Alva Noë has a recent post on gender, commenting on some of the experimental results described in Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender (some readers may recall that John Protevi and I are huge fans of her work, and of this book in particular). (Btw, Noë’s post even got linked by Leiter – it’s great to see Leiter drawing attention to gender issues.) I quote from Noë’s post:
Conjure before your mind the image of a physics professor. Imagine what his life is like. Now pretend, for a few moments, that you are that person. Try to get a feel for what it is like to be him.
Now let's start anew. This time think of a cheerleader. Picture her; imagine what her life is like. Now pretend to be her. Imagine what it is like to be her.
When psychologist Adam Galinksy and his collaborator at Northwestern University asked subjects to carry out this sort of exercise, they made a startling finding. After the exercise, subjects were asked to characterize themselves. Those individuals who had imaginatively adopted the perspective of the professor were more likely to describe themselves as clever than those who had been assigned the cheerleader persona. And those who had adopted the cheerleader perspective, were correspondingly more likely to describe themselves as gorgeous.
But that's not all. The exercise had actual effects on how people performed on tests. Those who had identified with the professor performed better on tests of analytic intelligence than those who had identified with the cheerleader!
He then goes on to argue that male and female are not objectively grounded concepts (in his terms, they are ‘unreal’), but rather ways ‘of thinking about yourself’, just as e.g. the concepts of gay and heterosexual (and so many others). He says in particular that the question 'Were there heterosexual in Ancient Rome?’ doesn’t really make sense, given that the category heterosexual was not part of the conceptual vocabulary of Ancient Romans.
Of course, this is something that feminist philosophers have been saying for ages (e.g. Butler on how gender is a ‘social construction’ or something to this effect). It seems to me that Noë’s contribution to the debate is to add a phenomenological twist: “At the same time, what could be more real than the way we experience ourselves as being?”
I was of course familiar with the physicist-cheerleader experiment (having read, nay, devoured Delusions of Gender myself). But it was only upon reading Noë’s post that it occurred to me that the experiment is in itself already overly tendentious. Unsurprisingly, the physics professor, the brainy one, is the male character in the story, while the not-so-brainy one is the female character. But to tease out the effect of gender from the effect of the smart vs. not smart stereotype, ideally one should also test for a different arrangement of the parameters (perhaps this has been done, but I don’t recall). So another group of subjects should also be asked to imagine themselves as a super-smart female biology professor (just to pick an area that is less male-dominated), and then as a male football player (by which I mean American football, since apparently in the US football football (which they call soccer), is widely perceived as a sport for girls). I have no idea what the results would be, but at least this set-up would make it possible to separate the male vs. female from the brainy vs. non-brainy dimension.
What I am trying to get across is that the problem is not so much with the concepts of gender as such, but rather with the stereotypes associated with gender concepts. In other words, I plea for a de-stereotyping of gender rather than for de-gendering. Mammals are the only animals with the significant physiological gender disparity of milk production, which then has major implications in particular with respect to child-rearing; ignoring this biological difference is a mistake, I submit (a mistake arguably made by some feminists but not by others, e.g. Sarah Hrdy). So it is not male and female as such which are (necessarily) deleterious categories, but rather the wealth of stereotypes associated with each of them; these are the associations which need to be contested, so that we end up with more fruitful ‘ways of thinking about ourselves’.
Noë ends his post with a thought-provoking question: “Would you want to free yourself from your self-categories, if you could?” My answer should be clear by now: I certainly would not want to free myself from the female category, but I want to construe this category in such a way that I am freed from the stereotypes associated with it. As I understand Noë, this would be very much in the spirit of the ‘phenomenological twist’ he proposes: “the way we experience ourselves as being”.
UPDATE: I just want to make clear that, while I do not want to get rid of the concepts of male and female altogether, one thing that should *definitely* go is a clear-cut, sharp understanding of the distinction, and also the idea that it is an exhaustive binary (i.e. everybody should fit in exactly one of these two categories). Check out this great TED talk by Alice Dreger on how biology itself does not justify such a simplistic, clear-cut understanding of gender/sex.