ground is valid in all cases. It really is possible to shut someone out who has something constructive to add to a discussion, and I think the above feminist blogger is guilty of this.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Why does everyone insist that social evolution ceased circa 1950?

In the comments section on a post concerning Norway's consciously gender-neutral schooling, Jaybird has this to say:

Here is my problem with the phrase “social construct”.

It tends to be used as if social constructs are things that can be casually shrugged off, as if they were hobbies that were likely to be grown out of.

It seems to me far more likely that social constructs evolve over time because they are *USEFUL* for society and societies with less useful social constructs don’t keep up if, in fact, they don’t die out.

Which is not to say that Social Constructs are how God wants us to act… but the attitude that such-and-such is just a social construct seems to dismiss a *LOT* of things that evolved over time. Certainly when the underlying attitude seems to be akin to “God wants us to cast off our Social Constructs!”

My response:

Useful for whom?

Useful for when?

I submit that the more egalitarian gender ethos that has come to characterize modern western society is not exogenous to the natural evolution of gender roles that produced the previous dichotomy, but a production of the same process, though modified by a few factors. The first is the moral improvement of mankind that stopped taking the benefit of the male sex as the only barometer of social weal. The second is economic advance that simply made keeping half of the population in menial labor infeasible.

In brief, why is this change not part of that natural evolution?

I have never been a huge fan of the arument Jaybird announces here- why should we assume that the social evolution is necessarily beneficent? I'm sure some social structures really did evolve because they were the best solution to certain social problems, but their mere existence does not prove this fact. Social structures arise as a result of a complicated interaction of individual actions motivated by incentives, ideology, and psychology. It seems entirely plausible to me that certain structures evolved because it was in the interest of one class- in other words, in order to preserve privilege, as seems to be the case with the gender construction in question. Or that social structures could evolve out of mere ignorance- as the stigma against homosexuality seems to have been created by. Social structures are only produced by the diffuse actions of individuals, after all, and fallible individuals do not become perfect by the force of collective action and historical laws.

But even eliding the clear deficiencies of this argument, it fails on its own merits, at least as applied to this situation. If the previous dispensation was created by social evolution teleologically designed for our benefit, why is the coming one a malignant interloper? In short, why is it that every change that has happened before in gender roles is a historically-guided change for the good, but today's change lies outside that process?

Why did social evolution cease in 1950?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The ground has shifted

This isn't a topic I ordinarily write about, but the growing opposition to the construction of the mosque located several blocks from the World Trade Center is too remarkable to pass comment. Anti-Muslim sentiment in America is not exactly noteworthy. Subtle but not undamaging forms of racism, the kind that can easily remain either unknown to or concealed by the person practicing them, the racial profiling of people boarding airlines or the difficulty of the brown-skinned kid with a funny name to make friends or get a job is not difficult to believe. More overt forms of racism practiced at the extremes, a few signs at rallies or disgruntled web postings, aren't outside the realm of common experience in 21st century America. All of these are problems, but none are unprecedented.

"To bigotry no sanction," George Washington promised the new Republic would give to its Jewish citizens, in a letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport. What is remarkable, what I have never before seen in the years I have made that Republic my home, is that we have given bigotry that sanction. We, at least not all of us, have not met these protests with the scorn and derision they deserve. We've given the bigots a place at the negotiating table, the ears and publicity of our press, and the sanction of discussing their concerns as legitimate. We have made the free exercise of religious liberty of a group of our fellow citizens a matter of political debate and social sanction, not a sacrosanct right.

Perhaps I am being too pessimistic. Certainly much of the coverage I've seen has treated it with the scorn it deserves; it's not as if I'm the only one to notice the absurdity of the current situation. Yet The League of Ordinary Gentlemen is just about the model for reasonable, learned discussion, an affable group of ever-so-slightly libertarian leaning fellows who can almost always be counted on give the moderate position on any issue its fairest shake. In a post largely critical of the protests against the mosque, believing it to be creating the war of civilizations that Al Qaeda seeks to create, Mark Thompson has this to say:

I don’t have any real problem with those who take offense at the decision to build this project a few blocks from Ground Zero, and particularly those who take such offense having had deep ties to New York on 9/11/01... I can sympathize with the position advanced by some that, whether or not the project should be permitted, the property owners should choose not to build it in the proximity of Ground Zero.

This sounds immanently plausible. No one, least of all someone writing in a sex positive feminist tradition, ought to be commenting on the reasonableness or unreasonableness of certain responses to trauma. Who's to say how you'd feel if you'd lost someone in the attacks?

The apparent sensibility of this opinion is what, more than anything else, is ominous for the future of religious freedom in our country. Set aside the fact that it seems as if the New Yorkers who would be most affected by the attacks and by the mosque being built by and large support its construction. We've just claimed that it's a reasonable response to grief to blame the members of an entire group for the actions of a small subset of them. We're taking it as read that some dislike of the Muslim community for the actions of their most unsavory is justified. Most importantly of all, we've made it the responsibility of religious minorities not to offend the sensibilities of those opposed to religious freedom. The bigots have a place at the table. Their concerns are justified.

If this is the moderate position- construction of the mosque ought to be permitted under the first amendment, but it's insensitive of the people building it there, if belief in full social sanction for religious toleration has been pushed to the moderate and extreme left... I just don't know. Sometime between 9-11 and today, the ground shifted beneath my feet. I scarcely recognize the polity promised to me in 7th grade civics classes, one that never quite lived up to its ideals but tried its best. Where did my America go?

Friday, July 30, 2010

We're not the only ones with a stake in this fight

One would not expect going through the Catholic school system in Texas to be a pleasant experience for a queer kid. The truth is, though, I have few complaints. Homophobia (a not fully accurate word to describe the phenomena) motivated by religious conviction tended toward a staid intellectual condemnation that had an aura of civility to it. For all the reputation Texas has, its bigger cities where I lived don't differ too much in mores from other metropolitan areas around the country. My parents were nothing but supportive. And of course, there's little to pity a queer living in a college campus in Santa Fe for.

All of which is to say that I consider myself pretty fortunate, and my experience is probably not entirely representative. No one's experience will be the same, and a trans man in New York is going to have a considerably different experience than a lesbian in Zimbabwe.

Still, I can't believe I'm alone when I say that the time homophobia had the most impact on my life was not when, halfway through my sophomore year in high school, I was outed before I had chosen to do so, nor was it in the years prior to that when I had realized my orientation and remained closeted to all but my parents. It was before I had even known of my interest in men, when coasting along on the preferences of my peers seemed a decent substitute for forming my own. It was before, in short, anyone else could have known that I was bi, for even I was in the dark about it.

No, I felt most anxious around my desires, my appearance, my behaviors, when I was still expected to- and expected myself to- fit into the straitjacket of American masculinity. It's difficult to overstate the level of gender policing that goes on during those years. Every mannerism, food consumed, TV show watched, piece of clothing worn, tone of voice utilized was put through the wringer of gender politics, the slightest misstep indicating deadly femininity or gayness- really the same thing in men. It was suffocating. Surely it was at its worst when I was attempting to fit into it, around the time right after puberty, but one need only watch a Bud Light commercial to know it's far from limited to the middle school set.

What a relief it was, when I started fucking men! I had consummated my failure as an American man, and that set me free. I didn't have to follow their rules anymore, and I was free to do as I liked. Curiously, scrutiny around my gendered behavior dropped off a lot once I was forced out of the closet. While biological accounts making gay men into a third sex are problematic for obvious reasons, it's almost rung true for me on a sociological level- expectations about behavior and the social roles you get slotted into are much different for a gay man than they are for a straight man. And in my experience, the latter is much more restrictive than the former.

I'm much happier now than I ever was back then. The right to marry, the knowledge that I won't be assaulted for my sexual acts, the approval of the rest of society- I would and did trade it all for the ability to carve out a social space where I could breathe freely, unencumbered by the constant surveillance for gender appropriate behavior.

I'm sure some of you question the validity of describing that gender policing as homophobia. While it is not that in the strictest sense of the word, homophobia does not exist in a space separate from the rest of the culture. It's part of the tapestry of the apostolic succession of true manhood, a history of browbeating those of us born with a Y chromosome into stultifying standards of behavior. Homophobia needs strict standards of masculinity like fire needs air. Get rid of the one, and the other disappears.

Though the expectations of masculinity probably fit more awkwardly on me than they do on most, I can't be the only one who was or is chafing under its restraints. Nor can I believe that gays or even those identifying as genderqueer or trans are the only ones who feel constrained by this policing. Straight and gay men both have a stake in the fight against homophobia, because ultimately the forces that nourish homophobia contribute to the system that prevents all men from being able to live their lives as they choose.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Letter to Radiolab

If you guys haven't checked out the Radiolab podcast yet, I strongly urge you to do so. It's the most consistently excellent pop-intellectual show around, and there are few ways to spend an hour that are as entertaining and enlightening as listening to one of their podcasts. Still, their coverage of sexual minorities, when the subject comes around, leaves much to be desired. Hence this letter:

Dear Radiolab,

I'm a big fan of the show. While I discovered it only a month or so ago, your insightful commentary and interesting stories have made Radiolab a regular part of my podcasting diet. That makes your persistent sex-negativity and mistreatment of sexual minorities all the more distressing.

The latest incident was, of course, in your "Oops" episode, in which it was clearly implied that the villainous doctor's cruel psychological experiments were related to his sadomasochistic behavior in the bedroom. I'm sure you have an image of kinky people in your head- depraved, evil people whose scruples would never prevent them from engaging in clearly immoral behavior. I'm equally certain that your image would not survive a meeting with these supposed monsters, such as you might have at your local Conversio Virium meetings, a BDSM discussion and meeting group at Columbia University.

If you are not inclined to take such a step (and I cannot blame you, given the standard portrayals of kinky people), listen to the experts. The research efforts of psychologists in this field have been clear: kinky people are no more dangerous than anyone else. For example, a study done by the University of New South Wales found correlation between kinky sexual desires and psychological distress and impairment, and in fact found men into such things scored slightly better than the general populace. "Our findings support the idea that bondage and discipline and sadomasochism (BDSM) is simply a sexual interest or subculture attractive to a minority," Associate Professor Juliet Richters and her colleagues wrote in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. To the extent that stigma against kinky people persists in the psychological establishment, it is largely a result of widespread ignorance of such findings.

Your reporting on this subject has not only been erroneous; it's also harmful. According to the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, 30% of regular practitioners of kinky sex report facing discrimination, with 24% losing a job and 3% losing a child over their private sexual activities. As a member of the media, you have a social responsibility to report with care, a responsibility you have thus far abdicated in strengthening the stigma our society's marginalized face.

A public apology is in my opinion warranted. In the absence of such, I hope that you will have a care when discussing sexual minorities in the future.

James Vonder Haar