On Essentialism

Here is an analogical scene I came up with the other day when reflecting on essentialism…

Sarah hung up her cellphone, turned to Simon, “Well”, she said, “that was an interesting conversation with my Mom”.

“Has she been by?”, replied Simon, “I didn’t see her here.”

“No, I was having a telephone conversation, surely you were aware of that”, she replied.

Simon rolled his eyes, and patiently explained, “Well, you can try to call a telephone conversation a conversation if you like, but it is hardly a real conversation. Real conversations have eye contact; in fact eye contact provides vital conversational cues about turn taking, interest and so on—a telephone conversation has no eye contact at all. Real conversations require physical proximity, you can hardly have a conversation with someone who is standing several yards away. And real conversations allow those who are in earshot to observe the conversation and join in; for telephone conversations there is no real concept of earshot, since someone near you only hears half of the conversation.  Real conversations are transmitted through the air as sound waves, they do not need to be facilitated by technological means. I could go on, but you get my point. You can try call it a conversation, but I call it merely making utterances into an audio device and hearing the noises that it makes.”

“But we exchange words, that must count for something?”

“Words? You think a conversation is about words?”, answered Simon angrily, “You know nothing about communication. Some of the most profound things are communicated without a single word being spoken. A glance, a half smile, these can say more than a thousand words.”

“I agree with you that a telephone conversation doesn’t have some things that other conversations have, but I still think it’s a real conversation.”

“You’re an idiot!” said Simon, “Call me when you want to apologize!” and stormed off.

I hope you’ll agree that it is Simon who is the idiot here with his essentialist view of what a real conversation is. Yet when it comes to issues of identity, some people still seem to have problems avoiding taking an essentialist stance (instead of a more constructionist one, which might be saner). Maybe someone should sit them down, and have a little conversation. Alas, I fear that those conversations work best in person.

2 comments so far

  1. Quinnae Moongazer on

    >“Call me when you want to apologize!” and stormed off.

    That made the entire story. ::chuckles::

    Nicely done. Would that I had your talent for brevity. I’ve read a great many things about what causes people to be trans and there are quite a few conflicting theories as you well know. They’re compelling, and the peerless Zoe Brain has done a fine job cataloguing biological research related to both trans and intersex issues.

    But as I often say, whatever theory turns out to be correct I can only say what I feel; that there’s a certain rightness about this that has helped me feel both more alive and more confident. The ability to articulate the precise reasons may elude me for now, but the results are there to be seen.

    Even the purported essentialism of many people doesn’t really make sense. Simon at least has a tortured sort of logic to his hypothetical disdain for telephony; many gender essentialists genuinely don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re not really sex/gender essentialists so much as they’re genital essentialists which is based on a deeply flawed and very reductionist reading of biology. They tend to be pretty impossible to move on this subject, alas.

    • Nebulous Persona on

      I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      Regarding brevity, in retrospect, it might be a bit too brief/oblique; I’d imagine some people would have preferred me to spell out just where I see the problematic essentialism occurring.


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