Friday, August 27, 2010

Reconsidering Gender, Part I


In 11th grade, I took physics. We learned how to calculate everything from how far a rock would fall in one second if thrown with an initial downward velocity of 2 m/s to what the escape velocity is for the earth. We used equations first published by Isaac Newton in 1687. Those laws of physics were good enough to get men to the moon--sadly, they apparently weren’t good enough to get women to the moon, but that’s another post. My point is: Newton’s laws are powerful because they work. So they are true, right?

Well, technically... no, they aren’t true. It turns out they are just approximations of what’s actually happening. The reason they work so well is that unless you’re getting anywhere near the speed of light (186,000+ miles/second) the difference between what Newton predicted and what actually happens (a.k.a. what Einstein predicted in 1905) is so small that we didn’t even have the technology to detect a difference until the last half century or so, much less have any expectation to find any discrepancies. My point is: Newton’s laws are true for all practical intents and purposes except in the most extreme circumstances. They almost always work.

For centuries, Western culture has operated under a binary model of gender: woman and man, and never the twain shall meet. But what if this is approach is akin to the Newtonian model of physics? Clearly the man-woman dichotomy is useful. It helps us make sense of our lives and the people around us in a myriad of ways. But there seem to be circumstances where it begins to feel more like an approximation than the final say.

So with that introduction, I’m going to toss around some tentative ideas about gender. It’s an attempt to (begin to) lay out a theory of gender that does to the binary theory what Einstein’s theory of relativity did to Newton’s theory: replace it in theory but yield to it for simplicity in almost all cases, because I think a binary understanding of gender almost always works, too.

Disclaimer(s): these ideas definitely are not set in stone, I don’t know how much (if at all) I believe them, they might not even be very original (I haven’t done very much research into theories of gender), but I figured I’d blog about them. Because what is the internet if not a place to sound off on half-baked pet theories? So this is Part I of a series of posts: watch this space for the actual substantive thoughts soon. In upcoming installments I'll talk about why I think the gender binary fails to capture all of the human experience, what gender could look like beyond the either/or we have now, and maybe even how it intersects with Mormonism. I hope you'll chime in along the way with your thoughts, emendations, or remonstrances.

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