Taboo Questions

I've been working forever on one chapter of my manuscript/book on parenthood--the chapter on gender.  I think I know part of the reason why it's been so hard and time consuming to get this done.  In other chapters I've felt free to philosophically explore, even if the issues are controversial, but there are a lot more constraints here.  Certain views, and even certain questions, are politically incorrect, taboo, probably genuinely hurtful to some audiences.  And so I can't get into "figuring it out" mode and stay there. I keep feeling hemmed in by what I'm supposed to think, as a feminist, or what I'm supposed to say, as a respecter of LGBT people. And so I read some more, think some more, read some more.  Well, maybe the end result will be a better chapter!

As evidence of how political correctness can distort inquiry, take this New Yorker article about clashes between so-called radical feminists and transgender activists.  It does sound to me like the radical feminist side has some daft views about transgender people and cares too much about safeguarding born-women's spaces, but they do ask some good questions.  It really is puzzling how it could be that a biologically female woman and a trans woman are both women in exactly the same sense.  What is it that makes them both women?  I believe that's a hard question worth thinking about.  The radical feminists asking the question may approach these things with inappropriate animus, but at least they're asking the questions. I get the impression from the article that one is no longer allowed to in some academic settings.

There is some philosophical literature on the hard question but I honestly find most of what I've read not in a purely philosophical mode.  Politics is in the driver's seat a great deal, not the usual philosophical methods--analysis, thought experiments, testing claims with counterexamples, etc.  So people say things that would not withstand philosophical scrutiny, if the topic were something politically neutral like causation, or intentionality, or reference, or whatnot.

What does gender, or transgender, have to do with parenting?  The question I'm trying to tackle is whether parents should care about or cultivate gender differences at all.  But as a preliminary, I tackle the metaphysics of gender.  Are girls/women and boys/men two naturally distinct groups?  Interesting, difficult question. I'd really like to approach it as a philosophy question, not as a matter of politics.


s. wallerstein said...

Maybe there are some questions which cannot be answered apolitically, which does not mean that they should be examined without clarity or with sloppy thinking.

First of all, whatever you answer will be put by others in a political framework. You cannot avoid that: the question is in the political world.

Second of all, you bring your political attitudes towards the question. It's inevitable: it has nothing to do with you personally. When you say, "I'm a feminist", that's a political commitment, even if you try to be and succeed in being an "open-minded" feminist. If you say, "I'm not a feminist", that's also a commitment and even non-commitment on the issue of whether you are a feminist or not is a political commitment of sorts, just as not voting is a political commitment when there is an election.

Rhys said...

A friend with Pakistani roots told me recently that Pakistan started recognizing transgender people as a "third gender." So that might be another way of thinking about it, rather than a transgender woman and a cis-gendered woman being a woman in the same way.

(And I doubt that many trans people would say they are women in the same way, otherwise trans people wouldn't make a distinction between transgendered and cis-gendered.)

You might find this interesting:


Jean Kazez said...

I don't think the terms "cis woman" and "trans woman" indicate that both aren't equally women. This could be thought of by analogy with "native American" and "African American." The adjectives tell how the person came to be an American but both are American in the same sense and to the same degree.

Thanks for the link.

And by the way, congratulations on your NYT column! I read it and enjoyed.

Wayne said...

Imagine that you go to your doctor, and in the course of a normal exam and blood tests, something strange turns up. You're told that you have a Y chromosome. You digest a lot of biology talk about hormones in utero being causing the growth of sexual characteristics, and how these hormones could be blocked by a number of things, but the bottom line is that you're genetically a male, but a functional female (lets just say reproductively as well for the sake of ease.... plenty of animals can be born male and then change sexes).

Has anything changed about your identity? And if something has, then would having a traumatic accident that causes you to lose the memory of your test results revert you back to your previous state?

Craig Urias said...

One strategy is to have all children wear Star Trek uniforms until an age when they can answer the question, "What gender do you want to be?"

What's really confusing is that there are two somewhat orthogonal concepts at play: sexual orientation and gender. A male can have a sex change and become a lesbian, etc.

Does the field of "gender studies" say anything about fostering or not fostering genders in children?
My only knowledge of the field comes from the Sokal hoax, from which I learned that Lacan equated an erection with the square root of -1. Presumably the field has a body of non-crazy literature, though.

s. wallerstein said...

Craig Urias,

Here is a surreal discussion about raising a genderless child.


Wayne said...

I've been thinking about this some more..
I think what some people have an objection to is the "realness" of the identity label. I'm a real man, that trans person is not a real man. But exactly what are the basing this genuineness on? Genetics? (Who's been DNA tested to confirm their masculinity or feminity?) Bodily parts? Then trans men are men. Reproductive capability? Do women lose their womanhood after menopause? Are infants genderless because they have no capacity to reproduce yet?

It's all pretty mysterious to me.