Scandinavian Reality Blindness

In Norway, teachers are trained and encouraged to teach non-traditional gender roles to four-year-olds. This includes the use of books that caused tremendous controversy here in the USA, like “King and King.” Generally this has been non-controversial:

The only pushback to date was from the Norwegian Christian newspaper, which raised a debate about whether kindergartens should tell same-sex fairytales and talk about same-sex parents with children, as if it was completely normal. … “But overall, the public debate mirrored a broad consensus within the Norwegian public, which is, ‘of course kindergartens must mirror and talk about same-sex parenting to children, it is a part of our society.”

Well, non-controversial in Norway. And in all likelihood, neighboring Sweden is nonplussed; there, teachers at one school avoiding using the equivalents of “him,” “her,” “she,” and “he” when referring to children and instead using a new, gender-neutral pronoun hitherto unknown to the Swedish language. All in a conscious effort to teach children, at a very young age, that the genders are equal to one another.

Here in the States, I might as well have pulled the pin out of a hand grenade and walked casually away from it after dropping a cultural bomb like that.

Now, I’m all in favor of gender equality. Women and men should face society on an equal footing, with equal opportunities, equal rewards, and equal burdens. I look back on the objections to the ERA and see that one of them was that women might have to sign up for the draft. Well, yes. Women drafted into the military works fine in Israel.

And I’m all in favor of teaching children, even early in life, that there is nothing wrong with people being romantically involved with others of the same sex. It should be age-appropriate and come in conjunction with lessons about tolerance for other kinds of human attributes, too.

But this is taking things too far, to a point that is both silly and counterproductive. People have genders. Children have genders. There are physiological differences between the genders, which children are quick to observe in adults. Women and men are visibly different from one another in that women have breasts and men do not. Womens’ faces are structured differently than mens’ faces; most people could look at pictures of just faces and quickly and accurately assign genders to them. Men’s faces have facial hair that grows rapidly; women do not.

You have one set of junk between your legs, or the other set. (There are a small number of people who are naturally transgendered, but getting into transgender issues would be going down a rabbit hole that isn’t part of what I’m writing about today.) Your gender affects how you go to the bathroom, a subject of some concern for young children who must learn how to control that bodily function and thus a matter of some concern for teachers who from time to time are called upon to address potty issues.

And it doesn’t take all that long before you figure out that other people have different kinds of junk than you. Eventually, of course, you learn how babies are made, you learn what sex is, you begin experimenting with masturbation and sex and sex partners and dating and romance. These are powerful internal psychological forces.

Your gender is part of who you are. If you wanted to argue that it is not the most important part of who you are, okay fine, I’m not going to address that here. But it is an attribute, like the color of your eyes and your hair and your skin or whether you are right- or left-handed, tall or short — while it may be morally neutral and not reflective upon any of your abilities, it is nevertheless an attribute that exists. People are different from one another. It’s useless and counterproductive to pretend that these things don’t exist.

Then, of course, there’s the fact that some people have more beauty than others. But that just adds an additional level of complication to the question of whether gender roles should be identified at all.

If you believe, as I do, that human psychology is a function of the mind, which is in turn inextricably intertwined with the body, then gender affects psychology and thus behavior, identity, and a whole host of other things. If you were to say, “Does that mean that one gender might be more intelligent than the other, on average?” I would have to admit that such a thing might well be possible although I’d hestitate to go down that path — intelligence is, itself, problematic to describe and whatever it might be would almost certainly have signficant variations from individual to individual, totally swamping gender averaging. Like height. It doesn’t really matter all that much that men are on average taller than women — when height matters is when you compare two individuals and an individual woman may well be taller than an individual man.

And of course when we discuss gender roles then we get in to gender preference, which is part of what “King and King” and other materials used by the Norwegians is all about. Personally, I think tolerance should be taught; I approve of the values of teaching that hetero-, homo-, bi-, and a- are all again, simply attributes of a person and not good reasons to treat them differently. There are those with religious beliefs and teachings that differ from my way of looking at things, and briding the line between accomodating the freedom to teach one’s children what are believed to be the correct religious teachings and promoting tolerance is not going to be a zone in which clear lines can be drawn. But a straight man and a gay man are both men. A straight woman and a gay woman are both women.

Allow me to posit that children should be taught that men and women are morally, legally, and socially equals to one another; that it’s okay for a man or a woman to fill any particular kind of social or professional role; that people should be judged based on the moral weight of their character and the excellence with which they pursue their endeavors. But they should not be taught that gender is a myth or an artificial social construct. It is not; gender roles both traditional and contemporary are a social response to an objective reality about what it is to be human. The kids are going to figure out that there are men and there are women and that they’re different from one another in some ways — and if teachers have been pretending that there is no such thing as gender, the lesson learned will be that authority figures like teachers are willfully ignorant of blindingly obvious facts.

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72 thoughts on “Scandinavian Reality Blindness

  1. I find your usage of the word “nonplussed” confusing and offputting. You might go so far as to say I was nonplussed by it.

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  2. It always is good to remember that the left has fruitcakes too; God(ess?) love em.
    Hey do you remember the dude in the US who was suing about God in the pledge of alleigance? As I recall he wanted gender neutral pronouns too… something like Re and Ris instead of He/Her and Her/His etc…

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    • I’d sue about being required to ‘pledge allegiance’ to a flag.
      I’d think that Real True Christians would have idolatry bells going off in their consciences over that.

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    • Leaving aside the “god” part, we *need* gender-neutral pronouns, though. Heavens, do we need it. The entire debate over whether they or their is appropriate is merely papering over a failure in our language.

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  3. You are confusing gender with sex. This nitpicking isn’t really a criticism of the heart of what I perceive to be your argument, but the fact that you’re doing so in the argument does point out that the landscape isn’t as clear as you make it out to be.

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        • Another way of thinking about it is to say that sex is what is in your pants and gender is what is in your head. Someone can have a penis and be full XY but “feel” like they are female or somewhere in between or off the scale entirely. Again, to me, this screams for the reinforcement of the social construction of gender; why can’t we just say that no matter how you feel and choose to express yourself, you will be accepted as a man? Instead, the theory goes, that society has structured a certain definition of manhood or a certain definition of femalehood and, even using the broadest definitions possible, some people will have a gender that is outside the definition designed for their sex. To me, that says the definitions aren’t broad enough.

          I’m not an expert in the field, so it is entirely possible that there is more to it than I realize. I’m suggesting the field take a step forward, not a step back. However, I have seen it suggested that for many transgender folks (those who feel their gender/gender expression does not match their biological sex), there are some differences that can be detected in their brain functioning and/or hormonal levels. Their sex is not in question (as it might be for someone who falls outside the XX/XY dichotomy, which happens far more than people realize) but there is something measurable that has impacted the incongruity between their sex and gender, beyond just what some people dismiss as a personal preference.

          It is a very complicated subject. Dr. Jennifer Bryan is one of the leading experts in the field (http://www.jenniferbryanphd.com/) and I have had the pleasure of working with her a few times. She/her field proposes that we move away from viewing things as a dichotomy (man/woman; male/female; straight/gay) and onto spectra that are dynamic, not static. Very interesting stuff.

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        • This is a meaning of the word “gender” that I had not embraced and which I feel a little bit queasy confronting. To get at this concept, I have used the word “sexuality,” which breaks down into a blend of sexual preference, sexual desires and activities, and personal self-identification. That notion seems very close to what you (and BSK infra) describe as “gender.”

          I’ve used the word “gender” in the same sense that I would use it in a court, defending my client from an accusation of gender discrimination — functionally synonymous with “sex.”

          If I adopt this new (to me) definition of “gender” then that means there is a whole spectrum of genders out there, and more inconveniently, I would need to substantially rewrite the original post.

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          • I think conflating sexual orientation, gender identification, and gender non-conformity into a single subject will only lead to confusion. I know you chose to elide the issue in the original post, but I think the experience of the trans community- with members covering the whole gamut of orientations also possible to the cissexual population- proves the folly of lumping them together analytically. Trans and gay folk may be convenient if occasionally dysfunctional political allies, but in forming a clear framework to think about the issue, I think it’s best if we treat them separately.

            Perhaps I’m not understanding your argument correctly. What do you think you gain from lumping those things together?

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            • One thing I’ve gained is exposure to a lacuna in my education. Lots of people have busted in with the same objection and the same definition of “gender,” which I really really honestly had not encountered before reading comments to this post.

              Another thing that I hope commenters take away here is that it is not always clear when what is being discussed is sex, sexuality (my term), gender as defined by commenters herein, or questions of social constructs. I think TVD hit on a rather important point here — either gender is a social construct or it is not. If gender is a social construct, it is subject to change.

              But my experience with a wide variety of people is that what I have called “sexuality” and what most others here have insisted is more properly called “gender” because apparently they all took the same sociology class, is not particularly malleable. Gay men pretty much stay gay; even if they are subject to intense psychological conditioning, whether well-intentioned, cruel or both, they backslide and deep down, they don’t ever abandon their preferences. They may or may not be successful in modifying their behavior.

              If gender as defined herein is merely a social construct and therefore malleable, then there is some measure of tension or weakness in the concept of gender as sussed out in our discussion. The social engineering discussed in Norway and Sweden remains, whether we particularlize gender as defined or whether we amalgamate it with sex, based upon notions that appear to run counter to reality.

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              • It’s not a matter of either or with any social category. Gender roles, for example, are socially constructed, and gender is largely a role-governed category. But it is built on a biological foundation which, while not invariant, does admit overlapping but distinct distributions.

                Put differently, you and Tom are wrong — it’s not simply a matter of socially constructed or not — but so is anyone who treats gender as socially constructed ex nihilo.

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              • Taking the definition of gender as the socially constructed meaning of biological sex, how do the Scandinavian policies run counter to reality? They’re not even so much replacing one set of arbitrary social expectations for another as they are attempting to remove said social expectations. If you give us that definition, and admit to the validity of the distinction between sex and gener, I can’t see how you can persist in your argument.

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  4. I have no problem with same sex fairy tales… but King and King is utter crap because the premise is that the two kings fall in love only because they didn’t dig any of the chicks. The only thing worse is King and King and Me (or whatever the sequel was called)… wherein the two kings, longing for a child, go in to the jungle and walk out with a small black baby. WHAT?

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  5. “Allow me to posit that children should be taught that men and women are morally, legally, and socially equals to one another; that it’s okay for a man or a woman to fill any particular kind of social or professional role; that people should be judged based on the moral weight of their character and the excellence with which they pursue their endeavors. But they should not be taught that gender is a myth or an artificial social construct. It is not; gender roles both traditional and contemporary are a social response to an objective reality about what it is to be human. The kids are going to figure out that there are men and there are women and that they’re different from one another in some ways — and if teachers have been pretending that there is no such thing as gender, the lesson learned will be that authority figures like teachers are willfully ignorant of blindingly obvious facts.”

    I agree largely with the sentiment here, noting the caveat that Alex pointed out about the conflation of gender and sex. Noting this, I think it is important to note that, while there are biological/evolutionary reasons for gender expression and stereotypical gender roles in addition to the socialization, gender is still a construct. One disagreement I have with modern gender research is the notion that someone’s gender does not match their sex. This implies that there are limits on how a biological man (sex) can act that, when crossed, make him no longer male (gender). If gender was truly a non-construct, it would be one in the same with sex, no matter how it was expressed.

    At least, that is my two cents. I realize it is in direct opposition to most contemporary research on the subject and is NOT meant to imply that there is one way to act male and one way to act female and that what we term today as transgender does not exist under that definition. Rather, it is to challenge the notion that one can be transgender; if we accept that any expression of “gender” is normal or acceptable for any of the sexes, than there is no way for one’s gender to cross or “trans” his/her/its sex.

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  6. Mr. Likko,

    Like some of the other commentators here, I think I agree with much of what I perceive to be your argument, but question some aspects of the way you approach it. For example,

    But they should not be taught that gender is a myth or an artificial social construct. It is not; gender roles both traditional and contemporary are a social response to an objective reality about what it is to be human.

    To say that something is “an artificial social construct” (what social constructs are not “artificial” by virtue of being social?) does not mean that that something is somehow not real or unimportant or something that one ought not to notice.

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      • Likko is correct in that gender is not a social construct, although it is treated as a distinction without a difference by the text in question, a matter of taste, if you will. Messrs. Corneille & BSK are rhetorically correct: social constructs are by definition constructs and therefore artificial, as are all laws and mores.

        One can attempt to make the case that some mores are universal and therefore natural, but since there are almost always exceptions in some human society somewhere sometime, they argue against the very possibility of a rule.

        I find meself the demurral untenable: societies often go mad.

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          • Here is my problem with the phrase “social construct”.

            It tends to be used as if social constructs are things that can be casually shrugged off, as if they were hobbies that were likely to be grown out of.

            It seems to me far more likely that social constructs evolve over time because they are *USEFUL* for society and societies with less useful social constructs don’t keep up if, in fact, they don’t die out.

            Which is not to say that Social Constructs are how God wants us to act… but the attitude that such-and-such is just a social construct seems to dismiss a *LOT* of things that evolved over time. Certainly when the underlying attitude seems to be akin to “God wants us to cast off our Social Constructs!”

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        • Useful for whom?

          Useful for when?

          I submit that the more egalitarian gender ethos that has come to characterize modern western society is not exogenous to the natural evolution of gender roles that produced the previous dichotomy, but a production of the same process, though modified by a few factors. The first is the moral improvement of mankind that stopped taking the benefit of the male sex as the only barometer of social weal. The second is economic advance that simply made keeping half of the population in menial labor infeasible.

          In brief, why is this change not part of that natural evolution?

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            • Absolutely, gender neutrality is a social construct, like anything else involving gender.

              One social construct leads to freedom for those who don’t fit a narrow standard and to egalitarian outcomes. One results in misery for the. gender nonconforming and the domination of one sex over another.

              I do not deny that they are arbitrary in the sense that neither is teleologically selected by history or ordained by nature. But you shall know them by their fruits.

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                • It’s entirely possible that the reason that gays are responsible for a proportion of human progress far exceeding their numbers (as their prominence in politics, the arts, and the more belligerently traditional religious denominations demonstrates) is the very fact of their persecution; certainly they have both in common with Jews. Perhaps Tim and Tom are concerned that fully accepting them will greatly lessen their contribution.

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                • I think if you examine the conscious effort designed to force people into occupying one gender role or another, you would find that the effort expended by the Norwegians to erase them pales in comparison, no matter its institutional nature.

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                    • You have a talent for changing the subject in ways that appear to answer the post you’re responding to.

                      Please explain how institutional measures designed to treat the sexes indistinguishably from each other prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that gender neutrality in Scandinavia is socially constructed, whereas the myriad ways in which peer groups punish gender nonconforming behavior is not evidence of the same.

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                    • Can’t defend what I didn’t say, sir. You need to defend this “gender neutrality” as somehow not a social construct. ‘Tis you who bear the burden of proof: you must argue this nonsense affirmatively, not just attack. Good luck, and I’ll stop back if you can make a go of it.

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                    • I also can’t defend what I didn’t say. As above, I have never doubted that gender neutrality is a social construct. “Absolutely, gender neutrality is a social construct, like anything else involving gender.” (further on in the post, you will find my reasons for preferring one over the other despite both being social constructs)

                      Meanwhile, you actually have made the claim that gender is not socially constructed, while asserting that gender neutrality certainly is. “That gender is merely a social construct is not self-evident. At this point, without any a posteriori confirmation of its value or even possibility, “gender neutrality” certainly is, in Sweden there.”

                      I’m trying to get at a reason for thinking the institutional measures of Sweden certainly represent a social construct while the less institutional but no less coercive action of social approval and disapproval do not form a social construct, and so far, you haven’t been able to oblige me.

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            • If gender is largely a social construct (which it is, which does not mean it’s entirely a social construct), then gender neutrality is, by definition, a social construct. It’s almost absurd to point that out. But perhaps you don’t understand what “social construct” means.

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  7. Personally, I think tolerance should be taught; I approve of the values of teaching that hetero-, homo-, bi-, and a- are all again, simply attributes of a person and not good reasons to treat them differently. There are those with religious beliefs and teachings that differ from my way of looking at things, and briding the line between accomodating the freedom to teach one’s children what are believed to be the correct religious teachings and promoting tolerance is not going to be a zone in which clear lines can be drawn.

    Part of the problem with the narrative about gender “equality” (a fractured and muddled term) is represented in this passage. Despite the suggestion in the above lines, “tolerance” is not incompatible with teaching that hetero-, homo-, bi-, and a- are more than “simply attributes of a person.” “Tolerance” is not incompatible with teaching that man is a moral being and that what we do with our bodies has moral import; that consent does not neutralize moral quandaries. I was sent to religious schools—first Christian, then Catholic—all the way through high school. I have no recollection of homosexuality ever being mentioned in the context of any class or lesson. I certainly was never instructed to be intolerant of or act differently towards any person on the basis of sexuality. I was also never instructed that there were any invidious gender roles on the order of a-woman’s-place-is-in-the-home. Maybe things have changed since I graduated high school in ’94, but I cannot take at face value the assertion that there is some inherent tension between religious teachings and “promoting tolerance.”

    There is a significant amount of human investment in the social order. If you ask me if I’d be ok with sending my child to a school that taught fairy tales like “King and King,” I would object for precisely the same reason as if the school proposed to teach fairy tales based on the life and times of Barney Stinson. I accept that people may choose to engage in certain sexual activities of which I disapprove on moral grounds. I certainly have no problem “tolerating” such people—indeed, I am even friends with them. I also have friends who no doubt disapprove of my actions—consuming animal flesh, for instance—on moral grounds. Again, tolerance is not the same thing as whether certain acts are good to do. While we must tolerate deviation from the social order, we need not, and should not, forfeit our stake in the social order.

    Again, I tend to think our evolving and confused notion of “equality” retards our collective moral understanding and urges us to approach the social order as something merely descriptive rather than prescriptive. And yet, at the same time, it offers its own moral injunction. Racial and gender equality were and are enormously important legal issues. Because of the great success of those causes, the term “equality” amassed great symbolic and rhetorical force. As a result, it is now used in the advance of causes that are not principally legal but social in nature. Equality, then, is not merely a legal requirement but a social and moral one. Equality as a legal doctrine is misunderstood enough already as it is. As a social doctrine, for many of the reasons Burt explained, it is beyond all hope.

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    • I went to Catholic high school and graduated in ’88. No doubt was in my mind then that the RCC thought homosexuality inherently morally bad; I was less certain about the people who engaged in such behavior.

      In the quote cited by Tim I intended merely to highlight that in this arena drawing the line between tolerance and deference is difficult.

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        • “Homosexuality” meaning the propensity to engage in sexual relations with someone of the same sex, rather than “homosexuals,” meaning people who engaged in that behavior. Love the sinner, hate the sin, that sort of thing. At least, that was what I took away from what was taught to me; I must allow for the possibility that I was instructed poorly or that my rememberance of the instruction is faulty.

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          • Homosexuality, we are told over and over, is an evil temptation waiting to ensnare us all. To preserve the social order, we must do everything possible to persuade boys to have sex with girls.

            This does not fully align with my experience.

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    • There were and still are people for whom Loving vs. Virginia was a victory for immorality and a severe blow to the social order.[1]. They are entitled to their opinions, of course, and to express them both privately and publicly: it’s a free country. But when it comes to enforcing those opinions via the legal system, that’s when I have to stop and say “No. Not going to happen. Not on my watch.”

      1. I don’t for a moment mean to suggest that anyone here is one of them.

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      • Mr. Schilling, Loving was decided unanimously back in 1967. Mebbe Spike Lee doesn’t like it. We’ve elected a biracial president, we got Tiger Woods and we got Clarence Fucking Thomas married to white woman. So give it a rest, brother, and find some other well to poison, because this riff is objectionable.

        There were and still are people for whom Loving vs. Virginia was a victory for immorality and a severe blow to the social order.

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  8. I think much of this post is based on an uncritical conflation of sex and gender.

    This dichotomy is somewhat played out by now, and I’m sure those more versed in gender theory will groan at its application, but it suffices for a first-level analysis: there’s a difference between sex and gender. Briefly, sex is what is between your legs and your chromosomal makeup; gender is the socially constructed meaning we attribute to those characteristics.

    Your sex is indeed part of who you are, and eliding trans issues as you have done in the above post, immutable. But the social construction of that is not immutable- and, to the extent that Scandanavian nations have made a conscious attempt to change the way they socially teach those roles, they are neither denying reality nor defying nature- merely changing what was already subjective and arbitrary in the way we think about sexes. To the extent that sex roles are inborn and immutable, they will arise on their own without any prompting from the outside culture or authority figures. To the extent that sex roles are fluid and diverse, the attempt to impose a single straitjacket of expectations will only cause misery to those who don’t fit the mold.

    As a postscript, what in the world is with the comment on beauty? It’s a complete non sequitur, albeit one that might shed light on our subconscious and unreasonable emotional reactions to those who muck with gender roles.

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  9. “[Gender] is an attribute, like the color of your eyes and your hair and your skin or whether you are right- or left-handed, tall or short — while it may be morally neutral and not reflective upon any of your abilities, it is nevertheless an attribute that exists. People are different from one another. It’s useless and counterproductive to pretend that these things don’t exist.”
    If we segregated bathrooms based on skin color, that would be shockingly bigoted to the modern eye. Gender is different from skin color, and maybe gender-segregated bathrooms make sense, but we’re a LONG way from treating gender as just another attribute.

    You’re setting up a false dichotomy: either we accept current gender roles more-or-less uncritically, or we deny gender has biological meaning. Skin color has biological meaning, but that hardly means we should treat people differently except when it comes to handing out the sunscreen.

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    • My point is that gender exists and we should make decisions based upon a clear-eyed understanding of it. What I read about happening in Scandinavia sounds like people are trying to eradicate something uneradicable.

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      • Your objection seems to center on the new, gender-neutral pronoun. But how could using a new pronoun be denying a biological reality?

        Even if not all aspects of gender is are “artificial social construct[s]”, gender in the linguistic sense is certainly socially constructed. It must be: language itself is socially constructed.

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      • If Scandinavia were attempting to eradicate gender differences, they would be consciously feminizing boys and masculinizing women. There would be a new gender role, a singular one, deviance from which would be punished.

        That’s not what’s happening. What they’re doing is consciously removing any effort to force boys to be masculine and women to be feminine, not replacing it with pressure in the opposite direction. This is not denying that gender (using the word, as you seem to above, in its non-technical sense as a synonym for sex) exists. It’s peeling away the social reinforcement of gender roles so that the real inclinations of the children, whatever they may be, will manifest. It would not surprise me, in truth, if on average the boys still acted more masculine ,so socially defined right now, and the girls acted more feminine. But I think we’d also see a more androgynous populace on the whole.

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        • My problem is that I don’t believe this.

          Here is what I see happening:

          A small group of boys goes up to the teacher.

          “So what you are saying is that you will not have input into how we play with each other?”

          “Right.”

          “So we can play what we want to play and you won’t judge us?”

          “Right.”

          “Seriously?”

          “Seriously.”

          “So if we want to play Barbies we can play Barbies and you won’t judge us?”

          “Right!” (the teacher beams)

          “And if we want to play something else, we can and you won’t judge us?”

          “Exactly.”

          “HEY GUYS WE CAN PLAY SMEAR THE QUEER AGAIN!!!!”

          And then, 10 minutes later, everybody is sitting in an office.

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          • Well, the teacher’s answer to “So we can play what we want to play and you won’t judge us?” is perhaps deceptively oversimplified. But surely you recognize there are good educational and safety reasons to put a few limits on how children play.

            But there doesn’t seem to be anything in the stories that suggest that boys are judged for playing with trucks or girls with dolls. For that matter, there doesn’t even seem to be anything that suggests “violent” but safe games are discouraged, other than a critic speculating about what might be “next”.

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          • Well, yes, Smear the Queer is problematic because of its tendency to reinforce bullying and homophobia. That’s incidental to its identification as masculine, which our hypothetical teacher would not have a problem with. I somehow doubt she’d discourage boys from playing with trucks or girls from playing with dolls.

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        • Part of the gender role of men and women is to teach young boys and girls how to act like young men and women. If Scandinavian kids become androgynous, it’s more likely because their adults treated them as androgynoids than because of “natural inclination.”

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            • They’re both, of course. Maleness and femaleness are noumenal. Their application to phenomenon, however, requires tutelage and refinement, at least to the extent we want gentlemen opening doors for ladies instead of brutes dragging them around by the hair. We’ve learned a great deal about humanity and the sexes over the course of history. No sense forcing our children to go tabula rasa.

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                • I don’t know if the cartoon cliche of cavemen clubbing woman and dragging them off by their hair was current in 1900.

                  But certainly it was a common argument at the time that the fairer sex would only be coarsened by being granted the franchise.

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  10. The long-term sucess of this bit of insanity can be measured by the answer of this question:

    What is the birth rate of the Non-Muslim population?

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