A majority of philosophers today criticize “essentialism” in gender theory as an error that uses traditional cultural stereotypes to define men and women in ways that are needlessly narrow and harmful in their application. I believe that there are many examples of gender stereotypes that merit the critique.
I have a new theory of gender, with added complexity as a result of my thinking about transgender questions.
Philosophy has struggled to do justice to two truths of the relations of men and women: their equality and their complementarity. Each truth can be stated in ways that obscures the recognition of the other truth. Equality theorists have found occasion to criticize complementarity (or difference) theory for betraying the equality of women with men to the social forces of our dark world. And difference theorists have found occasion to criticize equality theory for being an inhumane, modernist intellectual abstraction.
In principle, it is possible to make a distinction of levels, recognizing equality on one level and difference on other level. For example, there can be a basic spiritual (or human) equality on the one hand, and a functional complementarity on another level. If a functional complementarity is right and proper, then even if it involves a superior-subordinate relationship, it should be possible to live that practical asymmetry in a manner that conserves the truth of spiritual equality. “Those who would be the greatest among you should be the ones who serve everyone.” When spiritual equality is conserved, each partner in an asymmetrical relation serves the other.
Notice that asymmetry in relating may depend on the particular project in which persons are engaged. The person who has the responsibility of leadership in one project may be co-leader or a team member in the next project.
Complementarity theory regarding men and women is a type of difference theory that claims that the differences between men and women are complementary. On this view, the differences between men and women are beneficial. They work together in such a way that their cooperation can achieve results that will not be forthcoming in the cooperation of two men or two women (obviously I am not only referring to procreation). How can this idea be stated in a way that is appropriately qualified? I will propose what I call vector essentialism to answer this question.
In this conversation, essentialism claims that there is a set of characteristics that is necessarily a part of being a human being, for example, our freedom or our being created in the image of God, that makes us equal. As regards the complementarity of men and women, essentialism claims that there is one set of characteristics (such as volitional initiative) that are necessarily part of being a man and another set of characteristics (such as personal responsiveness) that are necessarily a part of being a woman. In the essentialism proposed here, the essential difference has to do with the proportion of these two characteristics.
Vector essentialism (as regards the complementarity of men and women) is a modified essentialism that acknowledges the variety of factors operating in the system of an individual person. Thus the essential male or female “vector” can be outweighed by other vectors in the system so that a particular person’s conduct may be more or less masculine or feminine. In other words, some men could act in ways that are more “womanly” than some women, and vice-versa.
The term vector is a metaphor taken from diagrams used in high school physics to symbolize the composition of forces affecting, for example, a cannon ball launched (1) upward and (2) forward in (3) the earth’s gravitational field. The diagram is created, first, by drawing a vertical ascending arrow (or vector) whose length represents the upward force imparted to the projectile. Next, starting from the end of the ascending arrow, a second, horizontal arrow is drawn representing the force imparted to the projectile carrying it, say, north. Last, starting from the end of the horizontal vector, a vertical downward arrow is drawn, whose length represents the distance toward the earth that the gravitational force will have carried the projectile, during the time represented by the diagram. One then draws a line from the point of origin of the first vector, to the end point of the third vector to locate the position of the projectile at end of the trajectory’s represented duration. Obviously such diagrams could be made very complex.
The composition of force diagram for men and women would include vectors representing different proportions of volitional initiative (greater in men) and personal responsiveness (greater in women). I make no claim about whatever other such essential characteristics there may be. The advantage of vector essentialism is that is only predicts a statistical difference between the behavior of men and women, since so many other factors help determine what we are, and these other factors—such as genetics, early childhood experience, and personal decisions—can override the expression of gender-essential vectors.
Thus, vector essentialism has no need for stereotypes, yet it can help us understand typical differences of men and women as observed in many historical cultures. Vector essentialism also promotes empirical openness; it would not shut down all difference-oriented research on apriori grounds or on the grounds that all such research runs an unjustifiable risk of reinforcing oppression. Taken together with humanistic or spiritually based equality theory, vector essentialism liberates research into the complexity of who we are. We shall know the truth, and the truth will make us free from sexisms and free from egalitarian repression of the recognition of difference.
In my opinion, the deepest source of illumination comes from the higher truths of the universal family found in Trinitarian theology, which goes beyond the scope of this weblog. And when ethical questions arise and we have exhausted our human capacity for making adjustments, we come to the ultimate frontier in our quest for divine wisdom–prayer.
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