A Scholar Who Denied Sex/Gender Difference Recants
How well I remember first being told that there is no difference between males and females, men and women, boys and girls—except anatomy and socially assigned roles. That was sometime in the 1980s. Over the years since then, I have witnessed how popular this denial has become especially in academic circles. To make a very complicated “story” simple, I will boil this denial down to its bare elements. According to this narrative about men and women, boys and girls, all differences other than anatomy are socially constructed. And traditionally they have been constructed to support a hierarchical view where males are privileged more than females. The way to deconstruct sex/gender privilege is to deny any real differences between males and females (beyond anatomy), to deconstruct the whole idea of difference. Difference means inequality. Inequality is real, but it is socially constructed and must be deconstructed by deconstructing difference (other than anatomy).
That’s it in a nutshell. I’ve read it; I’ve heard it; I’ve experienced it. By “it” I mean the popular idea expressed above. And I see it on television and in movies where many male characters are portrayed as stereotypically female in dispositions and actions and female characters are portrayed as stereotypically male in dispositions and actions. By “stereotypically” I mean—as people have usually stereotyped “masculine” and “feminine.”
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
I’m older than most people, so I don’t expect anyone to remember this as I do. (I’m also told by people who know me that I have an excellent long-term memory but not so much the short-term memory.) By “this” I mean what we today would call a “meme” in the media (If I’m using “meme” wrongly, just forget the word and substitute whatever word would be better for what I’m about to describe.) I don’t recall what decade it was, but perhaps the awful 1970s. For a few months a lot of attention was being focused on stereotypically masculine men—football players for example—knitting. That’s right—knitting. I seem to recall that one of them was Rosie Grier. But there were others. (Now don’t go nit-picky on me. It may have been crocheting instead of knitting.) That was just one example of what has become in the American media an ever ongoing attempt to wipe away sex/gender differences in every way possible. Another media meme is women beating up men, smallish women physically beating up much larger men. Women being very physical in ways that seem highly unlikely given their size.
Now, don’t get me wrong and if you do I will not approve your comment here! I am NOT opposed to men knitting (or whatever) or women being physically aggressive—when that is appropriate. (In the latter case, though, I do find it often laughable when, as in a recent television program I watched, a very slight woman who couldn’t possibly weigh more than 120 pounds beats up a man who probably weighs twice as much.)
I remember an episode of Steve Harvey’s “Little Big Shots” that I watched with my granddaughter and grandson in which a little girl wrestler bested boy wrestlers nearly twice her size—in a matter of seconds. The unnamed boys who were trotted out to be her victims were clearly allowing her to pin them down. What’s the point? The meme. It’s everywhere. (Less common in this meme now is the opposite—boys and men doing things stereotypically associated with females.)
Now, surprisingly, shockingly to some people, one of the main promoters of the erasure of real difference (beyond anatomy) between men and women, boys and girls, is publicly recanting his earlier works (books, articles, public talks, etc.). His name is Christopher Dummit and he is a professor at a Canadian university. His special area of scholarship and expertise has been gender studies. On September 17, 2019, his recantation entitled “’I Basically Just Made It Up’: Confessions of a Social Constructionist” appeared in the online journal Quillette. (Yes, I know about some of the problems Quillette has had; don’t clutter up my discussion with those.) Because the “confession” was so shocking and so rare I delved deeper into the subject and found what purports to be the author’s Facebook page on which he confirms the article as his own. (We know everything on the internet might be a hoax, so I’m keeping an open mind.)
Basically, Dummit says that his “research” showing that all differences between the sexes and genders are socially constructed (except anatomy) was invented. He claims that he was not entirely wrong but mostly wrong. According to him (and you can read the article online), his evidence was almost entirely anecdotal and driven by an impulse of social engineering. He really believed that differences between men and women (beyond anatomy) tend to subjugate women to men and privilege men over women in society. So he “found” evidences and arguments for that. But now he is saying the evidences and arguments were mostly wrong.
An example is a book he wrote in which he claimed that men barbecuing in the backyard represented oppression of women. It was an attempt, however unconscious, to perpetuate patriarchy. Apparently he now thinks that was so false as to be funny.
The basic thrust of Dummit’s “confession” is that the whole academic discourse about gender studies that focuses on there being no real differences between men and women (other than anatomy and social construction) is an echo chamber not based on evidence or objective argument but on politics, social engineering. He is not repudiating the belief that men and women are the same; he’s apparently questioning whether that belief has really been demonstrated in a scholarly way. He used to promote the belief and was famous for doing so. Now he says his promotions of the belief were not based on sound research but on a political agenda.
The gist, “take away,” of the article seems to be that many ideas given “orthodox” status especially in gender studies are not really based on evidence; they are based on political ideologies and agendas. He isn’t saying (so far as I can tell) they’re wrong; he’s only saying (so far as I can tell) that they are not well-founded in terms of research. And he, who once was in the forefront of promoting them, is revealing that, at least in his case, the ideas were basically just “made up.”
Now let me be clear (and anyone who ignores this should not waste time composing a negative response): I believe in the full equality of women and men in terms of worth, deserved self-determination, opportunity, and reward. But I have never believed that there is no real difference between human males and females (generally speaking) except anatomy and socially constructed roles. I do believe many roles assigned to males and females are socially constructed, but I do not believe all differences can be reduced to that. I feel somewhat vindicated by Dummitt’s confession.
Don’t ask me what those differences are; I don’t know but have my beliefs about them. Anything I would say about them (my beliefs) would result in an avalanche of arguments to which I would just have to say “There are many exceptions, of course.” This blog post has only one point to which I insist commenters must stick: Much of the “case” for erasure of differences between the sexes is highly questionable. And I will say that, for me, anyway, difference does not mean inequality.
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