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Gender? I Hardly Know ‘Er

Jonah Howell

Gender? I Hardly Know ‘Er

The Man’s World and Raw Egg Journal audience is largely educated, whether by themselves or an institution, and will thus find themselves interacting with mostly educated women. Conflict ensues  —  a conflict with highly specific rules unspoken and unexplored by any philosopher of whom I know. I reproduce, then, in essay form, my responses in a conversation between my future wife and I on the subject of feminism, in hopes of elucidating some of those occult rules and the slippages they imply, replete with the implicit compromises necessary to make good of the conflict.



Women often feel like they’re fighting a losing, though righteous, battle for justice; men often feel like they can’t defend themselves or express empathy without being labeled misogynists or ignorant or callous. In a talk already focused on gender, expressing traditionally feminine thought patterns often seems overly emotional or hysterical; expressing traditionally masculine thought patterns often seems patriarchal or threatening. So a talk about gender between a man and a woman degenerates into a simplistic “battle of the sexes” in which each fights for his or her “own side,” like a boxer representing his corner, and each reduces to an impossible general man or woman and flattens the other into the opposite impossible generality.



It makes perfect sense that most such conversations go that way. Political thought in the West is haunted by the democratic idea of representation and, deeper in its history, by the faded specter of autocracy, and most assume that political speech bolsters one of the two. But when I’m talking to you, representative democracy is not present, nor is autocracy. I care what you think, so I will talk to you as you, not as the representative of “women”; but I also don’t see our relationship as a power struggle, so I won’t treat you as an aspiring despot if you disagree with me. Likewise, if you see otherwise, call me out. If I sense that you’re talking to me as “men,” or as though I’m trying to get some kind of upper hand on you, I’ll call you out. I wrinkle my nose when I’m listening to a song in which the supposedly romantic singer croons that he “needs a woman.” I don’t need a woman. I need you. I sneer the same way when a singer swears that his lover “saved him.” I don’t need saving. I need you.



In a democracy, political thought races toward its stupidest, most simplified form, because all concepts must be mangled into generalities that hold for millions of people. As an artist, I can’t do that, because I want to tell stories, not fables. As a lover, I can’t do that, because your opinion matters more to me than any number of millions of others. I am not looking for any universal truth or general solution to a universal problem when I’m talking to you. I’m looking to wrap my mind around yours as tightly as I can. No conversation between us is going to save the world, nor should it  —  that, to me, would be a lesser goal. The best it can do  —  the greatest aim it could possibly have  —  is to deepen our love while sharpening our understanding of the world in which we love. That’s not the world at large, but the world of our experience.



I can’t speak to the male experience: I can’t erase my fellow men and their unique lives that way. I can guess at certain commonalities, based on conversations I’ve had with a small subset of men. If I ever go further than that, if I claim something is universal or certain, I’ve crossed over into the realm of faith. Some men, both feminists and meninists, feel themselves capable of making that leap of faith. I can respect it, although I feel that it would be irresponsible for me to follow them and leap, likewise, myself. If, though, they assert their faith as fact or moral imperative, I regard them with nothing but contempt.



Statistics follow the ideology of the statistician; no scholar can control for variables they can’t see or refuse to see. Every scholar refuses to see certain variables  —  there is no person without an ethical sense, even if that ethical sense is pure self-absorption, and no one can see everything. That is, universal statements about either gender, even if based on “science” or “data,” are the same, in my eyes, as fundamentalist frenzies over the “scientific” foundations of creationism. I can respect their ideas, even agree with them in specific cases; but if you’re professing your faith, for God’s sake don’t tell me you’re reciting an unarguable fact. The faith is more beautiful, anyway.



I don’t kid myself into thinking that anyone else should believe, like me, that facts on that scale are impossible to know, or that any statement of fact on that scale is religion in disguise. If I did kid myself that way, I would have to admit total ignorance of the types of faith professed by the people around me. I see their faiths, and I can learn to love them, in the same way I can love someone’s prayers to Freya without wanting to pray to her myself.



Further: Facts on that scale are impossible to know, because they’re impossible to experience; and acting on supposed “facts” at societal scale removes any possibility of predicting the outcomes, at societal scale, of those actions. There may be meninist concepts that, when enacted, actually improve life for most women, at the expense of men; there may be feminist concepts that, enacted, will improve life for most men, at women’s expense. When I read any political platform, I see a veil cast over a neon sign that flashes, “I am so terrified of the future’s uncertainty that I need to convince other people that I can see the future, and if enough of us agree that we can see it, and we can act into it, then that makes it so.” Hyperstition.



Once more, I can respect and even admire that collective world-building, that hyperstition  —  but I can’t convince myself that it actually shapes the world, except for believers. So yes, I also hold ideas of this type, things I can’t know but which I want to act into existence  —  but I’m trying to root them out, because no matter how successfully I act something into reality to my own senses, I can’t predict how it will clash with the unknowable, unknowably complex realities that surround mine. (I call this “epistemic maturity,” not “relativism.”) But we, by merging our senses and our worlds in love, can learn to build new realities with twice the scale we could access before. What’s an idea at that scale  —  not the individual or the collective but the dual? I’m learning as I write, and I know it’s a lifetime of finding out.



The danger of gender talk, or really any political conversation between couples, as I see it, is rooted in two things: First, that the two will trip up and start treating each other like representatives of general categories, and they’ll become invisible to each other and reenact what each imagines as the historical conflict between those categories. Second, that, in a world in which we can interact with millions of people simultaneously, in seconds, friendship and dating are conventionally reduced to lists of pros and cons, red flags and green, like hiring metrics. Someone must identify as feminist, or traditionalist, or anti-racist, or anti-vax, or whatever, to be a suitable partner. Once more, all I see in this is an assumption that we can know more than we can. Knowing you call yourself “feminist” doesn’t tell me anything definite about you. Political categories generally give nothing but a rough indication of somebody’s social class or level of education.



In the South, I knew a few women who had ideas about gender similar to yours who would never have called themselves “feminists”  —  that word meant Yankee, or liberal, or city-slicker, all of which are the same. Does that mean they weren’t feminists? Depends on our definition, and everyone loads words with meanings specific to their own lives. Now we can fill words with definitions that transcend both our lives and spring from our love  —  but those words will not mean what they mean in other public or private discourses. They’re ours. The most common and most severe linguistic mistake I see on a regular basis: People assume that there is an “English language,” in which each word ties neatly to an object or idea or a set of objects or ideas, and it ties to that same thing or set of things for everyone who speaks “English.” But really, every word for me ties to the things I’ve seen that word used for, and those might be totally different from how that word stands in your mind. So we negotiate those overlaid labyrinths, wrap the words around each other to create a third…what do you call that? A love language? “My love language is cognitive merging to the point of singulo-plurality.” It really rolls off the tongue. Self-help book forthcoming.



The conversation reaches a fruitful end when the languages merge, and we understand that we were, from the beginning, “on the same page,” yet again, in terms of our own experiences, but that we only disagreed in terms of our projections of ourselves onto scales we can’t know. Then we’ve really figured something out, really solved something. Not about how the world or politics or gender works, but about how we work  —  which is, after all, the only thing we can figure out. If either of us was a politician, or we held some position of institutional power, we’d be forced to think differently, to inhabit the position, full of tragic hubris, of the individual who must think like a state or a species or a gender. But neither of us is a state or a species or a gender, and so we have the liberty of thinking with more responsibility than that, with more care, with more rigor. And so we aren’t doomed to the Sisyphean task of those who have to think in such generalities, condemned to answer questions whose basic parameters operate on scales they can’t know, and who have to rely on gross probability to make decisions they pray  —  precisely pray, and to what?  —  will operate according to plan.



No, a map is never the same as the land it maps. I can tell Iowa to grow canyons on its rectangular edges as many times as I want, but no matter how many guns I point at it, those canyons won’t grow. Even if we assume that I’m a state with total control, I can tell gender as forcefully as I want that it should take a certain shape, with certain dynamics, and it will still carry on its course, because no matter how many variables I measure, no matter how precisely I think I have controlled it, there are always variables I can’t or won’t see. A political force can only control factors that people recognize, and we can’t recognize all factors. New ones emerge and die, die and emerge at all times.



Thus the artist’s job: To be, as faithfully as we can be, the divine conduit that leads the unsayable into the realm of the sayable. That moment of recognition is beautiful, is miraculous. It is also the artist’s greatest service to politics. But the artist is free to say what the politician can’t: The realm of the unsayable is inexhaustible.



There is always another unknown factor. No matter how much we think we can model and predict, those operations remain hubristic. The monarch doesn’t control everything within his domain; he just commands the biggest hyperstitional group, with all the limitations of the others. If we say that political or economic power, or Power with an uppercase “P,” erects barriers between the possible and the impossible, let’s also say that those barriers remain permeable, because they can only stop threats they recognize as such, and they can’t recognize everything.



What this conversation achieves, in the end: We know, a little better than before, the patterns and laws that govern the movement of thoughts on each other’s inner highways. Valuable on its own, more than all the world that might be saved  —  and, unlike the latter abstraction, actionable. There is a humility that must accompany any thought of a wider politic: If I want to change the world, the most I can do is to change my own life in accordance with the world I want; and if I change  with enough force and charisma, my change becomes proportionally virulent. I can shout “Equality!,” or I can live in a way so vital, so full of energy and love, that it infects its witnesses with incurable desire  —  and only one of these affects my world in a way that accords with the scale I can know, the scale at which I live.



Now we’re getting to the outro. Postscripts. Fizzles. Nearly everyone with whom I speak thinks that they’ve got to “hold positions” at societal scale, and they think other people will judge them if they don’t, like they’re lukewarm in a world that only recognizes hot and cold. And they’re right, if they’ve got bad friends. So, so often, I talk to people and think, “You just need a good friend, one who can see you without seeing the ideological shrouds that have smothered you for so long you’ve learned to breathe through them, so that you don’t even realize they’re there anymore.” A mouthful. Naturally, in these talks, I zone out a bit, seem distant, and the person walks away before I can say anything. As is only fitting.



This has to end at 17, naturally. That, on its own, is a demonstration of the dual  —  not individual or collective  —  language I wrote about earlier. You see what I mean? If you don’t, all my thoughts’ rigor and rhetorical flourish and literary style comes to nothing, and 17 is 0, and I’ll start again, knowing that I, not you, have failed. Oh, there’s the most important postscript. It’s underwritten everything else: A misunderstanding is the speaker’s fault, not the listener’s. I, as speaker, bear responsibility for seeing my listener so thoroughly, so lovingly, that I will speak in a language that makes sense in your head, even if it compromises on rules that I place on my own internal speech. The point is not fidelity to some personal ethic of speech or philosophy, but communication, but merging  —  to wrap our internal languages around each other so tenderly that each dialect learns to love the other as I love you, despite the differences imposed on each by wider politics.

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