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Who determines who we are?
Change in social awareness
By Ulrich Meier, September 2017 to erziehungskunst.de
In the past 100 years there has been a comprehensive change in social awareness in the field of reflection on gender roles. There was still immense pressure 50 years ago on children, adolescents and adults to make them unmistakeably aware of how they had to see themselves and behave as a girl or woman, boy or man! The sole determining factor of who we could be and become was our biological sex from which our social roles and understanding of ourselves had to be derived.
Then there was the different value placed on feminine and masculine roles arising from the tradition of androcentrism, a way of thinking which over a long period of time placed the man at the centre of our view of the human being. The sexual focus on the respective other sex also belonged to the field of gender role identity which could not be questioned in any way. If girls or boys became aware that they felt sexually attracted to members of their own sex, they had to expect a lack of understanding, exclusion or even prosecution under the law.
What a different stage the debate has reached today! The front page of the January 2017 special issue of National Geographic reads: “Gender Revolution. The shifting landscape of gender”. The term gender has been used since the 1950s – in Germany from 1975 – to describe a person’s gender as a social construct. It was an attempt in the social sciences to look for a term to express the gender characteristics of a person as influenced by society and culture as distinct from their biological sex.
The advance of individualism in the twentieth and twenty-first century appears to open ever new ways of enabling identity to be formed outside set standards and enforced decisions. If to begin with the debate about changes in the definition of roles was still focused on people with a biologically assigned female or male body identifying with the respective other gender role (transgender), the discussion now is also beginning to include the identity of a person outside the usual (binary) system of masculinity/femininity (genderqueer).
But many different possible variations of transition and mixed forms arise from the differentiated personal experience of the search for identity. Here questions of drug-based and surgical intervention are being discussed with increasing openness – as well as the possibilities and freedoms of sexual orientation.
At which level do I shape my identity?
That what makes a man a man and a woman a woman is not simply determined by the sex we are born with barely needs saying anymore. Rather, the body serves as one specification among others which gives us our identity. If I relate – positively or negatively – exclusively to the physical level, this does not necessarily mean by a long way that the social and emotional component is experienced as coherent with that. And if I only make a distinction between the physical and social side of gender roles, without asking about what arises from the centre of the personality itself, this is ultimately still not about the actual goal of self-determination which has come into view since we started to leave external gender assignment behind us.
Let us begin with a few basic thoughts on the current state of the debate which are increasingly – and in the face of surprising resistance – emerging as common sense. The first thing is that it should be assured with all the resources of democratic culture that no one is forced to live with any other identity or sexual orientation than the one that seems coherent to them.
But then the following should also be considered: before hormone treatment is given or there is surgery to correct the physical facts, the question should be asked whether the corresponding decision has been taken with the greatest possible degree of inner freedom.
Both things play a particular role when we are dealing with children and adolescents – after all, the process of discovering our gender role already starts in early childhood. I see an important characteristic of this discovery process in the emotional uncertainty and openness with regard to our own existence which, we are told, should manifest itself clearly as either feminine or masculine.
It is doubtful whether it has always been like this. In Judeo-Christian culture other roots can indeed be found in the Hebrew Bible in this regard: the human being of the first creation appears there in the likeness of God as both masculine and feminine and thus knows no necessity to differentiate by sex – on whatever level.
The corresponding place in Genesis 1:27 should actually be translated literally as: “And God created the human being in his own image, in the image of God created he the human being; male and female created he the human being.” That only changed with the separation of the sexes in the second account of creation (Genesis 2) when the human being was literally separated in the well-known image of the rib. For each woman and each man this separation physically means a reduction of what was originally perfect – a wound of one-sidedness which can give rise to suffering and pleasure in equal measure.
This fundamental uncertainty does not fit with the old picture which endeavours to create apparent certainty based on the biological facts at birth which the newborn has to fit in with for the whole of their life.
It is precisely in the uncertainty that the strength of identification with masculine and feminine connoted characteristics lies which each person has to struggle for and which is constantly called into question. Hence it could become an ideal of education to support children and adolescents in the openness and insecurity of the search for their identity instead of making their own discovery more difficult through demands and assignments from outside in order to give them an ostensible feeling of security.
But the question remains: how can the I become free to give itself its respective identity with regard to biological sex and social gender? The gender concept can make a crucial difference in moving forward here because it adds to the view of the physical characteristics a second level at which the “deeply experienced identity” allows for a source of self-understanding as a man or woman which is more appropriately suited to the individual circumstances.
Not Venus or Mars, but moon and comet
As long as 100 years ago Carl Gustav Jung and Rudolf Steiner emphasised aspects of femininity and masculinity which can take us a step further in the search for an identity in freedom. Both views of the human being have in common that the polarity and tension between what is archetypally feminine and masculine is present and related to one another in each person. The opposites are neither distributed across different individuals nor are they simply neutralised or levelled out. On the contrary, it is precisely the distinctness of the two principles which establishes the creative coexistence which uses the different natures as a stimulus.
C.G. Jung referred in his theory of archetypes to the contrasting pair of animus und anima. It is located in the male and female soul with its orientation towards the unconscious. He says about the anima as the feminine side of the masculine soul: “Every man has always carried the image of woman in himself …” Its counterpart is the animus, a collection of unconscious masculine attributes and potentials in the unconscious of the woman. On the basis of the depth dimension of such masculine and feminine aspects, the respective other gender part can be integrated and a balance of the polar archetypes found in the inner maturation process of individuation.
Rudolf Steiner in his anthroposophical understanding of the human being turns his eye from the depths of the soul to the heights of cosmic development. Surprisingly this does not lead him to the polarity of Mars and Venus, the symbols already used since the fourth century for the designation of man and woman.
In a lecture of 5 March 1910 he talks about the “Mysteries of the Universe: Comets and the Moon” (GA 118). His basic thought is that “masculine and feminine as they exist on earth are born out of higher cosmic opposites”. He was thus deliberately seeking a relationship between the microcosm of the human being and the macrocosm of our solar system. And he was not seeking an allegory or theme but a developmental movement, a process.
He emphasises that to begin with sun and earth do not have any varying influence on either sex. Both are at a stage of development in the solidification process from spirit into matter which is described as the intermediate human stage. Comets, in contrast, represent a less solidified, the moon a more solidified stage of development.
That Steiner does not thereby deliver a cheap typology for the old biological definition of man and woman will become clear from the following sentence. We should not think that the contrast between the effects of the comets and the moon “only comes to expression in all the things that for example constitute man and woman in humanity, but we have to be clear that there are quasi masculine characteristics in each woman and feminine characteristics in each man”. He discusses the benefits which can lie in such differing solidification – in dissolving or binding processes – using the example of various differing phenomena.
Not rigid identification but flowing transitions
Neither the dissolution of traditional certainties nor the polarity between masculine and feminine as set out also in this article has of necessity to trigger fear, rejection and thus discrimination. The rich field of images of gender role components designated as feminine and masculine offers enough “material” from which each of us can help ourselves, that is understand ourselves, out of the centre of our being in various biographical phases and in the flow of identificational relationships. Obviously the physical determinants – even if they appear to show increasing openness – are much more fixed than the ever new identity, determinable out of the flexible spirit, with which an individual can clothe themselves.
What an opportunity to offer the generation of our children and grandchildren to allow them benevolently and with humour to have the experiences they are seeking as their identity changes, including in the field of gender roles, benefitting the growth, maturity and breadth of their personality!
About the author: Ulrich Meier is a state-approved child care worker and priest in the Christian Community. Since the autumn of 2006 he has been in the leadership of the Christian Community seminary in Hamburg.