When the Golden Mean is just plain mean

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A pre-school in Sweden is going to achieve gender equality. The idea is to remove any stimulation that might give the kids an idea of whether they’re boys or girls, according to society’s definition of these. Gendered toys will be available, but they’ll be “placed side by side to encourage a child to play with whatever he or she chooses.” That’s just the description for the popular media, because at the school, gendered pronouns like ‘he’ and ‘she’ will be replaced by “ ‘hen’ – a genderless pronoun borrowed from Finnish.” And Dick and Jane will make way for “a book about giraffes who find an abandoned baby crocodile and adopt it.”

Given the persistent inequalities in fancy, emancipated OECD countries, this is an understandable impulse, and considering the cruel discrimination in patriarchies like Afghanistan, the Sudan and Rome, it could be a blessing.

The idea is clearly to spare children the social domination that goes along with selecting a gender identity from society’s à la carte menu of mutually exclusive choices or the conflict that comes with deviating from that menu. It should also inoculate the kiddies against cooties. A noble motive indeed. But is this for the kids’ sake? Cui bono? The kids are surely going to notice in the bathtub whether they’re equipped with a wee-wee or a hoo-ha. They’re bound to notice that moms all look pretty similar in their basic features, as are dads. Before long, the cat will be out of the bag, so to speak.

So the factual knowledge of sex is inevitable, but they might still be sheltered from having to fight for recognition as a 6 year-old with gender confusion by dodging the question. Tractors are for kids who like tractors, and Barbies are for kids who like brand-name dolls, regardless of how everyone looks at bath time. But what happens when they want to join a soccer/hockey/synchronized swimming team? Which is the right locker room at the pool? What does little Storm or Pop answer when the school bully calls them “fag”, “wuss” or “butch”,“tomboy”? What if the Sage Jr. really identifies with Optimus Prime, wants to be a roughneck when he grows up, and desperately wants to change his name to ‘Bud’ or ‘Rambo’? Sooner or later, when they leave this pre-school at the latest, they’re going to face such conflicts and have to deal with them.

So the kids aren’t spared the conflict, they’re just dropped in the deep end a little later without preparation. But the parents neither have to respond to their kids’ gender-bending tendencies, nor do they have to help the kid deal with others’ expectations and reactions. Instead of giving the kids tools and space to deal with bullies, the parents get to pretend bullies don’t exist. Kumbaya, my non-gendered Deity, kumbaya.

There’s a technical term for a massive body without the capacity to fight back. (Hint: it starts with “punching” and ends with “bag”.)

But of course, this is old po-mo hat, and it’s a response to a lot of miserable modernity. Time was, folks like Herbert Spencer ranked civilizations on his ideas of merit, and Rudyard Kipling spoke of ‘the White Man’s Burden’. Millions of dead people with dark skin, dozens of wars of independence and a smidge of genocide later, we know better: diversity rules! Ditto ideology. After the War to End all Wars and its unexpected cliff-hanger sequel, you can have any colour you want, so long as it’s social democracy/some form of welfare state. Both might be improvements on their predecessors, but that doesn’t imply that everyone will agree on that point, and you’re not doing anyone any favours by imposing a regime of Truth on them that is supposed to transcend justification or reason. As some socialist biddy once said, “True freedom is the freedom of the guy/gal/hen who thinks otherwise.”

High-falutin’ theories of communicative action and discourse aside, might the genderless pre-school still fulfill its promise of sparing the kids grief? Might little Willow or Sparrow one day grow up and be able to engage in a gendered activity, say sports, and sidestep the slings and arrows of a gendered society? Caster Semanya tried. She annihilated the competition in every event she completed at the track & field world championships in 2009. She never expressed any doubts about her (genetically decisive) identity, but the folks at home weren’t so sure, and some of her opponents on the track were sour grapes. She was doubly rewarded: 1) the standard medals and prize money, and 2) the unique privilege of having the world’s sports reporters and a legion of foreign doctors, including an endocrinologist, a gynaecologist, an internal medicine expert, an expert on gender and a psychologist, examining and discussing the status of her hoo-ha. Congratulations to hen!
 

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15 Responses to When the Golden Mean is just plain mean

  1. Dan Dravot says:

    Kumbaya, my non-gendered Deity, kumbaya.

    Way to engage in normatively monotheistic discourse there, cowboy.

    This whole post needs a Trigger Warning for polytheists, atheists, and people who are scared of vowels.

    • Guy Fox says:

      When trying to avoid the abuse of parentheses in po(st)-mo(dern) (de)construction(s), an author sometimes feels (s)he needs to cut certain corners. The Trigger Warning would be just another (re)production of the offence(s).
      :)

  2. Comus says:

    I think you’re readig this too harshly. The Egalia preschool doesn’t claim there aren’t differences between boys and girls, nor is it trying to massproduce a hoard of androgynous swedes.

    Why this was on the news to begin with was the language; the “banning” of “han” and “hon”, ie. the gendered pronouns. And as you note, this new pronoun “hen” is thus adapted from the Finnish “hän” to apply to all the people whatever their gender. Finnish isn’t the only country without gendered pronouns. One might muse whether Finland being the first country to allow women to vote and stand for election is due to language, but that’d be off topic. Oh, no it wouldn’t, yet awfully suspicious.

    In Egalia preschool they also have gendered toys, they just are stacked randomly, so as to not create borders between gendered toys. This raises the question whether this is the case somewhere else? That may also be why this hasn’t broken the news barrier in other Nordic countries. This isn’t such a groundbreaking thing to begin with.

    So what are they fighting here? Contrarians appear to confuse sex and gender here. If we apply the feminist pavement here it would easily follow that if language is a distancing gap between equality, why not change the language. This also isn’t a new thing (see for example the degenderisation of names of occupations). It wouldn’t be reasonable to believe that Egalians are strict genitalia-deniers. They appear more to oppose the nuances of the current industry.

    Wouldn’t a strict evolutionary view be that if children are left to develop to their own device, without cultural markers, they’d still develop male or female and act accordingly? You don’t see that many cows thinking they’re a bull (or even a steer). In this sense the children are left to develop their own meaning to their gender, instead of adopting a more outside one.

    Of course there are problems. Like the books and stories. They often convey heuristics and are symbolic in a way that prepares the child for the adult world. Surely the Grimm tales about menstruation or rape are more useful to the girls than for boys (debatable!). Now what would be interesting to study is whether girls raised in a genderless vaccuum still would gravitate towards those stories or not.

    Of course this is nothing of the like. This is only a preschool. And as such not even that drastic.

    • Dan Dravot says:

      Wouldn’t a strict evolutionary view be that if children are left to develop to their own device, without cultural markers, they’d still develop male or female and act accordingly?

      Well, you could argue that “normal” parental behavior is a natural and healthy part of children being raised (assuming for the sake of argument that the arguer’s “normal” is normative, obv.): For example, boys have more testosterone than girls, but what do they do with it? Traditionalists might argue that boys and girls have different brains, and you should be giving each kid the appropriate set of instructions for how to use the one ey’s been issued.

      But then of course you move right along to the debate about whether traditional “normal” parenting provides the right set of instructions anyhow. Even granting that boys should be raised differently, it hardly follows that they way they did it in my hometown when I was young is the Final Right Answer.

      Look at feral children, too. Learning to be human is extraordinarily complicated.

      But this is just a pre-school. Unless you lock these kids inside the school and never let them interact with the wider culture until they’re 18, this whole thing is a bit overblown. They’ll go home after school and be exposed to men being men and women being women, and that’s that.

      I would like to know what they do at this school if one of the boys hauls off and slugs one of the girls. Do they treat it the same as a boy hitting a boy? If not, they’re unprincipled. But if they do, they’re nuts. I hope they’re merely unprincipled.

      • Dirk Anger says:

        boys and girls have different brains, and you should be giving each kid the appropriate set of instructions for how to use the one ey’s been issued.
        I don’t know if you agree with them, but I couldn’t disagree more. As you very well put: kids should be given the appropriate set of instructionns ey’s been issued, instead of the one they’re suppossed to have been issued.
        Kids need to learn to work with what they have, and in order to do that, they first need to learn what it is that they have, and imposing them “nurturing” or “action” toys according to what they have between their legs is sending them a message about what they should like, instead of letting them like what they like without having any feelings about it (other than “me likey”).

        Still, all those discussions are moot, because those kids are going to spend about twice as many hours in the outside world than in the school, and if the girl who likes trucks isn’t mocked at school, she’ll be outside. As with most problems with education, the hard part is what happens outside the school

      • philtrum says:

        I would like to know what they do at this school if one of the boys hauls off and slugs one of the girls. Do they treat it the same as a boy hitting a boy? If not, they’re unprincipled. But if they do, they’re nuts.

        Why would that be “nuts”?

      • Sfon says:

        “Do they treat it the same as a boy hitting a boy? If not, they’re unprincipled. But if they do, they’re nuts.”

        People used to think the same about women being encouraged to work outside the home, and some still do. Boys are as worthy of protection as girls are of opportunity.

        This is especially silly when talking about prepubescent children. Not even the “males have much more upper body strength on average” reasoning can be used, it is pure arbitrary sexism.

        This not only encourages sexism against boys by giving the message that they are less valuable, but against girls as well. Treat femininity as weakness regardless of the traits of the individual, and you encourage it to be seen that way.

  3. vprime says:

    They’re in preschool. Their gender really doesn’t matter as much as toy advertisements will have us believe. I thought we covered much of this in the post on “Storm.”

  4. Iris says:

    1. So black kids should never have been sent to white schools because they could be bullied?

    2. Isn’t the whole idea of a preschool (soon: world) free of gender stereotypes to get rid of gender stereotypes, ie. that women who act like “men” or (much worse) men who act like “women” are deviants? Okay, the older kids never got the memo, but back to 1.

    • Guy Fox says:

      The point wasn’t that things should never change, it was that parents and education authorities shouldn’t instrumentalize kids as agents of the adults’ desired change. That reduces kids to the status of a picket sign-lightning rod hybrid. The kids will figure themselves out if we stand back and let them, but presenting them with the equal and opposite dogma is a bad idea. Fight for civil rights, fight for gender plurality, but don’t use your kid as a human shield.

  5. philtrum says:

    A minor point, but this:

    Dick and Jane will make way for “a book about giraffes who find an abandoned baby crocodile and adopt it.”

    Is a really annoying shorthand. Dick and Jane made way a long time ago. Dick and Jane haven’t been current since my parents were in kindergarten in the 1950s.

    The rest of this is a rehash of the “Storm” post and discussion. No one is suggesting that these kids will not be told what their genitals are. And no one is proposing to keep the kids innocent of the concept of gender for their entire lives.

    So the kids aren’t spared the conflict, they’re just dropped in the deep end a little later without preparation.

    You could say that about almost anything that little children don’t have to deal with. To borrow an example from Alfie Kohn, children aren’t going to get love and hugs from everyone they meet in life, so does that mean you shouldn’t hug your kids?

    • vprime says:

      Thank you.

      I’d rather see a post on why stories like these generate such predictable outraged sputtering. Why is anything than challenges gender essentialism considered so awful?

      • philtrum says:

        And why people who find these stories so outrageous feel the need to make up things that aren’t in the text. It’s as if they, themselves, realize that what’s actually being described isn’t that bad, but they want to be outraged anyway.

  6. boeotarch says:

    Having heard a good bit about this elsewhere, I’m thinking this school is a lot less about “protecting kids from gender” and more about legitimizing alternative ideas about gender. It’s a small experiment but it’s one that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been attempted elsewhere.

  7. punster says:

    I can’t help thinking that Egalia is more about who gets their kids in there rather than what the kids get out of it. Putting your kids in a progressive pre-school which promotes equality grants some serious bragging points in Sweden. That said, what Egalia does not seem to be all that bad and they seem to handle things better than this British school :

    A primary school has been condemned by parents for disciplining two seven-year-old boys after teachers ruled playing army games amounted to “threatening behaviour”

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/8546328/School-reprimands-seven-year-old-boys-for-playing-army-game.html

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