Saturday, March 08, 2014

Cartesian Gender

Atheist warning. This is a socio-theological post.

Next, reacquaint yourself with the principle of hylomorphism.


One of the main contentions of this blog is that rise of modernism is a consequence of certain "structural" weaknesses  that were present in traditional society and culture.  Any conservative attempt to combat modernism therefore requires an understanding of the underlying pathologies which both gave birth to it and sustain it. I critique the Church quite a bit, not because of any malice, but because its ideas were the dominant cultural force which shaped the mindset of modern Western man and many modernist heresies are themselves mutations or adaptations of Christian thought.

As I've mentioned before, one of the areas of structural weakness concerned issues with regard to sexuality. The Catholic Church, at least in theory, has always endorsed a hylomorphic concept of man but in its war against the excesses of the flesh, the Church pushed back too hard and created a "carnal lite" version of man. This notion of man, comprised of a "good" spirit which led him to heaven and corrupting flesh which was dragging him to hell. And although the Church was officially committed to the hylomorphic vision, practically, in its day to day operations  it practiced a Cartesian duality with regard to the man's nature.  It's this Cartesian framework which sets up both the division of not only spirit and the flesh, but with a little imagination, of both gender and biological sex.

If identity and reason find their locus in the spirit, and the flesh is considered not only as something transient and temporary but hostile to spiritual perfection, it's easy to see how, when it comes to conceptions of the human person, the body is percieved to be both inferior to the spirit and hostile to it. Spiritual identity and corporeal body are thus put in opposition and though the Church did not subscribe to the dualist doctrine the take home message as understood by the faithful was Cartesian. It didn't help that the  Church in in its traditions, pushed the idealisation of the ascetic and the mortification of the flesh.  Modernism's conception of the human person is therefore an adaptation of mainstream Christian practice which saw rationality and corporeality as two separate entities.

Even Christianity's conceptions of masculinity and femininity tended to be framed along virtue centric lines and less along biological properties. To be manly, men had to possess virtues A, B, C......and so on. Women likewise had to posses virtues X, Y, Z....e.t.c. But the thing about virtues is that they are chosen behaviour: habits of deliberate choice which are not constrained by biology. When you frame gender along these lines you imply that gender is a matter of proper will and not biological nature. It's not much of a stretch to see how feminism gets its ideas of gender being both  a choice and social construct.

To illustrate what I mean, consider the following two women. Which of these is more feminine?

Now I've chosen Megan Fox for no particular reason except that she is very attractive but otherwise  morally average. Mother Teresa, on the other hand, is a moral giant but quite frankly is less attractive that Ms Fox.  How do we evaluate femininity in these two women?

There are strong strains in mainstream Christian thought which would assert that Mother Teresa is the more feminine of the two.  According to this approach, true femininity just as easily found in the obese-hirsute-fishmonger's wife as is in the Victoria's Secret model provided they live a Christian life. Likewise, traditional conceptions of masculinity tended to see masculinity as a series of character virtues. The problem with this approach is that it views femininity/masculinity as a collection of chosen moral qualities irrespective of the biological vehicle in which they are found. Thus, the Church's own position on the subject, while opposed to radical feminism,  provides unintentional support for its opponents by reinforcing in practice an underlying meta-philosophy that biology and gender are distinct. Feminist gender theory is a corruption of Christian Cartesian dualism.

On the other hand, Joe average, would clearly call Megan Fox the more feminine.  Because, for the average man, femininity is a metric of female perfection, not of moral quality and Ms Fox more closely approximates the ideal female form than Mother Theresa does. It strange to contemplate that the lecher honours hylomorphism in his sin more than the Church does in its practice, but the Devil is found where you least expect him and he's hardest to see when cloaked in apparent virtue.

The contemporary Christian problem, in its battle against gender/sex incongruity is how to fuse the two. The traditional cultural heritage, with its practical de-facto dualism, doesn't help since it effectively shares the same understanding of the human person as feminism does.  Pushing one helps the other.  Modern appeals of gender "authenticity" to biological sex are unconvincing. What exactly does "authentic" to self mean? Who defines it? The argument of every trans-sexual arguing for sex change surgery is that their bodies are not authentic to their nature's. The Christian response is that a trans-sexual's conception of their authenticity is not really authentic. It's a circular logic.

The workaround for this problem starts with a re-commitment, both in theory and practice to the doctrine of hylomorphism. Secondly, there needs to be a recognition that biological sex is the hylomorphic incarnation of gender. Thus gender is not a choice but a per-determined state of being. Thirdly, there needs to be an understanding that there may be "privations of form" with regard to gender incarnation and thus people may be born male or female and that they may be born with less than their fair share of masculinity or femininity. Fourthly, the operation of Caritas on the form of gender is to perfect it. Gender commitment is a virtue. Thus, anything which privates gender in any way, shape or form needs to be seen as an evil. Finally, the Church needs to recognise that moral virtue and gender identity are two separate things it needs to stop conflating the two. Just as a white man does not become more white by the practice of Charity neither does he become more manly by doing so. Virtue and gender are not synonymous.