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Winter 2015

The Absurdity of Gender Theory

book cover imageLes démons du bien
by Alain de Benoist.
Pierre-Guillaume de Roux Editions, 2013.
Paperback, 279 pp, €23.00.

book cover imageNon à la théorie du genre!
by Alain de Benoist.
Editions Mordicus, 2014.
Paperback, 28 pp., €4.95.

Micah Mattix

In May 2013, François Hollande signed a controversial bill that made France the ninth country in Europe and the fourteenth in the world to legalize gay marriage. A little over six months later, news that a program called l’ABCD de l’égalité (the ABCs of Egality) was being introduced to six hundred French elementary schools sparked widespread protests after parents were told that it taught that gender was simply a construct of social customs.

School officials defended the program by arguing that its goal was simply to correct gender stereotypes and teach students to respect one another. Vincent Peillon, France’s minister of education, argued that the program did not teach that there was no difference between genders or that gender was constructed. There are a certain number of parents, he remarked at the time, “who have allowed themselves to be fooled by a completely false rumor that … at school we are teaching little boys to become little girls. That is absolutely false, and it needs to stop” (all translations mine). The previous year, the minister stated that the idea “that there are no physiological, biological differences” between men and women was “absurd.”

But the language of the original program (which has now been replaced by a more “generalized” one) was not as clear as Peillon suggested on the issue of gender. “Gender is a sociological concept,” it states, “that is based on the fact that relations between men and women are socially and culturally constructed. The theory of gender holds that there is a socially constructed sex based on differentiated social roles and stereotypes in addition to anatomical, biological sex, which is innate.” Elsewhere: “Biological differences should not be denied, of course, but those differences should not be a fate.” If sex is innate, how can it also be “socially constructed”? If biological differences are real, what does it mean to say that those differences should not be “a fate”?

In an article in The Boston Globe, the French protests were dismissed as misinformed and motivated by fear. Judith Butler even suggested that the real cause of the protests was France’s financial instability. Yet, over the past few years, the French have produced a number of well-informed and damning critiques of gender theory. One of the theory’s strongest critics is Alain de Benoist, a philosopher and champion of paganism with a soft spot for the syndicalist socialism of Edouard Berth. In Non à la théorie du genre! (No to Gender Theory) (2014), an extract of his much longer Les démons du bien (The Demons of the Good) (2013), Benoist details the philosophical absurdities and scientific errors of gender theory.

First, he argues, gender theory rests almost entirely on a terminological confusion. Traditionally, a person’s sex was understood to refer to an aspect of human biology—the end result of the development of a person’s genes. The presence of the SRY gene leads to the development of a male (a person with a penis and other biological attributes of the masculine sex). The absence of SRY leads to the development of a female (a person with an ovary and other biological attributes of the female sex). Gender, in turn, was understood to refer to shared characteristics of each sex. Many of these characteristics (body shape, voice, ways of thinking and acting) are shaped in part by a person’s biological sex, but others are almost entirely shaped by culture. Characteristics determined by culture are neither universal nor immutable and can be used to both oppress and honor individuals or groups.

According, however, to Judith Butler in Gender Trouble (1990), and most other gender theorists, there is no connection at all between sex and gender (where gender is understood to refer to one’s identity as male or female). Sex “is an analytic attribute of the human; there is no human who is not sexed; sex qualifies the human as a necessary attribute. But sex does not cause gender, and gender cannot be understood to reflect or express sex.” Gender is “always acquired.” In short, a person’s identity as male, female, neither, or both has nothing to do with one’s biological sex (i.e., sex, but I will use this technically redundant phrase for clarity). In “Rethinking Sex and Gender” (1993), Christine Delphy goes a step further. While the idea that “sex precedes gender” is “historically explicable,” she writes, by which I take her to mean that it is a fact, it is an idea that is “theoretically unjustifiable,” and one that is “holding back” gender theorists’ “thinking on gender.”

While it is absurd to suggest, as Delphy does, that our gender precedes sex, such a remark is based on the idea that scientific categories are arbitrary. Benoist does not discuss this aspect of gender theory, but it is one that is extrapolated from a partial truth poorly expressed in Jacques Derrida’s “Sign, Structure, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (1966), and one worth highlighting. Briefly, Derrida argues that both philosophy and science begin with an assumption or a question that becomes the center for the entire enterprise or structure. “The function of this center,” Derrida writes, is not only to “orient, balance, and organize the structure—one cannot in fact conceive of unorganized structure—but above all to make sure that the organizing principle of the structure would limit what we might call the play of the structure” (emphasis mine). That “play” for Derrida are those ideas or phenomena that don’t quite fit the structure’s “organizing principle.” His point is that philosophy and scientific discourse do not provide exhaustive representations of reality (hardly a news flash, even in 1996). They are merely ways of describing reality—ways that are never complete and always open to revision.

But just because there is more than one way to describe reality does not mean that all descriptions of reality are equally true, a point that Derrida himself may have even acknowledged. So the question is, how much sense does it make to hold that gender “precedes” sex or that sex itself is constructed?

None at all. To believe that sex is constructed is to hold that it is, as Benoist notes, an illusion. Gender theorists espouse this fantastical position because they have taken the uncontroversial observation that some characteristics associated with gender are socially constructed and applied it to biological differences as well. What empirical evidence do they offer that our sex, our identities as male and female, are constructed and not the result of nature? None. That’s because, Benoist writes, quoting Michel Schneider, a member of the Académie française and past Minister of Culture, “We don’t choose our sex, and there are only two.”

Benoist acknowledges that while there are only two sexes, there are a “plurality of practices … or sexual preferences.” It is nonsense to say that biological sex does not determine one’s identity as a man or a woman because that’s exactly what biological sex determines. What it doesn’t determine, Benoist writes, is one’s sexual practices. “The multiplicity of sexual preferences does not make the biological sexes disappear, nor does it increase the number. Sexual orientation, whatever it might be, does not negate the sexed body.”

This gets us to Benoist’s second objection to gender theory. Our biological sex not only causes the human body to develop genitals, but it affects how we think and act in profound ways, without, of course, entirely determining either thought or action. But in refusing to acknowledge that sex has anything to do with gender, gender theorists are forced to deny or ignore increasingly convincing scientific evidence to the contrary. “From the first days of life,” Benoist writes,

boys look primarily at mechanized objects or objects in movement while girls most often search for visual contact with human faces. Only a few hours after birth, a girl responds to the cries of other infants while a boy shows no interest. The tendency to show empathy is stronger in girls than in boys long before any external influence (or “social expectations”) have been able to assert themselves. At all ages and stages of development, girls are more sensitive to their emotional states and to those of others than boys … From a young age, boys resort to physical strategies where girls turn to verbal ones … From the age of two, boys are more aggressive and take more risks than girls.

(These are general differences to which there are, of course, exceptions. Nor do such initial tendencies (in young girls, for example, to express empathy, or in boys to take risks) mean that those tendencies are unchangeable. Boys should express empathy, and girls take risks. As noted below, one of the reasons that egalitarianism and gender theory have become so popular is that they take seriously the danger of treating such initial biological dispositions as immutable. However, just because certain initial tendencies are not immutable does not mean that there are no differences between the sexes or that sex is an illusion. Treating it as such, as gender theory does, destroys difference altogether, usually redefining feminity in masculine terms, and ironicially accomplishing the very thing they supposedly set out to combat.)

Our brains are sexed. Benoist writes that “the hormonal impregnation of the fetus has a direct affect on the organization of neural circuits, creating a masculine brain and a feminine brain, which can be distinguished by a variety of anatomical, physiological and biochemical markers.”

Even our cells are sexed. According to David C. Page, director of The Whitehead Institute at MIT, “Throughout human bodies, the cells of males and females are biochemically different,” which affects, among other things, how men and women contract and fight diseases.

A common response to the above is to suggest that such remarks are “sexist.” But this view is based on an egalitarian feminism that, as Benoist puts it, defines “equality” as “sameness” and is, in turn, distinctly anti-feminine:

Understanding equality as sameness alone, [gender theory] follows the modern ideal: society is supposed to consist of self-sufficient subjects, without any engagement or mutual attachment other than those made by the will, reason, or contract. Its credo is that women must ‘understand their identity as determined by liberty and not as the result of belonging [to a particular group]’ (Danièle Sallenave)—which is to say, that they should avoid thinking of themselves as women at all costs.

The idea that equality requires sameness developed from Derrida’s idea that binary categorization (presence/absence, masculine/feminine) always leads to a hierarchy in which one term dominates the other. In order to combat this supposedly “violent” hierarchy, feminists like Butler and others battled difference itself. In 2001, Monique Wittig wrote that we need to “destroy—politically, philosophically, symbolically—the categories ‘man’ and ‘woman’.” The irony, however, is that it is rarely masculinity that is destroyed in egalitarian feminism. What most often happens is that femininity is redefined in masculine terms. To be a real woman in the egalitarian view is to act like a man. In this sense, popular discourse to the contrary, egalitarian feminism has almost no interest in “diversity” because it is founded on the idea that difference—even biological difference—must be destroyed.

Benoist’s explanation of where this sort of radical egalitarianism came from and how it became so popular is intriguing but somewhat less convincing. (In Les démons du bien he argues, if I understand him correctly, that it is the result of Christianity [perhaps wrongly understood, though he is somewhat unclear on this], capitalism and a bastardized Marxism.) His criticism of gender theory, however—its equivocations, errors, and absurdities—is one of the best and most extensive to date.  

Micah Mattix (Ph.D., University of Fribourg) taught at Yale University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before joining the faculty at Houston Baptist University, where he is an assistant professor of writing and literature. He writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal and edits Prufrock, a daily newsletter on books, arts, and ideas.

Posted: January 18, 2015

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