Authority Issues

Most people have “authority issues” of one kind or another. Some people resist any external authority. They fly into “no one tells ME what to do” mode right away. They’ll refuse to do something as soon as someone else says they must, or should, or might just want to, even if they think it’s basically a good idea and even if it isn’t inconvenient or troublesome, just on principle. Classic “authority issues.”

But some people give away all their own authority, even to small children and cats and whoever writes for women’s magazines. Some people only feel secure when they have someone or something bossing them around and telling them what to do, the stricter and more demanding the better. Some people only ever want to be that boss. Or even better, that boss’s right hand man. Those are authority issues, too, surely.

Then there are those of us who have the idea that authority ought to flow from expertise, and from evidence, and from logical coherence. That is, from the various proxies we have for intimate familiarity with reality. People like that tend to question credentials and ask for evidence and reserve the right to disagree “on the merits.” We tend to treat a lot of authoritative-sounding pronouncements as provisional or partial or problematically simplistic.

Not necessarily out loud. We are likely to have learned that a constant refrain of “How do we know that …” and “Is it necessarily the case that …” annoys people and doesn’t get us far. Mulling things over until we have a better idea of what we’re thinking and have come up with one or two suggestions or alternatives usually works better.
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I was reminded of all of this during our previewing of the second part of the gender inclusiveness video at church. I cannot help thinking that we still have a lot more to learn about gender and all the permutations of dimensions of expressions of categorizations than most people think we do. And by “we” I mean “human beings.”

I suspect I think this because I am old. Old, and listening to people considerably younger than I am make well-informed authoritative pronouncements about “how things are.” In reality. Pronouncements that are remarkably similar in tone, and remarkably different in content, to pronouncements I can still remember making myself. When I was considerably younger than I am now.

So my response is to think something like “reality seems to be, and also not to be, a moving target.” Which brings me back to thinking that all of us know a lot less about “reality” than we think we do.

I think this while still fundamentally accepting the premise that gender really is hugely socially constructed, and really does have more permutations and more complexity than Everyone thought it did when I was growing up. There really are more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in our “girls wear pink and boys wear blue” rigid gender binary philosophies. My authority issue is not along the lines of “the Bible has Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”

Mine is more along the lines of “yes, but let’s not forget Judith Butler.” Let’s not forget that Judith Butler got famous, in an academic way, decades ago for pointing out that our entire way of thinking about sex and gender and sexuality and all that is thoroughly dependent upon and complicated by the way we think about other things. Basic things, like “natural vs unnatural” and “physical vs. mental or emotional or cultural” and “real vs. unreal.” Famous for pointing out that often, when we think we have gotten down to some kind of bedrock “how things really are,” with no trace of “society” in it, we are wrong about that. Rather, we are usually still floundering around inside some framework we have come up with to think about reality, while imagining that our thoughts about reality are reality itself.

At a minimum, we have no good reason to imagine we are doing anything other than that.

One of her main points, as I remember it, was that “experience” is always already interpreted through the categories available to us for its interpretation. Those categories are made available to us by society, culture, language. Experience is always already, in that sense, a cultural artifact. Assuming there is some pre-social lion’s roar of the real in it, we only understand what the lion is saying because it’s always already been translated into socialized human terms. Otherwise, we’d never even hear it.

So when I hear people carefully explaining the newly-orthodox terminology of “assigned sex” and “gender identity” and “gender expression” and “sexual orientation” and using terms like “gender fluid,” I think to myself: all of this derives its meaning from that idealized rigid gender binary, against which and in opposition to which this discourse situates itself.

Without that rigid gender binary, and without its specific cultural content, being someone who likes to mow the lawn AND wear perfume, just for instance, wouldn’t even have anything to do with gender, binary or otherwise. Just sayin.

This is not the same thing as saying that the “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” crowd is correct. It’s more like saying that I honestly wonder whether any crowd is correct. At least, not yet. God alone knows how much we don’t know about the reality of this topic. And I mean that literally.
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In such a position of ignorance, it seems to me, we ought to be speaking a lot less from authority, and a lot more from curiosity and from humility. Here’s how it is for me, how is it for you? What’s your story? What seems to help? Where are our concerns? What seems to be working so far? What’s not? Where are we trying to go from here?

For instance:

One of the identified issues was pronouns. The latest official wisdom about how to be welcoming to every member of the alphabet is to declare what pronouns you use. She her hers. He him his. They them their. This is supposed to demonstrate our inclusiveness, and our openness to having people tell us what pronouns they prefer, and that we don’t just assume we know someone’s gender from looking at them. That would be rude.

Except when it would be rude not to, because it would imply that your trans friend has failed to pull off a convincing gender expression, hard as they tried.

And except that as a friend of mine pointed out, it costs nothing for a nice married lady who has been comfortably aligned for the past 50 or so years on all those dimensions of sex, gender, and sexuality to add “she/her/hers” to her church name tag. All the costs of personal discomfort and having to self-identify as weird are going to be borne by the individual who is still trying to figure out what’s going on with them; who has real coming out issues; who isn’t going to have an easy time no matter what pronouns get listed on that name tag, and who isn’t ready to make that decision. How welcoming is that?

And except that, as another friend pointed out, most of the time when you’re actually talking to someone, instead of about them, you’re going to be using “you you your” anyway.

In short, I think some of the people who talk like they have this all figured out and know what all the rest of us need to do to extend the welcome of the church to everyone regardless of gender identity, gender expression, or sexuality, mostly don’t, really. That’s my authority issue.
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Image: “Betula pendula male catkins 3,” [cropped], by DimiTalen, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
[These things are all over everywhere at present, including all our cats and dogs, and consequently, every floor in the house.]

2 responses to “Authority Issues”

  1. My youngest daughter is taking a course on gender norms and interviewed her sister. To say that my middle daughter is petite is almost an exaggeration. She is a few inches shy of 5′ and a few pounds shy of 90. She is a beautiful young woman and, when she wants to, sometimes shows that beauty to the world. She loves smelly soaps and lotions … almost as much as she loves the smell of machine oil. She cuts metal for a living. She wears specially ordered steel toe boots on her tiny feet and she pulls her long thick hair up in a ball above her head to keep it out of the machine she’s working on. She wears safety glasses even to etch glass. She knits. She sews. And she drives a pickup which is way too big for her to drive. She holds onto a boyfriend until she thinks they’re too weak or meek or just not her style. She is a she/her in every way, except where social norms say otherwise. And those norms? She “doesn’t give a rat’s ass” what they are. And as her father, who grew up in a small town where gender norms were furiously held fast, she is my daughter and I love every bit of who she is!

    Liked by 1 person

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