Gender on PBS 25 May 2006Posted by Todd in Biology, Cognitive Science, Gender, Science.
The past couple weeks, PBS has been airing a British documentary program with the absurd but titilating title, "The Secrets of the Sexes." I watched about 1/2 hour of it, and literally every single segment was characterized by misrepresenting and exagerating evidence, occluding contradictory research, tacking on irrelevant research, ignoring complexity, drawing conclusions not warranted by evidence, and/or pretending no human being has ever been socialized. Admittedly, I could only make it through about 1/2 hour before my brain started to seize, so maybe things got better or they repented of their intellectual sins later in the show. But in the 30 mins I watched, I kept thinking about all the amazing gender researchers in cognitive science and anthropology and even genetics who are doing such amazing work on the complexities of gendered phenotypes and how they were completely missing from this "scientific" program.
To be clear: I do believe that male and female bodies occupy different bell curves for a number things (not least of which is physical stature). However, scientifically, those bell curves overlap a great deal, so that most human beings actually fall within the same statistical norms for things like cognition and emotionality (not to mention physical stature). But for some reason, we seem incapable of having the complex discussions about the mutual relatioship between bodies/genes and society/culture–indeed, as I've said before, I don't think "nature" and "nurture" can be separated anymore in any scientific way. But culturally, it is just too easy and comforting to think that Women Are from Venus and Men Are from Mars. (Please, if you really believe that, you've never spent a night at a bar with a man who just got dumped.)
Let me give one illustration: A group of scientists begin by testing multi-tasking abilities. They find in the population that women score better. Therefore, they conclude that "women" must be better multi-taskers. In reality, what they found was overlapping bell curves; that is, lots and lots of men are also really good multi-taskers. So then they have to figure out why say 65% of women and about 35% of men are good multitaskers, but the rest are not. They begin to find that scores correspond to jobs, so that stay-at-home moms with more children are very good multi-taskerrs; so are nurses (both men and women) and elementary school teachers and university professors. Then the neuro-scientists sweep in and begin testing and find that the ability to multi-task can be learned, and is in fact learned relatively easily in both sexes.
So not conceding anything about the gendering of multitasking, let's assume for the sake of argument that a female brain may more naturally be able to multitask. Even if that were true, the complexity is that all normal human brains actually can multitask right nicely and are easily trained to do so. This holds true with just about any cognitive ability you can think of, from nurturing and caretaking, to being an engineer or a physicist. Even morphological differences are actually plastic. For example, in the bell curve, women's brains tend to have more connections between the hemispheres; but women whose lives revolve around, say, computer science have connections that look more like "men's" and men whose lives revolve around say raising children have connections that look more like "women's".
Like I said, I do think that our genes play an important role in how we gender (i.e., nature); but the realities of those genes' phynotypical expression is that they are intricately connected to our social and cultural world (i.e., nurture)–that is, socialization and experience in the lived environment, including the social and cultural experiences, interacts with genetic expression. In fact, most evolutionary scientists working in cognition now argue that our brains evolved in precisely this way, giving us the advantage of being able to pass on to new generations incredibly stores of information. On the other hand, it is important to note that our brains are biological and physical, and that they work in particular ways to specific ends; they are plastic, but not completely plastic; our brain structures and genes determine how we learn and how we pass on information and even how we socialize. Like I said earlier, the separation between nature/nurture is false and detrimental to our understanding of where human minds and cultures actually come from. But for the issue of gender, our brains are so plastic and our genetic predispositions so connected to the experiences of our socialization as to make any easy statements such as "Women are" or "Men are" nearly impossible to make without a hundred caveats.
On Gay Marriage 5 May 2006Posted by Todd in Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Inequality & Stratification, Queer Theory.
Over the past week, I've been teaching about the history of gay and lesbian rights movement in the 20th century in a course about the "American Dream," and have been re-examining (for the umpteenth time) my feelings about gay marriage and the future place of gay men and women in American society. I've mentioned here already my growing unease with the straightening of queer spaces here in San Francisco.
No surprise that I'm torn in thinking about issues like gay marriage. The issue consists, for me, of layer upon layer of contradictory desires. To marry: to be normal, to be accepted, to be recognized fully and equally in your society. Not to marry: to maintain one's position as outsider, to be free to structure one's relationships how one chooses, despite society's approval, to eschew the homogenizing effects of becoming 'mainstream.' I haven't desired to be "normal" for years now, but I do desire recognition and equality. I'm too old to truly want outsider status (which is more often than not a status for the sake of status, rather than anything meaningful), but I do desire the social space to define my own relationships and to be who I am without the pressure to conform to the heterosexual norm.
Like many other critics before me, I fear that the adoption of the fight for marriage rights may ultimately be the end of a meaningful gay and lesbian movement, not because we will have achieved equality and will have nothing left to fight for, but because we will have, as a people, been domesticated, tamed, transformed into the image of the dominant culture. But I am clever enough and compassionate enough to understand why my gay brothers and sisters are fighting to be married. I stood out in the rain in February 2004 in front of City Hall, shielding couples from the raving Christians, as they waited their turn to be married in San Francisco. I could not help but feel what they were feeling, that there public and legal declaration of love held deep meaning and that the social sanction of the city of San Francisco made their love binding in a way that has been missing. It was a moving experience for me that day to witness what it meant to those couples to be married, even though I had always been against the fight for gay marriage. Democratically, clearly it is unjust for the government to privilege one particular marriage arrangement and family above others, granting literally thousands of legal benefits, not to mention the financial advantages (in taxes and workplace benefits) that derive from legal marriage.
And yet the thing that I most value about the queer community, the foundations of which I have researched in depth, is their capacity as a group, in arguing about their place in society, to forge new and different, creative and adaptive kinds of relationships and families of choice. From the most conservative gay man who wants to be married in the suburbs and vote republican with his neighbors in Johnson County, Kansas, to a young queer thugs in Los Angeles who is playing the field and hanging with his homies, to the threesomes, to the serial monogamists, to the open relationships, to the celibate monks, to the liberal urban guppies with kids, to exes who are family-for-life, to friends who fuck…
If we win the right to marry, I fear we will loose the right to create, modify, adapt, change, move, and spin our relationships as queer, unorthodox, as pleasing and profound, as they have been without marriage. Most minorities have the problem of moralizing the hell out of each other. As gay men and women, we already spend way too much of our energy having the good gay vs. bad gay epithet hurling. Gaining the right to marry will draw a definitive, socially sanctioned line in the sand, as it has for heterosexuals, between the "good" and the "bad" gays. It will be the worst thing we've ever done to ourselves.
The only way I can think of to balance these contradictions is for gay men and women to fight until we have the right to marry, and then to refuse it. [Of course, the legal and social benefits are too great for this to be realistic].
All things being ideal, I would suggest that we should fight for the dissolution of legal marriage altogether, and move for marriage to be moved completely into the private sphere, perhaps religious, where people may marry culturally if they want to, but where the government would have no business interfering in the way its citizens form their relationships or families. [Of course, realistically, the culturally meaning of marriage is still to great for people. Perhaps after several generations, it will have waned, as it has in France, such that people will take or leave it, and then the government can be weaned from its social engineering.]
Things being as they are, perhaps the only thing that can happen is to hope that we have the wherewithal to maintain our queer spaces enough so that we can have equality under the law, so that individual queers may choose legal marriage, and that we can continue to argue with each other about whether or not we should choose marriage, as we have for the past 55 years.