binary reasoning ignores human diversity
It ‘s always neat of course, to be able to classify entire variegated populations in a simple binary opposition: such as “male” versus “female” . And this binary gender opposition is then all too often fed into an equally binary intellectual debate : biological determinism ( biological sex completely determines gender behavior) versus cultural determinism (there are no biological differences, only cultural ones) . All of that binary thinking only serves to woefully reduce the potential richness of a highly diverse humanity.
Biological and cultural factors interact in the most complex ways to produce what is then perceived as either “male” or “female” behavior. Take for instance an important biological factor: the influence of testosterone on brain-formation and behavior. Yes, “on average” a human male body will have higher testosterone levels than a human female body. And, yes , testosterone plays a role in how the brain functions.
But speaking of “average” testosterone levels masks the fact that “the overall [testosterone] ranges for males and females are very wide, such that the ranges actually overlap at the low end and high end respectively” .
So even strictly biologically speaking, any purely testosterone driven cognitive and behavioral differences are not strictly binary (either male or female) , but are situated on a continuous scale.
Furthermore, this testosterone level is not an entirely endogenous biological phenomenon causing certain behavioral effects, the testosterone level itself can be influenced by social & cultural factors . For instance, in a male who has been defeated in battle, testosterone levels will subsequently drop, while they will rise in the winner.
And then, importantly, the brain itself is not only formed by endogenous biological factors. To a certain extent the brain is plastic : human experience and learning will modify existing neuron connections or form new ones. “thinking, learning, and acting actually change both the brain's physical structure (anatomy) and functional organization (physiology) from top to bottom”. “new findings [suggest] all areas of the brain are plastic even after childhood”
So there we have humankind in all its diversity, with male and female humans possessing varying doses of biological determinants coding for so-called “masculine” or “feminine” behavior. And the wide range of possible dosages makes that instead of all men and women naturally displaying respectively either “100% masculine” or “100% feminine” behavior, individual men and women are rather dispersed on a continuous gender-scale, with quite some behavioral overlap between the sexes.
Also, the members of this diverse human species are not once and for all formed by immutable, inborn biological factors, they will continue to evolve in function of their diverse experiences, surroundings and education.
totalitarian patriarchies squash human diversity
Totalitarian patriarchal societies relentlessly squash this human diversity in a two-step process.
First, a totalitarian patriarchy will allow for only one single all-encompassing definition of respectively masculinity and femininity. These definitions will then uniformly regulate all forms of permitted behavior for men and women, be it in the public or the private sphere. All natural overlapping and ambiguity is suppressed : “average masculine characteristics ” apply to all men and “average feminine characteristics” apply to all women, always & everywhere. It is also crucial to note that all characteristics leading to autonomy, power and authority will be the strict preserve of men.
No woman can ever be a judge or a doctor or an engineer, or be passionate about sports and no man can ever be selflessly caring or not like football. This merciless conditioning obviously strengthens the binary definitions and becomes self-fulfilling.
In a second step, the totalitarian patriarchy (*) will then further depreciate any typical “average feminine characteristics” vàv the “average masculine characteristics”. And thus it permits persistent oppression not only of women as individuals (who in 'step one' were already denied any of the highly praised "masculine characteristics") but also of “feminine characteristics” in general. This oppression takes place, again, both in the public and in the private sphere and it can range from simple disrespect and scorn for “feminine”, ”soft” qualities such as kind-hearted sympathy, to outright economical & political repression, and to private violence and unpardonable cruelty vàv women.
In some of these totalitarian regimes women, only because of their sex, are denied freedom of movement and expression, are denied access to education, are denied economic independence, are denied political voting rights – women are thus in effect stripped of personal, political, civic and economic rights, in short: deprived of essential human autonomy.
a moral appeal ….
And it is a continuing moral disgrace for our times that these crimes against individual women, these crimes against human plurality in general, are not denounced with more vigor, neither locally nor on the international political scene.
Why is the battle against the persistent systematic sexual violence against women in DR Congo, in Sudan, (and elsewhere … !) not placed higher on the world political agenda? Why is the persistent violation of human rights in Saudi Arabia not a matter of UN action? It is of course depressingly instructive that the above two questions definitely sound politically naïve.
(*) In the “Origins of Totalitarianism” Hannah Arendt describes a crucial totalitarian feature: “total domination”. “Total domination, which strives to organize the infinite plurality and differentiation of human beings as if all of humanity were just one individual, is possible only if each and every person can be reduced to a never-changing identity of reactions” . “The problem is to fabricate something that does not exist, namely, a kind of human species resembling other animal species whose only ‘freedom’ would consist in ‘preserving the species’” --- It’s the kind of total domination to which fundamentalist patriarchies indeed subject half of their population ….