A New Life Unexamined may be More Worth Living

Suppose that you’re part of an interracial, black African and white Caucasian, couple. You have a baby together, and immediately after the birth you phone around your friends and family to tell them the happy news. They all seem to have just one question, which you keep hearing over and over, immediately after you tell them that you have a new baby: “What skin tone does it have?”

As soon as you consider replying “light” or “dark” or “in-between”, you begin to wonder why the people you love are so strangely focussed on an unchosen and ultimately unimportant feature of your baby’s physical make-up. Do they think that your baby should be thought of or treated differently, merely on account of its skin colour? Instead of answering the question, you tell them this: “What does it matter? It’s not for us to impose our categories and expectations on the child. Let’s leave the child the freedom to form and choose its own identity as it grows old enough to do so.”

According to a story in the Toronto Star, parents Kathy Witterick and David Stocker of Toronto, Canada have taken a similar approach after the birth of their third child, but with respect to its sex rather than its skin tone. Their baby, Storm, reportedly has unambiguous genitalia, but his/her sex is a secret that they have decided not to share with friends and family, who presumably have by now stopped asking, “Is it a boy or a girl?” The parents want Storm to have the freedom to choose who to be, without being constrained by the social norms and expectations that society differentially applies to males and females. “If you really want to get to know someone, you don’t ask what’s between their legs,” says Stocker. They aim to keep Storm’s sex a secret until Storm decides to share it.

Their unusual approach has unsettled and upset a number of observers. According to the Star’s report, psychologist Diane Ehrensaft, “worries [that] by not divulging Storm’s sex, the parents are denying the child a way to position himself or herself in a world where you are either male, female or in between. In effect they have created another category: Other than other. And that could marginalize the child.” Another expert on gender identity, Dr. Ken Zucker, calls this a “social experiment of nurture,” and said “One will find out” what psychological harm, if any, could come from keeping the sex of a child secret.

British conservative tabloid the Daily Mail reported this story, and in the spirit of making a somewhat light-hearted survey of the non-expert folk, here are – unedited – the six Best Rated comments on its web site, at time of writing:

  • its a boy, fullness of cranial features, skull prominence, orbital socket fullness, lower jaw to neck masculine tissue format, 43 years in medical profession, this mother clearly wanted a daughter and was born a son, be grateful you have a healthy child madam. silly silly silly woman

- l miller, dorset, 24/5/2011 9:57

Rating 4624

  • Idiot parents

- Fiona , Glasgow, 24/5/2011 9:59

Rating 3850

  • Poor child. Its going to cause so much confusion for him/her & as a result distress in later life. Why can’t these idiots just let their child grow up normally without any pressure.

- Andy-Roo, Herts, 24/5/2011 9:59

Rating 3031

  • That is the most stupid thing ive read today. It will make the child even more confused when he/she reaches pubity. Also once he/she is old enough to understand the difference in sexes they will ‘come out’ anyway. Some parents are so strange.

- kelly , hampton, 24/5/2011 9:58

Rating 2537

  • how bloody stupid

- john, milton keynes, 24/5/2011 9:57

Rating 2372

  • This is ridiculous! The baby grows up not knowing what he/she is? Poor thing will be bullied at school and get depressed! They are awful parents in my opinion, why dont they take their own sexes away and dont tell anyone whether their man or woman? Experimenting on your child is definately not appropriate!

- Maria, London, 24/5/2011 9:57

Rating 2227

And for comparison, here are the six Worst Rated:

  • This is lovely: not just because Storm’s parents are ahead of the curve in realizing that gender is socially constructed and distinct from sex (and immaterial for a baby without any sense of social constructs at all) but also because it’s clear that whatever choices their children make in life, they will be respected & valued inherently. ‘Genderless babies’ are rare, but so too is true unconditional love & support. Bravo.

- molly shannon, detroit, usa, 24/5/2011 7:32

Rating -1120

  • Yes it sounds kooky but how much trouble could it really cause? The child will face bullying no matter what – I’ve yet to meet someone who hasn’t – and hopefully their parents will provide them with the confidence to handle it.

- McKenna, Newcastle upon Tyne, 24/5/2011 5:05

Rating -820

  • “Gender is something you are born with…” – London, London, 24/5/2011 9:44 Actually, it’s not. Sex is something you are born with and gender is a constructed identity.

- TES, London, UK, 24/5/2011 12:29

Rating -653

  • Yes it sounds kooky but how much trouble could it really cause? The child will face bullying no matter what – I’ve yet to meet someone who hasn’t – and hopefully their parents will provide them with the confidence to handle it.

- McKenna, Newcastle upon Tyne, 24/5/2011 5:05

Rating -598

  • I think it’s a great idea. We as a society immediately pigeonhole children and people according to gender – why are people getting so upset about this?

- NP, London, 24/5/2011 10:42

Rating -392

  • I have a hermaphrodite friend. At birth the parents were advised to bring my friend up as a girl but as they had wanted a son, and presumably felt they could choose either,labelled ‘him’ a boy. Now well into adulthood ‘he’ has suffered years of torment from others and still does. ‘He’ is just so not apparently male in any sense. Maybe Storm’s parents are faced with a similar choice which they don’t want to make yet. I certainly wouldn’t want to have to decide.

- Charlie, Swindon, 24/5/2011 8:32

Rating -247

Clearly, Daily Mail readers aren’t rating comments mainly according to their spelling, grammar, thoughtfulness, or informational content (though they rated highly the pseudoscience in the first and best rated comment). They are, by and large, rating them simply according to how much they agree with the commenter. But, as NP from London asked, “Why are people getting so upset about this?” How can there be any reasonable dispute over the claim that, because people should be be who and what they want to be, parents may permissibly withhold information about a baby’s sex from others, in order to prevent them treating it according to preconceived gender norms?

Some people think that gender is a wholly biologically determined fact, and that gender norms reflect underlying biological differences. Little boys play with trucks and little girls play with dolls because of their biology, not their environment, and it is silly to try to deny such biological inevitability. But if you hold such a view, it is difficult to see why you would have any objection to the behaviour of Storm’s parents: you must think that the child is going to clearly express its gender and fit into a natural biologically-determined gender role soon enough, assuming that (s)he is simply allowed to do so.

Other people think that gender is not wholly biologically determined, but that it is important to impose gender norms on a child in order to avert “confusion” or allow the child to “position himself or herself” in society. These views seem to be echoed by the two experts quoted in the report. But it’s unclear why Storm is likely to become confused, rather than simply to feel more free than other children to act or think in ways that social norms tend to suppress or encourage arbitrarily for children of a particular sex. Storm will know what his/her genitalia are like, and so long as Storm is not discouraged from expressing a gender insofar as Storm is inclined to do so, why should we doubt his/her ability to position himself or herself in society as (s)he sees fit?

Perhaps it will be argued that gender norms must be enforced irrespective of individual choice because they are essential to the stability of our social structure and the wellbeing of our society. It’s clear that many people are inclined to think something like this. But without much more argument, this view appears to be founded in nothing more than irrational status quo bias. Lots of traditional social norms, including gender norms, have been seen to be unjust and discriminatory and have been abandoned in recent years. Why should we continue to force our remaining gender norms on even the youngest members of our society?

(Thanks to Regina Rini for contributing to this piece).

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42 Responses to A New Life Unexamined may be More Worth Living

  • CathyBy says:

    I understand what the parents are trying to achieve but I'm not sure it will work. The aim is that the child will not be subject to pressures to conform to a stereotyped gender. (I'm doubtful even of that, given my Sikh friend's long-haired (male) baby is consistently called "she" – people will pick up on something to decide the pronoun).

    However this won't actually affect the stereotypes the child will receive. It seems to me all that may happen is that the child will choose between touchy, feely, pink-loving, sparkle wearing, maths-hating role and rough, tough, noisy, dirty, computer-loving role.

    To affect those you question: You point out exceptions. You resist stereotyping in your own home, prevent or answer criticism of "sissy" or "tomboy" behaviour. You make sure you let kids know you can be a real woman and a mechanic, a real man and cry.

    I guess the parents in this case will do that, but if they do, I'm not sure what advantage the step of hiding their kid's sex will really do.

    • Simon Rippon says:

      I think you make an excellent point, CathyBy, about the choice between two stereotypes. And though the main point of my post was to wonder what could ground *opposition* to this policy, rather than apathy, I'm sympathetic to your questions about just what the parents will manage to acheive by doing this. Perhaps it's relevant to point out that the oldest child of these parents is a five year old boy who has been subjected to peer- and adult-inflicted pressure on account of his "girly" choices in hairstyle (long braids) and clothing (sometimes, puffy pink dresses). Perhaps they simply wanted to avoid that kind of stress in this child's life. Is there something to be said for that?

  • Great post, especially both the second to the last paragraph and the last paragraph. Why start gender stereotyping so soon – before or after babies are born – by continuing common focuses on gender and possibly enabling/perpetuating stereotypical responses, treatment, and all sorts of conscious and unconscious nonlinear causal influences on how people (parents/guardians, friends/family, teachers/neighbors) treat not just babies, but also one another? … Let us not forget about the value of experiments in living, and how often we do not realize that less than radical attempts to resist the status quo can wind up enforcing it. Let us also not forget the potential importance of less than radical attempts to resist gender stereotypes in (slowly, gradually) bringing about social progress in changing the arguably sexist, discriminatory, oppressive, and undesirable aspects and effects of those stereotypes.

    (What counts as a radical attempt at resisting and/or changing gender stereotypes might of course be a contentious issue, discussion of which requires more details about forms of resistance/change and the stereotypes themselves. Fortunately, we have huge literatures on these matters.)

  • Michael says:

    I'm also willing to bet that many of those who wrote and up-voted the first set of comments believe that gender is in fact a wholly biological fact, thus introducing a fair bit of inconsistency into their views on the ethics of this matter.

  • Basildon man says:

    This strikes me as a very silly experiment by these parents. They claim to be witholding public and even family knowledge of the sex of their child to prevent it suffering gender stereotyping. Yet surely for this deception to continue, as planned, until the child is old enough to express its own preferences, the parents are going to have to make choices in clothing, hairstyle, toys, etc. which are either gender neutral or a deliberate mix of gender stereotypes designed to confuse. I have this awful image of a toddler with a crew cut in a pink dress, though they would probably opt for shoulderlength hair and dungarees. While I have no problem with any child having long hair or wearing dungarees, it would get a litte dreary if that was all they ever wore. No party gear for you, it might give the game away. And how do they expect to keep it secret anyway, never have a babysitter or take the child to the beach?
    CathyBy has it exactly right, proper parenting is about loving your child, supporting their choices ( where they are not positively harmful) and giving them the freedom to choose whether they want to play with dolls or toy cars or both.

    • Simon Rippon says:

      "surely for this deception to continue … the parents are going to have to make choices in clothing, hairstyle, toys, etc. which are either gender neutral or a deliberate mix of gender stereotypes designed to confuse."

      I don't see how that follows at all, Basildon man. I think they'll choose independently of gender stereotypes at first, and then let the child choose whatever it wants as soon as it can make choices, and nobody will know whether it's conforming to its own gender stereotype, or the opposite one (like its older brother does). In any case, what's wrong with a crew cut and a pink dress, or long hair and dungarees?

      • J.I. Smith says:

        With respect, you seem to have an especially high opinion of these parents, believing that they are well able to choose various things for the child completely free from societal influences and even from over-corrections against these. In a society where sex (in both senses of the word) is given such significance, I don't believe that one can tread a neutral path. Of course, there's something of a spectrum, and parents can choose to conform more or less to the norms of the day, but those parental choices are just that, choices — and, as such, are not neutral.

        Your comment in the second paragraph reminds me rather of the kind of sentiments that one might have heard in the USSR about the "dictatorship of the proletariat" choosing in the interests of the common man until, as you say, the proles are equipped to make proper choices for themselves, when they'll reach the utopian uplands of true communism and have liberty to choose how to live free from any societal constraints at all. I'm not at all sure that humans, being human, ever do make such benevolent and omniscient dictators or that we can escape such social categorisations as class or gender, because, being social categorisations, they exist in society at large and even if the individual wishes to 'opt-out', he/she cannot do so unless he/she opts out of the society altogether.

  • Dmitri Pisartchik says:

    For all the praise of this as a (radical or otherwise) experiment, people do tend to forget that Human Subject Research is governed by a well developed ethical framework. So, if we are willing to "pigeonhole" this as an experiment, why don't we treat it as one from an ethics point of view. And the ethics is pretty clear here: this would not pass any competent IRB review. As an experiment this is unequivocally unethical.

    As to the original story, I do have to question the decision of the parents to refuse answering the questions of their friends and family. I doubt very much that any of them wanted to know if Storm (like the X-men Strom?) is an assertive, powerful, dominating and steadfast individual (the male gender) or a submissive, sweet, reliable one (the female gender). I'm fairly sure that what they wanted to know if whether it was a boy (male sex) or a girl (female sex), period. Now, as parents they do have the right not to disclose this, but their reasons are dubious at best.

    Even assuming the validity of their intentions as letting Strom figure things out for her/himself their methods are flawed. Even if you disagree with the current gender construction that is prevalent, it seems to me that if order to choose one you have to be one or the other to begin with. We are not godlike, perfectly rational creatures (especially when we are children, and even more so when in our teens) in the state of perfect knowledge to be able to choose either a male or female gender. And unless there was immaculate conception involved, I doubt Storm will be able to choose either.

    I think its important to remember that being born into a social construct, such as gender, does not absolute preclude one from future choices in this regard. Gender switchers are a case in point here. The intentions of the parents to spare Storm the potential anguish of being "assigned" the wrong gender role are good, but misplaced since it is not impossible to assign a gender role while leaving the possibility of future rejection by the child, it just takes a little more work. Its important to note that being assigned the wrong gender is still preferable to being assigned no gender at all. Consider the analogy: having the wrong kind of knowledge may still be preferable to having no knowledge at all, since it at least allows one to reform and alter the knowledge one already has on the basis of experience and reflection. Thus, suppose that they were to assign their sexually male child a male gender and this turned our to be the "wrong" gender. Nothing necessarily precludes the child from later reflecting in obtained experience and voluntarily rejecting the assigned label for a different one.

    • Simon Rippon says:

      Why should this be thought of as an "experiment", Dmitri? And if it is indeed such, why would it be "unequivocally unethical"? Surely you're not saying that any approach to raising a child that is not "normal" is an unethical experiment?

      You write: "Even if you disagree with the current gender construction that is prevalent, it seems to me that if [sic] order to choose one you have to be one or the other to begin with. We are not godlike, perfectly rational creatures (especially when we are children, and even more so when in our teens) in the state of perfect knowledge to be able to choose either a male or female gender. And unless there was immaculate conception involved, I doubt Storm will be able to choose either."

      I can't work out what your argument is supposed to be here. Why do you think we have to conform to one gender construction in order to choose the other? Perhaps you are confusing gender and sex?

      You also write: "Its important to note that being assigned the wrong gender is still preferable to being assigned no gender at all. Consider the analogy: having the wrong kind of knowledge may still be preferable to having no knowledge at all, since it at least allows one to reform and alter the knowledge one already has on the basis of experience and reflection"

      I've no idea why you think the former claim is true. For that matter, I've no idea why "having the wrong kind of knowledge" is supposed to be better than having none at all (I don't know what "the wrong kind of knowledge" is, actually, perhaps a closer analogy would be: "false knowledge", but of course, there is no such thing as that. There's only belief that purports or appears to be knowledge, but is not knowledge.)

  • Dave Frame says:

    I think there are two objections.
    One is that gender seems to be somewhat determined by nature and somewhat determined by nurture. On conventional views, the nurture component helps one deal with the nature component in reasonably constructive ways. If the couple fail to give the kids even the broad cues society expects then the kids are likely to wind up unnecessarily confused about gender since they're likely to send and receive signals that are out of kilter with their peers. [I say unnecessarily because for most of us, gender is something we negotiate without a great deal of anxiety. I appreciate there is a minority for whom this is not the case, and the approach these parents are taking may (who knows) be a better fit if the kids happen to be part of that minority. In the absence of additional context I'd say the odds of two kids both being in that category is a long shot.]
    The second reason is more general and I think of it as a sort of Canute effect. Parents with extreme views about human nature – and these could range from extreme religious views to extreme views about race, gender, the plasticity of human nature, extreme views about altruism or selfishness, etc – run the risk of furnishing their children for a society, perhaps even a humanity, that completely fails to exist. One popular strategy for parents – and I note these two parents have hit upon this illiberal and repressive "solution" – is to homeschool, so that the children might be less exposed to the inconvenience of the diversity of views and people that actually exist in society. I think this brings a couple of reactions in most of us: (1) wishing things were a certain way doesn't mean they are that way; (2) don't imprison your kids within your distorted web of belief. On (1), extremists evaluate information differently from the rest of us, which is why they're extreme and we're not. They don't usually handle that very well, and though it makes for great Louis Teroux documentaries, it probably doesn't make for an easy life. But (2) is where people really get upset, because of the obvious principle-agent problems.

    • Simon Rippon says:

      Thanks for contributing, Dave, these are very interesting comments, especially your claim that: "the nurture component helps one deal with the nature component in reasonably constructive ways". Could you enlarge on this with a plausible example?
      On your worries about parents with "extreme views" who endanger their children, I can't help noticing that one famous product of what you call the "illiberal and repressive" practice of homeschooling is a certain J.S. Mill, who was indeed exposed to a particularly radical and extreme view of his time – namely, Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism. And Mill turned out to be not just a convinced – and politically radical – utilitarian, but probably the strongest liberal advocate of "diversity of views" in the Western canon. Couldn't homeschooling, in some cases, be intended not (as you say) to shelter children from "the inconvenience of a diversity of views", but rather to shelter them from overwhelming pressure to conform to a dominant "normal" view, thereby enabling them to explore further possibilities that aren't even candidates for consideration for most of us. And couldn't this be a good thing?

      • Dave Frame says:

        “"the nurture component helps one deal with the nature component in reasonably constructive ways". Could you enlarge on this with a plausible example?”

        Sure… but first, in terms of rejecting dominant norms, let me note that I think the burden of proof (in terms of the homeschooling) goes the other way: my prior is that depriving one's children of the company (and diversity) of their peers is, ceteris paribus, likely to be an illiberal thing to do, and detrimental to their development, especially if you inculcate heterodox norms in your children. My position is that you'd better have a good reason for that. [Such reasons do exit, I'd argue - I'd take my kid out of school if they were being indoctrinated into communism, for instance.]

        My example is this. Many men (I was one) are brought up with very strong norms surrounding violence towards women and children. We reserve a special disgust towards such violence. I’m guessing this comes from the fact that the distribution of men’s sizes, heights and physical strength is (in all populations as far as I know) is statistically distinct from the distribution of women’s sizes, heights and physical strength. Obviously the distributions overlap a lot (duh) but the two distributions are statistically distinct and my guess is that this is an important part of the men as protector thing. In the communities in which I’ve lived, among the norms that structure gender relations is a special obligation on the (statistically) physically strong not to abuse those who (statistically) are physically weaker. Men are aggressive (again, statistically, compared with women; standard caveats apply), but gender norms (attempt) to draw a “no go zone” around women and children. This is the sort of “reasonably constructive” social channelling of the biochemical dimensions of gender that I had in mind.

        I'd note two-and-a-half things regarding the homeschooling example you give: (1a) Mill had something like a nervous breakdown at 20, which was directly related to his upbringing, which isn't the greatest advert you could have for an approach to parenting; (1b) the fact that a defender of liberalism had a certain upbringing doesn't necessarily imply that upbringing was liberal (in this case I think that James Mill did something illiberal, even though he got his long-run wish of creating an uber-liberal; but others have successfully produced liberals without depriving them of the company of their peers so it's hard to argue this illiberalism was necessary); (2) the same justification can be used by any extremist – they want to "to shelter [their children] from overwhelming pressure to conform to a dominant 'normal' view" (which they believe to be wrong).
        Among the dominant "normal" views we have here in the UK are the beliefs that there is no morally significant distinction between the races; that natural selection determines the species we see on earth; that biblical scripture is not literally true; that the canon of classical physics is pretty much on the money; that quite different cultures can peacefully co-exist; etc. Extremists can challenge any of these using the “shelter” justification above. If you want to defend Mill and Storm's parents because they are right and the other extremists wrong, then that's a less general point than the one I was trying to make.

        My more general point is that significant principal-agent problems arise when parents make decisions that reduce the diversity of opinions to which their children are exposed. It’s an illiberal move, and while it may be justified in certain extreme cases, I’d argue that modern day Toronto is not an obvious example of those.

        • Simon Rippon says:

          Dave, thanks for the proposed example of a gender norm that helps us deal with our natural biological sexually dimorphous characteristics. But it seems to me that if this is the best example you can give of a justified gender norm, it's disappointingly thin gruel! You propose that it's important that men internalize a norm against violence to womenand in favour of protecting them instead, because women are statistically physically smaller, shorter and weaker than men – call it the "man as protector" norm. But as you correctly point out, we're dealing with merely *statistical* claims about size and strength here, not absolute claims about all pairwise comparisons. And it's not clear why we are justified in adopting the man as protector norm, which depends on a physical stereotype, when we could of course – if we do in fact need such norms of legitimate violence and of protection in a modern, law-governed society – simply adopt a norm against picking on those smaller and weaker than oneself, and in favour of protecting those smaller and weaker. Wouldn't such a norm be fairer to both weak men who may wish to be protected, and strong women who may wish to protect?

          On Mill and homeschooling, you make an appealing argument. However, I think your discussion of homeschooling misses an important distinction. In general, we might make a distinction between (i) homeschooling that aims to shield a child from the *evidence* that some view generally held by society is correct (undeniably an aim of many American fundamentalist homeschoolers), and (ii) homeschooling that aims to shield a child from *pressure to conform* to a view, while giving them absolute freedom of choice and exposure to as much evidence and as many views as possible, on all sides of controversial question. The first of these is an illiberal and repressive practice, the second – which I think is what Storm's parents are engaged in, though if they are not they certainly could and should be – is thoroughly liberal and Millian one. On Mill himself, I think Mill's breakdown can be more plausibly attributed to the sheer intensity of his education (e.g. reading Greek at 3 and Latin at 8 ) rather than to the fact that he was homeschooled by a liberal father.

          • Dave Frame says:

            I nearly added a couple of anticipatory responses to my previous post but refrained since my post was already >500 words…

            I'm sure it's the case that another set of norms could accomplish the same objective in this narrow instance. But norms like the injunction against violence towards women and children do not exist in isolation, they interact with other norms, reinfocing here and there, undermining in other places and so on. It's possible that you could remove gender from all norms, but then you'd have to find *lots* of other groups/nouns around which to form the new norms. You might pick "the physically strong" for this norm and some other placeholder for that norm, but it might be rather difficult to stitch it all together into a navigable web. Who knows?

            For some folks, presumably including you and David Slutsky, this is something politically urgent that we ought very much to try. It's not something I've personally seen huge popular demand for**, and if I were asked to list the couple of dozen political priorities I would have if my political preferences were actually of any interest or consequence to anyone, I'm not sure it would make the list. This is an efficiency argument – life is short and there are lots of ways of living that might be interesting if everything were different from how it is. Changes to gender norms have been of direct benefit to me and my immediate family, but the idea of a revolution to *completely* de-gender norms strikes me as likely to lead to undesirable unintended consequences. I also think it is likely to be quixotic, which is a statement about my conception of human nature, reinforced by having seen lots of people try to raise infants/small children in gender neutral (or gender-lite) ways, only for the children to obstinately resist such enlightened subversion of dominant paradigms. [Isn't other people's volition inconvenient?]

            **In fact, my women friends who might be most expected to embrace this sort of movement (eg my mother, who was a pioneer in women's aviation in NZ, or my friend Emma who is a firefighter) usually have little time for theoretical revolutions like these. But if you can find an audience, cool. Just don't expect me to be part of it – I'll be down the hall being harangued about all the other urgent political priorities in our imperfect world.

            Regarding the homeschooling thing, I think you're determined to find Mill's & Storm's parents not guilty while ensuring convictions for all the usual suspects. I doubt that the distinction you draw holds much water – I expect the second style is exactly the practice followed by people who homeschool for reasons of educational quality in their neighbourhood, but I don't see why ideological extremists would ever have incentives to embrace that position.

          • Simon Rippon says:

            Dave, I probably haven't been clear enough. I haven't taken the view (expressed by David Slutsky here) that we ought to act in the way Storm's parents have acted (though I respect that view). What I've been arguing is that no good grounds have been provided for saying that it's impermissible us or for them to act in this way, or for "getting upset" about such activity. I'm afraid your arguments, tenacious and thoughtful as they have been, haven't provided any substantial reason to reconsider that view. I admit that it's *possible* that some or all gender norms as currently constituted are essential to the wellbeing of our society. But unless you've got a good argument that this is actually the case, the view that nobody should interfere with them (which is clearly a view held by many Daily Mail readers) looks like status quo bias.

            On homeschooling, you haven't responded to my argument at all other than by the ad hominem, "you're determined to find…" As I've already explained, I'm not defending "ideological extremists", I'm defending committed *liberals* who happen to disagree with one or more widely held and broadly socially enforced views. I don't know for sure which category Storm's parents (or Mill's) fall into, but I think they could plausibly fall into the latter group. And if they do, you've provided no reason at all to think they are doing anything wrong.

  • I cannot tell whether certain comments above are written in ignorance (or with misunderstanding) of *Millian* "experiments in living", and whether my quick comment about such experiments instigated those comments.

    Why not support if not practice various forms of resisting gender stereotypical behavior in parenting? A possibly less radical version of whatever these parents are doing seems potentially good if not badly needed. The next time you hear someone is pregnant or has a newborn, why ask whether it is a boy or a girl? The next time you have a child, why start the stereotyping before the baby is born by announcing the gender and possibly enabling/perpetuating stereotypical responses, treatment, and all sorts of conscious and unconscious nonlinear causal influences on how people (parents/guardians, friends/family, teachers/neighbors) treat not just the baby, but also one another?

    As Simon Rippon quite astutely noted in his post, many positions on this matter are infuenced by if not based on background views on genetic/biological determinism regarding gender. I contend that the nicely concise points Simon Rippon makes in his final two paragraphs in the post still stand strong as they are (without much need for defense unless one wants to get into biological determinist debates – fortunately, many others have adequately addressed such debates elsewhere).

    I hope soon/before too long to post some further thoughts and relevant links if not paper drafts on these matters in the following section of my little philosophy website:
    http://sites.google.com/site/davidslutsky/home/publications

    In the meantime, interested readers might wish to check out my website sections both on "Evolutionary Psychology" and also on Recent blog comments:
    http://sites.google.com/site/davidslutsky/home/recent-blog-posts

    • Dave Frame says:

      <blockquote cite="Why not support if not practice various forms of resisting gender stereotypical behavior in parenting? A possibly less radical version of whatever these parents are doing seems potentially good if not badly needed.">

      I can't see anyone on these forums actually supporting gender stereotyping in parenting… At the same time I expect most people see a big difference between (a) freeing kids from (say) gendered expectations regarding future careers and (b) home-schooling your kids because you can't trust the education system (and by extension your fellow citizens) with something as precious as gender. It's pretty easy to support (a) – I'm sure millions of parents, myself included, attempt to do this in our own mundane ways – while rejecting (b) as a bit deranged.**

      <q cite="The next time you hear someone is pregnant or has a newborn, why ask whether it is a boy or a girl?">

      Because it's one of the few emotionally unloaded pieces of data a parent might have about the little proto-person in the womb. Other than that, they may know that it is developing about as well as can be expected, or they may know (or believe, or suspect) that it is not. Next to that knowledge, or more relevantly that ever-present doubt, questions of the sex of the kid is a light relief. It's not part of some complex patriarchal conspiracy. It's something to ask in a near data-void where the real questions are too painful to mention.

      **I also question Simon's use of the Daily Mail as his source of the opinion of the people. Is that really where philosophers ought go to get a handle on the best arguments their fellow citizens can muster on something like this? My suspicion is that he was trying to portray a false correlation between the rejection of (a) and (b).

      • Simon Rippon says:

        "**I also question Simon’s use of the Daily Mail as his source of the opinion of the people. Is that really where philosophers ought go to get a handle on the best arguments their fellow citizens can muster on something like this? My suspicion is that he was trying to portray a false correlation between the rejection of (a) and (b)."

        NOT GUILTY! I never said nor implicated that the <i>Daily Mail</i> would give us a handle on the *best arguments* on anything! Actually, I was interested in portraying the phenomenal power of pressure to conform to the "normal", which I think has a huge influence on the views not just of <i>Daily Mail</i> readers, but most others – everyone here included. I was actually surprised where the arguments took me when I wrote this post because I couldn't see any good arguments in favour of some qualified support of gender norms, which I had previously unthinkingly accepted to some degree. I'm genuinely interested in hearing the good arguments that justify these norms, if such arguments exist!

        Also, let me ask: would you feel comfortable to ask about the newborn's skin tone *instead of* its gender, as a matter of course? If not, why not?

        • Dave Frame says:

          "Also, let me ask: would you feel comfortable to ask about the newborn’s skin tone *instead of* its gender, as a matter of course? If not, why not?"

          People don't ask this prenatally because ultra-sounds don't offer that information. Peope do ask – soon after birth – about whether the baby has hair, what colour it might be, how heavy they are, how long they are, whether they look more like one family than another and so forth. Mostly they're just being polite and giving the parents a chance to natter on about the infant. There is little other than physically descriptive data that is available with very small children, so that's what the conversation is about. If someone had asked me about my son's colour I'd have replied "white" without thinking about it. I certainly wouldn't have taken any offence.

          • Simon Rippon says:

            Well, Dave, I think you might have taken offence if (i) It was the first and very often the only question asked about your new baby, and (ii) You were in a mixed race couple, so that racial stereotypes might play a significant role in people's thinking about the question.

            These features make the case much more similar to the case of the sex question which we've come to take as normal. It's simply not true that people generally take as much interest in, for example, a new baby's colour/type/presence of hair as they do in its sex – and this points to the strong role of unconscious stereotyping with respect to the latter. (People do, in fact, often ask about a baby's weight, but that's surely because weight is thought to be a general indicator ofa baby's health – a much more important characteristic, surely, than its sex!)

  • David Shipley says:

    How odd. These parents are going out of their way to brainwash their children politically, dragging them around the world to meet political activists before they have any idea of what politics is about, but wish them to be able to choose their own gender regardless of the bits they were born with. David, can you explain why experimenting on one's children does not breach ethics, if indeed this is an experiment? I would be a bit more comfortable with these parents' choices if they were consistent and presented as their view of what is best for their children, whether or not one agrees with them. Even then, there is a great difference between a child choosing to stand out from his or her peers, conditioned as they may be, and being made to stand out by parents' decisions on his/her behalf. The need to belong is important for many, perhaps most children, and their suffering when they are isolated is real and present, rather than the notional oppression of well-meaning relatives offering girls pink clothes and dolls, and boys blue and mechanical toys, and making stereotypical comments when they are in their prams.

    • Regina Rini says:

      You seem to be making quite a few assumptions here, David [ed: Shipley], and I'm not quite sure what grounds them. For instance, what evidence is there that these parents are "brainwashing" their children?

      All this talk about "experiments" strikes me as a red herring. I'd be interested if someone (not necessarily you, since you aren't the only guilty party) could explain in what sense these parents' choice constitutes an "experiment". (The Millian sense employed by David Slutsky seems unlikely to provoke the ire implicit in so many such comments, so presumably something else must be intended.) Nothing at all in this story suggests that the parents are engaged in a controlled manipulation of one factor with the central aim of observing its impact upon a second factor.

      You make the following distinction: "there is a great difference between a child choosing to stand out from his or her peers, conditioned as they may be, and being made to stand out by parents’ decisions on his/her behalf." This strikes me as a very dangerous starting position. Suppose an observant Jewish couple live in a community that is nearly 100% Christian. Should they endeavor to bring their children up as Christians, so that the children are not "being made to stand out by parents' decisions on his/her behalf"? I assume you don't intend this entailment, but I'm not sure the argument implicit in your distinction can avoid it.

      You conclude by contrasting the "real and present" suffering of (some) children denied their need to belong against the merely "notional" suffering of (some) children raised in constricting gender roles. I wondered which evidence you had in mind when labeling one of these "real" and the other merely "notional".

    • Simon Rippon says:

      David Shipley: Regina has already carefully addressed points of substance; allow me if I may to add a brief remark about style. Many of the words and phrases you chose in your comment add mere rhetorical flourish, rather than adding to your arguments, e.g. "How odd", "brainwash", "dragging them", "notional oppression". I'm sure that these choices reflect your strong opinions, and I'm delighted that you've chosen to contribute here on my posts at Practical Ethics and to make serious arguments, but I would thank you for helping to maintain these posts as a place for clear-headed, open-minded and reflective discussion of ideas. Bluster and noise has no place here!

  • Since we have more than one David participating in this discussion, could participants please use first and last names when responding to a comment from David? In any case, just a few more thoughts and concerns to share and/or clarify:

    Given the prejudicial, discriminatory, and oppressive aspects of gender stereotypes, we have several reasons to resist, and not to use, enable, and/or perpetuate, gender stereotypes. For instance, we have moral, economic, pragmatic, and rational reasons to resist, and not to use, enable, and/or perpetuate, gender stereotypes. Sexist and misogynist (ab)uses of gender stereotypes are bad for business, bad for security, bad for moral development, bad for personal autonomy, bad for social relationships, bad for governments, and bad for all sorts of personal and social progress.

    The problems, dangers, and harms of gender stereotypes are so great that we need to try out different ways (big or small, radical or mild) of changing them to see what does and does not work toward changes. Roughly, we are talking about egalitarian changes. For relevant discussion and argument, please consult relevant literatures.

    Many things the parents in question have said (and/or are doing) trouble me in various ways. Nonetheless, such troubles do not phase my firm belief in the importance of trying various changes toward progress regarding egalitarian changes in gender stereotypes. We already have enough polemics on the details without my two cents. What I venture to maintain is the general importance of trying and/or working in all sorts of various ways to achieve small steps toward achieving more egalitarian changes in gender stereotypes. People do not seem to realize that simply using gender very often if not always means and involves using gender stereotypes (consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or unintentionally – the empirical documentation of this is huge and unfortunately confirmed again and again), and that simply using genders – and the roughly inegalitarian gender norms that come with them – helps perpetuate inegalitarian gender stereotypes in all sorts of ways.

    When I hear about people rocking the gender boat, I smile (or feel a tiny bit less sad). Although I might not smile (or feel a tiny bit less sad) about various specific boat changes, we need such boat changes so badly that, in a big enough picture, I think boat changes are either good in themselves (along the lines sketched above), or something from which we can learn. In this case, I wish for less personal judgments of particular kinds, and more thinking about the positive possibilities/changes and what variations might bring us closer to them.

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    I wonder whether the parents of a mixed-race couple should keep their child in an opaque whole body stocking in order to fight racist stereotypes. If not, why not ?

    • Simon Rippon says:

      Because it would be constricting, sweaty, and hide a whole load of more important things than the child's skin colour.

    • It would never occur to me to ask a mixed-race couple about the color of their childrens' skin (at least not in the way that most people ask about the gender of new children).

      Suppose I have a friend working in a nation-state where 99% (or any other percent, for that matter) of the people in that nation-state have a different skin color from that of my friend. Suppose I get regular postcards from this friend with brief updates. At some point I keep hearing about times shared with a certain person. Eventually I hear about a marriage/union/commitment and/or a child. At no point would it ever occur to me to ask about this person's skin color (at least not in the way that most people ask about the gender of new children).

      Unfortunately, many people do care about skin color for ignoble and morally objectionable reasons. Unfortunately when many such people ask about skin color, it is a small instance and part of racism that makes all kinds of contributions to big problems of racism more generally.

      Fortunately, many people care about racism and skin color for noble and morally good reasons. I contend that such people do not contribute to racism in any discussions that they have about race and skin color, and that – in many cases – they take small and/or large steps toward more egalitarian social relations as regards race and skin color. Although I have not thought this analogy through here for this context, I wanted to share my quick thoughts on it off the top of my head, for whatever they are worth. For my more immediate (and general and simple) response, see my comment below (currently four comments down, though this may change, marked at June 1, 11:03 PM).

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    As I understand it, the suggestion is that hiding an infant's sex is a way of combatting gender stereotyping.
    The obvious corollary would be to hide skin colour in order to combat racial stereotyping – to reply to your objection, perhaps a dye would be less constricting than a body stocking and not at all sweaty and it would hide nothing whatsoever of any importance, apart perhaps from jaundice (but there are other symptoms to rely on)…
    So why not ?

    • Simon Rippon says:

      I don't know. Why not?

    • I think we have a problem 1) that gender is one of if not the first question asked about a child, and 2) that however innocent this question may appear (for many people, it is not so innocent), the question and the answer to it influence people in all kinds of conscious and unconsciousnes ways that enforce harmful, inegalitarian gender stereotypes. (There is much empirical data to support such a claim.) Rather than thinking of the (potential value of the) suggestion as hiding an infant's sex, I think of it as refusing to engage in harmful practices about focusing on sex and gender in certain ways. The parents seem to be doing one version of this in their own sort of way. There are other ways as well. Why not try (some of?) them out?

      • Basildon man says:

        Very early on in this discussion we were repeatedly warned of the dangers of confusing gender and sex. Personally I've never heard of anyone asking the gender of a new born child, rather they would typically ask "is it a girl or a boy?" i.e. what sex is it? This, for most people is a fairly neutral converstaional opening to be followed as appropriate depending on the reply with something along the lines of " Oh, he's got his father's eyes" or " she's got your nose!" I seriously doubt that many people really care about the sex of someone else's child unless it is part of their family and where there is a family connection, at least in this country, I suspect the only interest in the child's sex is where inherited illness is a factor. I realise that in some societies having a male child is important, but in Britain having a healthy child is surely the priority. I'm not any sort of expert, but it also seems to me that newborn children typically don't display gender, they all look much the same and do the same sort of things, which is probably why the first question is " is it a boy or a girl?" Rather than this being a "not so innocent" question, I think for most people it's a reflection of our discomfort in refering to a person as "it" and our strong preference for "he" or "she".

        • Social conditioning for gender norms begins before many if not most or all babies are born and, in the U.S. at least, certainly as soon as the child is home if the child is coming from somewhere else (hospital, agency, etc.). The conditioning is usually subtle and often unconsciousness until someone sheds light on it (a psychologist publishing a study, etc.). The ways parents and healthcare staff talk to babies, the ways they treat babies, the ways they react to different behaviors of babies, and so on. This is an old (morally objectionable) story, with ample empirical data. Unfortunately, morally objectionable variations on the story continue into adulthood. This differential treatment basically creates/perpetuates and/or enforces the gender stereotypes.

  • Dave Frame says:

    Simon wrote: "I’m not defending "ideological extremists", I’m defending committed *liberals* who happen to disagree with one or more widely held and broadly socially enforced views. I don’t know for sure which category Storm’s parents (or Mill’s) fall into, but I think they could plausibly fall into the latter group. And if they do, you’ve provided no reason at all to think they are doing anything wrong."

    I'm arguing that, ceteris paribus, the decision to home-school or equivalently restrict one's children's peer-group contact, is an illiberal move since it restricts the diversity of opinion and belief to which kids are exposed. My position is that it's quite a high-cost move, in terms of the children's welfare, and in order for it to pass a sort of cost-benefit sniff test it would need to be justified by a big benefit in terms of the value the children get by not being exposed to harmful views. I gave the example of indoctrination into communism as something that would convince me to make that move, since I think it's sufficiently unpleasant that it the benefits of not being indoctrinated into it outweigh the costs of restricting my child's access to his peers.

    But I think the prevailing norms in question would have to be pretty toxic to justify this sort of move, and while I might accept Mill's case as being vaguely plausible, I find it implausible that modern day Toronto's gender norms are sufficiently toxic to justify the decision Storm's parents have made. I don't see any reasonable case for their position, and given the clear costs of the move I think it's probably going to end up harming the kids, which is why I think they've made a bad call. On this basis I find it implausible that they're being good liberals.

    Simon wrote: "I admit that it’s *possible* that some or all gender norms as currently constituted are essential to the wellbeing of our society. But unless you’ve got a good argument that this is actually the case, the view that nobody should interfere with them (which is clearly a view held by many Daily Mail readers) looks like status quo bias."

    I'm all in favour of change where specific gender norms are clearly doing harm. [Social norms restricting women's career opportunities being an example.] But completely de-gendering norms differs from this in its generality. As I said in earlier, it's mistaken to conflate these, or to assume that disagreement with Storm's parents' actions implies commitment to no change at all. I haven't seen anyone here defending the idea that "nobody should interfere with" gendered norms, and I don't think such a strong position is implied by criticism of Storm's parents. I don't think the obvious positions are complete de-genderfication or no change – the most obvious options (to my way of thinking, at least) lie in the middle, in incremental or specific change.

    You ask "Why should we continue to force our remaining gender norms on even the youngest members of our society?" I would say that you haven't shown gender norms generally to be harmful – in fact (above) you accept it's possible that some of them play positive roles in society – so wholesale rejection of them isn't, at least on the arguments you've supplied so far, obviously justified. So one answer to your question could be "Because some of these norms help contribute to the well-being of society."
    Where specific norms are harmful, by all means change them. It's the general rejection I reject.

    • Simon Rippon says:

      Dave, thanks again for the very thoughtful comments. I think we have two significant disagreements:

      1) You seem to think that home-schooling either necessarily, or at least very probably, restricts the diversity of beliefs to which children are exposed, even if it that is not the intention of the home-schoolers. You draw from this the conclusion that home-schoolers must meet a high burden of justification. I see no reason to think that your premise is true. I could surely expose my child at home, through books and other materials, to at least as diverse an array of beliefs as they would come across at school. One reason to think this is that a lot of beliefs are all-but-completely crowded out in the public space by other beliefs that, rightly or wrongly, are very dominant (e.g. the beliefs that it's not wrong for little boys to wear puffy pink dresses, or that all private property is immoral, or that all government is illegitimate). You can't criticize attempts to *expose* children to such beliefs as "ideologically extremist" at the same as celebrating diversity and liberalism. You can only rule out attempts to *indoctrinate* them with such. And home-schooling need not necessarily aim at, nor result in, indoctrination, as far as I can see.

      2) There's a burden of proof issue regarding gender norms. You are in favour of changing them where they are clearly doing harm. I doubt that we can justify upholding social norms, or at least I doubt we can criticize those who seek to demolish them, unless we can show that they are doing some significant good. After all, social norms siginificantly limit the freedom of individuals – and in the case of gender norms and similar, they do so in a discriminatory fashion, applying differently to different individuals according to unchosen demographic characteristics. Prima facie, that would seem to me to require a high burden of proof – perhaps similar to the burden of proof that legitimate laws would have to meet if they required similar things.

      • Dave Frame says:

        I think your diagnosis is pretty accurate.

        (1) I think if the intention of the parents is to shelter their children from the harmful norms of their neighbours, they're perhaps unlikely to be very good at exposing children to a diverse set of beliefs. But you're right that this need not be the case. It's possible that these folks are going to expose the kids to a large range of beliefs which they personally do not hold. But based on the reports I've read, I'd guess that's unlikely. [But that's a guess of course.]

        (2) I think that changing social practices has costs. It's a bit of a hassle to have to re-educate people and re-equip everyone with a new normative vocabulary. The benefits of a change in norms ought to outweigh this adjustment cost. My prior is that change needs justification and that while the status quo needs examination, adjustment costs might be expected to dominate the benefits of many possible changes to society's norms. This expectation is a reflection of my broad satisfaction with the moral status of the society in which I live. It is perhaps a status quo bias, but I don't believe it is irrational; it makes sense if you think the status quo isn't *too* bad and that radical experiments are likely (in general) to lead away from rather than towards a better society.

  • Peter says:

    "How can there be any reasonable dispute over the claim that, because people should be be who and what they want to be, parents may permissibly withhold information about a baby’s sex from others, in order to prevent them treating it according to preconceived gender norms?"

    It must be the sense that the parents are engaging in a psycho-sexual experiment with their child which repulses so many people. On the face of it, the parents' position smacks of extremism, possibly representing the priority of some ideological position over the natural, instinctual care and response common to almost all other caring, loving parents. It is an outlier that may make logical sense to pure reason, but the heart wants to object.

    My grandmother was a simple, loving woman who raised half a dozen children who in turn raised large families and most everyone is successful and happy. It seems unnatural that I would have to bring in a philosopher, and some intellectual experts from the Academy to explain that she should not have told her friends and family what the sex of her children was.

    If nothing else, this reaction seems, if unreasonable, completely understandable.

  • Interested readers might want to check out the post and comments thread linked below from the Feminist Philosophers blog titled:
    The End Of Gender On NPR
    http://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2011/06/23/the-end-of-gender-on-npr/

  • Interested readers might want to check out the post below on "De-gendering vs. de-stereotyping", along with Alva Noë's NPR piece titled, "Gender Is Dead! Long Live Gender!"
    -
    http://www.newappsblog.com/2011/07/de-gendering-vs-de-stereotyping.html

  • Fine's "Delusions of Gender" is certainly around the top of (many) recommended references on these matters. Also fascinating is a recent paper titled, "On the Origins of Gender Roles: Women and the Plough". I provide some relevant links and info at the two links below.

    Gender inequality? Blame it on the plough
    http://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2010/11/27/gender-inequality-index-3/#comment-34339

    Norway’s gender-bending kindergartners
    http://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2010/11/27/gender-inequality-index-3/#comment-34567

    Interested readers might wish to check out the original post and comments thread (from the links above), perhaps especially the comments numbered 17, 20, 28, 31, 43, 46, and 48, for instance.

  • Gender Diversity and Kids: Happiness Matters, not Nail Polish, by Stephanie Brill
    -
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stephanie-brill/gender-diversity-and-kids_b_898250.html

  • Relevant to the gender matters addressed by this post and the comments is the Swedish preschool "Egalia". Interested readers can find some relevant links here:
    -
    http://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2010/11/27/gender-inequality-index-3/#comment-35062

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