I watched a short debate on TV today where two people disagreed passionately with each other and reached no conclusion. Of course they didn’t agree. One was deeply invested in something the other saw as completely wrong, which meant neither was about to change their position. The classic TV debate recipe. I already had my mind made on this issue and before they said a word I knew whose side I was on. I started watching with anticipation that “my man” would wrap the debate around his finger and use a set of solid arguments to make his point.
Should have been an easy win if you’d asked me.
And it was… Until he had to make a comment on her appearance, gender, and age. Took him less than six minutes to go there. She happened to be a woman, young and attractive, and him pointing that out was accurate. But was it relevant? Nei.
How am I supposed to pick sides when both sides are messed up? Why did “my man” have to use his male privilege to make his female opponent aware of her appearance and attempt to tell her what she should be doing with her life as a young, attractive woman. Can we stop acting like Trump? Can we just stop right now and start debating each other with relevant logic and facts and opinions only?
Wikipedia already figured this out:
Ad feminam is defined as appealing to irrelevant considerations about women, in particular, prejudices against them or stereotypes about them, rather than giving an answer to the contentions they made.
And while we’re at it, how about we stop using our (white/male/able-bodied/heterosexual/upper class/imperialist) privilege to “win” debates and start talking to each other as equals.
I was at an outdoor festival this summer, sitting on a bench with a friend, watching people walk by and enjoying the kind of summer weather I’ve rarely found in Iceland. As we sat there talking about politics, a person walking by caught my friend’s eye and he paused and asked with a slight grin, “Do you think that’s a man or a woman?” He seemed puzzled and amused at the same time.
I didn’t know. Who was I to answer that for anyone, really? And what made that any of our business to begin with?
Yet, we make assumptions about other people’s identity all the time. And sometimes, when we can’t seem to figure each other out, we get really uncomfortable. A person with an ambiguous gender expression gets confused looks on the street and some folks get very upset at the thought of someone daring to cross the “sacred” boundary between masculinity and femininity. As if world order is threatened by someone identifying their gender a bit differently than others do.
This doesn’t just happen with gender. Multiracial people and persons whose appearance does not fit neatly into a particular racial category get asked, “So, what are you?”, and non-white American-born Americans are asked about their country of origin and questioned again when they say they’re from Ohio. Asked to explain and justify their identity to soothe the inquirer’s anxieties.
But the male/female gender categories are curiously rigid. People who dare to challenge the male-female binary seem to challenge the beast within society that has not learned to contain it self and cannot tolerate ambiguity. It raises its head at a teenager who dresses in gender neutral ways and lashes out at a person who seems to be using the “wrong” bathroom at a bar.
“Which box do you check when you don’t belong in any box? How do you navigate the world when the world is built on identifying with one group or another group, male or female, and the place that feels most right to you is neither?”
How other people identify is really none of our business. But creating an environment where we can all be who we are without feeling excluded, judged, or rejected definitely is our business.