This is the continuation of a conversation about sex and gender prompted by Daniel Walden’s March 2020 article, “Gender, Sex, and Other Nonsense.” Paul Griffiths’s original reply can be found here. Interested in discussing this article in your classroom, parish, reading group, or Commonweal Local Community? Click here for a free discussion guide.
I’m grateful to Paul Griffiths for his close and critical engagement with my essay, and for this opportunity to clarify the arguments I made in it. I’ll begin by addressing his claim that a “Lockean” understanding of identity structures my thinking on these matters—far from it—and then turn to some of the other issues he raises, which I hope will reveal more agreement between us than might be expected.
Though I’m aware writers don’t choose their headlines, I still found it telling that Griffiths’s response was given the (not inaccurate) title “Gender & Identity”—the latter being a word I intentionally avoided. Indeed, the single use of “identity” in my essay was in apposition to “life story,” a term that I think much better captures what happens within and between human beings as we come into a mature understanding of ourselves. This is not the static, abstract “this-ness” connoted by “identity,” but something that emerges from narrative—that is, it comes from our need to talk about subjects who in some ways are in flux and in other ways stable. The narrative of growing into adulthood that I offered is not a narrative of acquisition but of recognition: a person is an adult to the extent that the story they tell about themselves is taken seriously by other people. We listen with a certain amused delight as a child tells us that they intend to grow up to be a spacefaring superhero with ice breath and laser eyes, but we don’t take it seriously. When that child, now grown to maturity, says that they would like us to revise how we talk and think about them, this is something we cannot simply dismiss: we have an obligation to understand them in a way that we didn’t when they spoke as a child. Griffiths treats this as a predictable capitulation to our culture’s false assumptions about self-ownership—and thus, finally, an argument for granting individuals absolute authority to “dispose” of themselves as they see fit. That wasn’t what I was suggesting at all. Instead, I maintain that when we allow people to tell their own stories, we are acknowledging that they should fully participate in defining who they are through, with, and among other people: the way they tell their stories might be contested, but they can no longer be effaced or spoken over.