By now, you’ve no doubt gotten wind of the controversy caused by two Toronto parents who decided not to tell the world the gender of their new baby, Storm. The story jumped from our national press across the 49th parallel, where the hosts of ABC’s The View had this to say:
These positions are actually some of the least extreme I’ve seen on this topic. Still, it’s not hard to see that much of what’s being expressed here is more visceral than rational — post-hoc justifications for what are essentially feelings more than arguments. This is the type of lizard brain response I find endlessly fascinating, at once belying our pretense at rationality and giving us a window into our cognition.
Let’s start with the opening exchange:
Whoopi: A Toronto couple, they’re making headlines because they refuse to reveal the sex of their four month old. They want to raise the child in a “genderless fashion”, so the child is free from, you know, societal gender norms. Which is kind of interesting.
The Blonde One To Whoopi’s Left: I don’t get it, it’s like when the baby was born they said, “Congratulations, it’s an It?” What did they say?
What Not-Whoopi is getting at here is that something just doesn’t feel right about not being able to identify a child’s gender. It’s such a key piece of how we categorize the world — a simple, binary classification. In fact, I suspect, given gender’s importance in reproduction, that it’s often the first distinction we make on encountering someone.
I talked about this in my Skeptic’s Guide to Magical Thinking last year. Part of our cognitive hard wiring is to see the world through certain templates that may or may not accurately reflect reality, but are usually pretty close. In this case, what Not-Whoopi is probably driven by is Essentialism — the belief that living things have an irreducible quality that cannot be explained by physics and chemistry alone. Essentialism is partly caused by our tendency to categorize, thus “male” and “female” are more than just reflections of gentials and hormone balance, but the essence of maleness and femaleness. That’s a lot more than they taught in biology.
When we deny people the ability to categorize, we deny them the ability to essentialize, and that makes humans very uneasy. It’s not hard to think of examples — pretty much anyone we’d, in a less politic era, have called a “freak” will qualify. That list will differ based on cultural factors, but watch your reaction — if you’re queasy or hostile, it’s a pretty good sign that a category violation has occurred.
The Herd Reacts
Barbara: There was a poll that the Today Show did, by the way, of 52,000 people. 11% said “A Great Idea’, 89% said “Terrible Idea”.
The Other Blonde One To Barbara’s Right: It troubles me that this seems to be some sort of social experiment, where they’re using their child to send a message to everybody else.
Did you see what Not-Barbara did there? She sounded for a second like she was concerned for the child (more on that below) but really, she’s concerned about the message this family is sending. Make no mistake — a good chunk of the vitriol behind the reaction to this story is aimed at the perceived affront to societal norms these people are making. I think there are two aspects to this:
The first is personal. If Storm’s parents are right about the harm gender stereotyping does to children, then all of us parents who didn’t worry so much about it are wrong. Being wrong produces cognitive dissonance, and can result in a whole slew of behaviours to convince yourself that you’re actually right. More to the point: being wrong about how you’re parenting produces more cognitive dissonance than you can possibly imagine, and a reaction that can be shockingly violent. Just wade into the Homebirthing or Breastfeeding waters for a little taste of what that’s like.
The second seems to be simple herd conformance. It’s no secret that humans are social animals finely attuned to those individuals that are a bit too individual. Assuming that the intensity of herd response depends on the perceived threat such individuality presents, we might well expect parenting and gender — both pretty fundamental to the herd’s continuance — to evoke a pretty strong reaction.
But What About the Children?
Not-Whoopi made her position clear by quoting the wisdom of Lady Gaga: the baby was “Born This Way”, so any veering from that must be bad. Barbara made a similar (though perhaps better argued) point by quoting child psychiatrist Harold Koplewicz that “there is no such thing as gender neutrality,” and “infants are not a blank slate.” Which are both true, yet completely beside the point.
Storm’s parents aren’t actually raising their child as gender neutral — no one’s duct taping their genitalia shut — nor are they, from what I’ve read, assuming a stridently behaviorist stance. They’re trying to change the way that other people treat the child. That’s completely different.
It also addresses the point made later by Not-Barbara, that Storm will have to navigate the world in his or her body, and he or she needs to learn how to do that. Yet the parents’ “experiment” won’t stop that from happening. When the time is right, Storm will probably define his or her gender identity without much trouble — there are so many biological and social signals, they can be pretty hard to miss. In the same way that dressing up in women’s clothing won’t make a boy gay, it won’t make him gender confused or trans-gendered either. But for right now, as The One In The Middle Who Isn’t Star Jones points out, “The child is a baby, so he doesn’t know.”
Storm’s gender isn’t nearly as relevant to Storm as it is to the adults around Storm…and for the lizard brains inside their heads. Storm’s parents are probably being a bit idealistic, but any charges that they’re harming this child are simply not supported by the facts in this story as we know them.