A Caution Concerning Gender:
The question ‘why do we need men?’ has likely at least been framed on the lips of every Western woman post-war. Today, more globally, it has become a question that can at last be asked by all. Barring the advent of a human parthenogenesis, the basic function of men, reduced to their physical substrate by one sense of such a question, would be to help continue the species. But downloadable consciousness of the type Raymond Kurzweil is predicting would obviate even that biological fallback. We might not need men at all, which would certainly suit the tastes of E. Jean Carroll, for one. Just so, we wouldn’t need women either.
Though journeying with a dog named after a man – this namesake was also a plausible child molester – Carroll travelled the United States in as precise avoidance of everything ‘men’ as she possibly could. And though we are not made aware if she drove on this or that street named after men, she did manage to shop only at stores that were either neutral – were they yet owned by men? – and visited only towns named after women or bearing women’s names, etc. This seemed a cunning enough stunt, and those words are used advisedly, that she must needs write a book about it, itself bearing the title of a close version of the question in question.
Here instead is a slightly immodest proposal: get rid of gender entirely. I am a person and a human being far before I am a man, white, middle-aged, heterosexual. But such ‘persons’ as I also am are themselves a category, and one fashionably much disdained. Yet I too have been solicited, assaulted, and stigmatized by women seeking to impose a toll upon my imagined sexuality or libidinal availability in order that I might further my career. That I have refused all such approaches, sometimes deftly, sometimes not so much, marks me as indeed less of a man, because a ‘real man’ would have simply either shouldered these opportunities as ‘notches on one’s belt’, so to speak, or fully taken advantage of them. What must I have been thinking?
I could simply say ‘#somethinguncouthmetoo’ and leave it at that, but my social role and the ethical dignity that both comes from it and is necessary to it does not allow me such a pat and narrow response. Instead, it would be more constructive to flesh out the viable and ethical critique of masculinity that is part – but only part – of the wider culture critique in which all of us must engage. ‘Toxic masculinity’ actually hurts men more than it does women. Women, of late, have been able to walk away from it, though not entirely and not without some consequence. But men cannot do so. It is a manifest danger, not only to the continuation of the species but to the Earth and its wider nature, to the future, to ethics, and to the nascent trust necessary for the extant genders to get along with one another as human individuals. Masculinity might itself be defined as wholly toxic if one generalized the archaic conceptions of loyalty, honour, dignity, rationality, and socialized for a more even distribution of lesser things such as the ability to read maps and not get lost in the woods. Femininity too has a compendium of aspects which are better left behind and thus there must also be present a ‘toxic femininity’ – though one never seems to hear of it – that also should be expunged from social and cultural relations.
And E. Jean Carroll and other writers in that vein are part of that other set of toxins. With a seething irony, these women ally themselves with the worst of their ’gender’ as they become most like ‘we’ men. She suggests war would end if men as we know them today were gone, masculinity overcome. Margaret Thatcher was a woman after all. Greed? Imelda Marcos. Torture and abuse? The members of the SS auxiliary units and the guards of the women’s camps. Domestic violence against children? Check out all the internet threads advocating use of physical assault against children under the guise of ‘discipline’, populated in the main by mothers. And so on. The problem in fact is not men, but the power relations of present-day genders and families and politics themselves.
In defining ourselves apart from our persons, in joining up with a category, we lose a vitally important aspect of our humanity; our self-understanding. We imagine we act ‘because’ we are a man, or Caucasian, or part of this or that demographic, and these ‘structural life variables’, as social scientists refer to them, are not simply to be denied. They do have a powerful influence over us. Indeed, it is these that need be overcome on the way to mature being. The person, as individual; self-responsible, attending to the call of conscience, being-ahead-of-itself in that it is future-oriented and is concerned about the world as it is and given its present, as it might become, this is a person who bears no allegiance to gender of any kind. The fact that one of Canada’s major chartered banks has no less than nine categories under gender should tell us that the move toward the dissemination and dissolution of the binary model of gender relations is entirely missing the point. Institutional acceptance is never reflective of revolutionary change, rather quite the opposite. What it tells us is that gender, however it is defined or redefined, does not matter.
In one sense, this is a good thing, as we are well past the point of needing to adhere to archaic social norms and esthetic forms. Even so, we must be cautious regarding our replacement values. Choosing an alternative gender does not exempt one from confronting the human condition, most especially, one’s own. The premise of vanquishing the dominant gendered definitions and their inherent toxins holds within it no promise of overcoming what are human frailties through and through. Yes, there is more than one ‘human nature’, and I would be the last to subscribe to the unthinking and wholly irresponsible response that the ‘person in the street’ oft gives to the challenges of our time. But no, it is not men per se who are the source of this patent unthought. Rather it is simple ignorance on the part of some persons, simple dishonesty from others, and a rather less simple calculation on the part of those with the most to lose if we actually did overcome such things.
To begin to do so is to ask the question with the greater critical and reflective leverage: ‘why do we need gender?’ Its interrogative is fully portable to ethnicity, class, nation, creed, poverty and war, amongst others. Given that we have already asked that same question about God, long ago, one would think we would have the simple and unassuming courage to ask it of ourselves.
G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty-five books in ethics, aesthetics, social theory, social psychology and religion, as well as metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades.