First blood in the theory war

Well, i promised theory, so if you’re sitting comfortably, i shall begin.

Defining criminals

I write about crime: not, therefore, a good idea to pick an argument with me on crime topics unless you really know your stuff and are prepared to be ultra-pedantic. From the outset, i hated reference, in public debate to “criminals”.

Who the hell are they? Oh, yes. I remember, from my Beano days. They wear stripey jumpers and Lone Ranger eye-masks. Or if you want more sophistication in your world view, pick up any copy of “Scouting for Boys” and peruse their world view of what a ne-erdowell looks like (p.105 – or yarn no. 18 for a good laugh!)

The scowl. The beetled brow. The lazily angled cigarette. Yep. We all know who the crims are, cause they even dress like crims.

Except they don’t. Say what you like about men forcing themselves on women in marriage (and i suspect many of you would have a LOT to say), such behaviour was not criminal in any respect (and not wholly so now) until the 1970’s.

What happened? Did ordinary law-abiding citizens suddenly don the crim jersey and turn into rapists? Nope. The law shifted, and actions that people genuinely believed OK became actions likely to land their perpetrator in jail.

You see it a lot in the field of sexual activity. Several of the UK’s most heinous crimes (in respect of children) were scarcely crimes at all, 30-40 years ago. So did these strange beings we call “paedophiles” suddenly evolve? No: they were always around…but we’ve just shifted our boundaries.

People like boundaries: basic essentialism

Twenty years or so ago, i called it “reification” – and i was against it. It was probably not quite the right word – its a posh way of talking about how we turn something abstract, like “crime” into a “real thing” – but it fitted at the time.

What i probably meant – i just hadn’t encountered the word then – was that all this showed how something we now call “essentialism” was a load of bollocks.

Essentialism 101, for those who haven’t encountered the term in its full glory yet, is the idea that “for any specific kind of entity, there is a set of characteristics or properties all of which any entity of that kind must possess”. In other words everything (or everything possessing an “essence”) can be precisely defined.

Janet and John do sex work

Does it work for crime and criminals? No. How about other jobs of the Janet and John variety, like Nurse, Fireman, Policeman and the like? We all remember learning to read and learning that such types of job existed.

Its just, as we got older, we discovered first that some of the most popular jobs – like call centre operator or personal trainer – didn’t get a look in. Maybe Ladybird once produced a book entitled “John does Sports massage – and Janet provides extras”: but i doubt it.

And the clear boundaries just don’t exist. Is a PCSO a policeman? Is a fireman who does first aid a nurse? What about nursing auxiliaries? Or ward managers? Or any of the myriad new management roles invented over the decades.

Job clarity is a myth.

Fuzziness is the rule

Language? Nah. We see French and English as “different”: French and Italian. But the moment you look at dialects, the boundaries blur. Track French through Occitan, and Catalan “dialects” (or languages) – and before you know it, you’re speaking Spanish.

Genes. Don’t we share 95%…96% of our genes with chimps? And isn’t it a fact that David Cameron shares some 98% of his DNA material with a slug? (er, no: its not. I made that up!).

And what on earth is an “Englishman”, that being so sacred to organisations like the English Defence League. Its not me, as despite being white, tall and still attractive i remain, in their terms, racially quite mongrel. Or nationalistically.

What nationality my dad, who was born amidst the dying embers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, turned Polish in 1919, then became English in 1940-something? Or my mum, born English, automatically Polished when she married my dad, and re-englishified after he converted?

And that, you see, is the thing. Or rather, it isn’t a “thing” at all. In the words of the great philosophe and 60’s hippy songster, Donovan: “everything is a part of everything, anyway”.

Its a concept that infuses many religions. Further, as i grew up in psychology and descended further into an appreciation of multi-variate statistics and fuzzy set theory, I found the idea that absolute boundaries didn’t exist or that things could be several different things at the same time quite straightforward.

Its the company you keep

Strange. I do find boundary-less thinking quite easy to imagine: others seem to get a headache when they try it. But it feels like a very good start point for what i’m sure you’ve guessed is coming next.

Which is looking at how this stuff applies to femaleness (which i’m told most scientists regard as a definite thing) and womanhood, that many now regard as fuzzy and cultural in its origins.

This is me raising the standard of non-essentialism, which i got to long before i discovered trans-ness: and wondering what it is about essentialism that makes it attractive to folk as diverse as rad fems, the religious right, the EDL and adherents of “Iron John” mythologising.

If one evaluates one’s beliefs only by the company one keeps, I know i’m happier this side of the fence.



6 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    The scientific definition of femaleness (producer of larger gametes in a species where each individual produces one of two sorts of gametes) is so particular as to leave little room for fuzziness. It’s also very limited in its social consequences at the level of individuals, though overall it promotes certain traits (those who produce larger gametes can produce fewer of them, so are more likely to make more effort in mate choice and protection of offspring, though this doesn’t seem to apply in all species).

    In most areas of science, it is increasingly acknowledged that fuzziness is the rule. One doesn’t so much define a type (still necessary for practical purposes) by saying “this must have all these traits” but, rather, by saying “on average this will have more of the traits in set A than in set B”. This better reflects the reality of the world we live in, not just at a social level but at a very fundamental level. Our universe is built not on facts per se, but on paradigms, on probabilities.

    Essentialism is attractive because the illusion of facts gives us a sense of security. The more we think we know about the world, the greater our sense of control. This is why people who have less control over other aspects of their lives are more likely to be drawn to it. As working models, many essentialist theories suffice well enough for most aspects of day to day life; ultimately they fulfil the same function as the simplified stories we tell children to help them make sense of the adult world. They’re problematic, however, for those whom they directly disadvantage and for us as a society, because we must let go of childish things if we are to make progress.

  2. 2

    andrea said,

    so you’re definitely a non-essentialist?
    I do like to be clear about these things 🙂

  3. 3

    janefae said,

    Oh dear. As if by magic, an e-mail arrives from USwitch exhorting me to save money on my essential bills today.

    Perhaps it would be cheaper just to tell the Power company i do not recognise essential bills and henceforth will treat all calculations as fuzzy.


  4. 4

    Reification: the embodiment of an abstract concept as a defined entity, with its own noun

    Recursion: see reification

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

    The wider point is well made. As David Lodge wrote for one of his characters in “How Far Can You Go” (I may be slightly misquoting) “The Church doesn’t change its mind, it moves from one state of certainty to another”.

    • 5

      janefae said,

      Good quote…though i don’t agree. Perhaps if he’d said it moves from one state of OUTWARD certainty to another, he’d have been more on the money.

      My own experience of the catholic church is that whilst the specifics of dogma appear to be set in stone, the moment you start to pick at the edges, you find it almost all unravels and most things are possible. I won’t go into details of a particular debate i am currently having, because i think that would betray a confidence for the individual involved.

      However, i get a clear sense of someone quite high in the church hierarchy bending over backwards to accommodate some aspects of my actions that, outwardly, are in total contravention of how i’m supposed to act.


      • 6

        Well, to be fair David Lodge set this part of the book in pre Vatican II Britain. But you are right that there is a great deal of urban myth about “The Church Says This”, when it actually means “my priest’s interpretation of his bishop’s interpretation” and often that was actually from 50 years ago. When you start pushing back at what the Vatican has actually diseminated as authentic teaching, the church’s position is always informed by love and compassion, even when the sound bites are couched in essentialist terms.

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