In the first part of this essay I attempted to justify binary sexual designation on the grounds of practicality. If we imagine society as an evolving organism, we would say that binary sexual designation is an adaptive compromise. In social evolution as in biological evolution, nothing totally novel is ever created. Everything is adapted from or build upon what already exists. Because the evolutionary process cannot invent it cannot produce ideal solutions. Evolution always settles for what works no matter how clumsy the solution may be from an engineering design perspective or, in some cases, from an aesthetic point of view. The binary male/female distinction was there, so societies used it as a basis for much of their structures.
Men and women are different. Difference isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as discrimination isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Where there are differences, the capacity for discrimination is essential. Every instant is the product of a process of discrimination in all the preceding instants. Discrimination produces the constraints which shape reality. Diversity, discrimination and constraints are the tools of creation. Bear with me, please. There is a point to all of this. I’m pretty sure it relates to my promise that I would attempt to understand how we lost the working consensus on binary sexual designation – among other things. I hope you’re as interested as I am in discovering what the point is.
Let’s go back a bit. Let’s go back to the very beginning. In fact, let’s go back to before the beginning. Before the so-called Big Bang that gets all the credit for being the beginning, partly because it’s big and bangy and big bangy things tend to hog the limelight. But also because it is a very satisfying theory. It appeals to imagination and reason and superstition and science. It satisfies the mind. It seems right. It’s a good fit with most of what we know; most of what we pretend to know; and most of what we use to fill the gaps in what we know. And it’s big and bangy. It’s an explosion. It’s ultimately us making a grand entrance in a sudden burst of brilliant light, searing heat and awesome energy. A bit like the opening of an old Elton John concert but scaled up and less camp. No wonder we find it satisfying.
Then along comes some killjoy and asks what came before the Big Bang, like they’re trying to spoil it for everyone. But the spoilsport asks a good question. If the Big Bang was an explosion and everything was created in that moment then where did the explosive material come from? Where did the detonator come from? What set it off? Or should that be WHO? (Cue portentous music.) Maybe the Big Bang theory isn’t totally satisfactory, no matter how satisfying. Maybe we need to think of it in another way.
Nothing! A nothing such as you can’t imagine, because imagining it would ruin the nothingness. A nothing devoid even of the concept of nothing. A nothing which utterly defeats the powers of imagination and language. A nothing that can’t exist because by existing it would not be nothing. That nothing is the start of everything. It is a nothing so complete as to contain within itself the potential for everything, whilst still being a perfect void.
A nothing that is devoid of anything must be devoid of constraints. Being devoid of the constraints that stop things happening, everything must happen. And happen simultaneously. Because the nothing that is devoid of constraints must also be without time. But if everything is created in that instant then constraints must be created. And among the first of these constraints must be time. Although it would only be first with hindsight. Which would be useless because there’s nothing to be seen with hindsight. Such is the nature of this instant. By it’s very nature, and it’s lack of any nature, it defies imagination and language. We have to playback in slow motion to make sense of it.
Time had to be created – or to emerge from the Great Nothing in the moment it became the Great Everything – otherwise everything would have happened at once. Which would be the same as nothing happening. Time had to come into existence because everything did. Time then acted as a constraint – preventing everything happening at once. Also gravity, to constrain everything from happening everywhere. Time imposes sequential order. Gravity imposes spatial location. Right away, we have something we can recognise as the reality we experience.
As everything comes into existence then this must include all possible constraints. Everything came to be what it is, not because it is what it is but because the constraints prevent it being anything else. But not everything can be the same. Their cannot be uniformity or homogeneity because these would preclude the diversity which must be part of everything because without it everything would be one thing short. We know that there isn’t uniformity and homogeneity because things change. Things aren’t static. There is no stasis because constraints are as diverse as everything else. So there are weak constraints and strong constraints and everything between and beyond. Everything is trying to be everywhere and everywhen but constraints limit the where and the when. They discriminate. Constraints of varying power prevent things being at random. The variability of constraints is what we experience as discrimination. Those constraints are both too powerful and not powerful enough to preclude change. The change we experience as time.
Fast forward a quantity of this time and you have us. People. And if your recall my distinctly unremarkable insight from the first part of this essay you will be aware that people are complicated. It’s the same complexity as exists in the universe around us. The complexity of chaos arising from and managed by diversity, discrimination and constraints.
Discrimination tends to be talked about as being ‘against’ something. It is widely understood as a negative thing. Discrimination against black people. Discrimination against Catholics / Muslims / Jews etc. Discrimination against old people. Discrimination against young people. Discrimination against women. What about discrimination in what we eat? If your ancestors hadn’t learned to discriminate between the nutritious and toxic but equally appealing berries then there would be no you. Or, to pander to the pedants for a moment, there would be statistically less likelihood of you. Discrimination is essential to creating order. And societies can only work if there is order. The larger and more complex (diverse) societies get, the more need there is for order, and the more difficult it is to maintain order. Throw free will into this mix and it’d make you throw your hands up in despair.
But, for the most part, we manage. For the most part, human society functions like a rather inefficient ant slightly erratic homeostatic system. All the parts and forces work together in ways which allow us to survive. Largely, if not entirely, because of the compromises we make. Free will is our is our capacity for regulating constraints by means of discrimination. To an almost infinitely variable extent, we can choose which and how constraints will act on us and which and how we will impose, or allow to be imposed, constraints on others. Depending on our capacities and circumstances, we each of us have a certain power to shape reality. We will join with others in order to enhance our power relative to others. Or pool our power for the accomplishment of some shared objective. All human interactions are transactions in the currency of power. And I do mean all. Everybody, in every situation, at every moment and in every way, is seeking to optimise their social power. That is determined by our genetic inheritance as human beings. It is what we are.
We are all the products of evolution under the influence of environmental pressure (Those constraints again.) That includes men and women. The science is well enough understood that we know why evolution resulted in the males/female difference. Suffice it to say that it is a necessary difference. Basically, it allows the mistakes that fuel evolution while not allowing too much randomness (mostly). As I pointed out previously, evolution, whether biological or social, never creates anything new. Everything that evolves, evolves by way of changes to something that already has evolved. And, obviously, there is cross-over between the biological and social realms. The nature that shapes a person for the procreative function (including survival) which is the only thing that nature ‘cares’ about, inevitably if incidentally shapes that person for certain social functions and roles.
Any account of this shaping process is necessarily reductive simply because the complexity is just too great to describe without using up all the pixels in the world. Probably not even then. Bearing this in mind and with all the usual caveats and provisos about generalisation that some will ignore on account of their personal tendency to arse – women were designed to bear children and this made them physically better suited to berry-picking and root-grubbing than monkey-hunting and boasting about it. There was no normative judgement involved. The differences didn’t imply better or worse in any overarching way. Men and women were different but equal – at least as far as nature and logic are concerned. Men and women were just to parts of the same social and biological machine. They worked in conjunction with each other and were equally essential to both procreation and survival.
At some point, that changed. At some point, those transactions of power left women the losers. Or so it seems. When ‘soft power’ is taken into account, the power differential between men and women may not be as great as is assumed when power is conceived of from what I’m obliged to call a ‘male’ perspective. But this is another generalisation. It may be true of the population of female humans as whole. But that is little comfort to the pockets – large and larger – of that population where the power differential between males and females has become excessive and self-perpetuation and in all to many cases seriously deleterious to women.
I want to stress here that this social imbalance is an unsustainable and unjustifiable aberration. As are all such social imbalances. If there can be said to be a way things were meant to be, this isn’t it. Exaggerated asymmetry of power is socially maladaptive, if I may borrow a term from evolutionary science. This means it is contrary to the interests of society. It is actively bad for society. Ultimately, excessive social imbalance will destroy a society as surely as a malignant cancer will kill an organism. We should be at least as conscientious in addressing the social imbalances which afflict society as we must be in dealing with the imbalances which threaten the habitability of our planet. Indeed, these imbalances are not unrelated or unconnected.
Virtue duly signalled, I shall move on.
We have travelled a long social evolutionary road from the point at which biologically determined roles and social roles coincided neatly. We’ve taken many wrong turnings along the way. We’ve created far too many imbalances and worsened them to a dangerous extent. But we have survived. We are surviving. Because we are still adapting our genetic inheritance to serve in a changed and rapidly changing environment. We have experimented with different form of social organisation. Sometimes disastrously. We are constantly tinkering. And therein may lie an explanation for the Pronoun Wars.
Our capacity for social tinkering has grown exponentially in recent years. Developments in science and technology mean, among much else, that we can identify more things. We can examine things, including ourselves in ever more detail. We have the tools and concepts to create untold numbers of categories because we are able to differentiate at an increasingly granular level. And we tinker. We discriminate between and among these myriad categories. Because we can. Indeed, we must. The human mind is little else but a massively powerful pattern recognition machine. We use this machine to map our social world. These maps guide choices and improve our ability to both foresee and deal with the stuff of life. So we are bound to try and place things in some kind of order. We are bound to prioritise. And when there are a plethora of things to prioritise, we can make mistakes.
We used to identify only two sexes – male and female. And we didn’t make a notably good job of prioritising them. We did some really dreadful discriminating. What chance do we have of getting it right when we’ve developed the ability to identify 17 sexes? Or 28? Or whatever the number may be? Or may become? The odds are seriously stacked against us getting it right. And we have beaten those odds. That much is clear from the rancour surrounding the Scottish Government’s proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (GRA).
In these errors of categorisation and/or prioritisation – errors of discrimination in the truest sense of the term – we may hope to find and explanation for the loss of the social consensus about the sexes which, while far from perfect, was at least functioning. The meaningful error, I suggest, is on the part of those who suppose that because a number of different sexes can be identified, that number must be accommodated. And afforded the same accommodation as the smaller number of categories (2) that were previously identified. They see this accommodation as the only acceptable ‘solution’. Anything else is unjust and undemocratic. So focused are they on doing what they consider – with some justification – to be right, they omit consideration of practicality.
If these additional categories are to be considered the equals of all others in society with appropriate entitlements, then they must be just as liable for making compromises of the sort that make society work. The simple fact is that we do not (yet?) have a form of social organisation which can operate under the weight of a huge and increasing number of categories of person each requiring accommodations which are frequently incompatible or mutually exclusive.
By all means, recognise as many sexes as you wish. But also recognise that society presently has a limited capacity to fully accommodate all of those sexes, and make the necessary compromises.
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4 thoughts on “His and hers – Part 2”
I disagree quite profoundly with quite a lot of your wonderfully exposited metaphysics, but agree almost completely with your conclusion.
Irrespective of how restrictive binary distinctions are to natural diversity, of how easily they are subverted into asymmetrical power relations, human bodies are pretty much dimorphic and for most practical purposes it is easy to organise society along these lines. That does not make it right though.
I feel that in general we should be nice to each other and stand up against both violent bullies and unkindness to others. If we start from this point, rather than from within our socially constructed reality, in which there are always conveniently undervalued others against whom to establish worth, then the so called pronoun wars might be a might less acrimonious.
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To me, sadly, you have missed what the discussion is fundamentally about and what is at stake for some.
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Is it a secret?
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