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On Premature Genderisation

Thu Jun 28 01:35:00 2012

Awful Puns (part 1)

We all know the traditional line

Premature Optimisation Is The Root Of All Evil.

It also has a slightly more tongue in cheek mate:

Premature Generalisation Is The Root Of All Eval.

Today, however, I want to talk about premature genderisation. There's bonus puns at the end if you make it all the way through.

Principles of Ontological Thought

To quote the wikipedia article on philosphical ontology:

Ontology, in analytic philosophy, concerns the determination whether some categories of being are fundamental and asks in what sense the items in those categories can be said to "be."

To quote the wikipedia article on ontologies in information science:

An ontology formally represents knowledge as a set of concepts within a domain, and the relationships between those concepts. It can be used to reason about the entities within that domain and may be used to describe the domain.

And, to my mind more interestingly:

In theory, an ontology is a "formal, explicit specification of a shared conceptualisation". An ontology renders shared vocabulary and taxonomy which models a domain with the definition of objects and/or concepts and their properties and relations.

And here, ladies and gentlecats, is where we run into a problem. Because we have this nasty, annoying, often really rather destructive tendency to use a binary interpretation of gender (and worst of all, our inevitably skewed personal perception thereof) as our first means of categorisation.

Why we're all screwed.

In fact, I did it, almost without thinking, in the first sentence of the previous paragraph. It seems like it fits just fine, and yet ... would you start an introduction with "whites and coloureds" or "straights and gays"? I mean, those both stand out as a "wtf, why are we making this distinction?" - and can be pulled to pieces in extra interesting ways (why lump all non-white people together? what happened to bisexuals, pansexuals and all the other categories) and those ways were obvious to me as I wrote those examples.

Yet "ladies and gentlecats" has both of those problems - first off, we're lumping ... wait, actually, it's worse - we're either lumping all people with a particular set of genitals together ... or lumping all people with a particular perceived gender together. And likely failing to acknowledge the difference between the two to boot, but I'll get to that.

Let's go for "particular perceived gender" though. What if there are people with a perceived gender of female who hate being referred to as a lady? (I knew a biker once who took it as a mortal insult and insisted instead on one of a set of honorifics that those happy to be called a lady would likely have taken as a mortal insult in turn!) What happened to people who present as asexual, gender neutral, or even variably depending on mood or social situation? (somebody having both a "boy mode" and a "girl mode" is often part of a process of gender transition, but there are also those who appreciate having both - the term I've heard for it is "gender fluid".)

So, basically, we're screwed. Therefore, the next step is to analyse clearly just how badly.

On mistaking many dimensions for one.

First key point: Gender and sex need not be the same thing. By sex, I mean physical aspects (sexuality is YAY EVEN MORE COMPLICATED and not the point of this post). Even here, there's more than a simple binary choice, given the existence of hermaphroditism.

But people's chosen gender can be a very different thing to this, and being stuck with people who don't deal well with adjusting between the others can be a rather suboptimal experience (Audrey Tang's excellent Run Time Typecasting article covers this nicely).

Once you get into situational choice of gender, whether by choice or due to societal attachments formed both before and after a personal decision, it just gets messy. A relational database is probably going to try and eat your face if you attempt a viable normalised model, and a document database is definitely going to eat your face as soon as you try and index it.

But the best part ... the really awesome part ... is that actually, what few conclusions can be drawn from such a categorisation are usually so badly misunderstood as to be worse than useless.

On mistaking the default setting for a user preference

The obvious one: Assuming that "born sexed $sex" implies "will want to be gendered $gender" is ... complete fail. The same grade as assuming that heterosexuality is universal, or in 2001 claiming that IE must be the best browser because most windows users were using it.

In fact, the latter is a really good metaphor for it, since basically we supply a default gender option to children based on sex in a way that leads them to not believe they should be questioning it - forced bundling at its best but so universal that we barely even notice it.

Now, here's the part where it gets really screwed up.

The fact that somebody was raised as a particular gender indicates that they will probably have been exposed to societally expected behavioural defaults for that gender with an indication that those behaviours are the correct ones for them to follow.

We already know we can't be sure which gender. We already know that they may have been exposed to something completely different. Basically, we can guess some rough probabilities but we can't be sure of anything else.

Because defaults are pernicious, and most users never break out of them.

Conclusions that don't suck

It is, still, possible to get some ideas out of this. Given a person whose dress sense and presentation is largely a match to our model of the social context in which we suspect they were raised, we can infer some behavioural expectations.

Firstly, that if raised male they will likely expect that behaviour indicated as feminine will be something relatively taboo to them, and that they will likely at least somewhat subscribe to the male success myth where their worth is determined by money, visible achievement and place in the social pecking order.

Secondly, that if raised female they will likely find behaviour indicated as male relatively acceptable but if behaving to a large extent within norms considered as feminine they will expect physical and psychological domination from those around them behaving masculine by default, and that if you're somebody presenting as a male from the same social group you'll need to walk a fine line between awkward creepiness and overfamiliar creepiness.

Does that sound like it sucks for everybody? YES IT DOES.

Can we tell how much of that is nature versus nurture? I DO NOT BELIEVE SO.

Is it a useful model to try and transcend to develop a real working relationship and/or friendship with somebody? I DO BELIEVE SO.

Ozy's Law

Here's how it works:

It is impossible to form a stereotype about either of the two primary genders without simultaneously forming a concurrent and complementary stereotype about the other.

Or, more simply:

Misandry mirrors misogyny.

Every stereotype we form about sex and about gender is fundamentally about an artifical ontological classification that is almost invariably incompletely informed about the facts of the situation under classification - so outlying classifications get ignored.

Worse still, they are formed about gender typing as practised overall through social conditioning, and subsequent gender enforcement as informed overall by prejudice - so outliers even under an effective classification system get ignored.

Worst of all, we have a societal default to apply this classification first, in place of possibly more useful classifications like "do I like this person?" or "is this person interesting?" or "do I enjoy working with this person?" - so outliers along every single other dimension of categorisation get ignored.

But given this is all default settings, we should still be aware that holding them before thinking properly about it should not be surprising, and that being able to consider different defaults having done so still puts us at least a little ahead of the game.

So stop, think, and ask yourself - "which of my views are preferences I selected, and which of them are defaults I've never even considered changing?"

It'll make for a better you, and a more interesting world.

Awful puns (part 2)

For those of you who bothered to read the whole thing ... here's your reward:

Premature biscuitisation is the root of all weevils.

Premature Gondorisation is the root of all Smeagol.

Bet you wished you hadn't bothered now, right?

-- mst, out.