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Quill Kukla and Mark Lance – “Telling Gender: The Pragmatics and Ethics of Gender Ascriptions”

picture of gendered bathrooms where the gendered icons are replaced by a shark and a T-Rex.

In this post, Quill Kukla and Mark Lance discuss their article recently published in Ergo. The full-length version of the article can be found here.

Debates over the validity or appropriateness of gender ascriptions, whether imposed on someone else (“You may pretend you’re a woman, but you’re actually a man!”) or self-proclaimed (“I am a man!”; “I don’t have a gender!”), typically turn to what gender “really is” and who “really” has which gender. We argue that such metaphysical turns are usually irrelevant distractions and redirections. We claim that gender ascriptions like “You are a man” or “I am not a woman” are not, first and foremost, functioning to make truth claims about substantive features of the world.

This may be a surprising claim. After all, a sentence like “You are a man” is grammatically a declarative. Declaratives are what we use to make claims about the world – Paris is the capital of France; metals conduct electricity; there is a deer in the meadow. The grammatical form of a sentence is generally an indicator of the pragmatic force of uttering that sentence, so sentences with declarative grammar normally function to make truth claims, which are appropriate if they match the world and not if they don’t. But this connection is not universal. If I say to my roommate “It’s really hot in here!” this can function as a request to open the window or turn down the heat. “The meeting is adjourned” might describe a social status of the meeting, but more typically, it functions to bring about or constitute the adjournment.

Imagine that one person says to another, “You and I are friends!” and the second person responds, “No, we are not.” It seems unlikely that they are disagreeing about a substantive issue of fact. They are likely not disagreeing over the empirical criteria for friendship, whatever those might be, or the evidence concerning whether they meet those criteria. Rather, the utterance “You and I are friends!” is a kind of social proposal. In calling you my friend, I am proposing that we relate to one another in specific ways and take ourselves as having various commitments to one another; I am making a claim on a certain normative relationship to you. The utterance functions more like “I bet you ten dollars” or “I take you as my spouse” than as a factual claim. To say “We are friends” to someone is to try to position us in social space with respect to one another. And to reject the friendship claim is to reject this proposed positioning.

Similarly, we want to claim that the primary function of gender ascriptions is to establish a normative positioning in social space. First-person gender ascriptions (“I am a woman!”) are attempts to claim a specific position in gendered social space, while second-person and third-person gender ascriptions (“You are no man!”; “He is a man!”) are attempts to impose a position in gendered social space. Most gender ascriptions mostly sustain a position that someone already has rather than constituting one from scratch, but they still work to incrementally solidify such a position.

Our position in gendered social space, or the gender we are taken as having (or lacking), inflects nearly every aspect of how we are expected and demanded to negotiate the social and material world. It shapes how we are supposed to hold our body and modulate our voice; what clothes we are supposed to wear; how we are supposed to manifest sexual attraction and attractiveness; where and how we pee; what hobbies and jobs we are supposed to have; who we compete against in sports events and which sports we take up in the first place; what our relationship is to our children; and so forth. Even fetuses, once recognized as ‘boys’ or ‘girls’, are expected to become babies for whom certain nursery and clothing colors and emotions and behaviors are appropriate. Such norms are modulated by race, age, ability, class, body shape, and more; there is not a single, consistent set of norms for each gender, but rather a complex and often contradictory web of norms in which we are all differently positioned. But these structures of social significance are inescapable. To occupy a position in gendered social space is to be situated with respect to this complex network of norms. One can transgress or resist any subset of these norms, of course, but they are still the norms that carve out expectations and evaluations and social uptake for almost every dimension of our social and material existence.

When people disagree over whether a gender attribution is appropriate, it is rarely primarily an empirical disagreement. There is no single, widely accepted empirical definition of gender. It is varyingly defined in terms of anatomy, gametes, genetics, psychology, social role, self-identification, and phenotype. But we argue that what is at stake in most disagreements over gender attributions is not which empirical features someone has, but rather whether it is appropriate to take someone as positioned in a specific way within gendered social space. When a trans woman claims, “I am a woman,” and someone responds, “No, you are a man,” they are not generally arguing about empirical matters, but rather, as in the friendship case, about how a claim on a social position will or won’t be ratified.

If the function of gendered language is not (primarily) to describe the world, but to establish, ratify, reinforce, or oppose the taking up of social roles, then the appropriateness of such linguistic performances is not a matter of truth and falsity. Rather, we should evaluate what we ought to say and how we ought to respond to one other’s gender ascriptions in terms of how we ought to organize social space, and how much respect individuals should be given for determining their own gender ascription.

We argue that core norms of self-determination and autonomy demand wide respect for and deference to first-person attributions (or rejections) of gender (“I am a man,” etc.). What gender is, or whether it is anything at all, is simply irrelevant to these core norms. Saying “Yes, you are a man” is endorsing a person’s right to choose the social role they wish to inhabit, similar to recognizing a person’s choice of career, spouse, or hobby. Indeed, people generally think of rules that force social positions on people, such as Jim Crow laws and caste systems, as paradigmatic antidemocratic violations of self-determination. Since gender norms govern many of the most intimate dimensions of our bodily lives, forcing gendered social positions seems especially unjustified. The only ethical reason to contravene someone’s first-person claim upon a social position is if their doing so harms others, and we find the idea that this is true in the case of gender completely without merit or serious evidence. (This is not always the case. If I declare, “I am your sovereign master!”, I am claiming a social position, but obviously one you have every right to reject, because it harms you and your own self-determination directly. We find the idea that one person’s gender claim has a significant chance of harming someone else absurd, although we recognize that transphobes do try to assert this.)

Thus, we claim that first-personal gender attributions are virtually always justified, not because people are infallible about their own gender, but because of the ethical function of these attributions. Likewise, second- and third-personal gender attributions that contradict or foreclose first-personal attributions are almost always unjustified. Debates over the metaphysics of gender may be of philosophical curiosity to some, but they are distractions when it comes to everyday questions about when and how to respect people’s claimed gender, or lack thereof.

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About the authors

Quill Kukla is Professor of Philosophy and Director of Disability Studies at Georgetown University. From 2021 to 2023, they also held a Humboldt Stiftung Research Award at the Institut für Philosophie at Leibniz Universität Hannover. They received a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh and an MA in Geography from the City University of New York, and completed a Greenwall Postdoctoral Fellowship at The Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Their most recent book is City Living: How Urban Dwellers and Urban Spaces Make One Another (Oxford University Press 2021) and their forthcoming book is entitled Sex Beyond ‘Yes!’ (W. W. Norton & Co. 2024)

Mark Lance, PhD University of Pittsburgh, is Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Justice and Peace at Georgetown University. He has published in areas ranging from relevance logic, to philosophy of language, to metaethics and contributed to public education projects through The Institute for Social Ecology, the Institute of Anarchist Studies, the Peace and Justice Studies Association, and the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights. He is an activist who has been arrested 13 times in civil disobedience actions protesting US government crimes. His most recent book is Toward a Revolution as Nonviolent as Possible (with Matt Meyer). Outside activism and philosophy, he is a rowing coach, chess player, and former orchestral trumpet player.