Education · Gender · GSRM/LGBTQIA

In search of the body

My dad pointed out that my previous post is esoteric, so I’m trying to write a more accessible one, rather than just thinking out loud.

Folks, I am a science teacher.

One of the things I always try to do with my students is teach them not to trust science uncritically.

Science has a sociology, I point out, and it emerges from a culture of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Carl Linneaus basically invented scientific racism by extending his arbitrary system of classification of living things to humans from the perspective of European imperialist anti-Blackness. Contemporary neuroscientists hunt for sex-related brain differences and eagerly report to us through the ‘objective’ ‘unbiased’ mainstream media that ‘men are hard-wired to read maps!’ and other such ludicrous nonsense.

Fortunately, science isn’t ‘whatever we want it to be’; it’s what we make it. There’s a world out there, and by trying to think past ingrained cultural assumptions we can interrogate dodgy theories and misleading studies, do our own research, and come up with something that matches experience more accurately and consistently. But let’s not forget, there’s no process for us to directly access any ‘objective’ truth. In science we measure, generalise and explain, based on what we’ve already learned and constructed.

Cultural assumptions impose themselves on science via received wisdom and language. I like this example:

How many senses do we have?

Pliny said five, and that’s what folk have been repeating ever since in the ‘Western tradition’. But think about the sense of ‘touch’, which has to encompass a very wide range of experiences like heat/cold, pain, proprioception and so on which relate to distinct receptors. Maybe talking about five senses is misleading.

White-dominated Euro-American culture is one of hierarchies and binaries. Man/animal, male/female, good/evil… Gender is traditionally both a binary and a hierarchy. Here, Marina S describes how the structure of gender has operated in this culture (in relation to white women) from a radical feminist perspective. Feminist movements have, of course, been disruptive of this structure. Trans perspectives have also been disruptive, both to the traditional patriarchal construct of gender and to feminism. Trans people have often sought or been forced to seek recognition and rights from mainstream society by working ideas of gender that many feminists have fought against.

I want to suggest that the disruption to our understanding of sex and gender brought by trans perspectives & experience can be a space for positive transformation within feminisms and society

My friend @Artemissian provided me with yet another insight: this time she pointed out that some cis feminists are turning sex into gender. I tried to explain how I saw this happening:

I want to highlight two things:

1. We cannot use the words ‘male’ ‘female’ without invoking the connotations of gender. Feminists who want to abolish gender altogether must recognise that we will all be facing it for some time no matter how hard we fight. If you call trans women ‘male’, you are rewriting gender (the gender they have personally rejected) upon them for every material (think about rights and recognition in wider society) and emotional (think about how triggering it must be for someone who has struggled with gender dysphoria) purpose. This is violence. Coercion. Denial of body autonomy.

2. The binary, hierarchical, social structure of gender has overdetermined our understanding of sex identity, located in the body rather than in social space. We view sex as a rigid binary through the lens of gender. When some trans people change the sex-characteristics of their bodies many cis people obsess over this process, searching for some defining moment that magically changes that person from one sex to the other. We would do better to consider sex identity as a spectrum. (I’m thinking these days that gender, the field of social signs of sex identity, might better be thought of as a series of intersecting spectra, but I am just not smart or informed enough to deal with this now) I’ve often read that descriptions of trans-ness and queer-ness are difficult to translate, because other cultures have different ideas about sex and gender. These ideas, just like biology, can be changed…

Culture changes when language changes. I think that our binary language of sex and gender lacks words to appropriately describe how they are experienced and lived, especially by trans and non-binary people. The word cis(gender/sexed) has usefully arisen to address this absence, and the resistance to it seems painfully regressive to me. Trans-inclusive language and thinking doesn’t ever say that cis women don’t exist. It doesn’t deny them the right to call their bodies female. It doesn’t deny cis women’s historical and ongoing experience of structural oppression via the exploitation of reproductive labour or of anatomy-related misogyny.

When I first heard the idea, from a trans woman, of simply not assigning gender at birth, I was so inspired! Let’s stop putting people into boxes, and allow self-definition. What could be more radical than this idea? Doesn’t it offer the possibility of the end of gender-as-hierarchical-binary? Of course, we all have to work hard to create a culture that would welcome the new generation of gender-undefined people, but just thinking about it gets me buzzing and imagining how to build that world. Come talk with me, let’s find the words.

note: I regret I have not been able to think beyond whiteness in this text. I have learned so much from reading the work of Arrianna Marie Conerly Coleman who deals with some of these issues with an intersectional lens. I hope I will be able to further get past my present limited view.

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4 thoughts on “In search of the body

  1. Regarding the way you order your posts, if you feel the need to make them less esoteric, then that’s great. But I hope you don’t ever feel you have to change your natural style to dumb down for others. IMO, your posts are fine as they are,

  2. “Science has a sociology, I point out, and it emerges from a culture of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”

    I wish I had known you in 1992. This was what my final thesis was supposed to be about–how Western science’s emphasis on the binary was a constructed one and how it artificially supported the idea of dual sex and of race.
    I remember a small amount of interesting stuff around the idea of DNA ‘sexing,’ that if we actually DNA tested everyone, there would be more diversity than the commonly assumed XY/XX options. But that was part of my issue as well–using the idea of “nature”/natural to support the duality when really, it should just be about… choice. Decolonizing the mind, indeed.

    I love stopping by your blog and getting in touch with my radical thinking roots.

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