What Are We Talking About?

Yago Colás wonders if we’re not just chasing a squirrel when we discuss the end of things like gender and men.

This piece is part of a special series on the End of Gender. This series includes bloggers from Role/RebootGood Men ProjectThe Huffington PostSalonHyperVocalMs. MagazineYourTangoPsychology TodayPrincess Free ZoneThe Next Great Generation, and Man-Making.

In his seminal collection of essays entitled Pragmatism, first published in 1907, the American psychologist and philosopher William James tells a story to illustrate what he means by “pragmatism” as a tendency in philosophy. On a camping trip in the mountains, James returned from a solitary hike to find his (rather cerebral) buddies engaged in a heated philosophical debate.

The basis for the debate was the following scenario: a squirrel clings to one side of a tree trunk while a human being stands against the opposite side of the tree. The human moves around the tree to try to catch a glimpse of the squirrel, but no sooner does he move than the squirrel scrambles just as fast in the opposite direction and so always keeps the tree between itself and the human being. The question that James’s friends debated was: “Does the man go round the squirrel or not? He goes round the tree, sure enough, and the squirrel is on the tree; but does he go round the squirrel?” James’ friends were equally divided on the issue and stubbornly entrenched in their respective positions.

James resolved the dispute to the satisfaction of most parties by making explicit what they were really arguing about: the meaning of the phrase “go round.” James explained that “go round the squirrel” might mean either 1) successively occupying each of the four cardinal points of a compass with the squirrel at its center (in which case the answer is “yes”) or it might mean 2) successively occupying a position in front, to the right, behind, to the left, and then again in front of the squirrel (in which the case the answer is “no”).

James used this anecdote to illustrate what he called the “pragmatic method,” and which he employed to settle “metaphysical disputes that might otherwise be interminable.” The idea is that if you want to know what a thought—for example, “go round the squirrel”—means, you just have to trace its practical consequences. When we determine what conduct a thought “is fitted to produce” we have determined the meaning of thought.

♦◊♦

The anecdote came to mind as I wrestled with Hannah Rosin’s proposition that we are witnessing “the end of men”, as well as with the Good Men Project’s counter-proposition that we are witnessing “the end of gender.” To make explicit the parallel to the disputed question in James’s anecdote, it might be useful to reformulate these propositions as questions: “Has the end of men arrived?” and “Has the end of gender arrived?”

Nobody likes to be told that they can no longer be something that they are used to and have enjoyed being. In the best case scenario, there is change and adaptation involved, which I think is challenging even when it is ultimately positive. In the worst case, there is loss, uncertainty, and fear.

Both propositions are likely to be contentious. Indeed, both may, in a sense, be calculated to be contentious in the sense that they aim to provoke conversation and discussion, which might be all for the best. Though I, for one, don’t think that more talk about polarizing issues is always for the best. I think it depends on the kind of talk. For my own part, as I mulled over these propositions and thought about my own experience of men and of gender (and of the words “men” and “gender”), I found myself, to borrow James’s phrase “engaged in a ferocious metaphysical dispute.” At one moment, I would ridicule Rosin’s proposition and at the next concede its merit. Likewise, by turns I found myself dismissing the idea of “the end of gender” and acknowledging its value.

My internal back and forth, like any real world back and forth among different individuals you might hear discussing these propositions, stems from the fact that the words “end,” “men,” and “gender” have different and not always practically compatible meanings (just like the phrase “go round the squirrel” in James’s example). That accounts for the fact of disagreement, but it doesn’t account for the heated emotions that may accompany such disagreements.

That heat comes, I suppose, from the fact that we are each invested, to some degree, in the truth or falsity of the propositions and in particular meanings of the terms comprising them. So if I think of myself as a “man” in exactly the sense that Hannah Rosin has in mind when she describes what she calls “the end of men,” I may feel anger, sorrow, pessimism, and resistance (if I enjoy being “a man” in her sense of the word) or joy, relief, optimism, and acceptance (if I’ve not enjoyed being “a man” in her sense of the word).

Nobody likes to be told that they can no longer be something that they are used to and have enjoyed being. In the best case scenario, there is change and adaptation involved, which I think is challenging even when it is ultimately positive. In the worst case, there is loss, uncertainty, and fear.

♦◊♦

I want to encourage, as this conversation on the end of gender (or the end of men) gets under way, that we be mindful of James’ example and try to be precise as we discuss and even argue: what, practically, do we mean by “end?” By “men?” By “gender?” What conduct is your idea of “the end of men” fitted to produce? Whatever your answers to those questions, that is the meaning, for you, of “end of men” and “end of gender.”

Once we have spelled out those meanings, we can actually see with precision what, practically, is at stake as well as where our disagreements lie. Failing to define our terms is likely to make for lots of heat and little light and a further polarization of the discussion. I think that would be a shame because these aren’t just words and this isn’t just a discussion for the hell of it. It is our world we are discussing and if the discussion is worth having it is because it may actually affect the way in which individuals think of themselves and behave toward one another in the world.

This doesn’t mean we have to agree. There are probably as many ways of defining—I mean practically defining, I mean living a definition of —“men” and of “gender” as there are men, people who know men, and people of gender. So it just means it would be better—for the discussion and for the real world issues that it touches—if we could be self-aware, explicit, and clear about what we mean, what we disagree about, and why it matters so much to us.

—Photo stefanweihs/Flickr

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About Yago Colás

Yago Colás writes about sports, literature, and philosophy as equipment for living. He wrote the Cultures of Basketball Course Diary based on a course he created at the University of Michigan. You can find him on his blog, Between the Lines, and on twitter @yagocolas.

Comments

  1. Yes indeed! If only…..

    ahem.

    You do realize the dudeliness of coming late to a debate and raising questions as if nobody has ever raised, or directly answered, them before? Feminism has a long history of defining gender, man, and a post-gendered world.

    Bad man, bad, bad man.

    To wit:
    Shulamith Firestone (1971): ‘the end goal of feminist revolution must be . . . not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings
    would no longer matter culturally’

    Christine Delphy (1993): “If we define men within a gender framework, they are first and foremost dominants with characteristics which enable them to remain dominants. To be like
    them would be also to be dominants, but this is a contradiction in terms . . . to be
    dominant one must have someone to dominate”

    Judith Lorber, (2000) “Using Gender to Undo Gender, A Feminist Degendering Movement”

    Sandra Bem, (1983) “Gender schema theory and its implications for child development: Raising gender-aschematic children in a gender-schematic society”

  2. Bebel, Haha! Busted! I am a bad, bad man…bad as I wanna be (Dennis Rodman, 1997).

    I certainly didn’t intend for the questions I raised to be taken as if “nobody has ever raised, or directly answered, them before.” I’m glad you offered these references and the always timely reminder that neither I (nor The Good Men Project) invented the notion of a critical reflection on gender. Of course, in addition to those authors you cite and, indeed, beyond the scope of feminism per se, there are many other philosophers and writers who have reflected upon and explored the meanings of terms and concepts related to sex, gender, and sexuality.

    My call for a definition of terms was meant quite more pointedly and narrowly, and my piece would have been clearer had I said so explicitly. To wit:

    Nowhere in her piece in The Atlantic on “The End of Men” does Rosin offer a clear definition of “end” or of “men” and nowhere in the privately circulated call for submissions for the “End of Gender” series do the editors of The Good Men Project offer a clear definition of “end” or “gender.”

    Anticipating a flurry of contributions to the series that staked out positions on the matter but without clearly reflecting on or defining the terms in question, I wrote my piece as a call for such clarity within the context of this series.

    Thanks for reading and, again, for sharing these references.

    Yours dudefully and in academicianliness,

    Yago

    • I read this as a bit of a dodge. If, as you state below, you love words so much, you should have some love for the words of the past that are directed _precisely_ at the very topic you raise! No academics worth their salt would be taken seriously if they wanted to start a debate / discussion and didn’t do the perfunctory first step of at least a cursory literature review to duly acknowledge the work that’s already been done in the field. This isn’t ambiguous, it’s fundamental.

      To not do it, as a man, on the very question of gender, is… well, sadly ironic.

  3. “You do realize the dudeliness of coming late to a debate and raising questions as if nobody has ever raised, or directly answered, them before? Feminism has a long history of defining gender, man, and a post-gendered world.”

    Wow. In other words there is only one group, one perspective, one idea of gender…the feminist idea of gender? And the dudeliness comment…where have I heard something similar before…ah yes!. Mansplaining. The word feminists use to forestall any questioning of their religion.

    Why the fuck should I care if feminists have been at this a long time. So what? Is that the criterion of truth. If it is then we should defer in all matters to the Catholic Church or Islamists because they have been “at this” (philosophying about life, society, the universe, government and everything) for an extremely long time.

    • Yes, by all means, to acknowledge the existence of pre-existing work that addresses the very questions one is asking is to assert that one must thus take that pre-existing work as holy writ. That is indeed, exactly, precisely what I said.

      Good job, Assman!

      Goodmen, indeed. Thanks for chiming in, Yago!

  4. Yago – it’s frustrating that you offer no examples of the possible meanings of “men” and “gender”. You give James’ explanation of the two different possible meanings of “going round the squirrel”, but no thoughts about the meanings of “men” and “gender”, no reference to foregoing feminist thought on the topic, nor any reference to what these terms either mean to you or your own definition of them, either personally or philosophically.

    It’s very true indeed that any critical discussion of gender needs to begin by explicitly defining what is meant by the word, if we are to effectively unpack and examine ideas about gender. Gender is a concept that is usually not thought about but is instead accepted as a fact of life: something like, there are men and there are women and they are different. There are all kinds of expectations and assumptions that follow from this, of how women and men will act, dress, and think differently because they are different genders, and that they will be suited to different kind of jobs and roles, they will have different skills, aptitudes and tastes. The acceptance of gender difference underlies political, social and economic inequalities between men and women. Feminism fundamentally challenges those ideas of difference, arguing for equal rights and pay and so forth, and that women can do things that are traditionally reserved for men. None of the commonly held beliefs about gender difference represent anything that is anywhere near completely true, exceptions can easily be found that go against the gender grain: women who like sport, men who don’t, women who are good at science, men who knit and sew, women who are tough, men who are emotional, women who wear suits, men who wear skirts, etc. So, gender does not represent any innate difference, but instead our collective cultural commitment to believing in gender difference and to organising practically all aspects of our society around enacting and reinforcing this belief in difference. Gender is created largely by enough people acting as if physical differences must have social and political consequences.

    So, as a feminist then what I mean when I refer to gender is not an innate difference between men and women but socially constructed ideas and norms. I would generally also clarify that I use the word sex to refer to the physiological differences between female and male humans. Even there though, the categories of sex are not as clear-cut as we generally make out, when one starts to ask what exactly constitutes male and female. For example, a woman has a womb and can have children – except not all do. We can assert that men have XY chromosomes and women have XX – except that there are variations, and how many of us get to find out if our chromosomes are in fact what we assume them to be anyway?

    So given all this can we really see maleness and femaleness as fundamentally different things? Masculinity often seems to consist of avoidance of manifesting anything conventionally associated with femininity, fear of being “like a woman”. Well-intentioned slogans like “real men don’t use violence” are problematic because they still rely on the idea that there are “real” men and by implication men who aren’t real – or who rather don’t meet whatever standard or criteria is being used. Ending gender means letting go of limiting fictions about the potential and worth of humans based on physical difference – this will have far-reaching social changes.

    Other people may well disagree with me of course, but whatever your argument you do need to carefully examine and explain what you mean by gender and by man, woman, male, female and so on. (My thinking on gender owes a great deal to feminism in general, and to reading Judith Butler on gender theory and Ann Fausto-Sterling on gender and biology, and to my own random observations such as, is there any real good reason why there are different deodorants for men and women or is the provision of gendered products just buying into the idea that gender difference is meaningful?)

  5. MariaS

    Thanks for reading and engaging. Sorry for the frustration. I wasn’t trying to be coy.

    To save time, I’ll just say that I mean more or less what you do by gender (social construction and performance) and by sex (biology), with pretty much the same reservations you expressed. But I’ll also take advantage of your expressed frustration to say a bit more, though none of this, let me be clear, is a response or reaction to anything you said. I’m just using the space (and the fact that I have a bit of time this morning) to say some of what I might have said had I let myself expand the original essay.

    If I had elaborated upon my call for self-awareness, I’d have said that I think of words (including the words associated with sex and gender) as tools. For me, this means

    1 They have no intrinsic moral or ethical value (positive or negative)
    2 They work better for certain purposes than others
    3 They might produce more than one effect at the same time (including unintended negative effects)
    4 Repeated non-conventional use can expand our notion of their function

    So I don’t think of “man” or “male” as terms that literally designate me or some aspect of my being (whether the basis be biological, cultural or social). I think of “man” and “male” as metaphors with the power to evoke (variously in various contexts) a constellation of attributes. Depending on the situation (what I perceive to be at stake, who else is involved, what is my mood, what do I want), I might use these metaphors to associate myself with those attributes or, conversely, I might try to reject or elude the metaphor, ironize it, or stretch the scope of signification.

    I don’t personally see a need to permanently declare the end of the words or the semantic field of which they are a part; no more than I see a need to declare the end of television just because “Jersey Shore” or “Dance Moms” gets broadcast on it. I do however see a need for all of us to size up our tools and our purposes up with care. And I can certainly sympathize with and in fact actively participate in a struggle against the use of words to harm others directly or, indirectly, to make it easier to harm others.

    I am a literature professor by trade and by calling because, I suppose, I am enthralled by the power – verging on alchemical – of words. I enjoy (and like to encourage others to enjoy) that words – like other tools – can augment our power and our freedom and the power and freedom of others. I know (and try to mind and encourage others to mind) that words – like other tools – can limit our power and freedom and the power and freedom of others.

    Perhaps all of this will seem to you or to other readers as so obvious as to not be worth stating (and, again, I certainly am not pretending that I invented any of this). I spend much of my time around 18-22 year olds most of whom don’t seem to have much interest in exploring the world of words and its myriad connections to the world of people, nature, and things. So I might be, with my call for care and self-awareness in the use of language, confusing my audience. Though, on the other hand, I find that I need reminders of this and I do it for a living, so maybe others can use the reminders too. I’m not sure why anyone would be hurt or offended by a reminder to use words, like any tools, with intelligence and care. Speaking of the culture more generally, if the power of language is obvious then I can only say that our culture shows either a remarkable disregard for the fact or a frightening, almost sociopathic, interest in using words only to limit the power and freedom of others.

    In writing what I wrote, I hoped that others who would write on “The End of Gender,” whether columnists or commenters, would at once mind and enjoy the awesome power of the words they were picking up.

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