Neither Fish nor Fowl…

WHAT IS A WOMAN? A non-essentialist view (response to my gender crit friends)

Imagine, if you will, that on a world far from Earth, there are a series of islands. On each of these lives a different tribe which, owing to various factors, are at peace with each other. They use outriggers for trade, and make alliance when dangerous strangers show too much interest in their land and its possible uses, and once a year there is a great gathering at the central island to feast, exchange the results of their arts, and look for likely mates. Because this is a peaceful area, there are no rules about mating except what the individuals make for themselves. One or two outlying islands have some taboos about certain people marrying each other – they’re focused intensely on building a sparse population – but the result since these taboos have been made is to actually slightly go down in population. Several members have chosen to move to other islands with their mates. The rumor is that this tribe will be modifying their rules soon. None of the others much care; it’s none of their business. Those who wish to leave will be welcomed.

To these islands one day comes a wooden boat; large enough to survive the swelling seas as long as there are no typhoons. This one has achieved it. There are only two crew members on the ship; one a member of the Mahalo tribe, and the other a most peculiar looking person, with pasty skin and hair on their chest. The returning Mahalo explains that this is how people look on the other side of the world, and this person has been a good friend – helping steer the ship safely home. The friend, called Bundi, has not enjoyed life in that other nation, and was glad to leave.

As has been true many places on Earth, Bundi is viewed with some suspicion at first. Strangers have seldom come with goodwill. On the other hand, neither have they come singly, with a friend to vouch for them. Bundi is quite good with making ropes stronger than most; it’s in the knotting. Slowly, Bundi becomes familiar; not like the rest of them in appearance, but striving to learn the language and the customs and to be trustworthy. After a time, the Old Ones of the Mahalo declare Bundi welcome, and a member.

As is customary, Bundi comes with them to the Great Gathering. There is some suspicion there. A few people object. Bundi meekly stays among the accepting Mahalo. Over the years, people come to accept Bundi as one of them; but because some still are hesitant, having been invaded the most recently, the tribes decide that Bundi should not come to the gathering. A few friends stay with Bundi every year to have a party of their own. On their island, Bundi belongs. But it would be wrong to push others to accept what they do not wish to accept. When strangers can be enemies, why destroy the pleasures of the Great Gathering? There are alternatives. Because Bundi is an outsider for most of them, Bundi accepts these rules.

A few grumble that Bundi should not live among them, that the hairy ones will always be enemies. But they’re told off pretty quickly. It’s none of their business. They don’t have to come to the island where Bundi lives with the tribe. Since these complainers are usually the hardest to get along with, the consensus is that they’re welcome to come to the great gatherings and otherwise live with their own, rather unfriendly tribe anyway. No one will force them; they cannot decide for others who is welcome.

The moral of the story, if there is one, can only be that groups have the right to choose their own members, on any criterion they prefer. If Bundi had shown hostility, probably fewer would have been welcoming. Nonetheless, Bundi became a member of the tribe once the Old Ones decided. In other tribes, it might have been by consensus. In others yet, the lack of discussion would have been the decision. Just as no one intervenes with tribal decisions, so no other tribe would have had a say about who was a member of Mahalo.

How Power and Oppression Work

When considering trans people, I think the first consensus radical and socialist feminists need to come to is that different groups have different needs. Each has the right of association. Others have every right to condemn with whom they associate, even distrusting the decisions of the group, but the base must be what the group does; how it makes decisions, how it lives its life.

When groups come together to fight oppression – and as I’ll discuss, women are oppressed and need to come together – they can decide if they wish to include certain groups for any reason. They may not like their politics, they may not trust them to stay nonviolent, they may decide that only people born to the oppressed class should participate for whatever reason. Whatever the reason, the fundamental right to justice is to decide whom to trust, and at whose side you will fight.

People raised in the oppressed group – no matter how badly they felt they did not fit in – have a responsibility to accept this. If, as a group, one side has more power and control, the endangered group has the right to make rules for their safety. No member of an oppressor group can judge this unless they are given permission to judge.

Trans “women” have ignored this rule from the beginning. As a result, the likelihood of permission is far lower than it otherwise would be. When a group declares the oppressed group’s feelings irrelevant, offers no compromise, and uses physical and emotional manipulation to get their way, they are demonstrating ill will. When they use the power of the state to back them, they are underlining their intention of having their way over another, less powerful group. Add to that more economic resources for the group, more propaganda while blocking the voices of the other, and it’s pretty clear that the ones raised as oppressors have, despite verbally rejecting their privilege, cling to it despite the result to the lives and rights of others – rights they try to remove, including the right to a livelihood and the right to speak.

In short, to say trans women are women begs the most elemental of questions: can oppressors by fiat join an oppressed class? Can white people who grew up members of a colonizing population simply declare one day that they are not white? Can the ablebodied buy a wheelchair and claim membership among the disabled? Can those who learn sign language, but who are not deaf, join a community which only speaks by sign language and considers itself a community? Can the wealthy, while not giving up their wealth, declare themselves by goodwill members of the working class? And if they do give it up, do they then have full presumption to speak for the workers, despite the fact they learned a different way of speaking, body language, arts and scientific study?

When women ask such questions, others dismiss them, saying that the cases are not parallel for whatever reason. By tacitly accepting that some marginalized people have the right to make their own definition of who belongs with them, and explicitly making clear that women are not among those marginalized people, one belief becomes very clear: as far as other groups are concerned, women, as a class, are not oppressed, and are not Other. Fifty years of analysis, the development of an understanding of patriarchy, the demonstration that no matter how privileged at other intersections some women are they can’t buy out of the assumption that their body is the entitlement of men, mean nothing. The result is an absolute denial that women have the right to defend themselves if others decide to invade. Women are not given the right of naming their own oppression. When they try to do so, they are attacked. We are again living in the 1950s.

How Women Developed Women’s Liberation and Lost It Again

Now, part of this comes from the rise of identity politics through the civil rights movement. Both the first and second waves arose out of civil rights movements primarily focused on color and ethnicity. What gets hidden in that narrative is that women of color, like their white sisters, began to notice that they were not equal in their own movements. They began, more and more, to define themselves.

Since whites were a majority in Western countries, it was easy for white women to focus primarily on issues which affected them. Since middle class white women – the ones privileged to go to college – had the leisure to go to meetings and spend weekends at protests, they had the additional privilege of standing up without fear of anything more than harassment, threats, and some physical violence. (Please note that they were subject to that, especially lesbians, who were viewed as an embarrassing deviation by the left; gay rights was rejected by every left-leaning group I knew in 1970 or so.) Only radical feminist groups stood up for the right to choose one’s sexual partner, as a logical extension of the right to control one’s own body.

The third wave has largely made this reality invisible, but it made a huge difference, since not all lesbians were white. The second wave was in fact arguably more mixed in their push for women’s rights because of the extreme marginalization of lesbians of color in their own communities. Adding to their invisibility was their determination to continue loyalties with the rest of their people – so their silencing began in struggles within groups of color, where women had little say, but much to say. At the same time, they were attracted to women’s liberation, because it spoke to them in ways their male-dominated culture did not. But white women, who coming out of the civil rights movement had commitment but coming out of white culture had limited knowledge, often needed more educated than women of color had energy for.

The betrayal of this struggle is best illustrated by the “inventor” of the third wave, Rebecca Walker. Rebecca was the daughter of Alice Walker, one of the most notable Black feminists of the second wave, and a white father. She wrote dismissively of the failures of the second wave to care about black women, even though her mother spent most of her life as a black feminist. Alice Walker for the rest of her life wrote painfully about her daughter, trying to understand how they had become estranged. Rebecca became a well-known “third wave” feminist by using her mother’s fame to be published in a second wave publication (Ms) and gaining a writer’s contract. In other words, she used the resources her parents had acquired and the credibility of her mother to attack her. And since, the failure to understand that women of color were involved in the women’s struggle from the beginning, despite error and unconscious racism, has been used to dismiss feminists as feminist, labeling them as “white” and therefore oppressor class only (no intersections for women!) is Rebecca Walker’s legacy to identity politics.

How Postmodern Theory contributed to the Destruction of Women’s Liberation

The history of the feminist movement has not been fully told. When Women Studies shifted to Gender Studies, the material base of feminism was lost. Queer theorists are not feminists, coming mostly out of the embrace of postmodernism, a literary theory without a material base. Postmodernism is influenced the most by textual critics who argue that the texts themselves are what imprison people; that changing the texts will therefore liberate them.

This is the precise opposite of Marxist theory, and goes against most radical feminist theory. These groups can be described as materialist progressives. Those dependent on postmodernism are not; they are liberals, committed to language and ideas as the source of status quo and change as all liberals are, just as their predecessors in feudal times were committed to God as the source of the status quo and change. Materialists/progressives ascribe oppression and liberation to changes in the material conditions of life. One does not “enact” oppression; one attacks it with physical resistance and economic change. And one analyzes it via power: who has control? For whose benefit do most laws exist? What do educational systems perpetuate? What do majority religions value? If there are contradictions to overall power, do they operate to overthrow or to teach acceptance?

To “enact” reality is to assume that material conditions are not the base of power. As such, the theory is embraced by people who have achieved economic and state power, or see it in their grasp, and wish to keep it. Academics, for example, can obtain great status with a theory whose actual fundamentals require careful study to find what’s missing; a theory which celebrates obscurity by its own definition of erasing master narratives as a way to end oppression. Marxian scholars – from Marx through Gramsci to Paolo Freire and the present day – view theory and praxis as dialectical, each informing the other and guiding a culture to resistance and revolution. As such, ideas must be accessible to those who are oppressed; the obscuration (?) of ideas is a deliberate ruling class tactic. Postmodernism – even to some extent its more material sisters in poststructuralism – illustrates how that obscuring works. The status quo cannot be challenged, let alone overthrown, by symbolic means. It can only perpetuate those already in power.

In short, the oppressed have always been defined as Other, and marginalized, by those who benefit from the system. The oppressors have control of the structures which keep people unquestioning, or at least obedient. But within each group, marginalized or central, a particular way of doing things, a method of interpretation, develops. Some of these are higher status – a ruling class will define the nature of art, what are the highest status foods, and so forth. But every group develops its own culture. And that culture is partly passed down with tacit assumptions – of course no one wears bright colors to work; of course one doesn’t raise one’s voice when excited. They are passed on by each cultural group.

This communication is useful for maintaining structures of . It’s inevitable in a hierarchical society that the powerful communicate with the less powerful in a certain way which maintains that power. On the other side, the marginalized, who have more to lose when moving among the powerful, have their own code; ways to avoid triggering entitlement rage, for example. They also have customs and ways of speaking among themselves which builds relationships – highly necessary for survival in a marginalized population.

____________________________________________________________________________________________TO BE CONTINUED

Culture and Meaning in Women’s Community

These communicative behaviors have been well-established among communication scholars, linguistics, and others who pay attention to difference.

It should go without saying that any definition of woman needs to include both the biological and the material consequences of being female. At the same time, a materialist does not embrace  the religious aspects of gender; mystical abilities assigned to one sex or other proceeding from biology, for example. “Woman” is most important for its social implications; that is, the dynamics of power and control. In other words, the “body” of a woman is the site of struggle on which political dynamics play themselves out. It has meaning, and those meanings have consequences.

Without meaning, a body is… just a body. Some have abilities many have not got. In a social world, individual interpretation of one’s body is no one else’s business, unless of course there are medical or other implications in certain specialties. In such a case, a body is only relevant to its owner and the professionals s/he engages in adjusting it for a better physical or mental personal life.

But meaning is universal to humans, except a few extremely brain-damaged individuals. Meaning is culture, and culture is meaning. As Edward Hall says, culture teaches us what to pay attention to and what to ignore. All humans have feet, but only particular cultures assign the feet meaning , so that pointing a foot at an object is a deadly insult. All humans have right and left hands, but some cultures view the use of those hands with awe or disdain. Whether a human is sinister or not may well  be which hand they use as dominant.

Cultures may acquire these meanings almost at random, from other power dynamics. But one tendency of bodies is universally noticed historically: the ability to produce children from inside them. And, once noted, culture has assigned meanings to that.

Those meanings are called “gender.” Without going into the early worship of the female for its ability to produce children,  I will summarize what gender has meant since the rise of agriculture at least: a division of labor, a particular place in the acquisition of resources, and a constant awareness that culturally men and women are not the same because of reproductive distinctions.

Birth in a gendered body takes on specific meanings in every culture. If gender is identifiable, assumptions are embedded into the pronouncement by experts (midwife, doctor, etc.) of sex. These assumptions have existed long before a particular baby comes into the world, may well be specifically addressed to the future child, and certainly from the moment sex is known the baby’s gender will be policed, either to follow expectations or in a few cases to challenge expectations.

That policing, and the resistance and collaboration to policing, is the center of dialectic. (I will not discuss the nature of dialectic here; it’s essential to understanding materialist thought, so you will need to research it or wait till I write on it.) No one can opt out of dialectic living in a culture. The dance of power shifts according to the values and gender beliefs of each culture. It well may be that there is no avoidance of a status assigned to difference in any post-agrarian culture. It certainly is true that in Western-dominant cultures, there is specific status which comes with sex which is underscored by the value of the labor individuals do – or avoid through allocation of resources. From here on, I’m going to speak only of Western-influenced culture, though the particular relations of power vary according to other oppressions; especially ethnicity and color, ability, age, and acquired social status.

Thus, to be a human female is to be presumed to exist as subordinate to males: to provide them with domestic labor, nurturing, and sexual servicing, plus whatever tasks are specific to the group. These assumptions are so embedded in the culture that they are not noticed until violated. (This is the nature of all cultural assumptions, including what time units the culture acknowledges, amount of space each individual gets, what colors are acceptable for a group member to wear, and so forth. This is a standard agreement of what culture is among ethnographers and related researchers; ie to put it as the Marxists did, fish do not notice the water in which they swim.) In short, gender, the meaning of the sex one was born with (or believed to be born with, in the handful of intersex cases) is constantly identified and reinforced, with the result of reinforcing power relations between the distinguished sexes.

Once women started noticing that the distinctions were not to their benefit, often causing their deaths or enslavement, and started trying to do something about it, gender became a central focus for resistance. For convenience, I’ll call the women, and their male allies, who noticed and resist, “feminists.”

For those of us in the materialist camp, the cause and therefore solution to the problem were the attempt to capture and control resources. What might otherwise be assumed to be held in common – food, air, water, space to roam, — was claimed by the most powerful for themselves. Good air became harder to find, water became undrinkable or simply unavailable, etc. The ones who captured the resources could then sell them back to the presumptive owners for a profit, and enjoy the natural benefits once enjoyed, or at least sought, by all humans, at any level they preferred. Once the view of the norm became the claiming of ownership, in the view of these powerful, women became one of the resources. Exceptions might be made through sentimentality – we all know people who treat their pets better than the gardener who works for them – but as a class, women were a reproductive and domestic labor resource, to be exchanged and used like any other.

This is where I differ from some gender critical feminists. For them, this oppression is innate to their reproductive essence. Their physical bodies determine their exploitation, and male domination. “Woman” is therefore a physical reality; a “female” person who is supposed to have uterus, mammaries, vulva and so forth which determine her function. Gender and sex for them are almost completely overlapping in this area, although the culturally-specific prescriptions for gender are obvious artificial, and therefore false. Clothing, colors, acceptable work, etc. are all arbitrary, and contribute to the ongoing exploitation of women. In that sense of gender, they support its elimination and pay full and complete attention to its reproduction in the culture.

I’m an ethnographer; specifically, one out of critical studies. For me, it was established long ago that “reality” does not exist except mediated through language and cultural perception. Once, that was the central position of anthropology, but through the years – and lots of research – it’s been revised to a much softer version. (This is a good thing; at one time this difference was used to explain while human beings in other cultures didn’t think or feel like us, justifying colonization.) However, differences in meaning do guide people’s expectations of the world.

Try a small experiment for a week. Start referring to the “world turns to light” instead of “the sun is rising.” Instead of tomorrow, use “one global turn.” Call a year “one trip around the sun.” See how it affects your feelings in relation to the earth. The translation to this new terminology will slow you down. And yet, of course you’ve always been aware that the earth is moving and flying through space. There is no change in cognition; merely in habit of thought.

That “merely” is of course a lie. Anyone who has spent a few years in a different culture from the one they were raised in will testify that it can be stressful; and the older we are when we switch, the more difficult. Since culture is layers of meaning, much like grammar and basic language, it’s highly probable that it’s hardwired within us to acquire cultural competence as it is to acquire language competence. That physiological ability in our brains, however, has a critical period – to acquire language, 5 to 8 years, as I recall. The research for cultural acquisition hasn’t be done, but it’s pretty certain there’s a point at which it stops too.

I want to argue that the extreme distinction between boys and girls, and the artificial separations of them, lead to them growing up in two different cultures. This has been well-established in communication studies over the years. While overlap is part of cultural bell curves, almost any communication study you find can confirm that there is a difference between men and women in their communication patterns. Male communication patterns tend to lean toward competition for dominance, and women’s toward greater cooperation. We can argue that these are innate, but not very successfully. Therefore, they are a big clue that each group has a tacit understanding of how things are supposed to work in their cultural group.

For me, then, trained in ethnography and communication, gender is best identified not by the obvious requirements of female and male behavior, but the unnoticed, tacitly acquired communicative cultural behaviors. These remain tacit often even in violation – someone breaks the rules of their gender’s communicative expectations and the others feel less comfortable, without being able to specify why. More, the individual who never quite acquired the proper communication patterns will also feel uncomfortable, not fitting in. [i]

Queer Theory proponents argue that gender, and even sex, are constructs, and therefore can be ignored or eliminated by human choice. This has led, of course, to the colonization of women’s culture by the declaration that anyone who feels like a woman is a woman. Besides being an absurdly vague approach to biology and community, declaring another territory as one’s own by fiat far more closely resembles imperialism than just moving in as a neighbor. It also problematizes exactly what differences exist in the “construction” of biology which require more close attention. For example, both gender essentialism and queer theory are dependent on the existence or nonexistence of sexual dimorphism for their approaches – in one case, because the definition of “woman” depends on biology, and in the other, because the definition of “woman” depends on the nonexistence of a specific sort of biology. However, dimorphic research suggests a range of finding, where different “women” have different “biologies” which still vary from local males, and the implications of this have yet to be fully explored. [ii]

In short, biological variations are still being researched. Some researchers definitely are arguing that there are more than two sexes; a position which trans advocates use to justify their redefinition of selves as female, although the logic there is shaky, since if those researchers are right, people could just as well be one of the other sexes yet to be identified.

However, Ironically, historical reality is far less questionable than biological science. Women have been a subordinated class for a long time. Their upbringing leads them to react as a subordinate group, giving men an advantage among them in competition for dominance. Men, on the other hand, knowingly or otherwise, have learned a set of behaviors which sets them at an advantage when in a women’s community; first and most significantly, the habit of dominance competition. One study which needs to be done is to track the behavior of women and trans women in a cooperative social setting (ie where the women welcome and accept trans women as women). In such a friendly atmosphere, it would be possible to measure the frequency of such behavior as turntaking, topic shifting, and assistive story telling, which have been long-established as more typical in one gender than another.

[i] Please note Donna Haraway’s work on primatology and what she called “situated knowledge,” which I prefer to “standpoint.” “Haraway’s account of feminist primatologists shows not only that a partial (as opposed to impartial) feminist perspective was productive in terms of asking new questions, of illuminating new objects and categories of objects, and developing new theories. It also shows that what, at the time, were more mainstream perspectives were, as all viewpoints, also partial. If those more mainstream views seemed impartial, it was because those who held them had long possessed institutional and social power such that they did not need to consider the alternatives and because the discipline had previously excluded many who held different partial perspectives.” (Feminist Philosophy of Biology, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminist-philosophy-biology/)

 

[ii]  For example, “Zihlman argued that sexual dimorphism was not a unitary phenomenon. Different species can be sexually dimorphic not only to different degrees, but in different ways, including bone length and structure, tendencies to build muscle or fat tissue, and/or canine size. These different kinds of sexual dimorphism can be related to differences in aggressive capacities and differences in foraging strategies, both of which had been associated with evolutionary accounts of gender differences. Zihlman’s stance as a feminist scientist allowed her to focus on heterogeneity and complexity, which made generalizations about sexual dimorphism highly problematic and undermined associations of general sexual dimorphism with male dominance.” (plato.stanford.edu)

It should go without saying that any definition of woman needs to include both the biological and the material consequences of being female. At the same time, a materialist does not embrace  the religious aspects of gender; mystical abilities assigned to one sex or other proceeding from biology, for example. “Woman” is most important for its social implications; that is, the dynamics of power and control. In other words, the “body” of a woman is the site of struggle on which political dynamics play themselves out. It has meaning, and those meanings have consequences.

Without meaning, a body is… just a body. Some have abilities many have not got. In a social world, individual interpretation of one’s body is no one else’s business, unless of course there are medical or other implications in certain specialties. In such a case, a body is only relevant to its owner and the professionals s/he engages in adjusting it for a better physical or mental personal life.

But meaning is universal to humans, except a few extremely brain-damaged individuals. Meaning is culture, and culture is meaning. As Edward Hall says, culture teaches us what to pay attention to and what to ignore. All humans have feet, but only particular cultures assign the feet meaning which varies from able-bodied issues. All humans have right and left hands, but some cultures view the use of those hands with awe or disdain. Whether a human is sinister or not may well  be which hand they use as dominant.

Cultures may acquire these meanings almost at random, from other power dynamics. But one tendency of bodies is universally noticed historically: the ability to produce children from inside them. And, once noted, culture has assigned meanings to that.

Those meanings are called “gender.” Without going into the early worship of the female for its ability to produce children,  I will summarize what gender has meant since the rise of agriculture at least: a division of labor, a particular place in the acquisition of resources, and a constant awareness that culturally men and women are not the same because of reproductive distinctions.

Birth in a gendered body takes on specific meanings in every culture. If gender is identifiable, assumptions are embedded into the pronouncement by experts (midwife, doctor, etc.) of sex. These assumptions have existed long before a particular baby comes into the world, may well be specifically addressed to the future child, and certainly from the moment sex is known the baby’s gender will be policed, either to follow expectations or in a few cases to challenge expectations.

That policing, and the resistance and collaboration to policing, is the center of dialectic. (I will not discuss the nature of dialectic here; it’s essential to understanding materialist thought, so you will need to research it or wait till I write on it.) No one can opt out of dialectic living in a culture. The dance of power shifts according to the values and gender beliefs of each culture. It well may be that there is no avoidance of a status assigned to difference in any post-agrarian culture. It certainly is true that in Western-dominant cultures, there is specific status which comes with sex which is underscored by the value of the labor individuals do – or avoid through allocation of resources. From here on, I’m going to speak only of Western-influenced culture, though the particular relations of power vary according to other oppressions; especially ethnicity and color, ability, age, and acquired social status.

Thus, to be a human female is to be presumed to exist as subordinate to males: to provide them with domestic labor, nurturing, and sexual servicing, plus whatever tasks are specific to the group. These assumptions are so embedded in the culture that they are not noticed until violated. (This is the nature of all cultural assumptions, including what time units the culture acknowledges, amount of space each individual gets, what colors are acceptable for a group member to wear, and so forth. This is a standard agreement of what culture is among ethnographers and related researchers; ie to put it as the Marxists did, fish do not notice the water in which they swim.) In short, gender, the meaning of the sex one was born with (or believed to be born with, in the handful of intersex cases) is constantly identified and reinforced, with the result of reinforcing power relations between the distinguished sexes.

Once women started noticing that the distinctions were not to their benefit, often causing their deaths or enslavement, and started trying to do something about it, gender became a central focus for resistance. For convenience, I’ll call the women, and their male allies, who noticed and resist, “feminists.”

For those of us in the materialist camp, the cause and therefore solution to the problem were the attempt to capture and control resources. What might otherwise be assumed to be held in common – food, air, water, space to roam, — was claimed by the most powerful for themselves. Good air became harder to find, water became undrinkable or simply unavailable, etc. The ones who captured the resources could then sell them back to the presumptive owners for a profit, and enjoy the natural benefits once enjoyed, or at least sought, by all humans, at any level they preferred. Once the view of the norm became the claiming of ownership, in the view of these powerful, women became one of the resources. Exceptions might be made through sentimentality – we all know people who treat their pets better than the gardener who works for them – but as a class, women were a reproductive and domestic labor resource, to be exchanged and used like any other.

This is where I differ from some gender critical feminists. For them, this oppression is innate to their reproductive essence. Their physical bodies determine their exploitation, and male domination. “Woman” is therefore a physical reality; a “female” person who is supposed to have uterus, mammaries, vulva and so forth which determine her function. Gender and sex for them are almost completely overlapping in this area, although the culturally-specific prescriptions for gender are obvious artificial, and therefore false. Clothing, colors, acceptable work, etc. are all arbitrary, and contribute to the ongoing exploitation of women. In that sense of gender, they support its elimination and pay full and complete attention to its reproduction in the culture.

I’m an ethnographer; specifically, one out of critical studies. For me, it was established long ago that “reality” does not exist except mediated through language and cultural perception. Once, that was the central position of anthropology, but through the years – and lots of research – it’s been revised to a much softer version. (This is a good thing; at one time this difference was used to explain while human beings in other cultures didn’t think or feel like us, justifying colonization.) However, differences in meaning do guide people’s expectations of the world.

Try a small experiment for a week. Start referring to the “world turns to light” instead of “the sun is rising.” Instead of tomorrow, use “one global turn.” Call a year “one trip around the sun.” See how it affects your feelings in relation to the earth. The translation to this new terminology will slow you down. And yet, of course you’ve always been aware that the earth is moving and flying through space. There is no change in cognition; merely in habit of thought.

That “merely” is of course a lie. Anyone who has spent a few years in a different culture from the one they were raised in will testify that it can be stressful; and the older we are when we switch, the more difficult. Since culture is layers of meaning, much like grammar and basic language, it’s highly probable that it’s hardwired within us to acquire cultural competence as it is to acquire language competence. That physiological ability in our brains, however, has a critical period – to acquire language, 5 to 8 years, as I recall. The research for cultural acquisition hasn’t be done, but it’s pretty certain there’s a point at which it stops too.

I want to argue that the extreme distinction between boys and girls, and the artificial separations of them, lead to them growing up in two different cultures. This has been well-established in communication studies over the years. While overlap is part of cultural bell curves, almost any communication study you find can confirm that there is a difference between men and women in their communication patterns. Male communication patterns tend to lean toward competition for dominance, and women’s toward greater cooperation. We can argue that these are innate, but not very successfully. Therefore, they are a big clue that each group has a tacit understanding of how things are supposed to work in their cultural group.

For me, then, trained in ethnography and communication, gender is best identified not by the obvious requirements of female and male behavior, but the unnoticed, tacitly acquired communicative cultural behaviors. These remain tacit often even in violation – someone breaks the rules of their gender’s communicative expectations and the others feel less comfortable, without being able to specify why. More, the individual who never quite acquired the proper communication patterns will also feel uncomfortable, not fitting in. [i]

Queer Theory proponents argue that gender, and even sex, are constructs, and therefore can be ignored or eliminated by human choice. This has led, of course, to the colonization of women’s culture by the declaration that anyone who feels like a woman is a woman. Besides being an absurdly vague approach to biology and community, declaring another territory as one’s own by fiat far more closely resembles imperialism than just moving in as a neighbor. It also problematizes exactly what differences exist in the “construction” of biology which require more close attention. For example, both gender essentialism and queer theory are dependent on the existence or nonexistence of sexual dimorphism for their approaches – in one case, because the definition of “woman” depends on biology, and in the other, because the definition of “woman” depends on the nonexistence of a specific sort of biology. However, dimorphic research suggests a range of finding, where different “women” have different “biologies” which still vary from local males, and the implications of this have yet to be fully explored. [ii]

In short, biological variations are still being researched. Some researchers definitely are arguing that there are more than two sexes; a position which trans advocates use to justify their redefinition of selves as female, although the logic there is shaky, since if those researchers are right, people could just as well be one of the other sexes yet to be identified.

However, Ironically, historical reality is far less questionable than biological science. Women have been a subordinated class for a long time. Their upbringing leads them to react as a subordinate group, giving men an advantage among them in competition for dominance. Men, on the other hand, knowingly or otherwise, have learned a set of behaviors which sets them at an advantage when in a women’s community; first and most significantly, the habit of dominance competition. One study which needs to be done is to track the behavior of women and trans women in a cooperative social setting (ie where the women welcome and accept trans women as women). In such a friendly atmosphere, it would be possible to measure the frequency of such behavior as turntaking, topic shifting, and assistive story telling, which have been long-established as more typical in one gender than another.

Such studies should already have been done, but the tendency of women to give way to men seems to have manifested in the trans discussion as well. This may partly be due to the fact that many liberal women do not think in terms of power relations and take claims at face value, despite overwhelming research showing difference in ways of accessing space. This has not been helped by researchers who seem to fear postmodernist theory and do not directly deconstruct its assumptions of power-free manifestation, or its historical use not as social liberation but as an insight art, moving farther from critical thinking traditions every year.

In the meantime, one should logically view the category “woman” as socially constructed but now existing in material manifestation. Oppression, silencing, active taking away of one’s livelihood aimed specifically at one sex class and not the other is material. But it is not biological; nor at this point in history is it done for biological reasons, except perhaps body envy.

With this definition, it is possible to envision that some people born male may be argued to be “women” (though not “female,” which remains a biological category of value, medically if not other ways.) By taking on the characteristics of the oppressed category and embracing them permanently, making a full commitment to resist colonization of women by the oppressor class and doing so, by acquiring the cultural values and behaviors of the oppressed group and trading their first culture’s behavior of dominance, they will be treated as women by the oppressor and therefore for all intents and purposes should be defined as such.

And it should be obvious that those who do not change their cultural behaviors cannot be defined as women, even if they embrace the secondary gender characteristics attributed to women, or make bodily changes which are men’s view of what makes women women. [iii]

[i] Please note Donna Haraway’s work on primatology and what she called “situated knowledge,” which I prefer to “standpoint.” “Haraway’s account of feminist primatologists shows not only that a partial (as opposed to impartial) feminist perspective was productive in terms of asking new questions, of illuminating new objects and categories of objects, and developing new theories. It also shows that what, at the time, were more mainstream perspectives were, as all viewpoints, also partial. If those more mainstream views seemed impartial, it was because those who held them had long possessed institutional and social power such that they did not need to consider the alternatives and because the discipline had previously excluded many who held different partial perspectives.” (Feminist Philosophy of Biology, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminist-philosophy-biology/)

 

[ii]  For example, “Zihlman argued that sexual dimorphism was not a unitary phenomenon. Different species can be sexually dimorphic not only to different degrees, but in different ways, including bone length and structure, tendencies to build muscle or fat tissue, and/or canine size. These different kinds of sexual dimorphism can be related to differences in aggressive capacities and differences in foraging strategies, both of which had been associated with evolutionary accounts of gender differences. Zihlman’s stance as a feminist scientist allowed her to focus on heterogeneity and complexity, which made generalizations about sexual dimorphism highly problematic and undermined associations of general sexual dimorphism with male dominance.” (plato.stanford.edu)

[iii] The most glaring difference between what women define as “women” and what men do appear to be breasts. Trans people seem to acquire breasts, or the appearance of breasts, with the belief that this improves their appearance and confirms their gender. This seems to be an old trope; when I was young, men at Halloween dressed up as women, and what they found most hilariously fitting were stuffed bras or even balloons to emphasize that they were women. When drag kings and others imitate men, there was more of a range of interpretations, from facial hair to stuffed socks in the groin area, swaggering, etc. Women attracted to other women may enjoy breasts, but would not judge them as the primary definer of female; in fact, with the battles of trans identified males vs. lesbians these days, lesbians are extremely specific that the lack of a penis is the most important attribute of being female. I have not heard one claim that the presence of breasts if the defining characteristic. This seems an exclusively male fetishization.

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Dialogue and Its Limitations

Books

I sucked at dialogue till high school. I mean, everything I wrote was 90% narrative with the occasional sentence of dialogue tucked in. Nobody much read my work but my mom, but I knew it.

I had been going to be a writer since I was old enough to read. I was a competent enough critic even I knew my writing was bad. And since I enjoyed reading stories with lots of dialogue, I decided to do something about it.

Here’s what I did. I started writing plays.

They weren’t good plays. Very few high school writers are especially brilliant, and I wasn’t one of them. But plays force you to write dialogue to further the story, and so I had to write something I was bad at. And because I was committed to being a good writer, my plays, as far as interactiveness was concerned, got better.

In the process, I learned the one thing writers most need to know. This is a simple but antisocial rule. Writers need to eavesdrop.

I went to coffeehouses, college libraries, bus stops, and just sat there and listened. After awhile, I also watched. This is what I learned.

First, conversation doesn’t sound anything like narrative. If a person is a person, she sounds like she’s making it up as she goes. He stammers, or stutters, or starts sentences and then starts and finishes with a different sentence.

And as I watched, I learned other things – things I had no words for. People who were in love… you could tell. They sat closer, they bickered in a different way, they looked at each other all the time. They ducked their head, or they faked coolness. They basked in the presence of each other. They said “you” with a little fondle in the voice.

People who were angry sometimes were closer, sometimes a little farther away than two people talking to each other normally were. Their voices were sharper, their sentences either meandered along or were clipped to just a few words at a time. They said “you” as if it were a bad thing. If it were two guys, they often shoved or poked.

Plays became not enough, and I went back to stories, as I knew I would, because I wanted to describe how people behaved. I was puzzled, because I knew that wasn’t dialogue – but it somehow was important.

Years later, in college, I read Edward Hall and began to see that every interaction goes on with words, but not just words. Everything in a culture means something. How far apart you stand, the language you use, the music playing out your mood – a whole person exist in a culture, and a writer should be aware of it.

Most writers aren’t. I have always found the literary genre as a whole boring, and when I started analyzing it, I realized one major reason was class blindness. Most literary writers come from a privileged background, or at any rate learned to write in a privileged milieu, and don’t notice their own culture. So the people in it are seldom people I care about or are interested in. I’m not upper middle class, and their problems and concerns seldom reflect my life.

Before you start screaming about “universal,” stop. I do like some literary fiction, if it’s aware. Most of the writers who do that well have what WEB Dubois calls “doubled vision,” though. They see the “norm” but they see it through their experience, which is not the norm. That’s why, I think, I like sf and fantasy so very much: it forces a doubled vision.

The biggest problem with dialogue is that we don’t notice what we do far too often. Too many writers write not as their characters would talk, but as the plot requires. Their descriptions seldom encompass much in the way of body language or other nonverbals. One thing I still enjoy about teenage writing (which I can get quantities of in fanfic) is that they are so imbued with pathos that they provide thick description of it with their characters. Their people are always listening to certain music and lyrics, wearing particular clothes, arguing in particular ways.

Dialogue is not just the words on the paper; that’s why writing a play is an awesome exercise. You have to provide stage directions. Where the actor raises and lowers his voice, if an actress actually shrugs her shoulders – those things have meaning. Most of us know on an unconscious level what that meaning is. What writers need to learn is how to recognize those behaviours, and then use them to build a character.

Reflections of a “Grammar Nazi”

Suzzallo Library, UWI read the phrase “Grammar Nazi” years ago, as I perused the pages of Live Journal fans — fan fiction is a personal and academic interest of mine. The phrase annoyed me partly because it ridiculously overstates its case (no one who knows anything about the Nazis would really believe that there are people who break into private homes, drag them off to camps, and kill them, invade other countries in search of power, and desecrate old icons by making them stand in for blood.) But of course, it’s also an insult and a suggestion that a fondness for Standard English or common spelling is wicked.

I wrote and posted some commentary on that on my blog at the time. Since this journal is about teh writing (sorry, fanspeak) I would like to get it on record here as well. Understand, it doesn’t mean I am 100% accurate in my proofreading. It’s simply a defense of trying to get style right. I’d like to add, I also favor non Standard English when the situation calls for it; there are cultural and social differences, and dialogue demands honoring these.

That said, here are the Reflections.

***

My mother had sterling silver she’d gotten for her wedding. Much of it, mostly the spoons, was ground up in the disposal over the years, but the knives remained intact until my parents divorced, and Mom took over “manly” chores like tightening screws.

She didn’t own a screwdriver. She used the sterling to tighten and untighten. When I was having a problem with a loose bracket under my bookshelves, she’d say, “Go get a knife out of the drawer.” For a hammer, she used anything handy, usually a loose brick.

I was an adult before I learned that unscrewing something is far, far easier with a screw driver – not to mention kinder to the sterling. That a hammer can hit a nail with greater accuracy and more force. That the right tool makes all the difference between temporarily solving a problem and fixing it.

As a result, I’ve become a passionate tool advocate. I’m totally messy, but ever since I got a toolbox I always put my tools back into it. I have six or seven screwdrivers, both Phillips and flathead. (I think my mother finally broke down and bought a Phillips screwdriver as her first tool besides the putty knife for fixing broken windows – a common occurrence in our home.) Each has different torque and different size, and I simply love using them. I also have an electric drill which doubles as an electric screwdriver, but I haven’t got the hang of it yet.

I’ve had a lot more formal training in writing than carpentry. The nearest to being taught anything about repair work was being shown by my ex’s current partner how putting paraffin on a screw makes it easier to put in and take out later. Helpful, and it made me feel cool and macho, but not extensive.

And that formal training and private experience has left me with one deep conviction: a writer who’s serious about writing acquires the tools of the trade.

I have a dear friend who is working on her editing. It took years to convince her that she should be, though. Her attitude toward writing was that anyone who beta’d for her would catch the errors and fix them anyway.

You’ve got to understand, there was always at LEAST one error in spelling per paragraph – and her paragraphs are short. Typos, erratic punctuation, and dubious grammar were also constant. The result was that I spent most of my reading time noticing errors rather than concentrating on the story. Reading it was like using a silver knife on a screw; eventually one would be finished, but the constant slipping of the tool meant an overall shoddy job and a diminished temper.

If you’re a writer, words should matter. Yes, character and plot are important. Crazy people and critics debate which is “more” important, but for academically-trained writers, there’s a bottom line – they both have to be dealt with. That’s filtered down to commercial as well as amateur writers, but what some don’t seem to know is that style is on that list as well – if your style sucks, the story sucks. And just as there are right and wrong tools to develop character and plot, there are right and wrong tools for style.

For those who know and love words, every misspelling, every misplaced comma, each grammatical inaccuracy damages the story. I taught beginning writing courses (college beginners) for many years. As a teacher, I would not correct their work, just highlight the most important errors and let them figure them out for next time. I’m sure a lot of the business majors and so forth had the same argument as beginning writers: when I’m famous, I’ll just hire a proofreader.

Well, on a purely marketing level, the problem with that is the steps to famous. Unless you have been married to a serial killer or had an affair with the President, you’re unlikely to get a writing contract on the basis of content alone. Showing a poorly edited work marks you as an amateur –not a fan sort of amateur, doing good work for sheer love of it, but someone who wants the kudos without doing the apprenticeship. Hard to sell.

But there is a higher level than commercial considerations. Writing is an art. You have a choice of producing the best art you possibly can, or doing a slapdash job because it’s not the work, but the praise which drives you. It doesn’t have to be a choice. You can do really good work because it matters, and then luxuriate in the praise as other people recognize your labour. But only if you understand what should be in your toolbox in the first place.

Spelling. In Shakespeare’s time, English was consolidating from several other languages, and spelling was fairly random. After all, hardly anyone previously was literate, except people hired just to write for other people, and of course (some) people in religious orders. England was still primarily an oral society, and a mongrel one at that, so French, Anglo-Saxon, and other local languages all competed for a logical spelling. Now, there are standards, but the changes in international communication seem to be leading to another spelling civil war.

Grammar. The crossbreeding of language led to a highly unfortunate situation where present and past tenses and subjunctives have lots and lots of exceptions to any rule. Sometimes it’s because a reasonable past tense (like go, goes, goed) sounded like some other word, so speakers began using the past tense of another common verb, wend, and over time the rules became go, goes, went.

As in our adventures in spelling, we seem to be in another era where that’s going on – even places where paid editors used to guard the gates of grammar are now showing invented words; nouns where perfectly good ones already existed, and verbs conjugated in unexpected ways. Some of the changes may even be reasonable: how many of us actually know that the present tense of “wrought” is “wreak,” for example? And why should we care? But others are newly invented and decreasing the standard – “gift” and “gifted” as present and past tense verbs, for example, when “give” and “gave” were already there, out in public, giving tautness to a sentence as good verbs do. Or nouns like “cliché,” turned into an adjective when the adjective “cliched” already happily hung around volunteering. (“I write clichés” is correct, and so is “my writing is clichéd”. Though I hope untrue.)

Punctuation. Why punctuation matters will make sense if you ever take a class in, say, Northwest poetry, or study the works of the late Adrienne Rich. Reading the poems aloud, you learn that how poetry sounds is incredibly important; breaking on the line or against the line make a difference in cadence, the free verse poet’s form of meter. If you read national ads aloud, you’ll hear the same thing. In that case, the writer is usually trying to make their words sound as much like speech as possible.

Actually, it might be useful to think of punctuation as the score for a song. It can slow down or speed up a line, clarify what part of the sentence is important, or imply a particular emotion by presence or absence. Try reading the following couplet aloud:

I barely grown now wait for you

To give my life meaning.

Aside from the phrasing, which is not the subject of this essay, this could sound several ways: ironic, wistful, tragic. Even the line breaks play a part:

 I

Barely grown now

Wait for you

To give my life

Meaning

Is designed to slow the sound and to work with the breaks. Punctuation can do the same thing, but it’s not especially attractive in poetry if avoidable:

 I, barely grown,

Now wait for you

To give my life meaning.

If you’re sitting here reading this and thinking, omigod, I had no idea the line breaks in poetry were anything but random unless they rhyme, and go out to find some other poems to see if I’m right, you’re a serious writer – or at least, reader. If you’re reading this and thinking, “What a waste of time for fiction – it’s not poetry,” you’re perhaps a serious critic, but not a serious writer. (I used the word “serious” where nonwriters would probably substitute the adjective “obsessed.”) And if you’re thinking, “This is the perfect illustration of a waste of time,” it’s not words which drive you, which perhaps should be one of the warnings at the top of your fic. I would deeply appreciate that warning. The odds are I wouldn’t read the fic, which could only benefit both of us (if you believe in karmic punishment).

Aside from the fact that betas do not catch everything, and therefore should be an addition, not a substitute, to your own proofreading, letting someone else decide the cadence of your work is to make it less your own. Do you let betas decide your characters’ back story? Or change your plot twists for you? Assigning style to a beta shows contempt for language no writer can afford.

That leads to the last of the four things you should think about.

How words fit together. Style isn’t just important to the literary genre, though there it often obscures plot, character, and even world building. I googled dictionary definitions, and came up with the highly unsatisfactory “how things are said.” I finally found a really good one: 

“The author’s word choice, sentence structure, figurative language, and sentence arrangement all work together to establish mood, images, and meaning in the text.” (readwritethink.org)

Style is all the elements, taken together, which makes what you’ve written yours. People who read a lot in certain genres would recognize a typical Faulknerian or Hemingwayian sentence without thinking twice – and many other writerly variations. In the fanfiction world, even certain uses of adjective make someone familiar to me. Humorists are often particularly identifiable – try confusing Thurber and Dorothy Parker, for example, even though they wrote at the same era and very often for the same magazine. One reason is because what makes humor funny is timing; what the Greeks called kairos for speech. Often, timing in writing might just be putting the most important word in a sentence at the end. From that, it expands infinitely.

When you don’t notice the order your words come in; when you don’t read something you’ve written aloud to see how it sounds; when you assume that if it’s clear, that’s all that matters, you’re selling your future writing self short. It’s hard to improve without developing your ear as well as your eye. Yes, of course clarity matters — but never stop there.

If good spelling is a Phillips screwdriver compared to a sterling silver knife, developing an ear for timing and cadence is learning to use a hammer instead of a brick. It’s the most important tool you’ll ever have, and everyone has to make her own.

Please don’t think this is a rant. It’s a plea for you to start learning the tools of your trade, or the tools of your favorite activity. There are certainly good stories out there with terrible “SPAG” (fanfic slang for Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar) but many discerning readers will never know that; they won’t get that far. 

It’s like my mom telling me, “Get a knife from the drawer and tighten that screw.” Like my mother’s labour, it’s well-intentioned and unlikely to last.

Watchers at the Gates

It happens to the best of us...
It happens to the best of us…

A long time ago, a friend talked me into starting this blog, basically so I could read hers. Now she’s talked me into entering words into it! It only took four years, bless her.

I took my blogname, the Watcher at the Gate, from Gail Godwin’s lovely piece on her inner critic, which sabotaged her writing occasionally. My novel, Gates, has been in process 9 years, and while some of that is from illness and ineptitude, some of that is also the invasion of the Watcher at the Gate.

So now that I’m trying to keep writing that and other things, I thought I’d just post a link to the piece which inspired me. If you haven’t run into it, you may find it helps. Here it is.

Friday Fictioneer: The Old Desk

He’d disappeared. I checked the kitchen and the bedroom.

Then I checked his study.

His shabby old desk looked as it always did. I glared, as always, at the ugly photo of him working at the desk.

“It’s ironic,” he’d say, when I suggested he get a better picture. “Look at me. I look just like the foxhunter on his horse – same curved back and everything.”

I looked closer. Howard always used the quill. He insisted on it superstitiously. But in the picture, he was writing with a modern pen.

I picked up a paper. “Help!” it said.

antique-desk

I’m participating in Friday Fictioneer, a 100-word drabble challenge from a picture prompt. It’s hosted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields and anyone can play.

Friday Fictioneer: Wingwalker

http://rochellewisofffields.wordpress.com/ photoprompt for writers: Friday Fictioneers.
Photoprompt for writers: Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

She’d wanted to ride a plane her whole life.

The photograph of the DC-10 from a passenger seat fascinated her. She had put it up next to her desk at home and stared at it, wistfully.

“Think of that view,” she told her husband Sammy. “Just a vee of aluminum alloy, and beyond that, the world.”

Sammy made his living following politicians around. “A plane ride’s bad food, shoulder-to-shoulder people, bumps and bounces, spilled drinks. Why would you want to be a passenger?”

She sighed and prepared to bank. “Back to your seat. I’m putting the seatbelt light on.”

***

I’m participating in Friday Fictioneer, a 100-word drabble challenge from a picture prompt. It’s hosted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields and anyone can play.