The Limiting Aspect of Perceptions of Likeness and Difference in our Notions of Sex, Sexuality, and Gender

I have come to realize that our language limits our ability to think.  What I mean by this is that, for the most part, we think of folks in terms of sex, sexuality and gender, in binary and oppositional terms.  Therefore, we think that we are either male or female, we are either feminine or masculine, and we are either heterosexual or not.  We have very few words to use when speaking about folks who fit somewhere along the range of human possibilities that does not neatly fit into these binary and ‘oppositional’ categories.  I realized how the limits of our language also limit our ability to think when I began writing an essay and seriously attempted to use terms that were more gender neutral so that they would not be exclusionary.

What I came to question is, how can we make mention of a person/people (and not use their names) if we are attempting to avoid terms such as men, women, boys, girls, he, she, and him or her?  It is not easy. It is clear that our binary and oppositional thinking is an outgrowth of our very limited language – and our limited notions about the true nature of humanity – and because of this, we carry these notions of opposites (with all of its negative and even combative associations) around with us and we use this mindset in much of what we think and what we do.

Another way of presenting these ideas is in Catherine MacKinnon’s essay, On Difference and Dominance (Bender & Braveman, 1995, pp. 241-252), in which she pointed out that “gender has structured thought and perception” in a way that mainstream legal and moral authority tacitly gives credibility to notions of equality corresponding with ideas of sameness and notions of sex corresponding with ideas of difference.  This, to MacKinnon’s way of thinking, is the very thing that hinders equality among the sexes.  What MacKinnon brought to light is that the notions of sameness (equality) and sex (difference) can both be used as legal arguments and as a means to perpetuate a system of domination and, for the most part, we truly believe these notions concerning the differences between the two sexes.

MacKinnon suggested that, when thinking about situations of equality/inequality among different people, we should avoid thinking in terms of sameness and difference between people, and instead we should use the “dominance approach”.  This is because we are all different from one another – and we are different from one another to the very same degree that they are different from us.  For this reason, we should instead think in terms of domination and subordination and the equal/unequal distribution of power and resources between different groups of people.

It is interesting to see how ‘new’ ideas come from the margins – from those folks who do not necessarily fit in with the social ‘norms’ or are in some way marginalized.  These are the people that see from a ‘new’ (not mainstream) perspective and can offer us insights that are sometimes difficult for ‘mainstream’ society to see.  Perhaps when we listen to those on the margins, such as women and folks from the LGTBQ community, we can learn about the true diverse nature of humanity.  We can learn that there is a much larger range of human possibilities than what we might currently imagine.  The simple idea of masculine (dominating) males versus feminine (submissive) females is one very limiting notion, for sure.  When we understand our true diversity we might also discover new ways of living where one group no longer dominates over another as a result of our perceived likenesses and differences.

References:

Bender, L., & Braveman, D. (1995). Power, privilege, and law: a civil rights reader (p. 266). St. Paul: West Publishing Company.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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