Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Reader Writes: "In History, This Sort of Gender Binary Essentialism Has Been an Important Support to Nazism, the Taliban, and Various Theocracies in the West"

In response to my posting on Thursday about the lack of socioeconomic analysis of family and what it takes to sustain family at the Vatican colloquium on gender complementarity this week, Mark writes an eloquent, profound essay, to which I can add nothing at all, since it speaks so powerfully for itself: 

After reading the letter written by conservative Christians to the Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops at and viewing videos made by Mark Regnerus, I offer these reflections on complementarity and name some conceptual tools to analyze the implications of the deeper structures and the unconscious supports of the concept of the complementarity of two genders as currently being promoted by religious conservatives. I will sketch out possible consequences of their beliefs.

The videos are slickly produced. They are less like the innovative and morally vile film "Birth of a Nation" than they could be likened to the pedestrian and morally vile "Triumph of the Will," a 1935 nazi propaganda film. The use of stereotypical imagery and meaningless piano music suggests the function of drug advertisements lulling the listener and/or viewer into accepting the poison of evil concealed in banal sounds and images which disguise cultural and local stereotypic truisms as profound truths.

The film’s focus on complementarity is clearly declared to be based on the concept of essentialism. For the purposes of Christian conservatives, essentialism applied to gender means there are only two genders and that they are ontologically different from one another. In history, this sort of gender binary essentialism has been an important support to nazism, the taliban, and various theocracies in the west. This company alone should give one pause.

As there is a claim that complementarity is ordained divinely, these binary gender identities are transcendent. By accepting this transcendental complementarity, binary essentialism justifies or excuses rape, war and other redemptive violence, — and especially homo-hatred — as some sort of regrettable baseline behavior for men. (Boys will be boys.) And given that there are only two gender identities in complementarity, any other manner of being or behaving is considered unnatural and deserving of exclusion, correction (if possible) and hatred and punishment when it cannot be checked or cured. Homosexuality or variants from complementarity can only be grasped as a threat and a danger to the established order. Similarly, being obedient, endlessly victimized and out-ranked becomes the prescribed fate of women — a regrettable baseline under such an arrangement of transcendental complementarity. Social sin is normalized, justified and valorized.

When glossed as progressive, transcendental complementarity such as is seen in the videos, depicts men as learning from women and vice-versa while maintaining an increasingly rigid system of transcendental complementarity. Complementary relationships based on differences, if constant, always lead to rigid stratification and to a gender system based on ferocious exclusion violently reinforced. At best the video and letter are passive violence, kindling for justifying the fire of real violence. Religious conservatives and reactionaries tend to display science envy by cloaking their statements in terms of scientific law. While science has fundamental laws that describe the behavior of mass and energy, the study of gender is not so readily conformed to scientific pronouncement.

What is especially disturbing for me about the religious/conservative position of transcendental complementarity is the impression that its proponents are being victimized for having to consider alternative ways of understanding gender roles. I understand this to be a pseudo-victim stance. By almost any measure of wealth and safety in human history, these same conservatives are clearly near the top of the food chain. They have been the historic winners, or more often, the heirs to the winners of history’s most violent struggles for domination. In winning and keeping the status-quo going, they have created real victims by their passive and active violence.

(I took the liberty of inserting two weblinks Mark provided into the body of his essay, and I've deleted a final paragraph which speaks of the contribution made by this blog and the many readers who respond to it, a statement for which I'm grateful to Mark. But grateful most of all for his contribution and the contribution of so many fine readers of Bilgrimage . . . .)

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