Friday, 29 August 2014

Three Myths in the Struggle Against Gender, Part Two: The Myth of Modernity

The first article in this series challenged the myth that gender is natural. Today we confront a second myth.

But first, let us first remind ourselves of the general forms the problem of gender takes. Some of these are as follows:
  • gender inequality;
  • gender conflict;
  • the subjection of women in almost all spheres of public and private life;
  • hegemonic relationship dynamics;
  • hegemonic family structures;
  • hostility to sexual diversity;
  • the mistreatment of people who are not biologically male or female, such as intersex people;
  • the mistreatment of people who do not conform to masculine or feminine gender expectations, the consequences of which include exclusion, alienation, mental health problems and suicide;
  • and the abomination that is rape, among others.

The myth we will look at today is this: that the problems of gender are traditional – and that as societies progress to become more enlightened and modern, they overcome these problems.

But before we begin, here is a cute bear for no particular reason.


Now then. As with “nature”, there are loaded concepts involved here. Terms like “traditional”, “progress” and “modern” are stacked to the sky with baggage to declare. But at their most literal, they together imply something very simple – indeed, that is their problem. They imply a straight line. A straight and singular path of development, on which human societies advance through time, and on which the further they travel, the smarter, wiser, fairer, and just generally better they become.

At first glance that may sound accurate enough. We are, perhaps, better off considering ourselves “elderly” in our 80s, and not in our 20s as a few thousand years ago. A lot of us have access to things like advanced medicines, traffic lights, washing machines, solar panels and video games now, making our lives safer, easier and more enjoyable than the lives of our ancestors who did not. There are a few irritations unique to our time as well – say, the escalating ecological disintegration of our planet, and the triumph of a greedy, materialistic, exploitative and violent market fundamentalism – but if we ignore minor things like that, the general impression that as the centuries have elapsed, the experience of human life has, on the whole, improved.

And so the narrative goes for gender. A society where there is less rape is more modern than one where there is more rape. A society where men and women both have opportunities to participate in political life is more advanced than one whose national cabinet is a masculinised lair of misogyny. A society which grants equal legal recognition to diverse forms of the family is more progressive than traditional societies where you get arrested for living with someone of the other sex without being married, or beaten up by religious police for holding hands. Where is the problem?

Well, consider statements like these.

“Those people still treat women like chattel.”

Why is this medieval law still in place in the twenty-first century?”

That country is stuck in a time warp.”

I have emphasised the temporal references in these statements. As examples they are abstract, but still typical of what you find in serious news, commentary, or roundtable discussions on the gender problems at issue. I have heard this sort of language even from the most intelligent and courageous of people, whose credentials and ethical integrity in the struggle against gender are beyond reproach.

But something about that phrasing still makes me feel ill.


History is Not a Blob
The immediate problem is this. If we recall, that gender and its problems have no convincing basis in nature; that they are at once so harmful to human individuals and societies, yet at once so prevalent; that things like rape, the subjection of women, and the persecution of sexual diversity can only be properly called abominations; then we must conclude that they are as abominable at any time in the past as they are now.

That is to say, a place does not still treat women like chattel; if it ever did it was already in violation of the universe. A law that forbids cross-dressing or cohabitation without marriage, or punishes rape victims, is not medieval, nor does existing in the twenty-first century make it worse than in any other, because it is already infinitely offensive to life regardless of when it exists or existed, and it always has been, and it always will be. A country which mutilates children's genitals, or where political and military life is either the preserve of men or imposed through conscription, is not stuck in a time warp so much as stuck outside of time. We are talking about things that should never have been able to exist.

Do not worry, however, if you were not convinced by the “gender is not natural” conjecture and cannot relate to this. There are more than enough empirical reasons alone to suspect this purported relationship between gender and time.

The basic problem is that as the “gender is natural” myth is based on bad science, this “gender is traditional” mirage takes shape from a lousy approach to history. At its core, it is selective reductionism. That is, it grossly simplifies, and thus misrepresents, both the past and the present – and in so doing reduces the vast and colourful heritage of humankind on Earth to a singular, writhing, amorphous, stern and remorselessly violent blob of authoritarian patriarchy.

Lousy history. The first thing you should notice when you look at the past is that it is in fact huge. The second thing should be that we know so little about most of it – both because of the limits of our records, especially for societies which did not write or whose artefacts were made of perishable materials, and because we are such masters of confirmation bias (i.e. seeing what we want to see) and of doctoring our pictures of the past to suit our values, interests and arrogances in the present. But even from what remains, we can observe that, although yes, almost every society has a sorry history of gendered repressions and atrocities, these were very far from uniform. Examine the history of any society and it will be seen that there are times when they were better on gender, and times when they were worse; and that these fluctuations were driven not by the turning of the clock, but by the bitterest of confrontations of changing interests, changing values, and struggling currents of kindness and cruelty.

To forget this complexity is not only sloppy but dangerous. If instead we feed the reductionist (and often essentialist) blob of gendered horror, it then explodes back on the history and splatters all over our collective consciousness. Its embodied assumptions and prejudices seep through the gaps in our knowledge, saturating them with the illusion that the past was just generally, with only half-mythic exceptions, a time when gender inequality, conflict, and regulated conformity to rigid social roles were ordinary. We re-interpret, reject, ignore or simply forget any records even potentially contradicting that. And in doing so, we poison the study of history, spiking it with the gendered contaminants of life today just as the nationalists spin their past atrocities into glorious acts of heroism, and the religious fundamentalists portray their own faiths as intrinsically peaceful and others' as incorrigibly bloody.

And now the converse: the selective reduction of the present. While the “gender is traditional” narrative portrays tradition as a singular gendered amoeba, it portrays the present in contrast as a radiant, coruscating triumph of education, technology, and liberal values. These, the narrative goes, have equipped us to smash the shackles of gender subjection like never before, breaking free of tradition's restrictive, rapacious morass, and raising our arms to embrace a sunlit present which, as far as gender is concerned, is freer, safer and more tolerant than any time in our history.

The actual present is as follows. Rape, and rape culture, infest almost every society in the world, while politicians, moral authorities, the police, the courts, and social services in even the richest and most liberal countries remain comprehensively inept at stopping it or participate to sustain it. Men still dominate the political, military, academic and sporting landscapes of virtually all countries – on the one hand, particularly in the military, they may be forced by law to become killing machines and die for miserable causes because they happen to be men, while women find their paths to these fields obstructed, inundated with ridicule, or straightforwardly blocked. Homosexuality is punished by law in almost half the world, is discriminated against in virtually all of it, and in a dozen countries faces the death penalty. Children are still segregated by sex in many schools, and treated differently in all aspects of life on the basis of whether they are boys or girls. So rarely can men and women, girls and boys, interact with each other free from the influence of visible or invisible rules around how they are supposed to relate, or what they should or should not express to each other. Humanity drowns in a sea of overlapping gendered pandemics – domestic violence, emotional abuse, sexual slavery, sexual apartheid, female infanticide, “honour” killings, “morality” police, gender-related mental health problems and suicides, bride kidnappings, human trafficking, genital mutilation, unequal laws and wages and sizes of meals and recognition of evidence in court, hegemonic and arbitrary body image standards, failed relationships, child custody battles, and cultural media saturated to bursting with the same gendered tropes, ugly stereotypes and male-female relationship dynamics repeated over and over again.

But what is the present's most extraordinary characteristic of all? It is that these impossibilities, this caterwauling rampage of a thousand abominations, is allowed to fade into the background noise of social and political life: to the ticker-tape headlines, the corners of the inner pages of newspapers, and the protests of people whom the mainstream tells to just calm down, and asks: can't you see that we are a modern society now, where men and women are more equal than ever before? Would you prefer to live back in [arbitrary period], when [stereotyped culture] used to punish people like you with [horrible atrocity]? Can't you stop making a big deal about nothing? When are you going to just, you know, calm down?

An Earth with nothing on it might be an improvement over that. Yet that is what we call democracy, enlightenment, modernity, and liberal bloody values.

Let's look up some actual history. Are men, women, and diverse individuals and families closer to equality under Putin's Russia than they were under the less maniacal phases of the USSR, or even the Tsarist period? What if we apply that question specifically to, say, Chechnya? Go and look up what Ramzan Kadyrov has done to it as far as gendered repression is concerned, in the present, and try imagining what could make a society more gender-heinous without it driving you to a nervous breakdown. Do homosexuals and others with non-heteronormative sexual identities or orientations live in safer, more inclusive conditions in Uganda, Nigeria, Belize or Malaysia today, or did they in the centuries before British imperialism injected their societies with fear of sexuality and of the sexually different? What of all the other lands transformed and civilisationally butchered by European colonialism, such as in Francophone North Africa, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean or the Pacific Islands? Were the women of Afghanistan freer under the Taliban in 2000, or the monarchy in the 1920s? What about gendered repression in that artificial construct called Iraq, say in areas currently controlled by ISIS, compared with under the Abbasids or the Ottomans? And what of the rigorous traditions of women in combat, such as in the Kingdom of Dahomey, or the Kurdish Peshmerga, or the ancient Amazons – how do these compare with the masculinisation of armed power in most nations today?

None of this is to suggest that even the superior examples in all these comparisons had a gender record better than downright deplorable. What it makes quite clear, however, is that societies do not necessarily get better at gender over time and can just as easily, rapidly, and unexpectedly get much, much worse. And they can do so, moreover, while wearing all the trappings of modernisation.

It also enables us to look at the aforementioned gender deplorableness through the ages in a more suitable light. Too often, we accept them as simply how we were: those timeless cultural images seared into our minds, of dominant men and submissive women; of women as spoils of war; of witch-hunts; or those pseudo-scientific dogmas which once portrayed women as lacking in mental faculties, taken for granted as though authoritative fact, and used to justify denying them property, the vote, or participation in political, social or economic life. We must recognise that these were not so much reality, as broken reality. Not intrinsic to us, but chosen. We must look upon this past with faces lined not with stone, but torrential tears of shame, and hold our ancestors responsible for what we can only recognise as disgraces, disgraces of incomprehensible magnitude, and disgraces as elementally odious for being carried out then as they would be if they happened right now.

One final, crucial oversight of the “gender is traditional” myth is that it ignores the diversity within all societies. In any society, in all times and places since gender appeared amidst us, there would have been those suspicious of it, and critical of it, just as there are now – and just as there remain in every society today individuals as bloodthirstily sexist or heteronormative as at any time before. For conversely, even in the most tolerant and gender-equitable eras, there seem always to have been the haters, the zealots, the control-freaks attempting to reawaken the abomination of gender from its dreadful slumber; and too often they have succeeded – perhaps, as is usual, with the sponsorship of self-regarding political or business interests. But even when the abomination's whispers clouded the minds of masses into hysteria, to set loose the most utterly appalling gendered atrocities – from Nanjing to the former Yugoslavia, from Dhaka to the eastern Congo – there were always the dissidents, the activists, those who hurtled through the shadows or stood tall in defiance to save as many people as they could, who said no to corrupt authority, who told the majority it was wrong; those who put their lives, or far more, on the line to roar the gendered horror back to the pit. And when societies recovered to relative sanity – when the demons of gender receded – it was the courage and sacrifice of people like those, not some purported long-term trajectory of progress, to which those societies owed their gratitude.

It is always important to understand things in the context of the moral conditions in which they took place. But we must remember that those conditions are not literally of the times at all, but rather of the people in them, and the conscious choices they made. And no matter how the clock of the universe reads at any given moment, it is reasonable to expect that any sane person in that moment can understand that there are some things no guise of morality can ever fit. So it has always been, and always will be, for the inequalities, conflicts, subjection and sheer pain of the things that issue forth from the maws of gender.


Modernity as Arrogance
There is one final problem with the gender-and-progress narrative, and that is the much bigger beast on whose hide it is but one of a thousand scales. We might call it a problem not so much of history as of meta-history – that is, of how we conceive of history, of our journey, itself.

A story is not a straight line from A to B. Rather it is an unfolding webs of tangents, shocks and surprises that twist in complex directions we cannot always understand, because the frames of orientation themselves change too. Otherwise it would not be a story – there would be no journey, nothing to tell. And our story is one of the most complex of all.

There are two models of the human journey which have both been disastrous. One, especially favoured by people pessimistic about human nature, considers it cyclical. We go round and round in circles; nations and revolutions rise and fall; we soar to the skies upon our hopes and dreams, then plummet into the spiked pits of reality; over and over again in a spiral of miserable futility. It is a model made of cynicism, which tells us to swallow our despair and accept the injustices of the present, for any attempts to correct them inevitably land us with worse.

Frankly, if that is our lot then we may as well all drop dead. However, our concern today is with the opposite model: that which presents our journey as a sequence, a progression from primitive to modern, whether in knowledge, or technology, or prosperity, or moral values.

This, though on its face optimistic, underpins one of the most upsetting disappointments of our time: that thing we have called development. The history-is-a-sequence model is not solely to blame for its blunders – we also have to consider the paradigm's hijacking by market-fundamentalist economists, and the legacies of the colonial division of the world between North and South, among other things. But at the core of development, at least for most of its reign as a keystone concept in international politics, is precisely this narrative that societies can be measured against a linear yardstick – calibrated, of course, to the journeys of the societies that designed it – and according to this, be called “more developed” or “less developed”, or worse still, “developed” or “developing”, as though all societies walk on one trail through time and can be compared by their relative positions upon it.

This too is ahistorical, ignoring the effects of histories – often colonial histories – and the diversity both within and between societies. But as anyone who has had their present or future decimated by IMF shock therapy or structural adjustment programmes will tell you, its implications are hardly limited to how we look at the past. Never mind either that, as we have considered, a society in which gender problems exist may have moved backward from its starting point.

Those societies which measure themselves the highest on this scale like to refer to themselves as modern. Therein lies the heart of this myth. For modernity, very simply, means the present, as compared favourably to the past. It is no more than to attach the most gratifying of value judgements to our image of ourselves here and now, relative to the past; and in the process, to turn our backs on the entire catalogue of hideous present inadequacies we have herein discussed.

In literal terms, modernity is a nothing. Anyone can think themselves modern, in any time period, and think so with equal validity – that is, none at all. Even were we to attain a wonderful state of love and magic with lots of happiness and peace and fuzzy animals, there would always be room to improve. The very concept of modernity is nothing but the hubris of the present, spun to sound respectable. That is just what we need in a present like this, is it not?

And that is why I call the gender myth in question the Myth of Modernity. Because the idea at its root is that there is such a thing as modernity at all: a landscape of glorious furnaces of progress, which, as we draw closer to it, radiates liberating heat that blasts off our gendered baggage. The myth is that this modernity exists. It does not. And so long as we believe that it does, we will always believe, by definition, that modernity is us; and so will we puff out our chests at our ancestors, while persisting nightmares, including those of gender, leech through the human soil and pollute the prospects of the future.

Those ancestors probably thought themselves modern too. If the dead can see, they are surely humbled by hindsight. If the dead can speak, they surely warn us not to repeat their hubris – if only we, the living, will listen.


Traveller, there is no path, the path is made by walking
So if history is neither a blob nor a line, what does that mean for us, and our struggle against gender?

Two beacons, glowing in the mists of time. A beacon of hope, and a beacon of warning.

The beacon of hope blinks through gaps in the terrible history of humanity's gender repressions, gender conflicts and gender atrocities. It signals to us: yes, you have been terrible – but not always terrible, not uniformly terrible, and not terrible in the ways the essentialists would have you believe. There were times when you were better. You can research the history, discover these times, and learn from them. You may not know gender's causes, but you can dig up plenty of its drivers, especially in its intersections with forces you can so easily prevent if only you properly valued their costs: thuggish nationalisms, moral panics, mass hysterias, bad spirituality, economic abuse. Your science and technology may not make you superior to your ancestors, but they do provide all the equipment you need to disperse the illusion that gender has any inherent connection to 'tradition'.

But heed the beacon of warning. It signals to us: destroy your complacency. Abandon the myth of continuous linear progress, for it is a lie. There is no invisible railway of time on which you can simply ride to victory against the terrors of gender. Your struggle will not win itself; the outcome is not written in the stars. Instead, take responsibility. The awareness, the criticism, the better examples and choices you must make – these require a courage for which no fate can substitute.

If nothing else, think again if you have thus far made statements about gender with those unwitting references to time: when you suggest its barbarities are unacceptable for still being present (rather than being present at all), or reflect a medieval society (rather than a failed or broken society). Little words like those may seem trivial, but it is on these very trivialities that the gender abomination gorges itself until its tentacles are so fat they fill up our entire social backdrop, and thus settle in our minds as normal. Gender belongs neither in the past, nor in the present: it comes to them, from outside of time.

And ultimately, gender inequality, gender conflict, gendered discrimination and horrors like rape cannot be “progressed out of” by modernisation, any more than a ghoul can modernise out of undeath or urine can modernise into water. Gender's existence is a brokenness that transcends time; no sooner is it written in the pages of our story than its eldritch ink rots the whole book to muck, no matter what chapter we are in at that moment. It is thus not enough, for us who fight it, to concede it the past as a price for the future; because then we give it a place in our story, when we must give it no place at all. It does not belong, whenever and wherever.

Hopefully the whenever now invites closer scrutiny. As for the wherever, we shall explore that with the third myth: the Myth of the Others.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Three Myths in the Struggle Against Gender, Part One: The Myth of Natural Origin


The problem of gender takes many forms, of which a brief sample may include:
  • gender inequality;
  • gender conflict;
  • the subjection of women in almost all spheres of public and private life;
  • hegemonic relationship dynamics;
  • hegemonic family structures;
  • hostility to sexual diversity;
  • the mistreatment of people who are not biologically male or female, such as intersex people;
  • the mistreatment of people who do not conform to masculine or feminine gender expectations, the consequences of which include exclusion, alienation, mental health problems and suicide;
  • and the abomination that is rape, among others.

There is a worldwide struggle against many of these, even if only some people identify gender itself as the source of those ills. Indeed, the primary question of gender divides those struggles, at best compromising their focus, at worst confounding them into an ugly free-for-all. Some, the essentialists, do believe that there are inherent social differences between men and women, and would conduct the struggle according to these models as they see them. Others reject that binary altogether, considering those models to be constructs in themselves and seeing the struggle as one of transcending them.

In other words, these people all have different narratives. Ask them to look at our world and tell the story of gender on Earth, and each of their stories will be different. Their beginnings and predicted ends will be different – the liberation of humanity, or the end of the world? Their genres will be different – a heroic tale, or an epic tragedy, or a textbook? Their characters will be different, their settings will be different, and the assumptions on which they rely will be different.

I have made no secret of my own perspective. I stand firmly against essentialism: against the idea that the biological categories of male and female deserve any significant direct implications on our social arrangements. I do so first because we are each different, and second because we are each joined by our common humanity – and thus must suspect any such social division of our species as the herald of a repressive assault upon individual liberty and the collective good alike. From this division comes judgemental attitudes, pressures on people to be who they are not, and the punishment of those considered different. No-one should have to live their lives in that shadow. Essentialism is gender, and the bedrock of so many of its catastrophes.

Of course, the real villains have quite different narratives of their own. The rapists, the fundamentalists, the patriarchals, the morally panicked, those convinced that one sex should dominate the other or that sexual diversity is sinful – theirs are the narratives so obviously heinous to everyone who is not a cannibal that to discuss them now would be a waste of time.

Instead, let's look at some problems in the narratives on the better side of the struggle. Narratives which, though we may come to see sense in them with all the best intentions, are in the end more trouble than they are worth. They may even appear reasonable or effective at times; but their destiny is only to soak into the roots of the great gender parasite, to nourish it, and to lengthen its harvest of human souls.

In this short series of articles, I want to deal with three general varieties of these narrative problems – three myths, which I have called the Myth of Natural Origin, the Myth of Modernity, and the Myth of the Others. This first article will consider the first, the Myth of Natural Origin, while subsequent entries tackle the other two. In each case, let us explore we will never resolve the problem of gender so long as we rest on these illusions.



1) The Myth of Natural Origin
The first myth is the myth that gender is natural. It is simple on the surface yet profound in the depths, which may be why it is so pervasive but so hard to justify. Unpacking it requires great care, for there are extremely sensitive terms and concepts involved.


What makes a thing “natural”?
First, we should be clear on what we mean by nature. It is not enough to say that something is natural because it exists, nor because of some authority – any authority – declaring that it is. The first is tautology, the second politics. Instead, let us define it thus: a thing is natural if it is of this world – that is, if it has come to exist, as a product of reality, without interference from outside the system. We shall return to what 'outside the system' might mean later.

Second, we should remind ourselves that gender is different from sex. Sex refers to biological differences, gender to socially constructed ones. “Male” and “female” are sexes; “masculine” and “feminine” are genders. Thus to question gender's place in nature is not at all to suggest that sexuality, indeed one of the pillars of life on Earth, is also not natural – and while checking to make sure, note especially the splendid diversity of those sexual configurations, which are so varied that no one sexual model can be put forward as more standard than the others. These models of sexual interaction, so far as they occur outside societies of animals, have nothing to do with gender. Gender, as something socially constructed, by definition first requires societies.

Third, the fact that some animals do live socially, and do exhibit gender problems such as sexual violence or the subjection of females, is not enough to regard gender as natural. Existence alone, once again, is not a sufficient criterion for this; it must be shown conclusively that that thing came about without interference from outside the system. On top of that, we humans are so gendered ourselves that we can hardly trust our own kind to study and understand those creatures impartially, in the full nuances of their own contexts and ways of thinking and feeling, without allowing any of our own human assumptions, including gendered assumptions, to cloud our lenses.

Fourth, even if we were to take gender in other animals as natural, a massive leap is required to conclude by extension that gender in humans is natural – a leap we are not equipped to make. Over hundreds of thousands of years we have become exceptionally complex, diverse, and capable of more than enough logic and empathy to realise that gendered repression is calamitous for collective humankind and for each and every one of us. Conflict and alienation between two halves of our species benefits no-one, and certainly not the species itself. We can guess what we like about other animals, but for ourselves at least, we can know it is repressive. We can know it causes hurt. We have had centuries upon centuries to learn it – there has been no excuse not to. And that we would not only persist in gendered cruelty so harmful and meaningless, but spawn entire moral, legal and civic systems to perpetuate it – that is a mockery of sanity that must make us question how far our problems can truly be the products of a functioning universe.

And so the alternative echoes again. Outside the system.


Can gender be natural?
The basic problem with the “gender is natural” position is the same as with any other “X is natural/unnatural” position, including statements about human nature: they are impossible to prove or disprove with our present understanding. What it comes down to is that we really know sod all. Humankind has learnt a great deal in recent millennia, but our records of our own history are only reliable so far back, and when it comes to the vast extent of our reality's space and time, the totality of our secure understanding scarcely bears mention. From where we are now, we simply do not know of what might or might not have happened in the billions-of-years-old story of all-that exists – indeed, to even think at that scale challenges imagination.

Of course this makes it equally impossible to conclude that gender is unnatural. But it does leave the question wide open, and invites us to ask: if gender is natural, then how did it come about? And if it is not natural, then how the heck did it come about?

“Gender is natural” arguments usually stand upon one of two foundations. On the one hand there is the religious foundation, typically resting on gendered creation stories, the Genesis narrative of the Christian Bible being a case in point. Even if not held as literally true, these come to reflect the values preferred by those who tell them. In other words, “gender is natural because I want to believe it is natural”. That is to say, a normative statement; a choice. There are many things one might say to that, but it adds little to our current empirical concern, so let's leave that for another discussion.

The other foundation is more interesting: the attempt at a scientific, value-impartial explanation. The eternally-cited framework here is Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, which must be one of the most frequently and tragically misinterpreted triumphs of our scientific heritage. By these readings, gender is both context and output: sexually differentiated roles and behaviours both shape and result from a contest for survival and reproduction, typically with aggressive male agents competing for passive female resources – sex as something women “have” and men “want”, or as Catherine MacKinnon eloquently captures it, 'man fucks woman: subject verb object'.

There are multiple problems with this inference. Life is not just some contest for survival, properly defined; not the “survival of the fittest” yanked from a whole other context and tacked clumsily to this one. It is observably not the case that survival and reproduction are the absolute priorities for all living things, nor would they result in gender inequality and conflict even if they were. Only at the pinnacle of wilful ignorance can we reduce all life to mere machines of self-preservation and reproduction, and suggest that all social activity and behaviour is a function of that; and only by leaping across a whole series of those pinnacles could we claim that a species fighting a gendered war with itself does any good for its prospects in the world.

This is especially the case with complex life forms like ourselves, capable as we are of our multitude of values, beliefs, ways of thinking and feeling, and above all, our propensity to value each other as ends in ourselves. We could point to the many systems of ethics, of law, of philosophy, we have developed to assert that, but they all come down to very basic human senses: that we experience or have record that certain things feel terrible, and do not wish others to feel them either; that we can understand that to harm others is to harm ourselves, as it motivates others to harm us back; and more than anything else, that we can love.

Of course, this does not undermine evolution itself. Evolution occurs over tremendous timescales, ever buffeted by the winds of chance, random mutation, and physical and social environments that are always changing, every second, every year, every era, perpetually reshaping the terms of life and the meaning of biological fitness with a chaos far beyond any one generation's ken.

It does, however, leave evolutionary mechanics next to irrelevant at the level of the here and now. Ask yourself, honestly, if there is seriously nothing worse to you than death. There is so much else that is important to us aside from survival and reproduction, be it freedom, or integrity, or the chance to express and fulfil ourselves, or the people or creatures or gods or objects that we love and the health of our relationships with them.

That is why attempts to apply evolutionary mechanisms to our lives tend to become normative instead: that is, an argument not that we do live according to them, but that we should. We all know well what manner of people have thought like that, and sought to make it happen, and we know exactly what harrowing anguishes lie down that road cemented with blood and paved with bone.

Why raise these echoes of European eugenics and Nazism? To indicate the pinnacle of our complexity: because as repugnant as these choices were, these were choices on a formidable normative scale, and a scale on which most of us, thank goodness, prefer other choices. A choice of nothing less than what it means to be human. Of what we want our species to be.

It has been within our abilities to think about that and act on it for at least tens of thousands of years, which makes it finally beyond imagination to suggest that concerns of natural selection and biological fitness account for the gender madness our kind has acquired. Strong life, fit life, is diverse life: capable of creating and adapting against as many different shocks and surprises as possible. Strong life, fit life, stands together: cooperates against universal threats, rather than turning upon its own for no reason.

Genderedness, by selecting against those who do not conform, acts to make us the very antithesis of this. It makes us weak. Divided. A fearful, feckless, faceless half-human race of ones and zeroes, squandering its strength, energy and self-control by panicking at every difference and policing and violating its own members. In evolutionary terms, we might call that a regression.

We must get beyond the idea that gender is a natural thing. Not only because we have not a clue if it is or is not, but because to proceed as if it is is paralysing our search for the actual causes of the gender problem and its worst manifestations. As with arguments about human nature, the appeal to “nature” does more to close an argument than win it: it masquerades as a conclusive explanation while in fact telling us nothing.

Nature” does nothing to explain why men have become generally larger and stronger than women, and even less to explain why such a hideously disproportionate apparatus of social norms and expectations have grown up to associate men with reason, power, aggression and violence, and women with emotion, vulnerability, weakness and submission. It tells us nothing about why so many men and women comply with these stereotypes without resistance, even while it destroys them.

Nature” tells us nothing about why societies segregate male and female spaces, or impose certain dress codes on men and women, or pressure men and women to want certain body shapes or sizes. It tells us nothing about why so many jobs or functions in society are considered the exclusive preserve of men or of women – usually of men.

“Nature” tells us nothing about why “masculinity” or “femininity” exist, nor about why the content of those constructs is what it is; nor does it tell us why hostility is shown towards homosexuals, transgendered people, or the many others who do not conform to gendered expectations.

Nature” tells us nothing about the invisible, suffocating and occasionally bloodthirsty rules we have set up around male-female social relationships, and why those who cannot or will not dance the dance at best must give up all hope at finding intimate companionship, and at worst are slaughtered like carrion. It tells us nothing about why we assume the models of monogamous heterosexual marriage and the nuclear family are best for everyone, and stigmatise those it does not represent, such as same-sex couples, polyamorous people, single-parent families, or people who plain don't like marriage.

And “nature” tells us nothing, absolutely and utterly nothing, about why rape exists; how it can exist; or how it is sanely possible that any human being can will themselves to violate the body of another human being, less still take pleasure from their agony or walk away with impunity knowing that society will blame the victim for it.

Frustratingly, in spite of all this, from a purely empirical standpoint we can only conclude that gender may or may not be natural. That is all that the hard evidence right now permits us to know – it is possible that gender might be natural, but the conclusive conviction that it is is absolutely a myth.

Beyond the evidence, we are left with values, influences, and intuition, which vary between us all. Are these worth anything in confronting the “gender is natural” myth?


Outside the system
From here I can only speak personally. I will fully admit that what follows is but my own subjective impression – emotions and instincts as fallible as anyone else's and hardly scientifically admissible. However, I can only admit that I cannot, as a human being, look upon the aforementioned gender nightmares and find them anything less than downright freaking abominable.

From any angle. From any perspective. It could be because of their logical and ethical bankruptcy, as just discussed – tormenting and weakening our species, hounding and excluding the different, an evolutionary regression, a source of so much suffering. Or it could be a nauseated revulsion at the extremes our kind employs to regulate gender and sexuality: the rape, the enslavement, the stonings, the lashings, the mass hysterias, the atrocities against people's bodies and souls, and the plain-as-daylight odiousness of the people who carry them out and call them righteous. Or it could be a more personal bitterness and rage, at how so long as this world is like this, my own prospects have been thoroughly screwed over by a gendered paradigm of behaviours, relationships and male-female interaction totally alien to me, and often altogether abhorrent.

But beneath that – beneath all of that – there is something else. It is something I have had for longer than I remember, and that I was certainly never taught. I do not know what to call it, aside from some deep, irrepressible sensation I get in the presence of gendered forces; a feeling akin to that of trying to breathe in the sudden absence of air, or of losing molecular contact with the world around me – as though when I look upon gender, I am looking at something that is not capable of existing.


That is the best I can do to give what is meant by outside the system, because words inherently cannot engage with it – words are of the system of which this is not. It is a thing of which, at the most elemental level, it simply does not make sense that it could exist upon the fundamental fabric of the cosmos; something upon which everything you know about reality breaks down, to leave only madness, a universe insane. There is simply nothing I am aware of – no logic, no intuition, no chain of causes and consequences – by which I can imagine our gendered paradigm coming into existence in our reality, without something foreign to reality having acted upon it.

I do not know what that would mean; what this something that cannot be something could be. I dread to consider the magnitude of what it might imply. But I have found nothing, absolutely nothing, that begins to demonstrate to me even the faintest hint of some natural basis for the horrors we have visited upon ourselves with our gendered creations; and until I do, I cannot suppress this suspicion that they are wrong at a level unparalleled in our most hellish imaginations.

If gender truly is this brand of abomination, I doubt we will identify it soon. But we can do ourselves all a favour by rejecting, or at least suspending, the notion that the problems of gender have a sane and legitimate place in the natural history of our world, until such time as we have the evidence to consider it.


Coming up in Part Two of this series: the Myth of Modernity.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Secrets of the South Downs

 
Two hours away from England's pustulant pit of tentacles festering with greed and injustice – generally referred to as London – a range of chalk hills runs overlooking the sea. These are the South Downs; a mysterious place. They remain undevoured by the ravenous urban monetisation of the English southeast, as though warded by some ancient invisible force in the earth.

Sheep graze on open grassland, green beneath a wide blue sky. Birds sing, the rabbits bounce through the bushes, the crickets chirp in perpetual conversation about religion and politics, and the air is fresh and at peace. Even the rumbling tractors somehow blend in, while the occasional military aircraft is reduced to the gravitas of a paper aeroplane. It is a land of secrets, of whispers older than us or any of our ancestors, which emanate from the remnants of hill forts, burial mounds, civilizations long gone by.

There is something almost sacred about it. Sacred, not in the sense of the arbitrary dogmas over which the English have spent the recent hundreds of years killing each other, but a far older, truer, profounder sanctity, preceding all the arrogances humanity has since contrived; an authentic solemnity from the breathing wind and steadfast earth themselves, and one you feel in your very bones.


Indeed, where centuries of bloodthirst, prejudice and exploitation ecological and economic have destroyed any resemblance of Britain to the 'green and pleasant land' for which its people long, the South Downs are one location where perhaps a snapshot still lingers, a hint at the potential this country once held but never realised: the potential to be a good place. A kind place. A place of respect between human and human, between human and earth; a place which leaves no-one behind, least of all the vulnerable or the different. Perhaps, after decades of struggle and self-reflection, it may find that potential at last.

In the midst of these hills there is an old, small village - Steyning - which has come to hold a certain personal significance to me during my long and troubled years in Britain. Suffice it to say that this became a place I came to many times over the years, and always to walk the same route up and along the Downs with my father.

Steyning.
 
While I have been briefly enduring London again on a visa-sorting intermission from Japan (to where I return very shortly), a walk on the Downs for the first time in numerous years transpired. It is the first time I have done it since I started this blog, so for the first time, I will share some images and reflections from it here.