by Dr. Sinéad Murphy
Some weeks ago, I was invited to speak at a student conference, to be hosted by Newcastle’s Philosophy Department on November 17th 2021. The title of the conference: “Thinking Differently”.
Having accepted the invitation, I began to consider what theme I might best speak on. It is coming up to two years since I have had the opportunity of addressing a group of young people on philosophical matters, although I have spent half of my lifetime in regularly doing so. The chance should not be squandered, I thought – not in these challenging times, at any rate.
I had the idea of beginning my presentation with a brief account of a chance meeting that I had a couple of months into the first U.K. lockdown of 2020, when I collided with a man suddenly and without warning. I was running, he was coming out of a pharmacy. Before either of us knew what was happening, we were in each other’s arms.
Or – I was in his arms, to be precise. He had extended them outward and forward so that they grasped my shoulders. I had drawn my elbows towards my body and put out my palms so that they pushed against his chest.
I thought of asking the students at the conference to consider what were the remarkable ingredients of this brief encounter, and whether we might draw any conclusions from them about the nature of our being in the world with one another.
I planned on pointing out these three remarkable ingredients:
First: how apt our bodies had proven to be, the man’s and mine, to have managed an encounter for which there was not enough time for reflection, not only in a manner to avoid injury but so as to avail ourselves best of our relative size, strength and movement in pursuit of our common welfare.
How beautiful the arrangement was that our two bodies settled upon with such ease! Unable to process the encounter-conceptually, we saw everything and arranged everything corporeally, as if following some well-worked out and practiced choreography. We entered together – as if we had been preparing for it for months – into a complex kind of dance hold: he playing the role of support, exerting enough pressure to stop my forward movement without causing me to fall over or against him; I using his body to stop my stride and steady myself.
Second: how autonomous our bodies were shown to be. Already, we were several weeks into a lockdown during which we had been so receptive to changing the fundaments of our ways of thinking about ourselves, one another and the world that, given any moment for consideration, we were swerving from one another on the street, keeping our own hands away from our own faces and opening doors with our elbows. We had a new vocabulary too – distancing, masking, isolating – which we were parroting as if we had been pronouncing it all of our lives.
But, robbed of the time for these ways of thinking and talking, as this man and I were by the suddenness of our meeting, it turned out that our bodies had hardly been touched by the weeks of relentless messaging, that our flesh and blood enjoyed a most inspiring immunity from the propaganda – that our bodies were not for swerving at all.
And third: how the aptitude and autonomy of our bodies, the man’s and mine, as revealed in the manner of our meeting, was thoroughly, irreducibly gendered. The complimentarity of our collision, its almost instantaneous resolution in an equal degree of economy and elegance, was a gendered achievement through and through: he comported himself like a man, extending his arms, steadying himself by way of supporting me; I comported myself like a woman, folding my elbows towards my body and steadying myself by way of supporting myself against him.
That was how I planned to begin with the students: by describing an encounter, so deceptively simple, in which the extraordinary aptitude and autonomy of our bodies were in play, and in play as gendered possibilities.
My thought was then to pose some questions.
One question: in spite of the common explanation for my encounter with the man inevitably involving the claim that our meeting was “just a reflex action”, where is the justification for this implied denigration of bodily awareness and judgement?
We come from a long tradition – philosophically buttressed – of presuming that our bodies are erring and fairly inert and that it is our capacity for abstract reflection in which our greatness lies. But, in only a few weeks of lockdown, our capacity for abstract reflection had shown itself to be dispiritingly available for reframing by the messaging of those trained in behavioural psychology while resistance continued to be shown in many small and intimate ways by our bodies, which remained largely loyal to their years of formation and did not forget what they knew only because they were being nudged to by their government.
Another question: is it the case that we are autonomous beings only insofar as we are bodied beings – that, for all that our bodies would seem to lack the flexibility and adaptability that have been so inflated as values in our post-industrial society, it is in them that our most fundamental principles are incubated in times of flux, on them that we can rely for our continued, humane orientation to ourselves and one another and our world?
Another question: is it possible for us even to imagine how it is that our bodies might be formed, made apt, infused with the basic values of our society, in a manner that is not gendered? How would a non-gendered process of formation be achieved? Who or what would implement it? Who would train those designated to apply it? And in whose interest? And to what end?
As it is, whatever remains in our society of the formation of bodies is conducted almost entirely implicitly, modelled for us and brought to bear on us in a million ways by the men and women with whom we are surrounded from birth and who, formally and informally, are charged with shepherding our maturation. If we are to dream now of a less gendered life, or a more fluidly gendered life, what are the mechanisms whereby the age-old formation of our bodies along gendered lines is to be severed and replaced by ungendered modes? Is the pursuit of this dream inevitably going to fail? Or, if it does not fail, is it destined to simply form our bodies less, to diminish the aptness of our bodies and therefore the greatest and most resilient source of our autonomy?
In support of these questions about whether the current suspicion of traditional gendering of bodies may constitute a direct assault upon our aptitude and autonomy, I thought of including for students a short account of the view of Ivan Illich, as outlined in his book Gender, in which he provides enlivening examples of the rich variation in fundamental complimentarity that characterizes all cultures other than those of the industrial West, cultures in which dress, play, tools, tasks, talk, in other words all aspects of life, have been woven with the shaping of bodies along gendered lines.
I thought of suggesting to the students what Illich argues for forcibly, that is, that exploitation of populations or of parts of populations, including on sexist grounds, is only possible once populations have been recalibrated as comprising, not men and women, but human beings with ‘equal rights’. Only once this is done, only once deep-seated vernacular arrangements of men and women have been abandoned or held in contempt, are members of a population made available for ‘equal’ or ‘unequal’ treatment, I planned to suggest.
I further considered asking the students to question whether, in order to abandon old gendered arrangements, in order to establish the ‘level playing field’ on which exploitation can occur, many of the tasks that had been carefully and historically performed as part of a gendered culture – food preparation, care of children, and so on – had to be done in the shadows, as what Illich calls “shadow work”, in a kind of pre-exploitation phase in preparation for the ‘everybody is equal’ stage, after which only more exploitation can occur.
I was not unaware, of course, that the topic of my presentation might, in the current climate and for an audience of young people, seem to stray into the question that unfortunately now dominates any discussion of gender, that is, the phenomenon of transgender.
The theme of transgender is a fraught one, I know. So, I thought that my response to students who might introduce the theme would be only to ask what societal conditions must obtain for it to be possible to experience yourself as in the ‘wrong’ body or having been assigned the ‘wrong’ gender.
In a fulsomely gendered way of life – from which, arguably, our best chance of aptitude and autonomy arises – to experience yourself as in the wrong body is tantamount to experiencing yourself as being the wrong person. Your body is so interwoven with your understanding of and orientation towards yourself, others and your world, that to hate it or reject it is to hate that which constitutes your horizons of possibility and to reject that through which you, other people and the world are meaningful.
Insofar as it is now possible to hate and reject your body, insofar as it is now possible to wish to change your body’s gender, I planned on asking the students whether the intimate alliance between our gendered bodies and our orientation to ourselves, the world and one another, which Illich describes as characteristic of all societies outside of the industrial West – whether this alliance must already have been broken.
If this alliance between ourselves, one another and our world that has historically been guaranteed by gendering has been broken, and if it has always been the mode by which our bodies have been made apt, and if the aptness of our bodies is where our best hopes of autonomy lie, then a final question in this regard might have been whether the very real and important phenomenon of gender dysphoria might be a grave cause for all our concern about our prospects of genuine aptitude and autonomy.
I thought of ending my presentation to the students with some recent examples of the demonisaton of gender, with the Conservative Woman’s report on September 25th 2021 in which Isabel Logan described how a teacher at her daughter’s all-girls school apologised to the class for having addressed them as “Girls”, with British Airways’ recently reported decision to stop using the phrase, “Ladies and Gentlemen”, with the Scottish Government’s publishing of its Covid vaccination statistics for “pregnant people”, and with Californian governor Gavin Newsom having last month signed a new law compelling large toy stores to provide gender-neutral toy sections.
As part of a conference entitled “Thinking Differently”, I judged that it might be worth ending by asking whether these apparently progressive moves against the alleged straitjacket of gender might not rather represent a further and final erosion of our greatest hope for aptitude and autonomy: our gendered bodies.
As it happens, however, I am no longer to give a presentation to students of Philosophy on November 17th this year. Having been asked to submit a title for my talk by the member of staff overseeing the event and having submitted the title “Our Age of Vanishing Gender”, I was informed a couple of days later that the students who were designing the poster for the event had resigned from their participation in it on account of my presentation’s title and that the event had been cancelled out of concern for students’ “mental health”.
Thinking differently? Only so long as we are thinking the same.
Dr. Sinéad Murphy is an Associate Researcher in Philosophy at Newcastle University.