“What man has joined, nature is powerless to put asunder” Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Huxley’s brilliant 1932 novel describes a dystopian future in which Controllers systematically programme children to engender a pre-assigned social designation. In one well-known passage, babies are given bowls of flower petals and books to play with. Their enjoyment is shattered as piercing shrieks and electric shocks are administered, leaving them with a lifelong aversion to learning and to nature. The Controllers are thus able to effectively indoctrinate them as to their correct place in society.
The message of the novel is not particularly cryptic. Imagine a world where our natural inclinations to explore, to discover, and to be fundamentally free, are curbed in the name of societal betterment. The adults of the brave new world are free, in a sense, to pursue hedonistic desires – so long as they don’t start questioning the status quo of the regime. Brave New World is a kind of fictitious case study in the enormous threat that social engineering could pose to society.
As the question of gender and child development seems to become a defining issue of our time, we see regular reports and television programmes purveying a notion that by speaking to, dressing, interacting with and entertaining our children in certain ways, we are being prescriptive about their gender identity, and that that is wrong.
This assumption, while fundamentally problematic, has a couple of qualifiers. Firstly, there is a wealth of evidence that girls are far less likely to pursue STEM related careers than boys, whose ride-on fire trucks and toy work benches, early on, might be somewhat more conducive to STEM skillsets. Secondly, many children thrive in, and are very good at, roles which deviate from a traditional boy-girl behavioural paradigm – ballet dancing boys and girl drummers are standard examples. A consensus is emerging that preventing children from pursuing careers and hobbies on the basis of gendered suitability is limiting, arbitrary and old fashioned. Social attitudes have largely shifted, and I imagine that most parents would say that they let their kids play with toys at their own leisure. I am one such parent; in accordance with social diktat, I gave my two sons (2 and 3) free reign of toys, consciously not dissuading them from playing with dolls or prams. Still, our house is littered with toy bricks, trains and cars. That’s consumer choice for you I guess.
However, much of the social experimentation being promulgated in the media to address developmental ‘gender imbalance’ is not about letting kids be kids, free to play with the toys they choose. In fact, it inverts the very thing it is trying to oppose, by banning certain toys, pronouns, and descriptive language deemed to entrench damaging gender assumptions. The BBC’s recent documentary No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? sees Doctor Javid Abdelmoneim purge a classroom environment of any reference to differences between genders (except signs reading, “boys are sensitive”; “girls are strong”). Boys and girls toys were removed, as were colours of pink and blue (as though their removal implies a disparity in the way we might value, say, a police officer and a nurse). The experiment seeks to reverse asymmetrical development between boys and girls in areas of self-confidence, emotional intelligence and spatial awareness, on the premise that “there is no such thing as a male or female brain type…the brain is a plastic organ, shaped and moulded by experiences” (BBC).
The problem is, this premise holds that environmental factors are essentially meaningless, or at least that there could feasibly be a level of gender abstraction when it comes to raising a child. The fact is that, no, there can’t. Not unless you issue a press release on behalf of your own unfortunate kid declaring that their biological sex will be obscured until the child decides for themselves whether they identify as a boy or a girl. Or as something else altogether. Today, more children than ever are seeking gender identity treatment, with the number of children referred to the Tavistock clinic doubling between 2015 and 2016. Gender identity politics has muddied the issue to such an extent that it is unclear as to whether this trend is regrettable, or something to celebrate (as more children break through imagined gendered boundaries). Meanwhile, the poor kid in the middle lives with the bewilderment that this unscientific – even nihilistic – view of gender breeds.
And there is something distinctly un-(even anti)scientific about gender identity politics. Don’t worry about XX/XY sex chromosomes, which can literally be observed in a laboratory. It is unhelpful and detracts from a distinctly political agenda. I remember my shock in a sociology seminar at university when I first encountered the proposition that there were, in fact, 27 different genders. Not that gender is a social construction, and thus can be done away with altogether; that would at least make a scintilla of sense. Some girls prefer camo shorts and cropped hair – regardless, by the way, of who they would rather marry once they’re old enough to worry about that kind of thing – so yes, dress is essentially arbitrary. But if ‘gender’ by definition is a manifestation of social expectations about presentation, why not just disregard the very concept? Why expand the list from two to 27? Incidentally, what if I don’t identify with any one of the 27? Can we add another one to the list?
This is in no way a comment on the immensely complex experience of kids who feel fundamentally detached from their biological sex. I am not qualified to do so (my good friend is). My point is this: wholesale rejection of very basic, scientific ideas about boys and girls in order to combat traditional social constructions is throwing the genderless baby out with the proverbial bath water. Aldous Huxley imagined a world where, in an effort to control outcomes, freedom of natural development, of interaction with ideas and with your environment, and the freedom to question or challenge teaching, were decisively shut down. Thank Ford it hasn’t come to that yet.* Still, I’m not sure whether I need to start worrying a little about the direction of travel. Please leave the kids alone.
*Read the book. It’s really good.