Last semester I took a course on a male philosopher that was pretty much a glorified reading group. You know how much I loved that. I didn’t have a problem with the reading group part. Something else bothered me throughout the sessions that I couldn’t quite articulate. While everyone else seemed to be nodding along wisely, I kept hearing “this is bullshit” in my head. Partly, I think people (including myself) did not quite understand the text. But also, I think people did understand and found it all A-okay and for me that was the most disquieting part.

Also, once, while waiting for someone to arrive, a discussion started about Bill Cosby, after which the three men in the room decided to play and listen to rapt nostalgia some Cosby segment about pudding, ostensibly so they could discuss whether it presaged the fact that he was/is a monster. As the only woman in a small room with three men and only the voice of a rapist to punctuate the silence while my companions hummed with pleasure at his humour, I was deeply uncomfortable. And yet, I did nothing except smile tightly. As we women are want to do.

Anyhoo. This is not about my discomfort about being a situation that is par for the course for a woman. It is about philosophy.

I subscribe to a non-essentialist position on gender. Pretty much, I believe both sex and gender to be the same thing, and a discursive construct. This stance poses problems for a feminist, because if ‘woman’ is a construct then how can we (?) organize any activism around the category. Quite simply, how to fight for women when ‘woman’ does not exist? (Or anything really – this is the postmodern dilemma.)

Actually, no one said ‘woman’ does not exist. Just that it does not exist as a natural category. We are born women only as much as this category is applied at birth or thereabouts.

So yeah, people – including feminists, because there is a strain of psychoanalystic (sometimes known as French) feminism that argues forcefully for difference – going variations of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus make me roll my eyes so much I get an instant headache. Now that I have kids I hear this on a daily basis. Sometimes, like talking about the weather, such nonsense slips out of my own mouth. It’s hard to resist as a conversation starter because people seem to love this line of discussion – how little boys and little girls are sooo different, and you can’t change it. Hint: it’s the latter part of the sentence I have the most problems with.

This semester I’m taking a gender class and the professor is slightly on the lines of the psychoanalytic feminists, in providing examples of difference that if not clearly paraphrased as constructed might be seen to be inherent. And I can see those of us who are on the Judith Butler side of things biting our tongues.

But today, something happened in class that triggered an epiphany of sorts. The men in the class have been grimly silent. They are not there out of choice – except for gay guy as is the norm – but because the course is semi-mandatory. Today, the presentation was by a guy with a philosophy background and focused on epistemological questions and suddenly the boys came alive.

One of them paraphrased his comment by suggesting that our discussions so far have been superficial and missing the point. I hope that something was lost in translation, but sadly I don’t think so.

Then, another guy commented that the presentation case was not about epistemology but about ethics. I asked him whether they could be separated – because all the readings thus far are making the opposite argument – and he said, yes, of course. Epistemology deals with knowledge that is ‘out there’. Truth is debatable but facts are facts. Ahem.

The point is not whether you, dear reader, know what epistemology is. The point is that the only thing that animated these guys was discussing whether a particular question was epistemological or ethical, i.e. discussing which category said question fit into, because of course that is the most important thing.

In retrospect, I want to laugh because the three of them were a living breathing demonstration of exactly what our readings have been arguing – that there is a philosophical tradition of knowledge that is (male) gendered and that this gendered tradition has been universalized and other ways of knowing silenced. And, I might add, that this is a violence. But it can only be experienced as such if you are undergoing the silencing. The speaking subject will be waffling on about epistemology versus ethics.

In the moment though I just felt deeply unsettled. Which anyone who is marginalized feels, enhanced by the irony of this happening in a gender class (which might be the only place it is okay to feel such because usually it is the other gender that feels marginalized).

This brings me to sex/gender. We have been talking about paradigms ( based on Thomas Kuhn’s ideas, which I am yet to read in the original) and how science is only one paradigm of knowing. I didn’t find this very exciting because most of us know this.

Then watching these guys, being so “male”, it struck me. If there is a masculine gender it is really this – the desperate need for the detached clinical stance, categorization and objectification. The body is irrelevant, anyone who functions within this paradigm, could be said to be “masculine”. Usually, people who function within this paradigm are what we understand as biologically male, and there are some interesting psychoanalytic theories about why this is so, based not so much on biology but infant psychosocial development. (The ‘social’ part hints that this is so for our time, but need not be so forever if society changes sufficiently, but that is easier said than done because the whole thing is like a vicious cycle.) In this sense, yes, there is an essential masculine and feminine and thus far, most people conform to this so exactly because the imprint is so deep.

This is not a value judgement on the masculine paradigm. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with it. It could be very helpful. The problem is the universalizing of what is just a paradigm and the erasure of all other possible paradigms.

If you function in another paradigm – one of which could be emotional (or “affective” as we say in fancy academic circles) or relational or experiential, all of which have been associated with the feminine/female – then you may feel the violence of that silencing. “May” because most of us have bought into the idea of one-and-only-one good way (the desire for one and only one is also typical of the masculine paradigm. First principles. Simple and elegant. All that.)

To discuss this violence is not “superficial”. It can only be superficial to those who do not experience it or empathize with it. The same people who dismiss women as the eternal victims and mourners would never dare tell a black persons that it’s trivial to spend time on seeing how conceptual categories erase their very existence. Or maybe they would. After all, the highest level of thought is abstraction.