Thursday, August 13, 2009

More on Genderism, in response to a comment

[the above image is from here]

A visitor identified as xjm stopped by with a question regarding an older post (Genderism: a definition) that relates, in some ways, to a recent post on what makes someone a white man. What follows is, I hope, a satisfactory answer to xjm.

xjm wrote:

I stumbled on this post looking for a word to mean "discrimination on the basis of gender identity, sex, sexuality, and/or sexual orientation" that was somewhat broader and more meaningful than "sexism" or "male chauvinism" or "homophobia" (all three of which, to my mind, are linked). "Genderism" was the best I could come up with...

It's an interesting post. I like a lot of your ideas; however, as a linguistics student, I have to pick at one thing. You say: "In some societies, for example, there are as many as eleven genders." What's your source for this? Are you sure you're not confusing linguistic gender with social gender?

In Ojibwe, for example, there are two linguistic genders: animate (people, animals, some plants) and inanimate (most plants, lifeless objects, etc.) I also remember briefly studying another language (I think from the southwest or perhaps California) that had some number of genders based on the shape of an object: whether it was round, long, flat, etc.

Clearly, these linguistic categories have little to do with human gender categories; the reason the word "gender" is used is that the categories function analogously to the 2-3 gender-based language genders that European languages typically have (he, she, it).

Now, this is a separate issue from social gender categories; I have read, as you probably have, that many non-Western cultures have traditional roles for people whose gender identities we today would put somewhere under the "LBGTQ" header.


I'll post my reply here, rather than at the old blogpost's page:

Hi xjm,

Thanks for your comment and questions. First, unless you are Ojibwe, I'd caution you about drawing conclusions based on what whites, disproportionately but not entirely men, have reported about the Ojibwe languages, identified by some Westerners as having multiple dialects and various regionalised writing systems. And I ought to similarly caution myself, given my statement to which you are replying!

There are many ways to approach questions like those you ask. One is to say that all understandings of gender, whether or not such a terms is not meant as a synonym only for "category", are linguistic, in societies that rely on what Westerners call "linguistics". But I hear you asking something more particular and let me know if I'm off the mark completely. I hear you asking: "Are all categorisations of things by gender referring to "gender" as in "woman and man", or in ways that use "gender" to be more or less synonymous with "genus" or "type" (and not, strictly speaking, "sex")?

As you note, there are many ways to classify and categorise animate "beings" and inanimate "things", including people in terms of their supposed gender. (That white male supremacist societies tend towards perceiving "beings" as the opposite of "non-beings", the animate as completely distinct from the inanimate is a problem best dealt with another time!)

From Wikipedia:
Some languages have gender-like noun classifications unrelated to gender identity.

Particularly common are languages with animate and inanimate categories. The term "grammatical genders" is also used by extension in this case, although many authors prefer "noun classes" when none of the inflections in a language relate to sexuality. Note however that the word "gender" derives from Latin genus (also the root of genre) originally meant "kind", so it does not necessarily have a sexual meaning. For further information, see Animacy. [I put that one portion in bold]

Wiki continues:
Some Slavic languages, including Russian and Czech, make grammatical distinctions between animate and inanimate nouns (in Czech only in the masculine gender; in Russian only in masculine singular, but in the plural in all genders). Another example is Polish, which can be said to distinguish five genders: personal masculine (referring to male humans), animate non-personal masculine, inanimate masculine, feminine, and neuter.

* * *

So, xjm, when you say "linguistic gender" I assume you mean one of the "noun classes" or "genus categories"--which can refer to human sexual categories, or not, such as by distinguishing what are perceived to be "Animate" things from "Inanimate" things. But we have to keep in mind that linguistics and social human reality are not terribly distinct or separate, are they?

To work toward answering your question, I'm saying that there have been or are societies that are not well-known among dominant male supremacist Western "educated people", in part because we Westerners, particularly our men, have destroyed them, or are currently trying to do so. Those societies that use verbal language may have spoken categories for human gender that are not "visible" to us Westerners. We might compare this to the way that an English-speaking child who is only taught there is yellow, red, and blue will not readily discern yellow-orange, rose, magenta, or indigo as "separate" or "distinct" colors from yellow, red, and blue. This is where and how linguistics creates perception; and perception is a foundation for what is understood to be "real", depending on one's understanding of "the real" of course. (Western-educated non-Lacanian traditionalists, as well as Lacanians will have a field day with that statement.)

Another preliminary question is: Are we going to accept that each non-Western culture's perspectives and worldviews and their accompanying realities are equally "valid" as those in the West? (And what a problematic term valid is!)

I am saying that if a society, an ethnic group, a people, such as the commonly (mis)used example of the Inuit, allegedly* have several terms for snow and the dominant U.S. has one or two, does that mean that there are only one or two forms of snow? If, among my society, ethnic group, and people, a white woman carpenter has many terms for "nails", that probably means that when the non-carpenter that I am walks into a hardware store, all I see are a "bunch of different kinds of nails", whereas she sees those same objects as having particular names, uses, and designs--and calling them all "nails" isn't especially useful or accurate to her.

We are struck, immediately, with the assumptions that white folks and men place on their "subjects" who are more often than not more objectified and "studied as other" than subjectified and empathically. White men, especially tend not to see "otherness" in ourselves, however "other" we are. At best, it seems, we might come to the conclusion that "others" are "fundamentally like me", keeping "me" the standard of what constitutes otherness. Whiteness and manhood, for example, are in the business--literally and otherwise--of making everything not white and not a man into a less valued, less esteemed being or thing (in the eyes, minds, and oppressive behavior of white men).

So, what constitutes a term and a category in the white male supremacist West, may not constitute a separate "term" in another place. If, then, an Indigenous (or non-white, non-Indigenous) society has eleven terms for gender, I doubt a white Westerner who did not grow up among that society will even be able to figure out how to think properly, meaning here, in accordance with the ways of seeing and being in another society.

*From this site:

[B]ecause the example is so widely known and because it has been written about by both linguists and anthropologists, it seems worthwhile to add a perspective informed by Eskimo [sic] linguistics.

Martin's article does a fine job of tracking the snow example through its many incarnations, showing how it has been misrepresented and misused. She points out that Eskimo is not a single language, as it seems to be presented by those who have discussed the snow example. She further stresses that the polysynthetic morphology of Eskimo languages renders a discussion of "words" as such almost pointless, since the number of words in these languages is practically infinite due to highly productive patterns of suffixation. It is therefore necessary to establish what would be considered a word in the languages in question, and apparently it must also be decided what is to be considered a "snow term," since Martin and some others see this as part of the issue.


It's this sort of sloppy anthropological, linguistic, and sociological work that has resulted in really inane Western (usually Euro-centric or Anglo-centric) masculinist conclusions, such as "if my people hunt, and those that hunt are the men, and our men dominate our women, then if I examine another society, and find that there are hunters and non-hunters, that means the non-hunters are subservient to the hunters." Uh, not so fast.

One person told someone I know that "in my culture we have eleven genders". The person receiving the information didn't then go on to interrogate the statement or its speaker. So I'm not sure what it means to say "eleven genders" exactly, but I do know white society has more than two, but forces, coerces, threatens, and harasses everyone to identify or look like one or "the other".

I'll perhaps very foolishly assume that the person sharing this information about eleven genders means that they see eleven genders in his society, can discern each as distinct from the others, or perhaps sees the eleven as variations and permutations, made distinct by features or qualities we in the West do not recognise as "categories". If this assumption is close to being accurate, does that mean the dominant U.S. and U.K. way of seeing gender is wrong?

I'd argue the answer to that question is not "yes, it is wrong" so much as it is not "the whole truth" and that "truths" are relative to so much. So here we are in the so-called post-modern perspective of cultural relativism; not that non-Westerners didn't have such ways of seeing and comprehending reality way before Europeans came on the scene.

That there are differing and equally valid perspectives is not something many anti-relativistic dominants are comfortable acknowledging. Dominant "modernist" Western peoples tend to want to demand that their perceptions are "THE truth" or are, if being condescendingly generous, "more accurate" than other ways of perceiving. White people do think we're white, after all, even though this is a made up racial concept that has only existed for a limited period of time in some places. Men do think we're men often enough to cause atrocious problems for those we identify as women/not-men. (As Dworkin noted thirty-five years ago in her book Woman Hating, there are things that are real but not true.

That the idea that "so-called male and female anatomical differences" means that there are only two human genders is both spurious and political to the core.

But, as you note, a Latin language such as Italian gives a term like "window" a so-called feminine spelling--lunestra--whereas "door" is portello, a so-called "masculine" term. Clearly the window is not more female than the door, and vice versa. Or is it?

But the point, a political one as well as a cultural and linguistic one is that these determinations are simultaneously arbitrary and deeply intentional with political consequences. And linguistics is embedded or encoded with a politic, whether that's conscious to the speaker of it or not. Derrida's work attempted to reveal that.

Gendering the world, whether one of its human-spoken languages, or its people, particularly into only two groups, as is done in the West, means that we don't see a lot about humanity; once gender is so hierarchically and dualistically politicised and organised--oppressively, and structured into society this way, we get all kinds of stigmas and statuses attached to these only-two particular genders.

My response, for now, is that a culture with eleven genders is just that, but the eleven genders may not be understood the way white folks think of "gender". I'd have to learn a whole lot more about how that society's language is structured, how their perceptions and belief systems differ from my society's. That white male supremacist societies tend to have two genders serves our systems of male supremacy well; understanding humanity in terms of "two genders" is a fundamental part of what constructs and maintains male supremacy, linguistically, socially, culturally, and politically, as well as economically, religiously, philosophically, AND biologically. Because we only name two genders, we can only identify human beings as one or another sex.

Western gender dualism/male supremacy/sexism/misogyny is built on a rather shaky premise. Curiously, or outrageously, the earlier version of the premise in Western civilisation was that there was one sex in two forms: each was male. There were non-inverted males who were deemed superior to inverted males. (Guess which group decided that?!) As you may know, the term "invert" is also a term meaning "homosexual" in the English-speaking West. (It's even used in a Beatles song, one of George's actually, titled "While My Guitar Gently Weeps": I don't know why you were inverted. No one alerted you.) We are again reminded of how interlocked misogyny is with homophobia, sexism with heterosexism.

Are we going to maintain an illusion, a terribly sloppily if politically expedient Western/Cartesian imposed idea, that all people are either "males" or "females"? For the hard-core Western scientists reading this, we might say that this is obviously not empirically true--there are intersex people, after all! Why are we insistent on this misperception being stone-carved truth? For whose benefit? Certainly not for the benefit of intersex people who are more often than not, in the U.S., genitally butchered and sexually disabled at birth or a bit later in life in order to make them "appear" male or female.

I once knew someone who was neither male or female, neither woman nor man nor transgendered, who had (and has) no visible or "tucked away" ("inverted") genitalia. In a society such as ours, white supremacist patriarchal science has to scurry to figure out "what's wrong" with this person, or "what went wrong" in utero.

So we English-speaking Westerners forcibly cram reality into a tiny frame, a dualistic and hierarchical one. With that task done, certain oppressive forms of power, entitlements, and privileges can be distributed among elites; those determined by "the superiors" get to behave as if they are superior by treating those who are not determined to be so esteemed as servants in various degrading and soul-crushing ways.

Language, culture, and political reality are not separable, is one point I'm trying to make. Each is part of the other, and informs and reinforces the other, which is why, according to Western terminology and perception, this non-sexed person I just mentioned, when on a popular TV talk show, was met with questions from host and audience such as "don't you want to know what sex you were meant to be?" (By having their chromosomes checked, for example).

The person's answer was, more or less: "No. I know who I am already."

For more, see this cached website's description of Toby's appearance on TV:

Now imagine after some tests that
there are no internal or external sex organs whatsoever. No
ovaries, no testes, no uterus, no vagina, no penis, no
glands that produce estrogen or testosterone, no semen, no
eggs, no anything. Is this possible? Surprisingly yes. It
is very possible and in fact probably more so that one
thinks. Though rarely publicized, there are people in this
world that are physically indistinguishable as males or
females. Sally Jesse Raphael recently had one of these
androgynous human beings on her popular morning talk show.
This person, known as Toby, is neither male nor female and
prefers to live life in the androgynous state. Toby is the
only known human being in the world like this. Medically
feasible, yes; but is the androgynous person socially
acceptable in our everyday lifestyle? Since Toby was born,
Toby hasn't been able to live a normal life. Throughout
childhood, Toby was constantly pressured to make a decision
to either become a full fledged male or female. Doctors,
teachers, friends and family all thought that Toby would be
much happier if Toby could be classified as either a man or
a woman. But Toby didn't think so. Toby made a decision to stay androgynous and it has caused some very interesting
results. Everywhere Toby goes identity comes into question. Is Toby male or female? Toby is neither. But that's not possible. Yet it is. Think about what you do everyday and how much of it relies on gender and then think about Toby. What public restroom do you go in? What kind of clothes do you wear? What store do you buy them in? What colors do you buy? What letter is after the word sex on your drivers license? How does Toby answer these questions? That's not the point. The point is why does Toby have to answer these questions? Because this is what we have determined to be socially correct. There are two sexes, male and female and you must be one or the other.

[The portion in bold was made so by me.]

I welcome a response.

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