The semantics of gender

Inspired by a recent video from Laci Green, discussing how many genders there are, as well as by a post from Sarah Reynolds, I want to discuss the issue of gender, pronouns, and the function of language, whether gender is a spectrum, and why it is important.

When discussing language, there are really three levels that must be considered. The first is the ‘stuff in the world.’ Philosophers call these things ‘particulars.’ Examples of particulars are ‘that specific chair,’ ‘that specific person,’ and so on. Next, there are the concepts which describe those specific things. Finally, there are the words with which we label those concepts.

Semantics deals with the question of which words label which concepts. In theory, any symbol can be used to represent any concept. However, in order for us to be able to communicate, we need to have a consensus on which symbols (words) to use for which concepts. As a side-note, the other aspect of language is syntax, which deals with the form of language itself.

Now, I maintain that when it comes to gender and pronouns, there are, roughly speaking, four ways in which these terms have been used, or in which is has been proposed they be used:

  1. Gender referring to biological sex. This is not a spectrum, of course, because biological sex is binary (with rare intersex exceptions). It cannot be changed via surgery or chemicals.
  2. Gender referring to the public presentation of male or female sex characteristics. Again, this is binary. It can, however, sometimes be distinct from biological sex. It can also be changed via surgery and chemicals.
  3. Gender referring to masculinity and femininity. This is sort of a spectrum, although I would suggest that a person can have highly masculine and feminine traits, so it is better to see it as a two-dimensional grid.
  4. Gender referring to how you feel about yourself.

As Green pointed out in her video, then, part of the problem of trying to answer the question ‘is gender on a spectrum’ is that different people are probably using the same word to refer to different things. Some of those things are spectrums and some are not. So which usage does language historically display?

Now, it seems that historically, genders and pronouns have been used in the first and second senses. As an example of the second sense, consider Blaire White, a popular transwoman Youtuber, who pointed out that people naturally refer to her as ‘she,’ even though she never asked anyone to do so, because that is how language works. In other instances, people use the terms in the first sense.

However, language has never really used genders and pronouns in the third and fourth senses, historically. We have words for describing people who have a lot of traits associated with the opposite sex (‘effeminate,’ ‘tomboy,’ etc.), but in each case, the gender and pronoun would be assigned in the first or second sense, with an additional term used to describe those other characteristics.

This means that the SJW movement to use genders and pronouns in the third or fourth senses are wrong when they say ‘gender is on a spectrum,’ if they are trying to be descriptive of language. But they are not trying to be descriptive. They are trying to be prescriptive. In other words, they are trying to change the concept which the word ‘gender’ labels. This is a vastly different matter. So let us note a few points:

First, gender dysphoria is a real psychological problem, which can sometimes be resolved through transitional surgery and chemical treatment. However, it remains a disorder. We should not change language to accommodate a psychological disorder.

Second, in the first, second, and third potential meanings for ‘gender,’ gender describes something about how the person fits into the world. You cannot ‘gender yourself,’ in this sense. In the first sense, you are your biological sex, which you cannot change. In the second sense, and even in the third, you can change how you present yourself to the world, but the world still decides whether you are ‘he’ or ‘she.’

This is, I would contend, a good thing, because it makes language more descriptive. If we move into the fourth sense, where we allow people to gender themselves, then ‘he’ and ‘she’ no longer have any useful descriptive function, since all they tell us is what a person thinks of themselves. This is as meaningful as if I told someone to call me a blond, because I feel blond (in fact, I have brown hair with red highlights). It becomes worse when people insist upon using gender neutral pronouns like ‘xe’ or ‘they’ (which is even more confusing since it mixes singular and plural). These convey no information, except that the person insisting on these pronouns is probably definitely an insufferable douchebag. Though perhaps this is more important to know than knowing anything about their gender…

Furthermore, the notion that gender can be ‘fluid’ is not a relevant point. Maybe there are some people who sometimes present male sex characteristics and sometimes present female sex characteristics; those are the only ones who could really claim to be ‘gender fluid.’ But they would be changing genders in the second sense, and doing so by presenting to the world in a different manner. ‘I feel a little girly today’ does not mean that your gender has somehow switched. Nor is gender something that you can really choose. As Reynolds points out, these notions actually minimize the real problem of gender dysphoria, which is not a choice but an affliction. And you cannot self-identify as gender dysphoric any more than you can self-identify as depressed or schizophrenic.

The fourth sense also has an inherent problem in that different people will still disagree as to whether gender is a spectrum, since some people may feel they are part of a two gender system, and some might feel that they are part of a ‘gender is a spectrum’ system.

Finally, does it really matter? After all, language is arbitrary. Well, it does matter, for two reasons. The first we have already covered: trying to move language to use gender and pronouns in the third or especially the fourth senses would decrease the descriptive power of language. Second, it poses problems when dealing with issues of sexual segregation. Although this could be dealt with in other manners, say, by specifying that the segregation is sexual, and not gender-based, it makes such discussions much harder. Two areas where this is especially relevant:

  1. Bathrooms and locker rooms. While bathrooms are less of an issue, since women’s restrooms tend have enclosed stalls, should women really be subjected to watching males getting changed in locker rooms? This is probably something that should be left up to females to decide.
  2. Much more important is the issue of sports segregation. Consider that the Williams sisters, who are probably the best female tennis players of all time, were trounced (6-0 and 6-1) in the same day by a male tennis player who was not even in the top 200 of male competitors. Or consider the high school track runner who currently ‘identifies as a woman’ and thus is being allowed to compete in the girls’ runs rather than the boys – as a result of which, he is winning instead of being middle of the pack. Numerous studies have confirmed that there is extensive sexual dimorphism between males and females in humans. Regardless of how gender and pronouns are used, it is crucial that sports, at least, be segregated by sex. But the current discussion of gender has pushed things to a point where trans people, even if they have not started transitioning, can join the opposite sex’s league, and use their advantages to crush the competition.
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