“Essentialist!” I see that word thrown around in conversations about gender like it automatically ends a discussion. But why? I would think that just being essentialist doesn’t automatically mean you are wrong. Don’t you have to show that something is both essentialist and wrong? Nevertheless, there are good reasons to be suspicions of essentialist claims. This is because they are very frequently ideological .
I’m using “ideology” here in the specific way I think Marxists usually use it, and I welcome any corrections or refinements from Marxists in the comments. I know at least one of you is out there. In the Marxist sense, ideology is a set of claims promulgated mostly by dominant social classes to justify existing political and social conditions.
Plato was the first thinker I know of who was hip to this sense of ideology, even though the word would not be coined until the French Revolution. In the Republic Plato says that any complex and socially stratified state needs a myth, a “noble lie” in his words, to justify the existing social order and make the lower classes content with their lot. The imaginary ideal state in the Republic is based on the Myth of the Metals, the notion that different people are born with different internal natures of differing value and utility just as types of metals are different. This is an essentialist claim, and I think all ideologies are essentialist.
I have to give some credit to Plato here because he thought that the upper classes shouldn’t actually believe their ideology. The ideal state will function best if the Guardians, the uppermost class in the Republic, maintain a degree of social mobility. Members of the Brass and Iron class should have a chance to move up, and should even be actively promoted upwards by the Guardians on occasion. And the Guardians should also make the hard choice to demote one of their own when needed. This can happen only if the upper classes know their myth is untrue. This is in sharp contrast to Aristotle who seems really believed that there were natural slaves and leaders.
For a long time in the West the most important ideological claims have been justified by appeal to religion. The Divine Right of Kings was based on a passage from St. Paul. I think Paul was simply saying to early Christians “Don’t be rebels, that hasn’t worked well for us.” but Kings in the Feudal era took Paul to be saying much more than that. Oppressive gender roles have also been justified with religious appeals. Adam was created first, Eve was created partly from him as a helper. But what kind of help could Eve provide that a hypothetical Steve could not? Reproduction! Then that must be what women are for.
Divine Right was eventually disproven by Charles I’s neck, though people still tried to argue that rebellion against the state was rebellion against God. Science was becoming a new source of authority at the time. We got Hobbes making a new kind of argument, one that followed the form of the scientific writing. For him, rebellion against the state was rebellion against nature properly understood.
Much of what was once justified by religious ideology started also being justified by scientific-seeming ideologies during the Enlightenment. The old religious ideologies never really went away, but they have since been joined by scientific sexism and classism. Racism too, since the Enlightenment was an era of slavery and colonialism. There had been no need for any racist ideology in the West before that.
I am sure we can all think of suspect essentialist scientific claims that serve as justifications for the social order we grew up in. When I was a kid much was made of the fact that the hemispheres of the brain were more densely connected in women than men. Some people still talk about this, though others have located the ladybrain elsewhere. Evolutionary psychology is also a quite productive field of nonsense. Scientific racism has become more respectable in certain circles.
So in summary I think the real problem with essentialism is that it has a bad history through its connection with ideology. There’s no reason a claim is wrong just because it is essentialist. And in fact, much of the time I find that people argue that a claim is both essentialist and wrong. At least that’s when I think people are making sense. Sometimes though, people just scram “essentialist” as if that ends discussion. I don’t think that makes sense.
I have a feeling I will have to come back to this.
BONUS FUN LINK: Here’s a man who believes in the Divine Right of Senators when he was a much more honest man.