Friday, November 25, 2016

Sex and Gender, Sense and Reference

"The idea of social constructionism is fine, but I don't think people have noticed that you cannot turn around and then claim that those constructs are sacred essences that you cannot question. This has always been a tension in feminism and gay / lesbian studies, and is going to be even more intense in trans- studies. If gender and even sex are socially constructed, then what makes my own private socially constructed identity so sacrosanct, so essential?" (Jonathan Mayhew)

The new legislators of pronoun usage seem to think that the things words refer to determine their meaning. Indeed, they seem to think that the people that words refer to should determine what the words mean.

Consider the case of Mary Bryson, who prefers to be referred to in the third person as "they". Bryson sees themself (is that correct?) as being of non-binary gender. That is, their gender identity is neither male nor female. They are neither a man nor a woman. The pronoun "they", they think, accurately refers to this non-binary gender identity.

But that's actually not what I usually mean by "they". In other words, in the above paragraph, where I have somewhat hamfistedly "respected" (as it's called) Bryson's pronouns, I'm using the word with a special meaning, peculiar to Bryson themself (note, again, this peculiar word, as my spell checker dutifully suggests). It's only when I'm talking about Bryson that "they" indicates a person of non-binary gender. In all other cases, when I say "they" I am using it as a plural personal or impersonal pronoun, to indicate more than one person or thing, or as a "generic" or non-gendered singular personal pronoun, to indicate a person whose sex I don't know.

Let me say that again. When I use the singular "they" I am not referring to the person's gender but their sex. Actually, that's of course not true either; I am unable to refer to their sex because I don't know what it is. In fact, a personal pronoun actually just refers to the person (specified by context) and carries information (or, in the case of "they", leaves this information out) about their sex. So "he" and "she", for example, indicates a person and tells us what sex they are.

[Update: A pronoun tells you what sex the speaker thinks someone is, not who that person thinks they are.]

Riffing on Frege's famous distinction, I think much of the confusion here has to do with the difference between sense and reference. As I've argued before, what is sometimes called "postmodernism" can be understood as a reduction of the problem of sense to the problem of reference. I remain sympathetic to this approach. And I've just realised something important that answers Jonathan's question in my epigraph.

When I say, "Jamie is an athlete. He competed in the Olympics," you learn something about him in the second sentence that wasn't in the first. You find out he's a male athlete, not a female one. There are two ways to interpret this. We could say, as Frege might, that the pronoun points to Jamie but says something about him too. It means more than its reference; it also has a sense. But that sense could, actually, also be considered a secondary reference, which is the sense (!) in which I consider myself a postmodernist. The so-called "sense" of the pronoun is really just another reference: a reference to, to put it bluntly, Jamie's penis or, more generally, if not quite generically, his sex. (Transsexualism in sports is very interesting, of course. And it may require a redefinition of sex, not gender, in terms of certain hormonal processes that determine athletic performance. However that conversation goes, it will continue to be a reference to biological or, rather, physiological sex, and the reason for this in sports is obvious.)

What Mary Bryson gets wrong is to think that the gender of the pronoun refers to her gender identity. Actually, that's not how identity works, as Frege showed. The gender of the pronoun could be understood as its "sense", but it doesn't mean (at least when I use it, or when most people do) what Bryson thinks it means. Bryson wants her pronouns to do way too much identity work. The pronoun simply doesn't invoke Bryson's (and certainly not Mary's) essence when I use it. She may think I'm misgendering her (just now), but she is simply wrong about what I mean. I am correctly (as I understand her story) identifying her sex, not assigning her a complete and immutable identity. The way I use "they" would imply (to people who understand me) that I don't know that Bryson is female.

This explains the "theoretical incoherence" of gender studies that puzzled Jonathan. They begin as postmodernists by refusing to make sense of our words in the ordinary way, reducing all meaning to the "play of signification", the endless multiplication of arbitrary references. But then, when the signifier points directly at them they suddenly take it, ahem, "personally". They notice the gender of the pronoun and think it's all about them, their gender identity, and, since they're not so presumptuous as to know who they are, they want the pronoun to express the full anxiety of their authentic being. They want to exist fully in the language. They should let their body do some of their being for them.

Other than a proper name, I don't know how to refer to someone's "true" or "authentic" identity. I can just try to talk about them at the level of referential detail that my knowledge allows. At the end of the day, Bryson wants to change the meaning of my pronouns, i.e., not the pronouns I prefer to be referred to with, but the pronouns I use to refer to people and things in my environment. I agree with Jordan Peterson when he says that neither Bryson nor the Parliament of Canada can decide what those words mean.

In a slogan that I'd like to become famous for, we can say*: "Pronouns have gender. People have sex." The gender of the pronoun conveys information about the sex of the person it refers to. Now, I respect people's privacy. So if someone wants to conceal their sex from me, by choosing a unisex name and an androgynous style, then I'm going to be stumped as to their sex and I'll be forced to use "their". It will not mean "I think this person is of non-binary gender" (because I don't know what that means) but "I don't know this person's sex." In most cases, they are in their right not to tell me, even if I ask.

As I understand the changes being proposed in the Canadian Charter of Human Rights, we are heading towards a future in which I no longer have a right to ask. I.e., not only do I not have the right to information that might help me determine the sex of the person I'm talking to or about, I don't have the right to seek that information through ordinary, interpersonal inquiries. These inquiries, unless framed as a respectful request for the persons "preferred pronouns," will be a violation of their dignity.

I think I'm understanding this correctly.

Anyway ... this was a really long and difficult post to write. I apologise. There are probably lots of things I need to clear up, but I'm going to put it out there. I think this is really important to think about.

*Note to self: always Google a pithy slogan you think you just invented before claiming to have coined it.

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