In Which I Broach the Subject of Feminism

American University hosted a debate last night between Camille Paglia and Jane Flax on the biological and cultural bases of gender roles. I will attend any event where Paglia speaks regardless of the topic because her commentary reliably disrupts the preconceived script most conversations about feminism follow. Here are some specific thoughts on both the content and form of the evening’s discussion:

1. The nature/culture distinction isn’t particularly helpful to talking about gender roles. They are useful mental models for talking about the concepts in isolation, but when used to explain or justify social conventions one can’t exclude the other. Flax used the instructive example of a Honeycrisp apple–nature and culture jointly explain its properties. If the example has a drawback, it would be that a deliberately bred apple cultivar doesn’t represent the unplanned aspects of culture. But still, I simply don’t see any way to establish the priority of one concept over the other.

2. Conventions–of which gender roles are a subset–are what philosophers call “social facts.” “X is a convention” is true or false depending on the practices and beliefs of people in a given situation. Philosophers often emphasize that conventions are strategies for resolving coordination problems, meaning that an agent’s motivation to comply with a convention is their own interest, combined most obviously with a belief that other similarly situated agents will comply with the convention as well. In other words, the motivating reason is an other-directed reason. But gender roles seem to be different. Gender roles, as Flax correctly observed, are intrinsically self-directed reasons. Conventions around gender roles constitute who we are as people. They define what it is to be a man or a woman, and how a man or woman is expected to behave, in the same way that the rules of chess are conventions that constitute the game itself.

3. The important difference between Paglia and Flax seems to be their level of optimism about how much we can alter the deliberately the matrix of  various determinants for gender roles can be. They differ, in other words, over how much Progress we can make in gender. Flax is more optimistic and thinks that sex differences and reproduction should be but one element among the many other things that matter to us. Paglia, while personally a self-described decadent and permissive modern, has a more pessimistic view gender roles in history follow a cyclic pattern of proliferation and contraction. I myself find myself sympathetic to Paglia’s view that gender roles over the long run are much less elastic than we Western liberals would like to assume, and that fact should incline us toward incremental reform rather than sweeping utopianism insensitive to particularities, context, and the risk of counter-reaction.

4. A final reason why I tend to be more deferential to traditional gender roles, or at least in favor of marginal rather than comprehensive reform, precisely the determinative role gender roles play in identity that my friends on the left argue. People depend on publicly known gender roles to balance our need, to paraphrase Thomas Nagel, for both concealement and exposure:

The more effective are the conventions controlling acknowledgment, the more easily we can handle our knowledge of what others do not express, and their knowledge of what we do not express. One of the remarkable effects of a smoothly fitting public surface is that it protects one from the sense of exposure without having to be in any way dishonest or deceptive, just as clothing does not conceal the fact that one is naked underneath. The mere sense that the gaze of others, and their explicit reactions, are con- ventionally discouraged from penetrating this surface, in spite of their unstated awareness of much that lies beneath it, allows a sense of freedom to lead one’s inner life as if it were invisible, even though it is not. -“Concealment and Exposure”

As Nagel notes, the constitutive role that conventions play is policing the boundary between our public presence and private inner life. They ration access to a common public space to complicated, burgeoning personalities. This constraint, ironically, both increases the amount of public access for each person and protects her private, inner life against intrusion from an overcrowded public space. Stable social conventions like gender norms serve a dual role in the construction of personal identity–both a public focal point of identification with others and a personal domain for self-reflection. And even if the demarcation of the public/private divide by any given gender convention is arbitrary, the social fact of a convention means that people form expectations and plans around it. Because conventions balance two adversarial features of social life and avert conflict, their stability matters all the more to their success. Given the importance of stability to conventions, we should encourage incremental adjustment and experimentation rather than revision. Even if you think our gender roles need revolutionary change, consider the enormous disruption and discomfort a radical revision of roles would cause for those who depend on them.


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