For many years I’ve been in an ongoing e-mail correspondence with a French friend of mine, Claude. Since one of us is French and the other a shameless Francophile, our e-mails include a lot of intellectualizing.
I had complained to Claude that we were living in a new world.
“Pour moi, c’est un nouveau monde dès que mes proches ou mes amis ont quitté l’ancien.” [“For me, it’s a new world as soon as my relatives or friends leave the old.”]
“No, that is not what I mean by a new world. By ‘new world’ I mean a new, previously unimaginable reality. The kind of new reality that Europe experienced with the Reformation... By a new world I mean a new reality, a reality with new parameters. New answers to questions like: What is possible? What is valuable? What is sacred (i. e., unalterable)? What is unquestionably true? Who should serve me and whom should I serve? What is the definition of a good life? How much deviation is there between doing the correct thing and doing the right thing? Etc.”
“Bof! Bof!’. Pas plus que d’autres. Pas plus que nous. No more.” [“Bah! Bah! [The world has changed] no more than at other times. No more [in the USA] than for us [in France].”]
To prove my point – that we’re living in a new reality, not just a changed world – I decided to point to an aspect of the new reality that is both obvious, and all pervasive: the sexual revolution.
Once I got started though, I couldn’t stop. It became too long an essay to include in an e-mail to Claude.
So, here it is as a blog.
It cannot be denied that sexual distinctions and the definition of “gender” are undergoing a transformation. If that can’t be called a new reality, then nothing can.
People have internalized what originally was a civil rights issue: sexual equality. Sexual equality has become more than a political principle, it is a rule of conduct; it comes into play in almost every contact people have with the opposite sex.
(Thanks to the internet, “people” can now refer to everyone in the world, not just a particular administrative segment of it like the people of Minneapolis, people who live in the tropics, “we the people of the United States,” etc.)
Compared to other civil rights movements, sexual equality has faced fairly inconsequential opposition. It has made significant progress in opening to women traditionally male roles in business, academia, the military, the political establishment. As women assume traditionally male roles, men now feel free, as peer pressure against it has evaporated, to assume traditionally female domestic roles.
Men and women are seen as sharing an equal potential for competency in any field. From there, it is only a short step to the principle that men and women share identical human natures; that the only differences between men and women are certain physical traits which, no different from skin pigmentation or avoirdupois, are genetically determined.
But the difference between male and female is not just a cultural construct. It is a law of nature. With some microscopic exceptions only proving the rule, every living species is comprised of male and female individuals or, in the case of plants, male and female components, with innate natures that are distinctly different and which complement one another.
This biological dichotomy is so deeply ingrained in all life forms that it is the source of an instinct as basic as the instinct to survive, which it occasionally overrides: the instinct to reproduce.
For human animals, the male-female dichotomy has provided the structure for our Western culture and for every other culture, past and present. Everything that comprises a culture – religions, myths, art, social organization, morality (what is acceptable behavior and what is not), historical narrative, language – as well as individual identities within the culture – are grounded in the creative tension between feminine and masculine.
Now, at the start of the 21st century, we are undergoing a tremendous cultural change. At the highest intellectual levels – in philosophy, in the humanities, in aesthetics, even in anthropology and the study of history – the sexual dichotomy is seen not as the basic law of nature that it is, but as a passé fiction, a fallacious tenet which enabled one group of people to oppress another.
The generation being educated today does not recognize the essential difference between Romeo and Juliet, Jason and Medea, Charles and Emma Bovary, Charlie Brown and Lucy, Adam and Eve. Their stories are about particular and unrelated cases of sexual attraction and sexual conflict; their plots depend on solely on chance and individual personalities. The fact that these iconic couples are of different genders only reflects the prejudices of bygone times. Their innate natures as male and female are not acknowledged and not taken into account.
But the generation being educated today is transitional generation.
Natural instincts do not whither away. The denial of the old male/female dichotomy is a feature of a transition from one male/female dichotomy for the human species to a new one.
Naturally, cultural transitions are confusing, full of negations and contradictions. Only in a life form in transition could the number of genders rise from the traditional two to a number that seems only limited by how many individuals are extant.
Things will settle down – pretty soon, I think. Then male and female temperaments will still differ and complement one another, but will seem quite peculiar to people who matured in the 20th century. It’s only a guess, but I suspect that humanity’s new reality will be something we could loosely call matriarchal, with some similarities to the reality enjoyed by, among others, bonobos, mole rats, mantises, African lions and things that live in hives.
Once the new human sexual dichotomy has stabilized – I’d give it two generations before it feels totally comfortable to everyone – the differences between the natures and the roles of male humans and female humans, whatever they turn out to be, will be as clearly defined as they are for every organism, and as they have been in every stable human culture.
These differences, however, may not be grounded on whether an individual is physically male or female, but on the individual’s emotional identification as male or female. In this new reality, the emotions – regarded by earlier humans as psychic eruptions, sometimes welcome, sometimes not, often disparaged, and always kept imprecisely defined – will be seen as attributes as real and as identifiable as physical attributes.
Humans will become one of those species in which gender becomes clear only with maturity. A person’s gender will be a personal choice made after puberty. I can imagine it becoming the basis for a new kind of rite of passage, like menarchal seclusion, scarification, confirmations and bar-mitzvahs, and school graduations, involving a formal gender-choice ceremony. With partying afterward, of course.