Harry the potter’s jars of clay

Harry the potter’s jars of clay

            In the wake of J.K. Rowling’s unabashed comments regarding the reality of sex and the charges of transphobia that were issued in response to them, it may be germane to discuss some of our current conceptions concerning human identity and the politics that follows therefrom. Ultimately, one’s definition of reality is at stake, and we will see that this is the truer import of all such debates, however popularized or taken to the streets.

            There are five major biological sexes in the human species, and the so-called ‘sexual dimorphism’ that allows for convenient categories is splayed out along a spectrum which meets in hermaphroditism – of late relabeled ‘intersex’ – the central variants of which account for at least one in every 2 to 2.5 thousand live (‘female’) births. There are no doubt ‘more’ genders than there are sexes, but who’s counting? The point is that both gender and sex are social constructions mainly based on national health policy and indeed the identity of the particular nation state in question. Biopower, Foucault’s simple but arresting conception of an originally bourgeois transformation of the older labor power, demographic concerns such as pension fund viability, voter franchise, relative strength and weakness of employment markets, and more darkly, bigotries surrounding equally moribund concepts of race and ethnicity – the ‘fear of a black planet’ thing – influence who we are liable to label a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’. If I were a woman of any cultural or even individual construction, I wouldn’t take kindly to Rowling’s ‘offer’ of a potential definition of myself as ‘one who menstruates’. This appears reductive in the extreme while at once suggesting that I am the same as every other woman out there. Indeed, it is this urge for sameness while simultaneously drawing up boundaries of difference that is at present threatening to do us in.

            One could simply play at language, avoiding a deeper dialectic and thus also the confrontation that adheres to it. Perhaps sex and gender are both equally ‘real’, or neither are real and a truly hard-nosed scientific-minded reality has nothing to do with the human imagination. Perhaps sex is the old reality and gender the new, or that the former’s hold upon an actually unmoving reality is supplanted by the latter’s emergent identity politics. Or perhaps reality is itself irrelevant, and human consciousness, only partially conscious of itself and much less so of others, is the only arbiter of what can become real and thus also unreal.

            But I am going to suggest that our reality is in fact being covered over by such discussions, whether they are violently performed in confrontations amongst people who imagine themselves to be so different as to not share even an iota of humanity with one another, or more banally, literary celebrities and entertainers who imagine that their unstudied opinions should carry such misplaced public weight.

            Diversity in every known species is an evolutionary positive. Not only for that self-same species regarding its adaptational acumen given changing ecological niches either over the course of geological epochs or, in our own time, over a generation or two, but also for other species, as when humble fungi contain the key to cancer cures or other medical breakthroughs. Though cultural evolution as a theory of human cosmogony is a long out-of-fashion sensibility, one aspect of it that remains salient is that human diversity along cultural lines is also a positive. No one culture, says this view, holds all of the truths for all of the myriad of changing contexts in which we humans find ourselves. And yet each culture does hold truths. Though not ‘eternal’ – the mere fact that we can identify such ideas in history tells us that their origin too is historical and not so much otherworldly – they can nevertheless be timely. One conception that is apropos to consider during this time of too-easy offense and counter-offense is that of compassion.

            Compassion is an ethical hallmark of the newer agrarian world-systems, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. It is sourced in the then equally novel sensibility that each human being has an intrinsic worth, apart from one’s accomplishments, abilities, and most importantly, apart from one’s social status. This last includes one’s self-identified gender, sex, race and ethnicity, one’s role and job title, and one’s address and education, let alone one’s cultural persuasions. An example: it is of interest that one’s individuated tastes can make for strange bedfellows. I despise swing music and am certain that Bruckner is a markedly superior composer to Tchaikovsky, not that Peter Ilyich was a slouch. In these two things I fully agree with the Nazis. Happen to agree, that is. It is this happenstance of the confluence of historical identity politics and one’s personal experiences that fraudulently drives much of our current predicament.

            Consider that no white owners of black slaves exist in North America today. Wage-slavery aside for a moment, all these other folks are long dead. But it is also the case that white persons are less likely to be enslaved by what reaches out for all of us from beyond the grave. Yes, the dead must bury the dead, but you have to kill them first. Just so, how does one commit an idea to the ground of non-being when the vast majority of the very people who are most hurt by the current social organization of difference maintain beliefs in the afterlife? The overcoming of the ideologized politics of difference is both a recognition of human diversity as it is and not as we would desire it to be, as well as being the beginning of a self-recognition that I am also not one thing, not these things, not a ‘thing’ at all.

            Dressing oneself up in difference is not a way to confront the reality of human diversity. Only being with another human being in as personal a manner as possible will make one more aware of just how similar our differences are, why they exist, where they come from, and of vital import for humanity today, where they are going. Daniel Radcliffe responded to the author of his career freedom and perhaps more than that by restating the basic ethic of Harry Potter; that ‘love is the most powerful force in the universe’. Though Rowling’s epic appears to imagine love as an inherent good, which is only forgivable because these are books for children, Radcliffe’s well-meaning naivety yet touches upon the desire to get along with the others in spite of their differences, which in turn threaten us not because they are alien, but because they remind us too closely of ourselves. To begin to consider the other as a means to understand the self and my self as a means for the other to recover her authentic freedom is the first step to a world wherein reality is something that all human beings are at liberty to help construct.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of forty books in ethics, education, aesthetics, religion, and social theory and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

A Caution Concerning Gender

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.