29 March 2019

Gender is a grammatical construct

I’m taking the title of this blog post from a paraphrase of an anecdote that my Classical Hebrew teacher, Fr Paul Tarazi, once told to our class. Fr Paul Tarazi’s class is an experience, by the way, and it is not to be missed when it is offered. He is full of these anecdotes, particularly from his time teaching in Romania, and he loves to use them as ‘asides’ with his class. Unfortunately, he learned very quickly that I am both of Ashkenaz descent, and (worse) a philosophy major with an interest in the Classics – and he likes to poke gentle (and sometimes not-so-gentle) fun at both groups: we ‘German Jews’ because we cannot pronounce our own language correctly – confusing ב /b/ and ו /w/ by pronouncing both of them /v/ – and we philosophers because, in his view, we over-speculate about everything. ‘The Greeks,’ he says, ‘always want to go down into the depths of everything. The Russians want to ascend the lofty heights, among the heavenly clouds. No one wants to stand here, with me, at eye level!’ It is always good to know my place. And so taking a class with Fr Paul Tarazi is a salutary exercise – not just for my language skills!

At any rate, he once made a point about liberal theologians wanting to make God to be a ‘her’ as much as a ‘he’, saying that God has no gender. No – he says – in the text, God has a gender, and grammatically speaking, He is always male. The speculations about God’s gender (or lack thereof) stem not from the texts but rather from the classical theist conception of God combined with the fact that the English language has no grammatical gender. He does not take offence, of course, but he does imply that the idea that God can be a woman is a form of intellectual colonialism. These texts which are in classical Hebrew and Aramaic, which belong to the Church and to the people of that region, are subject to ‘Anglo-Americans’ (actually, not just Anglos) with fancy degrees and a narcissistic attachment to their own ideas, who think they know better than the people who wrote the text, or than the indigenous people who can read it for themselves. Whether liberal or conservative, ‘the British and the Americans think they own the Bible,’ says Fr Tarazi. But we don’t, and Zionism is not the only error that results. ‘Holy Wisdom, hokmâh חכמה, may be a nice woman,’ says Fr Tarazi, ‘but,’ – unfortunately for the Anglo-Americans, whether feminist or misogynist – ‘the opposite of Wisdom is a woman, too!

Still, it is interesting to hear such anecdotes now. There are two distortions of gender which have unfortunately generated from this confusion of what is essentially a grammatical category. The first is the metastasis of gender into something with its own valence separate from language. English does away with grammatical gender entirely, and the East Northern Germanic languages do naughty, base, common things with grammatical gender. Owing in part to this Germanic linguistic confusion over gender, the concept itself is no longer a grammatical construct but a ‘social construct’, one which – because it no longer inheres to a real twofold distinction in the language, attaches itself to rôles that operate at a level above language.

Secondly, it has become overly-important in postmodern metaphysics as a philosophical property of mind, one that exists without reference to the body. God is grammatically male; and the Old Testament authors could speak of God as male only figuratively, the same way we would now talk about the ‘hands of God’, the ‘feet of God’, the ‘eyes of God’. Only the Incarnation renders God a literal, biological man. Gender is not to be considered a philosophical property of mind – at least, not provably. (There’s the pernicious philosophical confusion of classical theist notions with the grammatical conventions of Scripture.) The basic idea that ‘gender’ can be assigned such a pivotal metaphysical position in the modern philosophy of mind seems to be of relatively new (that is to say, post-1960s) provenance. And this is actually a much older position from which the earliest feminists (and the latest, but more on that later) rose in revolt. The idea that brains, that intellects and minds, could be ‘male’ or ‘female’ was inevitably attached to misogynist political-theological views of the mental capacities of women. And that position was precisely what early advocates of the parity of the sexes, like Christine de Pizan and Mary Astell, attacked in their work. Pizan and Astell insist that the capacity of women for the labours of the spirit and the mind is in no way inferior to that of men, because gender is not a property of the mind.

So: neither does gender inhere to the mind (that we can tell), nor does it have anything to do with the ‘social’ except as a part of language. Gender is a grammatical construct! That is how the authors of the text understood and used it. The philosophical speculation of whether or not God could be a woman, or the literalist personification of Holy Wisdom – still something a bit controversial in Orthodox iconography and theology – are both foreign to the indigenous understanding of the text. Muslims who read in Arabic, Jews who read in Hebrew and Christians who read in Syriac-Aramaic are, one hopes, simply not so stupid as to make such basic grammatical errors when reading the text. (But thus – to borrow Fr Paul Tarazi’s phrasing – is Holy Wisdom confused by the Germans with her opposite, while still remaining female!)

It is therefore not an accident that both confusions about gender have taken an outsized importance in the theologies of Western, Germanic-speaking countries which have lost the perspective about grammatical gender. Thus also the philosophy of Western countries; thus also the social theory of Western countries. John Milbank notwithstanding (though his postmodern theological critique of social theory is still important), Oxford is not the centre of the Christian world. Still less so are Cambridge, New Haven, Princeton, Durham, Nashville or Chicago.

It is important to understand that these distortions of the proper place of gender in the chain of being, even if they might seem liberating to a French poststructuralist or an American queer theorist, are ultimately misogynist. I hinted at that above in the allusion to Christine de Pizan and Mary Astell. The always-asserted, never-proven male mind / female mind distinction can only be pernicious in its effects against equality of the sexes. But interestingly enough, on a more contemporary note radical feminists are the ones leading the charge against it, and so I do defer to them here. Radical feminism has been finding since the 1980s that the assertion of a meaningful linkage between somatic biology and womanhood (that a woman is an adult, human female) actually allows for better, and better-informed, radical critiques of institutions and practices that oppress, injure and harm women. But they have been largely swimming against a current in Western feminist academia that was mispositioning ‘gender’ as the relevant analytical term.

I do not think it is accidental, either, that the perspectives of women in the West and those of their sisters living in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Africa and South Asia began to diverge in major ways around the same time. Non-Western feminists have been largely focussed on œconomic gains and recognition of what might be called somatic issues. For example: promoting girls’ education; promoting better pay for women; promoting women’s healthcare; ending female genital mutilation; opposing forced marriage, child marriage and domestic violence; ending human trafficking; helping women exit from prostitution. In general, there is also a more positive attitude among non-Western feminists toward the dignity of motherhood. At the same time, liberal third-wave feminists in the West were beginning to steer the conversation in poststructuralist and constructivist directions oriented around the gender concept as applied to sociology and the philosophy of mind. In many cases, the actual aims of liberal third-wave feminism have been at odds with those of Third World feminism.

I don’t think it’s either fair or useful – and in fact I would consider it patronising – to assert a developmentalist or Whig-historical logic and to assume that Third World feminists are simply ‘behind’ postmodern feminism, or that their perspective is conditioned solely by an adverse, ‘illiberal’ political climate. One could more usefully consider that the relevant difference is one between survival values’ versus ‘self-expression values along one axis of the World Values Survey. But I think phrasing the dichotomy in this way misses certain underlying theological distinctions that are, in turn, rooted in the linguistic confusions noted above. This may be overstating the case rather badly, and in fact I’m almost certain it is. But when so much of this particular political-philosophical problem is semantic, perhaps the languages in which gender is preserved as a feature of grammar, are also those in which the truth of the struggle of the sexes can be better-articulated and -informed.

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