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Supplemental Essay: "Gender as a Social Construct" Versus "Gender as a Binary"


There is also the question of whether (or to what degree) gender roles represent nurture (gender as a social construct) versus nature (gender as a binary on a spectrum). The arguments for each are as follows.


Gender as a social construct

In the 2010s and 2020s a consensus appears to be forming in some sectors of Western society to the effect that gender is a social construct (in other words, due entirely to nurture) and that, apart from certain physical characteristics (which can be modified medically), gender roles can be completely disengaged from the biological sex of individuals or dispensed with entirely.


From that position, there still remain a few possibilities as to what happens to the concept of gender. Given the failings of patriarchal culture in the first half of the 20th century (two world wars and the rise of mass authoritarianism), the focus tends to be on how to view masculine-associated traits. A couple possibilities:

  • Masculinity is deemed toxic as a whole, women can run the world better (with more empathy, equality, inclusion, etc.), and therefore males should strive to be more feminine;

  • Modern technology continues to require the mastery of masculine-associated traits such as STEM skills, competitiveness, analysis, and leadership; and therefore women need to become more like men (become "girl-bosses") in order to take advantage of leadership opportunities opening for them in the working world; in other words, de-link masculine-associated traits from masculinity and make them gender-neutral;

  • Simply de-link all personality traits from gender and effectively refuse to acknowledge gender at all;

  • Or some mix thereof.


Gender as a binary on a spectrum

However, the idea of gender as a social construct is a relatively new view, at least at the broad cultural level. It is fair to review the traditional "gender-as-a-binary" ideas that oppose the "gender-as-a-social-construct" view.


Gender as a binary on a spectrum: "Weak instincts"

In the supplemental essay titled "'Weak Instincts' as Brain Architecture" I noted that various experts across the years have said in one fashion or another that Humans are born with a mental architecture already genetically programmed into their brains, much in the same way that animals are born with instincts genetically programmed into their brains.


If "weak instincts" exist, the gender dichotomy certainly has a claim to that status. Separate biological sexes have existed since very early in the evolutionary chain, and the differences in the sexes are backed by hormonal and other physical differences.


As I noted in the supplemental essay, "weak instincts" are just that: Weak. They are just tendencies, not hard-wiring, which would account for the gender binary operating on a spectrum with a great degree of variability possible from one individual to the next. If society is determined enough and utilizes a large enough carrot and stick, "weak instincts" can be overridden. There have been historical periods when great degrees of gender fluidity were permitted and practiced. 


Social engineering can be very effective at overriding "weak instincts." In fact, one can argue that Western civilization itself is a product of social engineering, of both the best and worst kinds. Modern man has come a long way from his roots in the jungle, largely due to an ongoing process of social conditioning from birth, schooling in youth, and policing in adulthood. If the idea of a gender-free society is attractive enough (and/or backed with enough social conditioning), then anything is possible.


On the other hand, when it comes to gender there seems to be a "reversion to the mean" over time at the cultural level; the gender binary has demonstrated tremendous resilience and stability across the millennia. In her book Sexual Persona Camille Paglia tries to imagine a modern world where masculinity is erased from the dominant culture: "Androgyny, which some feminists promote as a pacifist blueprint for sexual utopia, belongs to the contemplative rather than the actual life. It is the ancient prerogative of priests, shamans, and artists. Feminists have politicized it as a weapon against the masculine principle. Redefined, it now means men must be like women and women can be whatever they like." But Paglia doubts that the blue-collar working class will pay much attention. She goes on to say that, in any case, the basic "template for masculinity" will certainly survive in the gay community. Homosexuality has traditionally included a transgressive element by virtue of existing outside the dominant community; and the gay community is also a well of creativity: "Major peaks of Western culture have been accompanied by a high incidence of male homosexuality—in classical Athens and Renaissance Florence and London." In a pinch, Paglia says that masculinity can always be replenished from that source: "Fortunately, male homosexuals of every social class have preserved the cult of the masculine, which will therefore never lose its aesthetic legitimacy."[1]


Gender as a binary on a spectrum: One-sidedness and enantiodromia

On the "gender-as-a-social-construct" side, I noted the following considerations:

  • In pre-modern societies there existed a gender-based division of labor based on physical needs and capabilities in order to ensure survival, which was subsequently reinforced in the cultural sphere. In today's society, on the other hand, modern technology has reached the point where most work no longer requires great physical strength and women can do most of the jobs traditionally performed by men. As men and women increasingly perform the same tasks interchangeably, there is no particular reason for a gender divide to exist at any level, and modern culture increasingly reflects that idea.

  • Most individuals don't demonstrate a hard binary in their own expression of gender: Personality traits get linked up with gender in the form of dichotomies (opposing pairs), but that results in a different mix of gendered personality traits from person to person, resulting in a gender spectrum as opposed to a hard binary. Thus, in a modern culture where technology negates gender differences and gender tends to be a mix of traits on a loose spectrum rather than a binary, it may be that personality traits simply de-link from the idea of gender over time. 


On the other hand, these "gender-as-a-social-construct" considerations don't mean that the dichotomous pairs of personality traits will themselves disappear. We will still have personality dichotomies such as Care versus Autonomy or Collectivism versus Individuality or Ne versus Ni, as well as a need to explain their existence and categorize them.


In other words, dichotomies (binaries of opposites) seem to be a fact of life when it comes to personality traits. Any quality taken in isolation tends to lead to one-sidedness based on the principle of "if a little is good, then a lot is better." One-sidedness, in turn, leads to enantiodromia, that is, a run toward the other side of the dichotomy in order to restore balance. Or, if the individual persists in one-sidedness, then the other side is summoned in daemonic form. Either way, leaning in on the other side leads back to balance and wholeness. In other words all roads lead to centroversion sooner or later, and centroversion is only possible on a dichotomous binary. (See the chapter on Intuition in the section entitled "One-sidedness & Centroversion" for a discussion of enantiodromia and centroversion.)


Furthermore, children will continue to notice these dichotomies and chart them on a simple binary. As I described in the main essay, Neumann, Chodorow, and others say that young girls and boys are highly attuned to a gender binary. Girls generally identify with their mother and boys generally define themselves in opposition to their mother. At the S level children pay attention to oppositeness and sameness, and they differentiate between the two as an important way to orient themselves in the world and relative to their parents.


Personality dichotomies have traditionally gotten linked with the gender binary with tremendous consistency over time and across societies, and it is quite possible that personality trait dichotomies will continue to be linked to gender even in an otherwise non-gendered environment.


If this is the case, then it may prove next to impossible to cancel or nullify the "masculine" side of each dichotomy or eliminate dichotomies altogether. It might be more productive to allow for a constructive view of a balanced binary while allowing individuals to decide for themselves which gender traits fit them best and how they want to balance them out. In other words, the binary becomes a personalized "roadmap" allowing for a mix of gendered personality traits based on what suits the individual personally rather than society's expectations.


This may be particularly helpful for children. It avoids the pitfall of simply trying to deny the binary altogether, or of seizing upon "feelings" or behaviors at an early age as some kind of binding indicator that a child's gender does or doesn't align with their biological sex. Children are mercurial and go through phases. 


For example, society could send a message that a focus on care and a focus on autonomy are to be valued equally, as are collectivism and individualism; and children of either sex are encouraged to manifest either side of each dichotomy with the understanding that their values will change over time as they become more sophisticated about life, society, and gender.


Also, a little more social consensus in this matter (with respect to the generation of a personalized "roadmap" allowing for a mix of gendered personality traits) might help avoid a problem haunting children today: The atomization of modern society. Children get so many mixed messages from parents, teachers, and mass media on the subject of gender that the whole subject becomes a minefield for them. The seriousness of the subject and the lack of social consensus seems to be causing a lot of anxiety, and some children end up falling into tribal black holes on the internet or among their immediate peers in their effort to find some guidance they can trust. This leads to small isolated communities defending their own radical beliefs against all comers, and thus the clamor of conflicting messages only increases over time, taking the atomization of society to a new level for each new cohort of children. A little more consensus and tolerance for the full range of personality expression (and for the validity of both sides of the gender binary) could help here.


To sum up: It seems like personality traits will continue to exist in the form of dichotomies due to the compelling law of one-sidedness and enantiodromia. But in modern society there is no particular reason for them to be linked to one gender or the other. As the traits are increasingly shared by both genders, the personality dichotomies can increasingly be grouped in terms of some other metric, such as extraversion versus introversion based on how they match up with the two sides of a given function level (Ne versus Ni, Se versus Si, etc.)


In a sense, nothing changes but the labels we affix to personality traits. But with a little more consensus on how to handle these dichotomous traits, society can reduce some of the tension around these matters while children of successive generations work out for themselves how they want to manifest those traits. And time will tell whether personality dichotomies de-link from the gender binary. If personality dichotomies prove resistant to de-linkage, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Again, at some point it just becomes a question of labels. There is no reason for individual personality traits to be favored or rejected, as long as the end goal remains a balance of sorts.


Gender as a binary on a spectrum: The archetypal nature of gender

As I said above, Neumann, Chodorow, and others say that girls generally identify with their mother and boys generally define themselves in opposition to their mother. Some feminists interpret this, with some justification, by saying that womanhood is a natural state of being whereas masculinity is unnatural, that is, a state of rebellion. Compared to femininity as a state of being, masculinity represents flight and rejection, hence a state of becoming. It has to be constructed anew by each male individually.


In Sexual Personae Paglia echoes this charge by putting women squarely in nature, and thus man sits outside nature: She says, "Nature's cycles are woman's cycles. Biological femaleness is a sequence of circular returns, beginning and ending at the same point. Woman's centrality give her a stability of identity. She does not have to become but only to be. Her centrality is a great obstacle to man, whose quest for identity she blocks. He must transform himself into an independent being, that is, a being free of her. If he does not, he will simply fall back into her."[2]


From this, we get all the rest of the travails of the gender wars as described in the main essay on Sensing: Devaluation of the opposite sex, tension and rivalry between the sexes, and so on. 


But I think that this takes us back to the idea of "weak instincts" discussed at the top of this supplemental essay. If women share certain characteristics across the species (other than mere anatomy), then those attributes almost by definition are archetypal. Which means that their opposite is archetypal as well. It's the nature of Jungian dichotomies and enantiodromia: The opposite of an archetype is itself an archetype, and both archetypes are equally valid. 


In other words, both sides of any Jungian dichotomy are part of the innate architecture of our minds, and the Great Father serves as an antidote to one-sidedness on the part of the Great Mother (and vice versa). Just because we start from one side of the dichotomy doesn't invalidate the other side. And the rest of it (the devaluation, the rivalry) is all simply the tensions that are natural to dichotomies. Paglia says, "Political equality for women, desirable and necessary as it is, is not going to remedy the radical disjunction between the sexes that begins and ends in the body. The sexes will always be jolted by violent shocks of attraction and repulsion."[3]


But again, a lot of that tension could be dispelled with a bit more social consensus on the nature of gender. Individuals already contain a mix of personality traits of both genders; and both sexes can participate equally in the home or workplace. If adults could dial down the tension a bit, then children could work out for themselves the degree to which the gender binary is amenable or resistant to change.


To sum up

As I see it, genders appear to exist as archetypes and "weak instincts," but they don't necessarily correspond to biological sex. Once they break down into individual personality traits, there traditionally seems to be a great amount of latitude in terms of indulging a mix of "masculine" and "feminine" traits. If society could lighten up a bit, it might be better to acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of each of each of these traits individually and strive for some mode of balance in the middle as an ideal. From there, successive generations could work out for themselves the degree to which biological sex will ultimately be de-linked from gender.

Link: Return to Sensing (S)

~Posted April 4, 2024


[1] Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae, Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (First Vintage Books Edition, 1991), pp. 21-22.

[2] Ibid., pp. 9-10.

[3] Ibid., p. 21.

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