Recent debates about transgender people and sexual diversity have been characterized by essentialism, a deeply conservative mindset with deep ties to religious and metaphysical dogmatism. It is an attitude with which conservative thinkers seek certainty in a world of change and volatility.
Essentialism consists of three core ideas.
First, there is the idea that nature is divided into separate kinds of things, which are completely and definitively distinct from each other. For example, there is the view that living things are fundamentally different from non-living things, or that humans are fundamentally different from other animals.
Second, there is the idea that these differences are eternal and necessary. This sometimes takes the form of the religious doctrine that God created the world and everything in it according to an immutable typology. But the idea can also be attributed to Plato, the father of Western philosophy, who postulated eternal and immutable “forms” that copied and concretized worldly things. According to this theory, if a given thing is an instance of an eternal metaphysical form, it must have clearly defined properties.
Third, essentialism suggests that every kind of thing has an “essence,” which requires it to maintain its distinctness by acting in a way that is true to its nature. If God created things as clearly separated from each other, then these distinctions become sacred. Another example is Descartes’ view that the essential difference between humans and animals is that only humans have a rational soul.
Many implications, including ethical implications, are drawn from such claims. To say of an organism that it has an “animal nature” implies that it is beyond the scope of our moral responsibilities, while the existence of “human nature” implies that a person is subject to various moral norms and prohibitions .
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There are strong reasons to reject such essentialism. The first of these is Darwinism. It is a commonplace in modern biology that humans evolved from other life forms. Indeed, all life forms inhabiting Earth today have evolved over eons of time from past life forms and from inorganic matter.
Those who reject this scientific consensus for religious or other reasons do so because they reject the links between essentialism and a priori moral principles. In this way lies doctrinal and moral dogmatism.
The most obvious implication of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is that natural types—as exemplified in biological species—are not eternal or immutable realities. Species are constantly changing. The human species has changed in the long time it takes for natural selection to do its evolutionary work.
It follows that there is no human essence and no immutable typology which distinguishes human nature from the rest of the animal kingdom or from the world of things in general.
There are also ideological and ethical reasons for avoiding essentialism. The view that humans are fundamentally different from other animals supports the view that humans have a unique moral status. It used to be argued that since animals have no soul or spirit, it was morally legitimate to use them as we pleased. The religious version of this argument is that God created animals to benefit humans. Add to this the argument that animals do not feel pain (because they have no mind) and that all kinds of cruel practices are legitimate. Peter Singer has called these theories “speciesism”.
Racism is another example of this way of thinking. This view is also based on a form of essentialism: in this case, the view that there is an essential difference between black and white people.
The scientific challenge to racism is data showing that genetic differences are very slight. The moral challenge is to argue that they are irrelevant. During periods of slavery, colonialism and imperialism, racism often took the form of empirical assertions. of civilization. Mixed-race people are a nuisance to racists because they cross essential boundaries, blurring the line between “us” and “them”.
Nationalism, racism and certain notions of class are examples of the inherent oppressive quality of essentialism. Economic and social thinkers (sometimes inspired by misunderstandings about Darwin) used to argue that members of the working class (sometimes referred to as the “lower orders”) were naturally stupid and dissolute, so it pleased them to keep them employed . the factories and pits for long hours, because only that way would they ever be productive.
Never mind that talent is randomly distributed among all socio-economic classes and only needs the chance to develop in individuals, whatever class they belong to. As far as nationalism is concerned, the view that some people are inherently worth less than others because of their nationality is not the least important of the many causes of war.
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Essentialism and Sexual Repression
Essentialism is also at the heart of many sexist practices and forms of life. To quote Aristotle: “Man is naturally superior and woman inferior; and the one reigns and the other is reigned; this principle necessarily extends to all of humanity.
According to such an essentialism, certain things would have inalienable characteristics and, as a result, have a lower or higher status on an imagined hierarchy. Aristotle based his view on biological theories about women and men and their sexual functions which we now know were false, but the main point here is that he attributed a different metaphysical “nature” to each gender.
When biological differences are converted into immutable essences of moral significance, they can be used to justify oppressive and unjust practices. It is easier to justify preventing women from participating fully in public and commercial life if it is stated that it is in the nature of women to be housekeepers and mothers.
Essentialism also plays a role in the suppression of sexuality. If one insists that the essence of the male/female distinction is that it is the basis of reproduction, then homosexuality can be banned as “unnatural”. But sexuality has no essential purpose. While reproduction is an important result of sexual activity, it is not its only function.
Transgender identities show that there are no essential connections between sexuality, gender and biology. Trans activists deny that apparent biological differences create immutable gender-specific essences. The claim is not that trans women are biological men who prefer to dress and act like women; it is that because the biological essence does not define gender identity, trans women are women.
This is a claim that a male or female identity is not defined on the basis of any material reality of embodied masculinity or femininity, but on a higher abstracted or psychological plane. While it may be difficult for non-trans people to understand what this level would be, it is clear that it eschews any essentialist definition of what should be a woman or a man.
When gender differences are converted into immutable essences, one can give them moral meaning and use them to justify oppressive and unjust practices. Nothing can be more offensive to an essentialist than the blurring of boundaries represented by transgender identification. It is the fixing of empirical differences in the categories of metaphysical essences that do the work of founding oppressive principles.
Prejudices of all kinds usually take an essentialist form. It will often turn out that the standards of human excellence advanced by the essentialist theory are those used by the theory’s originator. This is why essentialism is usually oppressive to anyone who is “different” in relation to the essentialist. For an essentialist, difference is pejorative.
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Existence precedes essence
In contrast, Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous phrase “existence goes to essence” proposes that our self-conscious way of being is not determined by any essential human nature. The ‘existentialism’ he founded is the opposite of essentialism.
Instead of claiming that our human nature, our socialization, our genetic heritage—or any other material or historical force—defines who we are and what we should do, existentialists radically argue that it is our subjectivity, our project of self respect. making, which projects itself into the world and uses those factual and formative elements to forge an identity for itself – an identity of its own choosing.
Unlike essentialism, which tries to capture human life in the definitions that the metaphysical categories entail, existentialism reminds us that our initiative and creativity are essential in living our lives.
Existentialism is anti-essentialist in relation to human existence. It claims that it itself is not a solid entity. People create their own ways of being, their values and their destiny. And this applies to sexuality. Gender is an existentialist project rather than a fixed essence.
Dependent on ancient metaphysical and religious doctrines, essentialism seeks normative certainty in a changing world. It suggests that everything must act in accordance with its eternal and necessary nature. It is an inherently conservative attitude that should be removed from contemporary ethical and political debates.