“People are just as wonderful as sunsets, if you let them be. When I look at a sunset, I don’t find myself saying, “soften the orange a bit on the right hand corner.” I don’t try to control a sunset. I watch with awe as it unfolds.”
– Carl Rogers
Whatever thoughts and ideas spring to mind when you consider the terms ‘woman’ and ‘man’ in general, these same thoughts and ideas are the ones that you deposit with a person when you judge them to be a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’. Whatever associations you have concerning ideas of ‘masculinity’ or ‘femininity’, these will be the same associations you make when you identify someone as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. Rather than accepting the person as they are, you take a wide range of assumptions, beliefs and concepts, often which you have unconsciously internalised from your upbringing or society with no critical scrutiny, and dump them at the feet of another. This is the problem with gender.
If we buy into the idea that there are certain traits or characteristics that are associated with a particular gender, then we run the serious risk of believing that we can understand or make judgements about a person, before we actually know anything at all about them. This is a fundamental and dangerous error. There is huge controversy surrounding studies which seem to suggest innate neurological differences between male and female brains, with claims of neurosexism from researchers such as Dr Cordelia Fine. Dr Fine identifies ways in which our environment and experiences change our neurobiology, such that neurological gender differences can clearly be attributed to the different ways we treat male and female children from pre-birth onwards. In short, if your brain changes in response to ways of thinking and behaving that have been nurtured and rewarded throughout your life, then it should be of no surprise to anyone that male and female brains are different, given the different social expectations and standards we have for the sexes.
There are also serious problems with gender-based assumptions which bear some relation to David Hume’s ‘is-ought’ problem. Hume identified that we cannot move from a factual statement about the world, to a claim about how they world ‘should’ be. When applied to gender, even if (a huge ‘if’) we were to accept unquestioningly that there were innate gender differences, this still cannot tell us anything about the individuals in front of us. The fact that many females can, for example, have children, does not indicate that they should, nor that they will. The fact that many males have been socialised not to talk about their emotional problems does not mean that this should be the case, nor that it will be the case for the male we have sitting in front of us, in whatever context. General statistical trends cannot be applied to any one individual we encounter, as any individual may be an outlier.
It is also clear that there is a fundamental difference between a person’s gender identity, and their biological sex. Unless you have some direct interest in a person’s genitals, such as being their doctor or involving yourself in a sexual relationship with them, their genitalia are of no relevance to you. It is simply not possible to predict anything about the person in front of you based on what is in their underwear. Similarly, cases of gender dysphoria illustrate that whilst one’s biological sex may be a fact that one is born into, our own individual sense of gender is a different case altogether.
To impose our own assumptions about what it means to be a man or a woman, and, indeed, to assume that gender is limited to these two binaries at all, can have dire consequences. When presupposing that we can know anything about a person by their sex, we limit ourselves in our attempt to connect with who they really are. It is their own understanding of themselves and their respective capacities and potentials that are the relevant considerations. Only by becoming more aware of the assumptions and stereotypes we ourselves possess when it comes to gender, can we set these aside to accept the person for who they actually are. Only when we let go of the idea of what a perfect sunset ‘should’ look like, can we really accept the beauty of the sunset that we see before us.