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How to Reclaim the Debates about Gender Roles and Social Constructs

Matthew Sielaff recently wrote an article discussing the implications of what he called "the identity arguments of our world," specifically with regard to the gender-neutral bathrooms that have been popping up on his campus. I would like to respond to his argument—(I am not sure whether I am challenging his views or supporting them, so I will leave it to him to say whether he agrees with me or not). 

The leftist position on the identification question is often put like this: "gender (or race, or sexual orientation, or whatever else) is just a social construction." In my opinion, it is a mistake for conservatives to let them get away with that framing of the issue. The question should not be about whether some expectations are imposed on individuals by society rather than by unmediated biology. I think everyone would agree that "social constructs," in that sense, do exist—for instance, there is no "chances of wearing a tie" gene on anyone’s Y-chromosome, and yet, because of my Y-chromosome, I am expected to wear a tie to formal events. Instead, the point on which conservatives and leftists actually disagree is the other premise in the argument that ends in gender-neutral bathrooms: that one social construct is just as arbitrary, or just as warranted, as any other. 

The problem with this reasoning is that, as philosophers sometimes say, it proves too much. This response is not a "slippery slope" argument about what will follow for our society if we all adopt a certain point of view. Rather, it is the application of the leftist’s general principle to other cases, the thought being that, if it gives us wrong answers in those other cases, then there is something wrong with the principle. For example, imagine you want to prove that tulips are beautiful, and imagine you appeal to this generalization: "Everything that smells good is beautiful." I might respond by saying, "Well, that’s all fine and dandy in the case of tulips, but what if I bathed Rascal the Dog in Chanel No. 5? Some good-smelling things are beautiful, but not all of them are." It seems that you need a new principle. 

Similarly, the conservative’s position in this debate is that not every social construct is totally without justification. Sometimes, expectations are imposed on some people by other people for a good reason. One example about which most people (thankfully) still agree is that of pedophilia. It is true that, for each person, there is a biological fact about his or her age; it is also true that the expectation that adults should not enter into romantic relationships with children is imposed by society rather than by biology; it is, in that sense, a "social construct." The leftist principle about the arbitrariness of social constructs implies that society should not tell people what relationships they are allowed to enter into—that is, pedophilia is sometimes okay. But pedophilia is not okay. Therefore, the leftist principle is wrong. This is what conservatives should say, rather than reinforcing the true but irrelevant point that age (or sex) is a biological reality.


Stuart Warren is a physics student from Philadelphia, and a huge fan of good books, good coffee, and good conversation. 

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