Tuesday, August 16, 2016

gender and the three year old

 The the box that says “knows difference between boys and girls” , which figured in the sheet about Adam’s progress at school, has been checked for more than a year – along with “can wash hands” and “can draw line on paper unassisted”. But I did not realize that Adam, who is now two months from four, had become fully baptised in the world of gender until this morning, when he informed me that he couldn’t like Princess Leia because he was a boy.  He liked Luke Skywalker.
Of course, this was going to come. The river of time  that carries us onward, helpless strivers against the flow – I know about it, see it on my face every day. Noooovemberrr …. Deceeeeemmmmber. Sing it Frank! But  the decision that, as a boy, he can’t like Princess Leia,  is, nevertheless, a mark, a milestone of some kind, a bit of telling turbulence in the river’s flow.  
In the afterword that Ursula Le Guin wrote to Left Hand of Darkness in 1975 (Is Gender Necessary), she makes certain comments about gender that she radicalized in 1985 when she reprinted the essay. For instance, in 1975 she did not notice how hetero her story was – while in 1985 she criticizes herself for this. What strikes me from the first essay is that she talks of her book as a thought experiment: what would happen if you eliminate gender in the world?
As Le Guin recognizes in her essay, that elimination was not thorough. For instance, gender comes back in the pronoun “he” or “him” that dogs us in English when we want to refer to some ungendered previous noun – an actor, a worker, a person in a crowd, etc.  In 1985, Le Guin came out for substituting “they” and “them” for the he and him, pointing out that the masculine pronouns were introduced into English in the 16th century, and that in the common tongue, they and them still live.
I wonder about the project. Why eliminate gender, after all? It seems that Le Guin’s first view is that gender is always a product of fundamentallly unequal social relations between men and women. Is it possible, however, that fundamentally equal social relations would simply produce another style of gender?
Having never lived in a society with fundamentaly equal social relations, I have no data to point to. Philosophically, however, I think that the social logic of gender need not be sexist. I would like Adam to consider whether he likes or doesn’t like Princess Leia on a different basis than that of being a boy. On the other hand, I want him to enjoy being a boy. I want him to like it. I think that not liking it does lead, all other things being equal, to the kind of resentments that flow into the collective sexist disposition, the poison swamp of a million comments sections.
I was reading a German novel a couple of days ago and the author made an excellent remark: our education, or at least our sentimental education, of children makes it the case that children learn, by the end of childhood, how to be a child. But it is the nature of the case that they cannot, at that point, learn how it is to be an adult. And just as adulthood starts, education stops.
This, I would say, is another way of pointing to the fundamental place of philosophy in education, which never stops. But that is my prejudice, eh?  


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