The Inevitability and Potential Benefits of Gender Norms

The world turned upside down, by Israhel van Meckenem the Younger.

James Damore was fired from Google for saying that women are biologically less disposed towards engineering jobs than men. He then sued Google for discrimination against employees who were white, male, or conservative. Let’s take a moment to savor the craziness.

In a saner world, the layers of irony in the whole situation would prompt a serious discussion about gender norms across society. The question would be one of factual inquiry: are women in fact less predisposed to engineering jobs? If so, is the cause biological or something else?

Some (including the paid scientific experts) took the occasion to respectfully disagree with each other. But those phlegmatic conversations have been like the one remaining mobile home in the wake of a tornado. In general, the reactions were “hysterical” (CNN’s Kirsten Powers’ word). Various thoughtful persons across the spectrum deplored the ideological histrionics displayed by most the rest of us (see the excellent Wikipedia article).

A slight majority (55%) disagreed with Google’s decision to fire Damore, according to a Harvard-Harris poll. But that means that 45% did not disagree with it. Many in the 55% majority disagreed with Damore’s opinions about gender dynamics, but still felt he should not have been fired for expressing them at work. But to a full 45% of the polled population, the expression of such views is apparently so heinous that termination is the appropriate response.

Obviously, gender norms are rather unpopular nowadays. And not without reason. I admit that gender norms, mis-conceived or miscarried or related to in mal-adaptive ways, can and do injure people, whether because those people do not conform to the norm or because they do.

But I also submit that a society without gender norms is possible only in theory and that this theoretical society is not the one we should aspire to. Instead, we should aspire to a society in which gender norms are the most beneficial and the least harmful.

Dia and I have discussed these issues and broadly agree, but sometimes disagree about details. I am eager to hear the thoughts of any readers inclined to share.

Gender as Genre

I begin with a comparison that encapsulates the essence of my perspective on gender norms.

Every work of art is what it is partly by virtue of its genre. Perhaps no work of art conforms perfectly to all the conventions of its genre. It pushes against them here, it plays with them there. At its best, art is self aware, and deliberately assumes a position, sometimes even an ironic posture relative to its own genre. Genres change with time–conventions harden or soften or shift. All of this is as it should be. But what we must not do is rebel against the idea of genre as such.

We are only partially the authors of our life dramas, but we are certainly the chief actors. Our genders inevitably exert a force on our lives analogous to the force exerted on an artwork by its genre. Let each actor in each little play give an individual interpretation, but let all such creative role-playing take place within or against the benevolent structure of well-defined and well-respected gender-genre conventions.

I. Gender Norms Are Inevitable

One reason gender norms are inevitable is that there really are differences between men and women. It is not perfectly clear to anyone what is the ultimate source and nature of the various differences. It is not clear to those paid experts who weighed in on the Damore controversy with their differing professional opinions. And if it is not clear to them, perhaps it should not be clear to the rest of us either.

I believe it is fairly clear, though, that in our culture at this time, and in every other culture at every other time, there have been both real and perceived gender differences. It is clear that some of the real or perceived differences are culturally conditioned and not rooted in fundamental differences in the natures of men and women.

As one interesting example of culturally conditioned gender differences that do not reflect fundamental differences, consider that in Shakespeare’s day, women were imagined to be more prurient than men–more inclined to lust, more prone to initiate sex, and more ready to enjoy it. (Or at least, so my male Shakespeare professor insisted, and Dia’s female Shakespeare professor taught their class the same thing, so I am comfortable assuming that they are right.) It would appear that the modern reversal of the gender-codes of sexuality is primarily a cultural phenomenon, and not an expression of the fundamental nature of the respective genders.

However, I believe it is also fairly clear that some differences are rooted in biology or possibly even something deeper–something that might be called the “eternal feminine,” to borrow Goethe’s famous phrase, and the “eternal masculine.” This “something deeper” could also be conceived as an expression of something divine and eternal received from the parents of our souls, as it is within my religious tradition. Or it could be conceived in the way C. S. Lewis conceives it in the second book of his science fiction trilogy, Perelandra, when the main character describes the appearance of two angels, one male-gendered and one female-gendered:

Both the bodies were naked, and both were free from any sexual characteristics, either primary or secondary. That, one would have expected. But whence came this curious difference between them? He found that he could point to no single feature wherein the difference resided, yet it was impossible to ignore. . . . [W]hat Ransom saw at that moment was the real meaning of gender. Everyone must sometimes have wondered why in nearly all tongues certain inanimate objects are masculine and others feminine. What is masculine about a mountain or feminine about certain trees? Ransom has cured me of believing that this is a purely morphological phenomenon, depending on the form of the word. Still less is gender an imaginative extension of sex. Our ancestors did not make mountains masculine because they projected male characteristics into them. The real process is the reverse. Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality than sex. Sex is, in fact, merely the adaptation to organic life of a fundamental polarity which divides all created beings. Female sex is simply one of the things that have feminine gender; there are many others, and Masculine and Feminine meet us on planes of reality where male and female would be simply meaningless. Masculine is not attenuated male, nor feminine attenuated female. On the contrary, the male and female of organic creatures are rather blurred reflections of masculine and feminine. Their reproductive functions, their differences in strength and size, party exhibit, but partly also confuse and misrepresent, the real polarity.

Whether there exists a “something deeper” about gender or not, and what that thing might be, remains a matter of speculation or else of religious faith–but it seems to me presumptuous for those who are inclined to disbelieve in all deeper somethings to reject offhand the possibility that gender itself is more than (1) an evolutionary phenomenon of certain higher life forms; more than (2) a cultural construct; and more than (3) some combination and interaction of the two.

It has become a liberal tendency to reject with disdain or even outrage the hypothesis that maleness or femaleness is more than a problematic cultural construct–until a person who identifies as the gender not given on their birth certificate talks about maleness or femaleness. The statement, “I am a man in a woman’s body” wins approval bordering on reverence. But if one believes that “It is primarily the man’s job to provide for his family,” the sentiment is met with sneers and jeers. The primary assumption in both cases is that maleness really means something and that this something is legitimately important for males to express. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the real liberal concern is not with gender norms as such, but with the traditional gender norms insofar as they interfere with individual preferences. Yet some liberals have a definite tendency to talk knowingly and dismissively about gender itself in a manner patently inconsistent with the mainstream liberal stance on transgenderism.

Whatever else transgenderism is, it is a testament that maleness and femaleness remain strong concepts that mean two different things in our culture. People do not generally give up one gender as part of their self-identity without embracing the other. Even though some have in various ways and with various purposes attempted to challenge the male-female binary, most people do not generally feel at liberty to be genderless. A small, generally intellectualistic minority does take this stance; but in general, for whatever reasons, when contemporary Americans think they are not the gender indicated on their birth certificate, they begin to think they are the opposite gender.

Whatever the reasons for gender differences (and there are certainly multiple reasons), gender differences exist, including differing gender roles in various kinds of situations. Gender roles and cultural categories pertinent to gender have been in intermittent flux for all of human history–and in more or less perpetual flux in the West since at least the industrial revolution, when the family farm began to be displaced by the factory and the machine as the main units of production.

So while gender norms have shifted, they have remained a constant feature of society. The last sixty years of rebellion against certain particular norms of gender and sexuality have failed to eliminate gender norms in general. If that was the goal, the result has been abject failure. Women are still thought to be more conflict-averse and men more conflict-prone; women more relationship-oriented and men more project-oriented; women more competent with infants and men more competent with cars. A substantial component of our society–perhaps even a majority–is in varying degree of rebellion against the politically correct position that everybody should pretend that gender norms do not exist. The more vocal representatives of this rebellion (including the Google engineer who was fired for it) will tell you, “Women and men really are different.”

And they are right. Though the extent and causes of the differences are subject to endless debate, women and men really are different–in the aggregate and on average, at least.

One very significant difference pertains to the effect of maternal care versus paternal care on babies. In “Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters,” Erica Komisar, LCSW, presents research demonstrating that there are real hormonal differences between men and women that differently affect a baby’s brain. Females produce more oxytocin (the “trust or bonding hormone”), and males produce more vasopressin (the hormone that contributes to the “aggressively protective response” to a child being threatened). “Because of this biological difference, women and men are unique in their roles as parents, different but both important” (Komisar, p. 37). In general, mothers bond with their babies more easily and earlier than do fathers. And their care tends to be more calming and comforting (as affected by their higher levels of oxytocin), while fathers’ care is more stimulating and challenging to the baby (think tossing them in the air, or the father’s line “Get up, Bambi”). And there is evidence that maternal care is the most effective at activating oxytocin receptors in the baby and preparing the baby for a life of emotional health and connection. Although a man can be a wonderful caregiver, he does not have the same ability as the mom does to “give” oxytocin to the infant. Moreover, a child’s emotional and social brain is being formed the first few years of life. Without enough oxytocin, a child’s brain will not be structured to bond with others and learn to trust and be calmed down.

Clearly, biology suggests somewhat differing gender roles with respect to child care, especially during the first three years of life.

Whether the expectation that men are more conflict-prone and women more conflict averse is mainly due to nurture or to nature, it exists. Because of this, it is inevitable that a woman who is being confrontational or a man who is bending over backwards to avoid conflict will stick out more than a person of the other gender doing the same thing. This undesirable prospect of sticking out creates pressure to conform to gender expectations.

Another reason people wish to conform is simply that most men identify as men and most women as women–most boys as boys and most girls as girls. People generally want to behave in ways consistent with their gender identity. It happens from at least as soon a kids can talk–our three year old girl Zina already behaves and plays and pretends in ways that are very typical of girls. Part of it seems to be a natural disposition. And part of it seems to be learned. But I do not think she learned from us the desire to conform to gender expectations–we never deliberately corrected her for doing boy things or reinforced her girlish behavior on a gendered basis. (In fact, Dia spends huge effort trying to undo and slow down Zina’s pretty-pink-princess tendencies.) Zina seems to have brought the desire to conform to gender expectations with her from the womb.

II. Gender Norms Can Be Beneficial

The potential benefits of gender norms are not difficult to discover. The desire to conform, in itself, is neither good nor bad–but it can certainly be used for good. To the degree that gender norms add a motivation for men or women to develop in beneficial ways, they are doing everyone a service.

I am not in favor of rigid gender categories or excessive pressure to conform. But I am in favor of encouraging men to be manly and women to be womanly in gentle and natural ways, so long as we have productive concepts of masculinity and femininity. The goal is not to erect “No Trespassing” signs at the borders of the respective genders’ territories. The goal is simply to give a positive and productive content to the concepts of masculinity and femininity as an additional engine of positive development.

Masculinity and Femininity mean something today, as they always have in human society. The perceived content of these categories are serious concerns for any society. This is one of the important battle-grounds of good and evil. If we pretend the categories do not exist, we in essence refuse to acknowledge or participate in this fight.

The consequences of such a choice could be disastrous. For the natural desire to conform to one’s gender expectations can of course with equal ease serve an evil end if masculinity and femininity are given negative content. And without the concerted intervention of parents, educators, and society generally, the gender concepts of each generation of children will have plenty of negative content. We should combat such content. One’s gender should never be an excuse. Let mothers be more bonded with their infants than fathers, but let that never constitute justification for a father’s neglect. Instead, let the masculine admire and aspire to the good more abundant in the feminine and visa-versa. Let the ideal of the father who provides for his family work in tandem with this admiration and aspiration of feminine mother-love to resist the tendency of dads to disappear or become deadbeats. It is perfectly possible to raise ideals of masculinity and femininity that are worthy of emulation and admiration by everybody. Goodness comes in male and female flavors. And this can and should be made to lend an added boost to the moral efforts of men and women.

Whatever the sources of the real and perceived gender differences, they exist. There is a dynamic tension between the categories of male and female–a polarity, a magnetism. There is, in other words, available energy–a potential battery. The energy should not be wasted.

III. My Own Vision of the Potential Benefits

I believe that it is demonstrably true that gender norms always have been present in society and that they still are. I believe I’ve made a strong case for why this is inevitable. Given this, I believe it is demonstrably wise not to ignore or repress gender norms, but instead to manage and mold them so as to best advance the good while inflicting as little injury as possible. What follows is my particular vision about what that could look like, and I do not claim for it the same degree of objectivity.

The man, woman, and child remains everlastingly the holy trinity of the social order. The gender norms of our society should prepare men and women to play their respective and complementary roles as mother and father, husband and wife. This is an old-fashioned idea, but it is sounder than anything offered in its place. Let each couple and each parent play their roles in their own creative ways–let them figure out what works for them, and let no officious gender police scold them for their departures from the norms so long as they depart with respect.(1)

Society’s gender norms should accord well with the roles marked out for men and women by nature (though what roles nature marks out is debatable), by reasonable tradition (though which traditions are reasonable is debatable), and by the sacred desire for the child’s welfare (though what constitutes a child’s welfare is debatable). To me, despite the difficulties in obtaining consensus, this seems the only sane path–the only path that does not, in the long run, tend to reduce our intersecting plays to something less meaningful, something approaching closer to non-sense and insanity. Stripped of our gender-genres, our dialogues and monologues would be impoverished–would be several steps reduced towards the ultimate evil, which is (for our purposes at least) so many atomistic selves speaking into space their infinite varieties of “blah blah blah.” That, to me, is hell.

Instead, let men and women unite in the familial trinity. Let them strive to become angelic males and females, blessed with little cherubs to love and struggle with. And then let the years do their work. Eventually, the mutual admiration of the husband and wife will make of the marriage of true minds a Jacob’s ladder, each partner a pole and each day or each decade a rung, ascending up past angels to the society of the Gods.

* * * *

(1) Dia is more handy around the house. I acknowledge that this is a reversal of the normal gender norms. I am not ashamed or embarrassed about this reversal, but nor do I think the norm itself is illegitimate.


3 thoughts on “The Inevitability and Potential Benefits of Gender Norms

  1. I’m stuck between two concepts of human gender. One is that men and women possess a gender inherently like cs Lewis’s angels. They may wander into the other genders territory but it is as a visitor. They may not know their own history, language, or feel at home in their country and yet they are always a native of their land. They may learn a foreign language fluently, but they’re an adopted guest. They may prefer or even identify as a foreigner but they are doing so as an expatriate.

    The other concept is that humans do not posses genders perfectly and always posses some of both genders. The essence is exterior. Perhaps this is more like genre. A writing is poetry and yet an essay at the same time. Possessing some of both structures. Never perfectly one or the other, always both. Which of these are you suggesting?

    1. Josh, I don’t think I land on either concept. I think both contain some truth. I’m not focused on the gender or gender identities of individuals, but on the social categories of masculinity and femininity. Specifically, I posit (1) there is an inevitable pressure to conform to the norms of one’ gender, and (2) as a result, it is vital to get the gender norms right rather than to pretend they do not exist. How individuals relate to their gender and in what sense gender is an essential part of their identity and/or being is mostly left to other essays.

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