Analysis by Keith Rankin.
Whoever would have predicted that the definition of ‘male’ and ‘female’ could ever become a matter of contention? My professional life has been in political economy, which includes social science and humanities: philosophy, economics, history, statistics, demography, and geography. Demography in particular, requires a biological definition.
The objective science of sex is simple, and genetic. Males have a Y-sex-chromosome as well as an X-sex-chromosome; females instead have two X-sex-chromosomes. To get around the fact that some people want to play-down this observation, commentators and politicians often refer to sex as ‘biological sex’ or ‘sex assigned at birth’. Some organisations refer to ‘gender’ when they mean ‘sex’. Statistics New Zealand doesn’t have any of these problems; for example, the first set of data in the New Zealand cohort life tables: March 2023 update is simply labelled ‘Estimated births, deaths, net migration by sex‘.
Confusion exists because there is a different concept, ‘gender’, which also uses male-female categorisation. When it is necessary to avoid confusion, a person’s sex may be characterised as their ‘genetic sex’ (or ‘reproductive sex’) rather than their biological sex; this is because ‘gender’ may also have a biological basis, and some people whose gender differs from their sex may gave gained this gender variation at conception, in the womb before birth, or even in the birth process itself.
Gender differs from sex in that it is subjective. A sense of divergent identity from within may arise from any mix of biological or cultural influences. On the biological side, possible influences include aspects of the species genome other than the Y-chromosome, environmental influences within the mother’s uterus, and the birth process itself (eg caesarean birth versus natural birth). Endocrinological and neurological variation can occur before, during, or after birth. One important driver of this gender variability is most likely the microbiome: the changing bacteria and other microbes which inhabit especially the gut, the brain, and the birth canal.
Unlike sex, a binary concept, gender is a spectral concept. And gender is not fixed for all time, it’s fluid. The microbiome is mutable; cultural memes amplify, deamplify and reamplify over time.
It seems to me that a good way for demographers to document gender is through a scale from one to nine. One through to three could be characterised as ‘female gender’, four-to-six as ‘non-binary gender’, and seven-to-nine as ‘male gender’. So a somewhat ‘macho’ male might be described as ‘male sex, male (9) gender. And some ‘trans’ women might be best described as ‘male sex, female (3) gender. For short, for data-coding purposes, these two example people could be listed as ‘m9’ and ‘m3’. F1 through to f3 would translate to ‘cis-female’ in the jargon now used by many as gender identifiers. The mere use of this new jargon is of itself a cultural self-identifier.
It is important to note that the prefixes ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ do indicate that the gender-diverse community does in fact make the distinction between sex and gender, and therefore does not fully deny the reality of genetic sex; the issue is deemphasis, not denial. The issue that impassions that community seems to be to render the concept of sex as unimportant, even unnecessary. But, in the sciences of biology, demography and epidemiology, sex can never be redundant.
The ‘bread and butter’ of demography is reproduction, migration and death. In this context, ‘age’ and ‘location’ are the most important statistical characteristics of people.
‘Sex’ is in the next tranche of important demographic variables, because genetic sex is an important determinant of the reproduction of populations. Sex should be an easy identifier, because sex is an objective attribute; a person’s genetic sex is a matter of observation, just as whether a person has died is a matter of observation.
Another second-tranche demographic variable is ‘ethnicity’, although to be objective it needs to be ‘ancestry’, and ancestry is often not fully-known. (Many people not know who both of their biological parents are, let-alone their great grand-parents; some people do not know that they do not know this information.) In early United States censuses, the description of a person as ‘black’ or ‘white’ was regarded as central to their demographic identity as whether they were male or female. There certainly is an argument, nowadays with most people having multiple ethnicities of different proportions, that ethnicity should be treated as a subjective ‘third-tranche’ demographic variable. Likewise, religion. (The counterargument is that people who are substantially of a single ethnicity, or who were born into particular religions, do have life outcomes – maybe health outcomes or culturally-determined food choices – which reflect in part the ethnic genetics or religious faiths of their parents.) The important thing is that persons’ designated ancestries or religions should never become the basis for differences in their democratic rights. Demographic attributes should be kept separate from democratic attributes (with the exception of the designation of a young person as a ‘minor’).
Gender, a subjective attribute, distinct from sex, may nevertheless be important in a number of social studies. From a demographic viewpoint, gender may be classed as a third-tranche variable. It may be an interesting scientific question to compare and contrast the life experiences of genetic females (ie people without a Y-chromosome) who are gender-female, gender male, or gender non-binary. Likewise, the gender-diverse life-outcomes of genetic males.
Demography is a very important, though underappreciated, social science; a sibling discipline to epidemiology, and also to human geography. Optimal public health outcomes depend on good-quality demographic research. (Demography provides the all-important denominators needed to make sense of public health data.) Further, like all social-science disciplines, demography is intrinsically historical. Demography is closely intertwined with the disciplines of economic history and economics.
Sex or gender are widely used in identity documents; too widely, perhaps. For important demographic purposes, sex is necessary in birth certificates, death certificates, and documents used for travelling between countries (especially passports, now the basis for statistics of international migration). Demographers need to know the age and sex distributions of countries’ populations to be able to make population projections. (I congratulate Statistics New Zealand for well-crafted questions on sex and gender in the recent 2023 New Zealand census.)
Additionally, some kind of reliable documentation should be available for persons using spaces which are reserved for specific demographic subgroups. (We should note that women should not be too precious about ‘their spaces’. Those of us old enough remember the racially segregated toilets that used to exist in South Africa and parts of the USA; many white women and white men did not like their spaces to be transgressed by black women and men. Nevertheless, there is no argument at present for the removal of remaining reserved spaces.)
Does a person need to declare their sex or gender if, say, buying a flight ticket, or enrolling at an educational establishment? (How do the recipients of this information use it? Do they use it?) Sex may be useful on a document used to determine entry into restricted spaces. It may be worthwhile to have a bespoke identity document – a voluntary document – that helps people who need to inform others of their sex, gender or age.
The gender-diverse community wishes to play down excessive gendering in our administrative lives, and, for the most part, prefers to have access to unisex toilets rather than have to use sex-exclusive facilities. (Ask any parent with a young child of the ‘opposite’ sex about gauntlets they have had to run re public toilets. Unisex toilets, much more common today than last century, represent commonsense progress.) If, when buying an airline ticket, does the airline really want to know a person’s sex or gender? Yes, maybe; knowledge of their passengers’ sexes (but not genders) could help an airline to estimate the take-off weight of an aircraft.
Finally, in this section on documentation, we probably should not be using birth documents as general identity documents. While a passport should refer to birth documentation (which should designate ‘sex’), I see no reason why other identification documents – eg documents used by banks – need such information. Thankfully, we do not require a person’s ‘race’ on a drivers’ licence or an airline ticket.
Cultural Wars I
In noting that ‘gender’ is very much a subjective attribute of people (and not only people), that is not saying there are no biological aspects to gender. Nevertheless, to use modern parlance, the confrontations about sex and gender which we are seeing at present are taking place very much in the human ‘cultural space’.
I was intrigued to read Bryce Edwards’ The ugly stoking of a culture war in election year(Evening Report and others, 27 march 2023). It’s a good non-partisan piece of writing. I was intrigued to see that an academic source to whom Edwards referred was a lawyer called Thomas Cranmer.
Much of my time this year has been spent in reading about the historical origins of modernity. It turns out that the culture wars of the sixteenth century in Europe – otherwise known as the protestant Reformation and the catholic Counterreformation – represent central events that created the global modernity which (for worse and for better) we now take for granted today.
The first true battles of that culture war took place in Tudor England, in particular in the years 1547 and 1558, during the short reigns of the young King Edward VI and then his older sister Queen Mary. (In the kinds of dramas about the Tudor period seen on television and in the movies, this critical and difficult period is rarely touched on. Instead we see various reruns of the 1530s’ story about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and, in the later Tudor period, about the contested lives of Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots.)
A central figure of the mid-sixteenth century cultural war in England was the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. In New Zealand, his role in that cultural war is commemorated through the name of Cranmer Square in Christchurch, alongside that of another protestant martyr, Hugh Latimer, who is commemorated in the same city through Latimer Square. This cultural conflict, ostensibly a war of religion but really about much more, lasted a very long time. (Port Chalmers in Otago is named after Thomas Chalmers, a central figure in the Scottish religious schism in the 1840s.) In my historical judgement, this particularly nasty war only ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement in Belfast, Northern Ireland. If we start with Martin Luther in 1517 and end in 1998, we may call this the 481-years-war.
(And a piece of historical trivia that does foreshadow the events in England from the 1530s to the 1550s. So many of the prominent people in England in those days had the given name ‘Thomas’. This is because it became fashionable from the 1470s and 1480s to undertake pilgrimages to the then magnificent shrine of Thomas Becket, archbishop and martyr, who was killed in 1170 at the behest of King Henry II. See the reference to this in Chris Trotter assesses what happened on Saturday at Auckland’s Albert Park and what it means, interest.co.nz, 27 March 2023. Becket won fame for standing up to his king, speaking for the separation of church and state as institutions of authority. Indeed, a number of the later Thomases also met their ends through displeasing their monarchs. It’s too late to visit the shrine of St Thomas of Canterbury; King Henry VIII looted it to destruction in 1538.)
It is also important to note that the culture war referred to here peaked in Europe in the period from the 1560s to the 1640s; the military component being the ‘Eighty Years War’ between the Spanish Empire and the ‘rebels’ of the Dutch United Provinces (the forerunner of the modern Netherlands), with the last part of the Eighty Years War also being the descent into near-perpetual violence in central Europe known as the Thirty Years War.
While the Reformation is correctly attributed, more than anyone else, to Marty Luther from 1517, the most important figure in the ensuing culture war was Jean Calvin (cis-male), in Geneva, whose principal publication was in 1539 (the second edition of Institutes of the Christian Religion). Calvin’s disciples became evangelists for his more direct and more strident protestant variant of Christianity, becoming a direct and immediate threat to the established (Catholic) Church as well as to the Lutheran reforms. Much of the British ‘intelligentsia’ quickly became attracted to Calvin’s message. But they had to bide their time as King Henry’s administration of the Church in England became very conservative in his last years.
The evangelicals got their chance when the nine-year-old King Edward ascended the throne. They ‘came out’ and basically ran the country. The rhetorical wars commenced and much of the language was inflammatory and belligerent. The Pope who had hitherto been the leader of the Church was now routinely lambasted as the Anti-Christ, the Devil if you will, and Catholics were rhetorically condemned as ‘papists’. (The result was the creation of a climate of rumour whereby the Devil could be anywhere and in any disguise.)
Much of the conservative Establishment bit their tongues and bid their time. Many clerics had been able to go along with King Henry’s sacrilege of the Church’s property (and many of its clergy) so long as the overall doctrine remained substantially unchanged. Others of the Henrician establishment – mainly the ones who would have been seen as ‘progressive’ but who did not naturally take to belligerence – merged into the world of the radicals after 1547. Thomas Cranmer was prominent among this decreasingly ‘moderate’ group. He wrote the new Church prayerbook to fit the new prevailing culture.
Everything changed again when Edward died, aged 15, in 1553. With no male contenders for the throne, the Edwardine radicals tried to install a cousin – Jane Grey – as Queen. But the peasants – the ordinary folk – would have none of that; and for the most part the people were unconcerned about the escalating culture war. They knew very well that the next in line for the throne was Edward’s older half-sister Mary; they wanted their country’s leaders to abide by the rules (of succession), even when those rules were inconvenient. Basically, 1553 was a case of coup and counter-coup. Jane Grey’s key supporters were dispatched by her opponents, and soon enough she was executed too.
Mary was what we might call a ‘cultural conservative’ and she surrounded herself with those former establishment conservatives who had been biding their time. With the ensuing reinstatement of the ‘Heresy Laws’, things heated up, literally. I will say no more, other than to note that Thomas Cranmer (Archbishop of Canterbury) became the most renowned victim of this Marian prelude to the Counterreformation. There were many other evangelicals, artisans as well as intellectuals, who chose to die; rather than rejoin the catholic Church, rather than breaking with what they understood as their direct relationship with God. Passions prevailed over pragmatism.
Queen Mary and the ensuing Archbishop of Canterbury (Reginal Pole) both died on 17 November 1558, victims of a pandemic that had all the hallmarks of a coronavirus much like the Covid19 virus. The culture war in England subsequently defused, under the new Elizabethan administration. That defusal in England was facilitated by the self-exile of culture radicals and counter-radicals to Europe, especially to the lands we now call Belgium. And it was there in the 1560s that the religious massacres in Europe really got underway.
Culture Wars 2
I tell the above story as a cautionary warning about how matters can escalate in a culture war when the participants are intentionally inflammatory, belligerent, provocative, and intolerant of people who see certain issues differently. And for too many of the people who could be debating the issues to be intimidated into silence instead. Inflammatory speech, which overlaps with the contemporary concept of ‘hate-speech’, is a form of violence that can have profound consequences. (In the Nazi context, an important consequence was the Holocaust.) Inflammatory speech includes comments – especially comments about groups of people – that are true, but which are said for the purposes of initiating or exacerbating a cultural conflict.
The principal issue in today’s culture war, as I see it, is the determination of a small group of people to eradicate the demographic concept of sex – of genetic sex, of XY sex – as an identity marker.
The most poignant moment that I saw in the television coverage of the events in Auckland on Saturday (refer to Bryce Edwards and Chris Trotter above) was of an older (though not elderly) woman – probably dismissed by the cultural radicals as a TERF – with a placard which simply read:
- XX = female
- XY = male
Completely and incontestably true. The foundation facts of reproductive biology. And not in any way inflammatory.
Yet this placard-holder was crowded out, disrespectfully, by others a generation-and-a-half younger than her. Few people with access to the news media that most people see or hear have spoken-up to support her message. “Bad things happen when good people remain silent.”
And to those who unknowingly or knowingly aggravate the problems which they claim to be addressing, remember the first law of holes: ‘Stop digging’. Like other wars, culture wars drag on because few protagonists of these conflicts have a vision for what success actually looks like. If you must instigate or perpetuate a culture war, then please at least lay out your vision of your utopia. In particular, how should your cultural enemies live and behave? Should your cultural enemies live?
Keith Rankin (keith at rankin dot nz), trained as an economic historian, is a retired lecturer in Economics and Statistics. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.