I do not know Jen Ivers ’10, still less do I bear her any ill-will, and I am comfortably committed to the principle that the sexual lives of others are none of my business. There’s nothing remarkable about a woman who flouts traditional notions of gender on a campus where masculine women and effeminate men are too common for comment. This is Yale, after all; the gender-transgressive we will always have with us.
Nonetheless, I can’t help but find it disturbing that Ivers will probably be the next Mr. Yale. She’s unlikely to lose, in a world where transgression of gender norms is very much in style, and where people have a pleasantly democratic confidence in their ability to send a message with their vote.
But why should we worry? It’s not as though there are any serious masculine values of the Mr. Yale competition that would be endangered by a female champion. In recent years, the contest hasn’t exactly been a carnival of machismo, and it’s been none the worse for that. In fact, Iver’s half-jocular suggestion that the competition be renamed “Captain Yale” deserves to be taken seriously. Talent and charm are found in men and women alike — and Yale is lucky to have plenty of talented and charming people of both sexes. A gender-neutral competition deserves a gender-neutral name.
And were the contest to change its name, I imagine everyone would drop their objections to a female contest winner. They’d be right to. But unless there were such a rectification of names, they’d be equally right to be offended by the notion of a female Mr. Yale. It’s a mere question of semantics — and that’s the farthest thing from a trivial matter.
Ludwig Wittgenstein’s quip that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world” comes far too quickly to the lips of undergraduates who want to sound clever — but it’s completely correct. The words we have determine what arguments we can make and what counter-arguments we can imagine. And so a question about our terms for the sexes is inevitably a question about human nature.
The argument is sometimes raised, usually by the more aesthetic sort of right-winger, that our traditional ways of speaking about the sexes are worth preserving if only for the cultural and literary traditions to which they give access. It’s not a bad argument, as far as it goes. Some of the greatest characters of our tradition — Odysseus and Penelope, Abelard and Heloise, and even Romeo and Juliet — come from a world secure in its belief that men and women were and should be essentially different, a world in which the problems we associate with gender norms could not arise in a way we would recognize. Their language was different from ours, and so, therefore, was their world, and we lose some of our ability to understand them if we do not share that world.
If we represent a new, epicene humanity for whom the distinctions of sex are merely accidental, we can never understand those essentially gendered figures of our past without the interposition of a kind of critical anthropological distance. They become almost a different species, a subject to be studied — at any rate, they’re not us.
But that sacrifice, that loss of commonality with those bygone figures, may well be necessary. Few people, anyway, are willing to defend gender norms just for the sake of the culture they make possible. And, looking around at the world, those gender norms can be hard to find. One doesn’t have to be a disciple of Alfred Kinsey to notice that masculinity and femininity are matters of degree, and that the binary language of male and female hardly does justice to the plurality of personalities we encounter.
And so, if we live in a world in which gender identities are fluid, in which manly women and womanly men are par for the course, shouldn’t our language reflect that? Why not have a female Mr. Yale, and adjust the limits of our language to better fit the limits of our world?
Plenty of people would argue for exactly that, and theirs is a consistent and well-precedented position. We believe in the dignity of the individual — why force people to understand themselves in terms of norms they never agreed to? As Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy put it, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life.” People have the right to determine their own selves, and the presence or absence of a Y-chromosome is not enough to oblige someone to conform to any set of gender stereotypes.
That’s a fine position, and within the limits of our language, I can think of no good argument against it. But there is another position, also consistent and also well-precedented, that holds much more appeal for me, and for many Yalies who cringe a bit at the idea of a woman as Mr. Yale. This position argues that the human species is naturally divided by sex, that everyone who has come into the world has come into a world in which the concepts of “male” and “female” already had their separate meanings. It is “in the beginning” that “male and female created he them.” And whatever the ethical implications of this division of sex may be, however inchoate and porous may be the categories of gender, the sexes are not interchangeable. From the first moment of our lives, from the announcement of “It’s a boy,” or “It’s a girl,” this distinction already frames the world we live in. And we should not be surprised if the limits of our world are also the limits of our language.
That’s my position, and so I maintain that the Yale College Council was right in its original decision to prohibit Ivers or any other woman from competing for the title of Mr. Yale, and that their subsequent decision was a conceptual and linguistic sin. One of the limits of my world is the almost inarticulable assumption that a man is a man, and a woman and a woman, and that the two are not be confused. To someone with a differently-limited world, and therefore a different language, I would have very little to say. But there’s a clichéd Wittgenstein quote for that, too: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
Kevin Gallagher is a junior in Pierson College.