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Ain’t I a woman?

Updated: Mar 27

The Americans are uncertain about what we mean by “a woman”—and since they are confused, so is the whole Western world. Specifically, the latest Supreme Court nominee, Ketanji Jackson, was unable to answer the question: “Can you define ‘a woman’?” Now, this is not because she is stupid; she could very well give a serviceable definition of “a woman”, and yet she was no more willing to do so than a young commissar in Russia circa 1934 would be enthusiastic to define what “kulak” meant—the definition shifted daily, and if your definition defied Stalin’s then you were in for a trip to the death cellar.

The consequences for Jackson would not be so severe, she would just lose her privilege—lose her shot at the Supreme Court. So she temporised and deferred to the biologists, to the experts. The media then reported that even biologists would be unable to answer this question, presumably because they are also anxious to keep their jobs.

So the proximate cause for Jackson’s definition failure is that America is under a quasi-religious cosh. A very soft cosh, admittedly—no concentration camps or death cellars, just a media mob and social ostracism. Yet, in a feminised society, the chances you will tolerate social ostracism are low—nobody will like you, your toys will be taken away. The nuclear option, unacceptable even for Republicans legislators, would be to ask Jackson: “Can you define ‘a black’?” To do so would unleash instant psychic hysteria; indeed, to ask Jackson that question would probably constitute a hate crime in itself—a verbal lash from the white supremacist whip against a black body, and a female body at that.

To even read “a black” makes you cringe a little inside, I know—even though it’s the same as “a woman” from a neutral linguistic perspective. Yet it is freighted with quasi-religious significance, with the entrenched state-curated identities around “black” and “white”—identities much more deeply elaborated than the current gender panoply. “A black” sounds like objectivisation: you might as well whip out the auction block then and there and put Jackson under the hammer for those slave drivers in the audience in the market for a judge. “Ah sturdy negress with excellent teeth, can preside over five to ten criminal cases per year…Who’ll start me at $20,000? Anyone? Yes, sir…”

We want to do with sex what was done with race long ago; both status games utilise aspects from reality, usually culturally interpreted, and yet neither like it if you put the spotlight on them and objectively fix the categories. “Okay, black and white mean something, but it’s vague. Let’s get out the callipers and the genetic charts and make some detailed observations—let’s do racism properly, otherwise we suspect this is a game played by cynical manipulators to artificially boost their status and raid the state coffers.”

Well, the race game has been played longer and more elaborately—albeit with genuinely more emotional stakes—than the gender game, so it is harder to objectivise. No conservative would say, “Can you define ‘a black’?” They long ago recused themselves to the position, “I just see individuals, I don’t play identity politics.” Soon they will only say, “I don’t see men and women, I just judge individuals on their merits.” Yet sex is more fundamental than race, so we still see a few dilatory conservatives who hold out for “a woman and a man”—perhaps to be regarded a decade hence as Governor Wallace is regarded today in respect to race.

Jackson seems to be a rather amiable woman: a genuine conformist, she paused throughout the hearing to consider the socially acceptable answer that would please everyone and guarantee her reward—another way to say she does not think. Her eyes glanced around the room for approval, to make sure she said “the right thing”. She noted that in her decision to sentence a man for child pornography possession that “he showed me his certificates”—pure credentialism. Sure, he committed a crime but he has a PhD, so he’s okay—very socially acceptable, very holy. If the defendant has a degree from Harvard, as Jackson does, presumably it is impossible to commit crime.

In the background lurks the vague idea that at one time there were people called “gentlemen”, “professionals”, and “clergy” whom you could stereotypically be sure were almost certainly not criminals—if they said, “I downloaded it for research,” then you at least had to consider that they meant it. This has degenerated into the view “he has certificates and therefore is a good person and harmless”, as opposed to “he is from a socially respectable class that rarely commits crime, crime being stupidity, and so deserves the benefit of the doubt”.

Jackson also noted that child pornography can be downloaded in a few minutes, so if someone is caught with it you have to consider that it so easy and quick to do. This is superficially meant to be a clever observation about how technology has changed our lives, except that you might as well say murder is no longer such a severe crime because a handgun means you can kill someone quickly and conveniently, in mere seconds, as opposed to old-fashioned strangulation—a very involved process that requires more premeditation.


At a slightly deeper level the situation characterises civilisations in decline. Socrates was initially not very popular. Yet Socrates did become popular in the end, when Greece was in decline. An ugly old geezer shuffles round the city; he pauses at a market and asks the merchant, “What does ‘a profit’ mean?” The merchant is not fully able to articulate what a profit means, nor does the ugly old man provide an answer. The geezer pops up outside the barracks and asks the general, “What does ‘victory’ mean?” Again, the general is unable to supply a straightforward answer; perhaps he snaps, “I can’t tell you exactly, but I know it when I see it.” Next the old geezer turns up at a wedding; he asks the young groom, “What does ‘love’ mean?” The groom stutters, “What does what mean? Love? It’s well…”

The old geezer attracts followers from the city—from among those people who are so disturbed by his questions that they give up their social roles. “But please, Old Geezer, you ask us these questions but provide us no answers,” says one reasonably handsome young man. A true believer pokes him in the ribs, “Shhh, don’t you know that’s the point? That’s why he’s wise. He asks questions and then we begin the dialectic—and at the end we know we don’t know. That’s wisdom!” At this point, the city elders burst in, drag off the old geezer, and put him to death because he corrupts the youth.

Decadent civilisations become philosophical, they begin to love what retails itself as “wisdom”. “How do you define ‘a woman’?” “I don’t know, but tell me first: how do you define ‘define’?” The desire for pointless self-examination indicates a lack of vitality. It might help to be clear about what you mean by “a woman” for scientific investigation, but generally you’ll just say “this is how we understand ‘woman’ for our purposes”. The same is done in law, there’s a “common understanding”—once from the man in the street, before he was removed from the process for being too objective—as to what we mean by “a man” or “a woman”. The poet, meanwhile, might sigh and say: “A woman is the goldbug that passes through the white lily’s needle eye.” We also have an everyday concept that overlaps with the legal, scientific, and poetic usages to various degrees.

The commonality is that we use the concepts for particular purposes and each covers, though not exhaustively, a shared reality. Nobody interjects when you design a sports bra: “Yes, but what is a ‘woman’, really?” Similarly, a colonel points to a map on a wall, “We’ll avoid this village because it has a large concentration of refugees, of women and children.” “Sir?” “Yes, Jenkins.” “But what is ‘a woman’, really?”

The philosophical position that casts doubt through a peculiar method—whether Socratic dialogue or postmodernism—represents the decadent position. For the most part, people just get on with it: I cannot really explain to you all the concepts I use to navigate the world, I just trust they work. The philosophical tendency is even present in the lawmaker’s question, “Can you define ‘a woman’?” In practical political terms the question is designed to catch out, and yet insofar as it raises a philosophical spectre it’s almost an unanswerable question at a certain level: “What is ‘a woman’?”; “Does an external world exist independently of observation?”; “What does it mean ‘to know’ something?”

Now the question could strictly be taken to mean, “What does ‘a woman’ mean for legal purposes?”; yet at the same time it also implicitly contains a philosophical component that really has no straightforward answer, as endless philosophical disputes as to whether an external world exists demonstrate—and Jackson was legitimately stumped at that level.

I enjoy etymology and definitions; and these can cast light on concepts, on how society has shifted, and on fundamental reality. Yet the popular question over “define x” is more than about what the word means: at its base is a civilisational dilemma over what concept lies behind “man” and “woman”—whether there is an essence to the masculine and feminine at all, a question that transsexuality “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body” foregrounds. At one level this has arisen through pure decadent quasi-religion and perverted status acquisition, at another it reflects a late civilisation’s muddle over the fundamental concepts it uses to understand reality—questions that now intrude into areas, such as law, that are not equipped to deal with them; it’s as if scientists started to ask, “What is copper sulphate in essence?”

The vital civilisation says, “Jenkins, what d’you mean ‘what is a woman’? Are you thinking of shirking? Is that it? What’s your game? A woman is a woman, man. Now listen, we’re going round that village because there are women and children there. Really Jenkins, sometimes I wonder if you should really be on my staff at all and what game you’re really up to.

In short, the philosophical game goes with decadent civilisation; it’s not unconnected to academia, for university lecturers love the Socratic method. They pose questions to “make you think”, but they never provide an answer; and yet the impractical Socratic approach proves very amenable to status games and belief cultivation—especially for those who want to look sophisticated when they say “define ‘define’” or defer to the experts, the philosophers, to question what they take “a woman” to be.

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