Every now and then we all have one of those wait-a-minute moments. It’s when someone’s been trying to slide one over on us, but all of a sudden we notice. The latest, at least for me, is this mantra that sex is biological, but gender is a social construct.
As distinct from what? Isn’t every word a social construct, insofar as language requires a community of language-speakers? So to be other than just banal, that gender is a social construct must mean something more. But what?
Our words reflect how we carve up the world. How we carve up the world is indexed to the uses we want to make of things. If this be doubted, ask why we don’t have a word for this-pen-and-the-third-hair-in-my-left-nostril. We don’t have a word for it because there’s nothing we’d want to do with it with sufficient regularity to warrant giving it a name. Surely that’s just a duh.
Now then, some of these uses are pretty much universal. That’s why every language has a word for dog. Others of these uses are culture-specific. Think of Christmas trees. Or they’re practice-specific. Think of striking out.
What counts as a dog, or a Christmas tree, or a whatever, is heavily theory-laden. We don’t normally notice the theory-ladenness of what counts as a this or a that once it’s been learned and internalised within us. You and I have learned something about the interbreedability and commonality of behaviour that makes a Great Dane and a Chihuahua both dogs. But imagine the poor Martian trying to figure this out. And given that even we don’t agree on what counts as a Christmas tree, we probably shouldn’t be sending our Martian house-guest out to buy one.
Every language has a pair of words for male and female. This should be a dead giveaway that there’s a universal use for the distinction we’ve drawn between the two. If you need me to mansplain what that is, there’s something seriously missing in your education.
Every language also has a pair of words for man and woman. The two pairs, male/female and man/woman, used to be pretty close to synonyms. But language changes. Synonyms can come apart, which is precisely what’s been happening with male and man and with female and woman. Now my maleness has to do with my genitalia, whereas my manhood has to do with how I express my … My what?
We’re not supposed to say my maleness, because the SJW insists that maleness and manhood are unrelated sortals. And we can’t say manhood because then the claim that my manhood expresses my manhood would be uninformative. So though the two are ontologically distinct, my manhood must refer to how I’m expressing my maleness.
But – and this, thinks the SJW, is a novel insight – how I’m allowed to express my maleness is socially constrained. Well, so is how what I’m allowed to tell my colleagues what I think of them. That’s just banal. So for the claim that gender is a social construct not to be equally banal, there must be something about the social constraints placed on how I can express my maleness that are importantly different from those placed on how I can tell my colleagues what I think of them.
Okay, so now we just need to know what that difference might be. Is it that the constraints on how I express my maleness are more repressive than those on what I can say to my colleagues? But surely that depends on which of the two feels more repressive to the individual being repressed. Then how ‘bout that repressing how I can express my maleness does me more injury than repressing how I can treat my colleagues? But once again, injury is itself a social construct, is it not? And if so, our analysis has to start all over again. And if it has to start all over again, we’re caught in an infinite recursion.
But the SJW does have a fallback position. She can acknowledge that the constraints we place on gender expression are of a piece with those we place on collegiality, inasmuch as their adoptions have both been small-p political decisions. But a decision can be revised, if there’s the political will to revise it. And, apparently, there is such a will, at least with respect to how one can express his maleness.
But wait a minute. There’s also a will not to revise it. So how do we resolve this clash of wills? Well, the same way we resolve any clash of wills. Either a) by force of arms or b) by negotiation or c) by sheer attrition. I don’t see a whole lot of either (a) or (b) in the current contretemps over whether some women can have a penis. So we’ll just have to wait and see how the social construction of whether women can have penises will work itself out via attrition.
I’m guessing that the social construction of female ablutionary privacy will have a say in this dialectic. But being neither a female nor a woman with a penis, I suppose I shouldn’t comment.