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SUP, INTERNET.  How’ve you been? Good? EXCELLENT.  I’m rather good, myself. I’ve had a riotous, rollicking, pantopragmatic first year of college, and I’m back to rant at you again! Did you miss me?

I’ll be updating sporadically, yes, but I’ll try to keep it weekly.  Because weekly practice at being coherent is ALWAYS something I need.  So buckle your seatbelts: It’s time for another burst of  tachyphrasic echolalia!  Also known as A BLOG POST!

In this brief post, I shall make use of several sources, including but not limited to Michel De Montaigne’s essay ‘On some verses of Virgil,’ to frame my personal perception of gender and sexuality.  I shall attempt to confine myself primarily to the issue of gender, for to divest the complexity of my views in all fields of sex, gender, and sexuality would require much more space than I have here.  (*cough*infinitespace*cough*)  But I digress.

Let’s hit basics: Cultural influence.

What do I mean by that?  I mean what is the norm.  In ‘Merica, we shake peoples’ hands, sprawl into our subway seats, and think it’s rude to belch after a meal.  In other societies across the world–other cultures–none of these things are considered normal.  If you were to shake a South American hunter-gatherer’s hand, he would look at you very oddly.  In Japan, people tuck themselves into their seats–you can tell an American not necessarily by their size, but by the amount of space they take up relative to their size.  Thor Heyerdahl writes of Tahitian natives who belch after a meal to show appreciation.  (that would be in Green Was The Earth On The Seventh Day, by the way)

These norms have evolved over time.  If someone walked up to you with a monocle and top hat said “Good morning to you, my good chap–pray tell, could you spare me the time?”, you’d think (a) they were insane, (b) they were time-travelers, or (c) they had lost their way somewhere between here and the nearest steampunk convention.  But this was a perfectly normal request in the 1800s.

Perceptions of the differentiation between male and female, likewise, were vastly different in the past.  They are still powerful forces now–all the more powerful for the fact that they are cultural.  Cultural things, you see, are subtle.  We take them for granted.  When people don’t shake our hand, we don’t necessarily ask what culture they come from.  We ask why they are so rude.

The stereotypes of gender. For the broadest of examples, we’ll turn to…Jurassic Park.  Because you totally knew I was going to use this movie.

(M) Hammond: But you know, I should really be the one going.
(F) Dr. Sattler: Why?
Hammond: Well, because you’re a… I’m a…
Dr. Sattler: We can discuss ‘sexism in survival situations’ when I get back.

Get the point? No? Well ALLOW ME TO HAMMER IT HOME:  How many action movie heroes are male? How many female? Equal? No? Right.  Why? Well, because women aren’t as tough, according to…everything.

There’s my example.  That, right there–that petitio principii reasoning.  Women aren’t as tough. How do you know? Because just look at all these cultural examples! They all tell us women aren’t as tough!  Even Batman knows it!

OBVIOUSLY WE CAN TRUST BATMAN TO KNOW WHO CAN FIGHT

Is the logical circle clear?

These assumptions, these preconceptions,  differ from culture to culture.  And they are strongest where the pressures of culture are strongest.

They cannot thus spring up on their own, but rather arise and evolve with a culture.

In the simplest logical form: there is no location where gender stereotypes exist independently of culture.  However, in all cases where there is a culture, it is the case that there are these stereotypes and preconceptions–both positive and negative.  Thus, even if gender stereotypes are not caused by culture, still they do not to our knowledge (cannot, if I dare to make a strong existential claim) exist without it.   And, more relevantly: in our world, they exist.  If anyone wishes to quibble here, please, do so; I am more than capable of writing another blog post to clarify my reasoning. 🙂

In the closing sentences of his essay, Montaigne, writing in the late 1500s, tells us that “males and females are cast in the same mold; except for education and custom, the difference is not great. Plato invites both without discrimination to the fellowship of all studies, exercises, functions, warlike and peaceful occupations, in his commonwealth.  And the philosopher Antisthenes eliminated any distinction between their virtue and ours.  It is much easier to accuse one sex than to excuse the other.  It is the old saying: the pot calls the kettle black.”  Just for reference, that was the 1500s.   Joan of Arc had already been burned.   The torture rack was one of the more efficient methods of transferring information.  And Montaigne, in self-imposed exile in a tower in the middle of war-torn France, was talking about a theory currently espoused by modern anthropology: the cultural nature of gender–acting, once again as THE  AGATHODAIMON OF FOURTEENTH-CENTURY MAN.  (cough)  #fanboy

I don’t remember when I really began to think of gender as socially constructed, but certainly by my first year of college that was just a fact of the world that I accepted.  The classes I took only reinforced that, as I read historical pieces and essays, and saw here and there the development not only of our modern conceptions of sexuality, but of our strictly defined gender roles.  A highlight was an essay on musical history, Bruce Holsinger’s ‘Flesh of the Voice,’ which explored the compositions of Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess and a writer of religious music in the 1100s.  In his writing, Holsinger makes a compelling argument that Hildegard’s own gender identity and her personal views on sexuality and gender carry through and influence most, if not all, of her musical and poetical compositions.

If you’re wondering: here’s some for your pleasure: Hildegard: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJEfyZSvg5c.

Hildegard’s writings tend to dwell a great deal on the feminine and the female body, and so this has led some historians to brand her as homosexual or bisexual.  In reality, she simply hails from a time where such categories simply did not exist, not in the sense we know today.  These categories of gender and sexuality have evolved over time.

When I reflect on this subject, I see two major difficulties.  The first is separation of the biological from the cultural.  In an Intro Psych class, for example, one learns a fair bit about the differentiation between the male and female brain, the predispositions that one sex or the other is born with, and the respective tendencies of one sex or the other as determined by surveys.   But the outcome of a survey can be influenced by the expectations of the participants, and at what point do differences in neural and physical anatomy begin to blur into the cultural?  Is there a point of ‘natural’ differentiation, where the societal norms match the actual mechanical differentiation in body, brain, and mind?  This issue has been the subject of debate on multiple occasions, not only in the arts and sciences but in my own personal social circle, and I more or less believe this point is, for the moment, moot, as such a study could only be conducted in a perfectly unbiased society.  (AND GOOD LUCK FINDING ONE).

The second difficulty stems from the natural human faculty for passing moral judgments on everything we encounter.  What is a ‘good’ social construct? Does such a thing exist?  Are all constructed categories inherently immoral, and if so, should we direct ourselves to their abolition?  And how far does this carry through?  Certainly many socially constructed categories cause harm and suffering—I can see it daily, by looking at the news, by talking to friends whose expressions of their own gender, sex, and sexuality differ from the expectations of the portions of society they encounter.

And yet, can we ever escape from the clutches of a social construct?  Our brains are programmed to generate ‘concepts’ as a road to understanding the world, developing a heuristic by which we can evaluate incoming information far more efficiently.  We are, as a species, inherently highly social, easy prey to the pressures of society.

My own working conclusion—an ad hoc solution, I will say, for I continue to develop my own ideas even as I write this—is that these categories, these prototypes, are not themselves inherently bad as a concept.  The fact that a concept or category or term has been generated by human society is not a pro tanto reason for its destruction. There are many specific harmful perceptions, constructs that result from thousands of years of society, and these should be dispensed with through education and open-mindedness, for any gain in efficiency in the communication of knowledge was long since eclipsed by the toll it has taken in human lives and sorrow.  *cough* Civil War *cough*

I do think our language shapes the way we think—and as a writer of fiction and nonfiction I must take this into account, indeed, I do take this into account.  For I realize that whenever I use a word, any word, the individuals to whom I am speaking do not share my own perception of its connotations, its deeper meanings.  Communicating through language, we take every word to hold its prima facie definition first, and apply our own personal prejudices second.

I have my own personal conflict in this field, although admittedly it is not at all a life-threatening or even an interesting one, really.  My ideal for myself—my own self-image, if you will—revolves in part around the idea of ‘chivalry,’ which is a deeply divided, ancient, long-standing social construct.  Coming more and more into an adult world, I had moments of uncertainty as to whether or not it was even ethical to pursue the ideal of a ‘gentleman,’ when it is so inextricably tied to other conceptions of gender and sexuality that I reject wholeheartedly.  Such as the above Batman cartoon.

But social pressure and individual agency are, I feel, separate spheres of morality.  It is my choice as to whether I wish to perpetuate a societal heuristic that has been and remains disconnected from reality, or whether I choose to create anew the categories of gender and sexuality in my own little social circle.  The social concepts I cling to—being ‘chivalrous’ in the sense of being honorable, fair, and polite—are not incompatible with condemnation of the old, misguided norms that often go with them.

And so I am a gentleman.  And I am friends with another gentleman who informed me that she is transgender some time ago.  And every day I reinforce my own concept of chivalry to those around me, and, I like to think, we propagate our own, unique culture.  Like a fungus.

So: Have I considered this subject?  I would say that I have, and furthermore, I have given thought not only to their nature, but to their specific identity, and to which categories and concepts I wish to promote, and which I wish to help demolish.  For the harmful heuristics, these categories that can be deemed ‘wrong’ in a moral sense, shall only be altered in the way that they were created—via the evolution of society.  And that can only come about if someone can prove, finally, and to the satisfaction of all, that they exist.

CITATIONS, because I’m thorough now!

Montaigne: http://montaigne.classicauthors.net/Essays/Essays15.html

Holsinger:  http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3174746?uid=3739560&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=56226599143

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