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.