Saturday 7 January 2017

Gender, the Big Indo-European Problem

The past years have seen a steady rise in the global appeal of identity politics. Following its victories in academic and political discourse, it is now on its way to conquer the corporate world. Firms are increasingly expected to implement policies promoting the elevation of members of "minority" or historically "oppressed" groups into leadership positions. As a result, identifying with certain groups has become much more important than it was in the golden days of liberal individualism.

The question is which group identities count in this new paradigm - and which don't.

The Texture of the Other

Female figurine from Neolithic "Old Europe", which
archeologist Marija Gimbutas argued was a matriarchal
culture destroyed by the invasion of Indo-European
 warriors (credit:

Liberal individualism was a fairly straightforward concept: Every individual had equal intrinsic value. Political and economic structures were simply meant to provide the same opportunities and protection to each individual irrespective of any external feature – such as skin colour, ethnicity, sex or social background – which accidentally differentiated them. 

Proponents of identity politics argue – similarly to Marxism – that this principal equality failed to bring about a more meaningful levelling of social opportunities because deeper structures continued to favour those belonging to certain dominant groups.  Marxism pointed to the unequal distribution of wealth as such a deeper structure. It saw the dominant group in the bourgeoisie, which controlled the means of production. Identity politics has devised a more sophisticated theory. It argues that it is certain cultural codes – or discourses – disseminated in society that serve to establish a dominance hierarchy favouring certain groups over others. 

Identity politics present these discourses as continuously reproduced social narratives, which work to maintain prejudices against certain social groups while justifying the privileged status of others. These narratives make the population believe, for example, that white people rule the world due to their industriousness and creativity. That women should be excluded from leadership positions because their only skill is having sex and raising children. And that gays must be marginalized as they are perverts. 

Whereas Marxism was bent on uncovering the hidden material structures underlying social institutions, identity politics no longer believes that the world has a material structure. For this postmodern doctrine, everything is just a discourse, a text crafted by those in power to maintain their dominance. The system can be challenged by "deconstructing" the discourse - that is, by revealing its internal contradictions. This is why identity politics strives to abolish old-fashioned notions on gender roles or to detect “systemic racism” in institutional structures.

The general applicability of this theory gave identity politics the edge to penetrate every major arena of Western life. Its strength, however, is also its weakness. If social hierarchies are defined by discourses, then - as the number of discourses in society is endless - there seem to exist an infinite number of dominance hierarchies. Indeed, any member of society may play a privileged role in some discourses while being oppressed in other ones.

Such an academic conclusion, of course, could hardly be translated into a call for political action. This is why the doctrine decided to focus on attacking certain hegemonic discourses only, while ignoring others. The narratives it decided to take on were those revolving around race, sexual orientation and gender. In contrast, it chose to keep intact - or even strengthen - entrenched prejudices concerning class, geography and nationality. Indeed, identity politics does not oppose the ways in which certain social classes or local communities are marginalized in today's mainstream discourse.

Due to this selective emphasis, identity politics has come to the conclusion that heterosexual white males constitute the dominant group in Western society, oppressing gays, people of colour and women. The doctrine is blind to the prejudices and exclusion people suffer based on their other group identities - such as not having a college education, living in the backcountry, or coming from a less fortunate nation. 

Indeed, most heterosexual white males were born into a social class, a geographical location and a national culture which fail to grant them any special privilege – particularly in comparison to the status of the global elites currently promoting identity politics. In Western societies, heterosexual white males actually form the backbone of the old working class, which was once regarded as the oppressed group by Marxism, and whose social status has only deteriorated since the influence of Marxism started to fade. The white proletariat of the periphery is even farther removed from the privileged position of the global elites through geographic and cultural (e.g. language) barriers.

Despite their apparent powerlessness, working class or rural communities cannot expect any compassion from identity politics. Firms are not encouraged to promote people with blue collar roots or from the countryside into leadership positions. A straight white guy coming from a poor family may be disfavoured to a rich kid who happens to be female or gay. If the white working class resents this, they will be criticized for their "bigotry" - that is, for their failure to embrace the idea that social positions should be redistributed along the lines of sexual orientation, race and gender.

Such an absurd result reveals the fallacy behind identity politics.

This fallacy, however, can be traced back to the basic notions of the doctrine.

Deconstruction, Thai Style

Take gender. Identity politics argues that gender is a social construct designed to suppress women. This is disputable as differences in behaviour between men and women actually increase in societies where women become more emancipated. Jordan Peterson has made this argument with reference to the Nordic countries - but I think it applies with even greater force in Eastern Europe: Russian women often come across as more feminine than their Western counterparts despite – and maybe due to – the fact that they have been recognized as equal and – for the most part – strongly encouraged to pursue a career since the October Revolution of 1917 (I thank N. Nikitina for this suggestion). 

More to the point, however, identity politics' own emphasis on gender appears to be a social construct itself. Indeed, it seems to emerge from the basic structure of traditionally white-male-dominated Western culture: the language it uses. Indo-European languages - in which the champions of identity politics have almost invariably spoken and written - systematically differentiate between male and female.

Most of these languages – in their traditional form – use two different personal pronouns to refer to a third person, depending on “his or her” gender. This phenomenon has two aspects, both equally important: First, no third person can be referred to in a general and simple way without indicating “his or her” gender; the use of a gender-neutral personal pronoun for individual third persons would traditionally be perceived as incorrect. Second, there is usually no further “diversification” at the level of personal pronouns; in other words, a general and simple reference to a third person cannot indicate “his or her” qualities other than gender – such as age or status.

This strong focus on gender goes through the whole system of these languages: Indo-European children normally have no “siblings” but “brothers and sisters”. When they grow up, they have a fair chance of being assigned a gender-specific job title (for example in Germany), which will have to be artificially “neutralized” in job postings to achieve political correctness. And many of them will think even about physical objects as feminine or masculine as most Indo-European languages assign gender to every noun.

It may not be a coincidence that the foundations of identity politics were laid down by thinkers who spoke one of these languages applying grammatical gender to the whole vocabulary: French. If you have been raised in a culture in which the table is female while the knife is male, you may reasonably conclude that gender is a social construct.

It would still not follow, however, that your whole theory should revolve around this construct. This would be an unwarranted generalization based on the world view of your own culture.

Most of the world's languages do not apply grammatical gender to nouns. Even more surprisingly for Indo-European speakers, many languages do not divide personal pronouns along gender lines. In Hungarian, for example, there is only one personal pronoun for a singular third person, which can be applied to every human being irrespective of age, class, race or – gender. Obviously, it is much easier to be politically correct in Hungarian than in English (not to mention German).

Similarly, Hungarian children have “siblings” and not “brothers or sisters”. When they grow up, they can apply for jobs defined in gender-neutral terms. Overall, gender plays little role in Hungarian - one of the few European languages that do not belong to the Indo-European language family. This often makes it difficult to translate the requirements of “political correctness” into Hungarian.

But the Indo-European gender fallacy goes deeper than that. As just said, Hungarian children have siblings. When pressed on the specifics, however, they will tell you immediately whether the sibling in question is their “younger sister”, “older sister”, “younger brother” or “older brother”. In a natural setting, they will not tell you whether they have a “brother” or a “sister” without also indicating his or her age relative to the speaker. This is because spoken Hungarian language have four simple words for siblings - beside the word "sibling" itself -, each one describing exactly one quarter of the gender/relative age matrix. In other words, Hungarian siblings are not divided into two groups but four, depending equally on both relative age and gender.

A similar tendency to view personal relations through the lens of relative age rather than gender is even stronger in Thai. Similarly to Hungarian kids, Thai children do not have “brothers or sisters”. Although, like in English, spoken Thai has two simple words for siblings, these actually mean “older sibling” and “younger sibling” without specifying gender. This means that, when a Thai person talks about his or her siblings, the listener will necessarily know what their relative age to the speaker is but will be left in the dark about their gender – unless it is specifically asked or is considered important to understand the story. In short, Thai siblings are divided into two groups without any regard to their gender (see David Smyth, Complete Thai, London, 2010, 167-74).

The “deconstruction” of gender as the primary ordering principle of human culture is arguably completed in the Thai system of pronouns. To begin with, Thai has much more personal pronouns than the major European languages. A wide array of factors – including age, social status, gender, the relationship between the speakers, the formality of the situation and individual personality [–] all play a part in helping a Thai to decide the most appropriate way to refer to him/herself and address and refer to others in any situation” (David Smyth, Thai: An Essential Grammar, London, 2005, 39). Interestingly, gender can play the most decisive role in terms of first person pronouns (male speakers often use a different word to refer to themselves as females) but even here, the relationship of the speaker to the addressee can play a part. In the third person, by contrast, males and females are commonly referred to with one and the same pronoun, with more refined options mostly reserved for people of a significantly higher social status. When addressing someone in the second person, finally, the personal pronoun used will mostly depend on his or her relationship to the speaker, with gender playing a very limited role (ibid., 39-43). 

As the Hungarian and Thai languages assign so much less weight to gender than Indo-European ones in interpreting the world, gender may prove to be a social construct after all.

But the focus on gender certainly is.

To a large extent, gender is an Indo-European problem. It has been amplified in the public discourse by Indo-European-speaking global elites with the aim, I suspect, to justify their domination over the “bigoted” working class in the new hegemonic discourse, identity politics itself.

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