What appears to us as natural is probably only the habitual of a long-standing habit, which has forgotten the unfamiliar from which it came. That familiar had once, however, attacked the human as an alienating thing, and had astonished thinking.—Martin Heidegger, trans. Salome Voegelin, Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes
People have gender—I recognize this. There is clearly a biological difference as well as a societal world of difference. Perhaps one day we will see a world where gender is not a rift, a trauma, a psychological wound—however, as long as the world looks the way it does gender will inevitably be tied up with a complicated and messy history. Social issues like gender-roles are just as much objects as the laptop I am typing at, they may be different sorts of objects, but they have a structure and meaning(s) and a history just like anything else. However withdrawn or subterranean gender issues are they pervade our personal histories, they run alongside us, provide a background, a “condition of possibility” (to steal a Kantian/post-Kantian phrase)—its an object-world we are in and have to see through to see anything at all. Gender-roles are always already existing, we are existing them—the key is to step back and see what we are living out, already doing, and figure out if what we are doing is healthy. The trick is to see what is truly alienating in what seems natural.
I was raised in a conservative Christian home and thus, like many, was taught to hold the door open for women, purchase meals, etc. Then, like many, I recognized the alienation in these acts—sure, I was doing them out of a charitable impulse, but that does not mean it doesn’t reciprocate hostility. Even segregation is an ostensible “charitable” act from a certain perspective. I learned about appropriating the other, acts which reduce individuals to our prior conceptions and interpretations of them, which is, in short, the beginning of totalitarianism. Suffice to say I stopped holding doors open for women because after all I didn’t hold doors open for men and I wasn’t about to treat roughly half the populace like they didn’t have the capacity to push two pounds. But I found this standpoint frustrating and at times insulting—I moved from the Law of “always do such-and-such for women” to “NEVER do such-and-such for women.” I swapped out one sort of oppression for another. I moved from closet-oppression to fear—not much of an improvement.
I found myself approaching doors with a terrifying trepidation every time a woman was behind me, thinking things like, “If so-and-so behind me were a man, would I hold the door open? Shit. I just assumed masculinity to be the standard by which I judge situations. Alright, how about if the person behind me was a homosexual… SHIT. I just made the assumption that hypothetical male ‘A’ in my first hypothetical-situation was heterosexual. Wait—why is it that a male homosexual was the first kind of homosexual to come to mind? Why didn’t I think of a lesbian first? I probably have repressed lesbian fantasies, that’s why. I didn’t even think about if the woman behind me could be a lesbian… it’s just because she has long hair isn’t it… you think all lesbians have shaved heads and don’t wear make-up, don’t you, Josh?! Damn it, I am such a misogynistic pig…” etc etc. Of course by this point she has already opened the door for herself while I stand around with a blank albeit slightly confused look on my face.
I then determined there was only one way out—I would hold the door open for every person behind me always ever. Ever. Well, aside from being a hassle I eventually found that, although some people found me to be nice, quite a few were offended and most were quite apathetic. I didn’t exactly wear a sign around my neck that said “I hold doors open regardless of gender, creed, class, and sexual orientation,” and the kind of people who took offense still took offense.
Conclusion? None. Really. Gender is ridiculously complicated and impossible to fit into a legalistic, metaphysical mold—we should all know this by now. The best conclusion I have is to be aware of what you are doing and how alienating, bizarre, and telling our actions are when we take a step back. We never truly escape our backgrounds but we can become more aware of them and do our best to correct things that are offensive and hostile. We will always be “within” a gender-role; however, we should give up our notions of what people “ought” to be as regards gender and project it into/onto every situation. As the Tao Te Ching (19) says, “Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom, and it will be a hundred times better for everyone […] it is more important to […] cast off selfishness and temper desire.” In other words, I stopped caring about the way I should always act as regards the door situation—I now simply try to read the situation and do what seems appropriate. Sometimes things turn out fine. Sometimes they don’t and I’m sorry. Sometimes I assume someone is a feminist-sort based upon their looks and they either are or they aren’t and I feel like an ass either way (the ole “they dress like a MAN ergo…” oppressive-logic). I figure it must be best to give up my desire, see things from another perspective, and get over myself.
Ever desireless one can see the mystery. Ever desiring one can see the manifestations. These two spring from the same source, but differ in name. This appears as darkness. Darkness within darkness. The gate to all mystery.—Tao Te Ching (1)