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/Reboot, Good Men Project, The Huffington Post, Salon, HyperVocal, Ms. Magazine, YourTango, Psycholog
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?”
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.