Sir Francis Bacon, who’s been called the father of empiricism, argued in his Novum Organum (“new instrument of science”) that “… words are applied according to the capacity of ordinary people, [and therefore] shoddy and inept application of words lays siege to the intellect in wondrous ways”.
And it is likely to be instructive to ask ourselves what relevance that aphorism has to the so-called “TERF”-wars that are roiling the waters of Academia, and of more public political and social discourse.
However, more than just instructive, it seems vitally important that we “get the words right” in part because, as in transitioning “therapy” for young children – more like child abuse, getting them wrong looks to destroy not just reproductive capacities but entire lives.
And a common thread running through all of those somewhat rancorous if not sectarian “debates” is the question, the crux of the matter, of just what are appropriate and justified definitions for, primarily, the terms “woman” and “female”.
Equally relevant are the related terms for a literal myriad of “genders”, less a cornucopia than a dogs-breakfast in itself. Although it might be worth asking why the analogous terms, “man” and “male”, don’t seem to raise quite as much ire; maybe there’s some intrinsic asymmetry between male and female?
But, for one example, we have the ongoing dispute within the UK Labour Party (Labour’s purge of the trans-rights heretics) between “TERFs” – a somewhat pejorative term denoting Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists who apparently object, with no little justification, to including transwomen under the umbrella term “woman” – and transactivists who loudly and rather obnoxiously proclaim their “catechism” that “trans women are women”.
Lest any think that “heretics” and “catechism” are merely an excess of hyperbole, consider the actions and statements of one Lily Madigan.
She seems to be at the epicentre of that “purge” and its proximate cause.
She was “elected to serve as a women’s officer for the United Kingdom’s Labour Party”, is the first transgender woman ever to hold the position, and, at his recent talk at “the London Young Labour AGM”, insisted “we must and will kick terms out of our party”.
And then for another example, somewhat closer to home, we have the dispute at Laurier University on whether even discussing what pronouns can be applied to the “transgendered” constitutes “a form of transphobia and gendered violence”. Furthermore, we have the forthcoming court case featuring the Chilliwack School District which will, apparently, rule on the viability of “the concept that gender is fluid, untethered from biological sex” or whether the claims are so much moonshine, are an egregiously “unscientific theory” – Lysenkoism, Part Deux. Expect it will be pretty difficult to rule on that if one doesn’t have coherent and consistent definitions for the relevant terms to begin with. But should the Court, in their wisdom, rule that, yes, “trans women are women”, I look forward to them ruling similarly that 2+2=5.
But, given all of that, and many other similarly egregious cases where some have even suggested that the phrase “born female” might have “transphobic connotations”, one might reasonably argue that that “siege” has been more or less successful, at least in some benighted necks of the woods.
Which then raises the question of just where the roots that phenomenon lie, and what are the proximate causes of such “shoddy and inept application of words”. Particularly as it has more than passing relevance to cancer much of Academia is contending with, and which threatens to metastasize throughout all of society.
However, while it is no doubt a complicated issue – one connected to almost everything else in the universe.
While frequently mephitic miasma obscures the roots, there are many points of reference that might be worth noting, that might provide useful signposts in navigating our ways down into and up out of that particular rabbit hole.
And a primary signpost is provided by Michael Rectenwald, apparently an English professor at NYU, who more or less justifiably lays the blame at the feet of the ideology of postmodernism – even if there may well be elements of that which are worth retaining, to wit (my emphasis):
Postmodernism is not simply some bizarre fascination of the lunatic Left. It is now actually the dominant ideology of the time, which means that we live in a postmodern era. The notion that everything, including science, is a closed linguistic system without especial reference to any corresponding reality; that all “truths” are merely narratives; that each group and/or “self” has their own special standpoint epistemology and their own “truth,” which can neither be falsified nor verified by anyone else; that bodies, genders, “sexual differences” and the rest of the nonsense of which “selves” (and everyone has many “selves”) consist are merely social constructs from which the world is made as if from so much linguistic and ideational silly putty — this is now the mainstream Weltanschauung of the era.
Bit of a mouthful with any number of ramifications and implications, many which lie in the even more obscure dichotomy between philosophical realism and idealism.
However, the essence of the former – an “object exists in reality independently of our conceptual scheme [AKA models]” – seems to be reasonably credible, and is apparently subscribed to by most rational people.
At least except for the many postmodernists, “feminists”, and transactivists who seem to think that “it’s models all the way down”, that, as Alice of the Looking Glass fame suggested of Humpty Dumpty, “you can make words mean so many different things”, and all without losing sight of meaning itself.
In addition, there are any number of examples that give credence to Rectenwald’s charge, particularly relative to the postmodernism & transactivist view that “woman” in particular means anything and everything anyone wants it to – so, in consequence, it then means absolutely nothing.
For example, there’s the Slate article by Michele Goldberg – The Trans Women Who Say That Trans Women Aren’t Women – who accuse, with no shortage of justification, the transactivists in particular with “turning the words man and woman into floating signifiers that designate nothing but states of mind, and erecting a new set of taboos to enforce their ideology”.
A perspective which is echoed and amplified by Janice Turner’s “Purge” article in which she argues that “a feeling of ‘gender identity’ does not erase biological reality”; nor does it even trump it either. Similarly, the columnist Cathy Young tweeted an amusing though cogent summary of the perspective and the problem:
#BathroomWars 2020: Otherkin who identify as dogs challenge public urination bans b/c they should be able to piss on fire hydrants.
Rather remarkably bizarre concept, being charitable, that merely “identifying” as, say, a surgeon magically bestows on a person all of the skills, knowledge, and talents that allow that person to actually be a surgeon. Methinks too many have been indulging in so many video games that they’ve lost sight of the difference between fantasy and reality.
So then, where do we go from there? And, maybe somewhat surprisingly, a way forward may be found in arguing that while, as Rectenwald suggests, many postmodernists rely far too much on the (imperfectly understood) idea of “social constructs“, the idea itself is not totally without merit. For instance, it seems not at all untenable to argue that words themselves, among many other things, are in fact social constructs, are “things”, even if abstract things, that we as a society have constructed as a medium of exchange.
Which then leads, perforce, to questions on exactly how and why we create those words, and the rules by which they are “strung together”. And, as if to underline the argument that there is much in the Bible that is “profound psychology and exquisite logic” – even if that might be tempered somewhat by the “wheat and chaff” parable, some of those answers may be found in the science of taxonomy about which some have asked, with some justification because of its Biblical antecedents, Is Taxonomy the Oldest Profession?:
It seems that shortly after creation [Genesis 2:19-20], God called Adam over, lined up all the animals, and paraded them by so that Adam could name them and presumably choose a mate… There we have it – indisputable proof … that Adam was the first taxonomist, and taxonomy is thus the oldest profession.
Nice metaphor at the very least, but of some additional value in suggesting that “In the beginning was the Word … and the Word was God” is less a claim about the nature of a real deity than more an expression of wonder at how the marvelously generative process of naming is, in effect, one of creating the objects referred to virtually out of nothing.
Many have argued, with more than a little justification, that symbolic communication is the essence, or at least a crucially fundamental element, of our humanity, our claim to fame and fortune at least, if not to immortality even if that is still an open question. But it, therefore, seems not untenable to argue that words themselves – the “coin of the realm”, the medium of exchange – and the rules by which they are created and used, are of profound and primary if not of surpassing importance.
There’s also a concomitant justification and obligation to ensure that a “shoddy and inept” use of them doesn’t diminish their utility – which then justifies a closer look at that process of naming, at a refinement of “Adam’s” intuition and inspiration, even if that inspiration may not have been exactly due to “divine” causes.
And that refinement has culminated in the fully-fledged science of taxonomy which, at least in a biological context, is predicated on the principle of, “defining and naming groups of biological organisms on the basis of shared characteristics“. But it is that foundational principle which may, finally and after some convoluted preliminaries, allow us to resolve the dispute over definitions for “female”, initially, and “woman”, subsequently and consequently.
Of or denoting the sex that can bear offspring or produce eggs, distinguished biologically by the production of gametes (ova) which can be fertilized by male gametes.
While the source of that definition, Oxford English Dictionaries, is of course certainly not chopped liver, I think they kind of muddy the waters a bit with their “bear offspring OR produce eggs” before coming to rest on the latter as the primary if not essential element by asserting, “distinguished … by the production of gametes” – something which looks like a sine qua non. And something which Wikipedia more or less corroborates (my emphasis):
… In species that produce two morphologically distinct types of gametes, and in which each individual produces only one type, a female is any individual that produces the larger type of gamete—called an ovum (or egg)—and a male produces the smaller tadpole-like type—called a sperm.
But those definitions seem to be more or less predicated on the “brute” fact that a rather large percentage of the population – probably some 30-40% at least – actually do share the characteristic of “producing ova”. That is, the name for the class “female” doesn’t just “designate nothing but states of mind”, but refers to or denotes quantifiable and objectively real aspects of “reality”. And similarly with the (Wikipedia) definition for “woman”: “A woman is [by definition] a female (produces ova) human being”: rather large number of individuals who do share the characteristics of being both human beings, and possessing the ability to produce ova.
And that, I think, is where many transactivists, “feminists”, and postmodernists go off the rails and into the weeds, where they lose sight of the fact that the words – “female” & “woman” in particular – are joined at the hip with a nitty-gritty “corresponding reality”: yes, words are, in fact, “socially constructed” – one has to give the devil his due, but – in the cases for biological classes such as male, female, man, woman – the brute facts that large numbers of individuals share essential physiological aspects are most certainly not.
Almost criminal that so many try to sweep that distinction, those facts, that venerable science, under the carpets just to pander to the delusional, to promote bogus and self-serving “therapy”, to engage in “erecting a new set of taboos to enforce their ideology”.
Which brings us to the related issue of “gender” and, in a sense, the reason why we need to be precise in our definitions, particularly for that term as well as for the more important “sex” (i.e., male, or female). And the crux of the matter there seems to be that far too many, even those who should know better, are conflating the two – for instance, Dr Debra Soh; clearly no slouch in the science department (not everyone knows about taxonomy), writes in Playboy:
For those spouting uninformed drivel supporting the science of a gender spectrum, let me break down the basic lesson everyone learns in high school biology: Biological sex and gender are not two distinct, unrelated entities; they are intertwined, along with gender expression. This translates to biological reasons regarding why we are stereotypical or atypical in our interests and behavior.
In reality, no one is 100 percent male or 100 percent female regarding who we are, just as no one is 100 percent gender-conforming.
While her first comment is more or less correct, it appears to lose sight of the fact that there is a not inconsiderable percentage of the population who are of neither sex, who don’t produce either gamete for one reason or the other, but who might still claim title to one of the myriads of genders on tap. In addition, her apparent rejection of “a gender spectrum” doesn’t square all that well with most dictionaries, or with Wikipedia in particular:
Gender is the range [AKA spectrum] of characteristics pertaining to, and differentiating between, masculinity [a set of attributes, behaviors, and roles associated with boys and men (i.e., males)] and femininity.
However, her second statement both illustrates that conflation, and seems not to understand the standard – and taxonomy based – definitions for both male and female. For instance, a person either produces sperm – and is then 100% male – or “he” doesn’t – and is then 0% male.
There really isn’t any “spectrum” there at all, any possibility of being other than all or none. What she rather clearly seems to be doing is arguing that many of the attributes that typically correlate with “male” – taller than women (on average), worse than women (on average) in language skills, etc, etc., etc. – are essential elements of “male”. But all of those attributes – virtually an infinitude of them – are most definitely not part of what it means to be male, i.e., possessing the ability to produce sperm – period.
Bit of a confusing issue too which might be in part because “gender” is a something of a neologism, and not everyone has worked out the potential conflicts with older words – like “male” and “female” and their “human” counterparts – nor fully understood the biology and taxonomy involved. Nor the necessity of keeping one’s categories straight – changing horses in midstream tends to be a recipe for disaster.
However, an analogy with motor vehicles may help to clarify the difference between and separateness of gender and sex. Consider several different types of trucks, boats, cars, and planes, each of which is driven or propelled by, say, three different types of engines – hydrocarbon (diesel or gasoline), or electric. Then we might say that hydrocarbon (diesel, gasoline) engines are analogous to sex (male, female) while electric motors are analogous to intersex or no sex. In addition, we might then say that a particular combination of vehicle components (boat, outboard gasoline engine, 18-foot length, no chrome, etc) is analogous to a particular gender.
But we wouldn’t ever say that a particular engine (diesel) is the same as a particular motor vehicle – they are two entirely different categories, even though the engines are a component of the vehicle.
As we shouldn’t say that a particular sex is the same as a particular gender since the sex (gametes produced), or its absence is an entirely different category even though the sex is a component of gender.
“shoddy and inept application of words lays siege to the intellect in wondrous ways” – indeed.
There are many cogent if not profound reasons for, as well as important and far-reaching causes behind why we name things the way we do – if imperfectly perceived; “through a glass, darkly”.
But until we as a society are prepared to address those, and their ramifications – “without fear or favour”, so long will we tend, as Canada’s own Stephen Leacock amusingly put it, to “riding madly off in all directions” – and frequently causing no shortage of grief and mayhem in the process.
Which, while it may be of some entertainment value, is hardly conducive to much real progress, individual or social.
What do you think on this issue? Let us know below!
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