Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Ivory Cubicle | It's a Boy (No, Really)

Well, as some of you may have noted, Twitter erupted in a massive display of politically-correct anti-gender idiocy last weekend at the birth of the Royal Baby and the subsequent proclamation that he was, in fact, a boy. I wrote a sarcastic article smacking it down. The problem is that though the arguments were advanced by such laughable characters as a self-proclaimed “anti-intellectual arachnofeminist,” there actually is a pretty powerful academic movement today advocating the notion that gender is simply a construct of human society.

So in this post, I want to go back in history a bit and see if we can figure out where the whole gender expressionism movement came from.

Figuring Out Where We Are

Today, unfortunately, we seem to be in a place where gay marriage is on the upswing, is being accepted as normal, and where Tweeters (or whatever you call them) can get a huge platform denouncing the abuses of heteronormativity while using absurd gender neutral pronouns such as “ze” and “zir.” But things like this don’t happen overnight. If you work your way backwards through the mess of human sexuality studies, you find that it came out of a pretty powerful movement that occurred back in the 1960s, the Sexual Revolution, and with it came all the proliferation of abortion, pornography, premarital sex, and everything else that was pretty much smacked down by the Apostle Paul in his epistles (Rom 1:24-27, 13:13; Gal 5:19-21; 1 Cor 5-7; et al). When you work your way backwards through the history of the Sexual Revolution, you get back to a fundamental text that helped spark it all, The Second Sex, written by a woman named Simone de Beauvoir. And when you work backwards through her philosophy, you find out that it was pretty much a feminized version of the thought of the premier French existentialist of the time, Jean-Paul Sartre.

One could go back further, but we’ll take Sartre’s existentialism as the starting place for figuring out what’s going wrong in Western culture today.

In his well-known lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism,” Sartre defines existentialism as the belief that “existence precedes essence.” This definition was a radical break with most previous philosophy, which ascribed to a school of thought now known as essentialism, or the claim that “essence precedes existence.”

But before we go too far, a few terms need to be clarified. What exactly is existence? What is essence? And what exactly do we mean by declaring that one precedes the other?

Let’s start with essence. In philosophy, when people talk about essence, they are referring to a fundamental attribute or set of attributes possessed by an object that makes the object what it is. Without the thing’s essence, it ceases to be what it is and loses its identity. Suppose I have a chair and part of the essence of chairness is “being a thing upon which people may sit.” Now suppose that I take an axe to it, hack it to pieces, and light it on fire. It is no longer a thing upon which people may sit. It ceases to be a chair and instead becomes a heaping pile of ashes. If part of the essence of a chair is also “having a back,” and I detach the back from a chair, then it ceases to be “chair” and instead becomes “stool” or something.

The definition of existence is fairly simple. Pretty much, if an object is in the world, it exists. The chair I’m sitting on exists. The chair that I hacked to pieces and lit on fire no longer exists. The amazingly comfortable office chair that I’m imagining in my mind does not exist, but if I build it at some point in the future, it will exist.

Now what do we mean by saying that one of them precedes the other? Well, let’s see if we can get at it by way of analogy.

Suppose an ancient Greek philosopher finds himself sitting on the ground contemplating the mysteries of life. Upon rising, he notices that his toga has acquired grass stains, that his back is a little sore from prolonged sitting in the upright position, and that some ancient Greek insect has been nibbling away at his shins. He thinks to himself, “golly, I wish that I had some object with four legs and a back which could elevate my delicate shins and toga from the ground and provide my back something to rest against.” He immediate begins crafting a blueprint of the object, which he names chair, and begins assembling the requisite materials.

Does he currently have a chair? No, of course not. He has a pile of wood, a few nails, a blueprint, and a grass-stained toga. But he has in mind the essence of the chair, that is, an idea of the attributes necessary for a chair to be a chair and function as a chair and do other chairlike things. We could say that the essence of the chair precedes the chair’s existence. That is, we are essentialists when it comes to chairs.

Let’s say our Greek philosopher builds the chair, sits upon it, contemplates the mysteries of life, avoids receiving further grass stains, and then the Persians invade, slaughter him, and come into possession of this mysterious object. The leader of the Persians, being an existentialist in Jean-Paul Sartre’s tradition, immediately proceeds to contemplation of his new acquisition.

“Aha!” he declares. “This object has been cast into the world abandoned, without either source or meaning, it has no transcendent purpose or role that it is called to fulfill. The ancient Greek philosopher who some have claimed as its source is naught but lies and fairy tales, now, good collection of random cosmic particles, you find yourself condemned to be free and bearing the anguished responsibility of crafting your own identity.”

The random collection of particles, devoid of any meaning or purpose and confronted by the weight of its own existence, summons its will and forges its purpose as “that upon which human beings will lay horizontally.”

Thus, the chair’s essence, being “that upon which human beings will lay horizontally” comes after its existence. It is an existentialist – its existence precedes its essence.

The problem, of course, is that the random Persian soldier who attempts to lay across the chair finds himself laying less horizontally and more droopily, and is in fact quite uncomfortable with the situation, because, like it or not, the ancient Greek philosopher didn’t actually build the chair to be laid across horizontally, but rather to be sat upon. That is to say, essentialism actually is correct and existentialism, well, isn’t. But we’ll development that argument later. Comment. Like. Share. Tune in next week. Etc.

Posted by Nick Barden

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