It might not be overstating things to say that we find ourselves at a turning point in Western history. History is moving forwards at a considerable pace, and some people find themselves on the right side, others on the wrong side. And as the past gives way to the future, the transition seems to be hinging on one issue in particular: gender.
In the past, men and women lived much of their lives in separate spheres. Over the past century or so, we in the West have been breaking down those boundaries, so that men and women now largely occupy the same space. Over the past few years, we’ve all (suddenly) woken up to the fact that whether a man loves a woman or another man is immaterial. And we’re now beginning to wake up to the fact that gender itself is self-determined and insignificant. At least, that’s how the story goes.
But why is this such a big deal in our culture?
That question is worth pondering. If aliens landed, they might be somewhat puzzled by what they found. Why, they might ask, with so many tangible problems — violent conflicts, looming environmental crises, extreme inequality — are these earthlings getting so worked up about such obscure matters?
Asking this kind of question can give us a glimpse into the heart of a culture, and we need to give it some serious attention.
If you want to know my hunch, I think it boils down to a long-standing battle between nature and freedom.
Over the past 500 years or so, we in the West have been struggling to live with two apparent opposites. On the one hand, we think of ourselves in terms of nature. Our behaviour is determined by our genes and by the laws of nature. We study science, and try to uncover the laws that govern us. But on the other hand, we also think of ourselves in terms of freedom. We have free will, and we’re free to choose what we want. We cultivate our sense of imagination, and creatively shape the world around us.
(I would want to question whether nature and freedom are really the best ways of thinking about ourselves in the first place, but maybe that’s for another time.)
Our inability to fit nature and freedom together is reflected in all sorts of ways. It’s reflected in the nature-nurture debate. It’s reflected in the mind-body problem. It’s reflected in the division of our universities into sciences (BSc) and arts (BA). It’s reflected in our wranglings between the state and the individual. And it’s reflected in the way that, at different times, attempts have been made to assert the absolute superiority of one over the other. So, in our day, it is freedom that has the upper hand, and our lives may be described as a quest to assert our own absolute freedom from nature.
But what does gender have to do with this?
The biggest determining factor in a person’s life, apart from the place and time of their birth, is whether they were conceived with XX or XY chromosomes.
If we are to be truly free — if freedom is to triumph over nature — then my identity — who I consider myself to be, and how I expect society to treat me — cannot and must not be determined by my chromosomes.
So we cannot allow for our place and role in society to be influenced by our biological sex. We cannot let it continue to be the case that our future is determined from birth on the basis of our chromosomes. Gender (if we need the concept at all) must be set free from biological sex. “It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum not as two opposing sets of ideals,” as UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson put it last year.
I’m not trying to say whether this account of things is right or wrong.
But I do think it goes some way towards explaining why we are so obsessed with gender.