To be or not to be a man

When Shakespeare’s Hamlet asks to be or not be it is as part of a drama about the entanglement between politics and personal lived experience.

When we use a categorising word, usually a noun, we imply we know something about what we are speaking of. For example if I were talking about my brother I might say that “he is a man” because I know that through my relationship with him.

However, what it means for my brother to be a man, is another question that I can never fully know as I am not the being I call my brother. To me he is a man, a certain kind of man, a strong and deliberative man, and a man in his relationship to me as my brother.

But, he may also be another kind of man to his son, his mother, his wife, his friends, his colleagues. Or perhaps some of those relationships are not even primarily defined by him being a man or being known as a man.

So, his experience of being himself is one question, or even whether being a man is an important part of who he sees himself as. The collective social construction of all the relationships in which he is known as a man is yet another question. Related and very entangled, yes, but not the same.

My point is to be or not to be something is related to but not the same as being known as something through relationships with others.

In academia we call the study of this difference ontology and epistemology. Ontology is the study of being and epistemology the study and process of knowing.

If I understand correctly, conflating the two is called an epistemic fallacy according to the philosophical tradition of Critical Realism. It is somewhat like confusing a map with the terrain it is helping you navigate. They are intimately related but definitely not the same thing.

Therefore I am not saying we should not categorise things for fear of not getting things absolutely right. That’s impossible. But, we should be aware that important categories and the actions and policies based on them should be used and made in recognition of this distinction.

Because when you categorise something but the slippage of engaging in epistemic fallacy happens, the next thing you know the category is used to imply something ontological about that which has been categorised.

Hence, implying something ontological about a category (essentializing the category) when categories are actually epistemogical means you think the category is intrinsically true and is the same as what is being categorised. Rather than seeing that a category is a negotiated descriptor which tells you something about one dimension of something, but cannot be said to essentially say anything about something. Although crossreferencimg what I know with what others know, from multiple perspectives, is a pretty good effort.

For example, who my brother is as a man is more truly understood through seeing him through all the relationships in which he is a man. Still that is not all of who he necessarily truly is for various reasons e.g. not being able to know all the perspectives, nor having been him. But, its good enough basis on which to say I know him to a significant degree.

The crucial point is not to take me calling him a man to mean that there is a category of ‘man’ outside of time and space which is forever fixed and true and that all men can be defined by it. Not even if I wanted to reduce it just to the one perspective we call biology.

Biology is historical. It ontologically changes over time and space, as well as the study of it (epistemology). If anyone tells you they know the objective truth of what it means to be a man throughout time and space, laugh in their face.

For the sake of communicating and ordering life we use categories. But we should always remember these categories or nouns are not rooted in some essential nature true across time and space. We evolve. We develop and we develop in many diverse ways.

Who and how these categories are negotiated is important. But also learning how to negotiate them. The popular word used for this practice of negotiation is ritual.

But the ritual of negotiating categories can be naturalizing or denaturalizing. Naturalizing categories is akin to objectifying something such as objectifying women through the category of defining what it means to be a woman.

Often this objectification is enforced through the strict disciplining of this category rather than understanding its a core category. Regular rituals aught to be there instead, to remind us that what a woman is, is an agreement, especially important being the voices of those who call themselves women.

The ritual space is there for us to have a regular opportunity to check in and see if woman or any other category is still a relevant category and if so what it means. That is why rituals in some cultures focus on mocking certain figures who possess power vested in the category they are defined by. Or rituals of initiating people into becoming part of a different socially understood category such as a boy becoming a man.

Otherwise we end up with categories being negotiated by abstract administrative rituals (Read Kafka), often paper based, that are technocratic rather than democratic. And technocratic processes pretends to be apolitical but in fact the people conducting them feed off of cultural practices of glorifying certain categories taken to be natural. What we might call rituals of naturalization and objectification.

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