Listening to the programme, I was struck once again by the critical importance of language when it comes to explicating, and to this extent constituting, our identities and subjectivities in gendered (and indeed other) terms.
It is often underwhelming when theorists and philosophers take a linguistic turn; no doubt, making language bear the weight of the consequences of our actions, of our lives as we live them, will look and sound to many like copping out.
But this need only be so if we think language merely language; if we tell ourselves that the words we speak do not also speak us – speak to and for and of us – and that they are separate from the practical business of living. We speakers and communicators, we discoursers, are continually engaged in linguistic practices; for to say something is certainly to do something.
When one listens to the parents and children featured in “Children and Gender” recalling what seemed at times to be the impossibility of putting into words just what they were living and living through; and when one learns of the difference it made when those lived experiences did finally find a tongue; then, one is reminded that words are not mere words, and that theories of identity – if and when they are worth a damn – make all the practical difference. For mere words make up the stories we are able to tell ourselves and others about who we are.
To find a language half-way adequate to the fine grain of our embodied lives is no small thing, and is certainly a practical affair. Those of us who have taken arts, humanities, or social sciences degrees in the last twenty-or-so years will likely be conversant, at least, in the languages and dialects of identitarian theory; and these languages and dialects have, to an extent, filtered down to A-Level study in cognate areas (Politics, English Literature, RS, Media Studies, for example).
But not everyone has been exposed to the path-clearing work of the feminist, gender, and other identity theorists of the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s – and, good or bad, loved or loathed, so much so-called “postmodern” identity theory was path-clearing and paradigm-shifting. It seems to me that while some terminology has been taken on, we do not, on a large scale, truly speak these discourses.
Speaking more nuanced languages of identity would not necessitate us learning new terms by rote. It would require us to have untrammelled conversations about what it means to identify oneself along lines of race, gender, sexuality, class, race, nationality, ethnicity. Such open dialogue is crucial to personal identity, because the personal – my sense of who I am and I am not – can only be articulated against the social, against a background notion of this or that group or community, and my desires to be part of or apart from them. While we may at times hold fairly secure beliefs as to who and what we are, there are also times when such beliefs are teased and felt out more tentatively, as we go. Run-of-the-mill talk of acceptance and tolerance does not tend to invite such open speaking, as it is often indicative of an attitude which says “each and all to their own”; it often comes off as little more than nimbyism – well-meant nimbyism, but nimbyism nonetheless.
This is where schools and philosophy need to get it together. Richard Rorty once wrote that we’d had all the conceptual revolutions necessary in the field of political philosophy; we would not, he predicted, gain much philosophical ground on Mill until his ideas had been properly realized. A contentious claim, no doubt, but an interesting one.
I am not about to make such strong and sweeping claims and predictions of identitarian philosophy and theory. But I am willing to say that schools need to move beyond the language of tolerance and acceptance, which guides acceptable behaviours and threatens consequences where intolerance and non-acceptance are found, but which offers few means by which I might articulate my own sense(s) of self.
Schools and educators must start speaking a language more nuanced, more appropriate to the conversations so many young people are already having and want yet to have about their emerging, shifting, plural senses of self, of which gender and sexual identity are constituent parts. Educators need to take on (at least some of) these languages and dialects, and learn to speak them loudly and publicly; they need to make such conversations part of the cultural life of school. To be sure, some schools are doing this. But it is not the norm; muted tolerance and acceptance is. Philosophers and theorists, for their part, need to make sure these languages and dialects – which are not new, but are not yet widely spoken – are publicly available and accessible.