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Zhuangzi, Language & Gender

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein asks what Daoist sages might have thought about PC.

Political Correctness attempts to discourage expressions or actions that might offend or marginalize certain groups of people. The aim of those who promote it is to spread justice and fairness by making the public sensitive towards vulnerable parts of the population. Coined in the 1980s as an ironic self-criticism of leftists, the term ‘politically correct’ was swiftly appropriated by other political groups. It would also generate much criticism. It means different things to different people and clearly covers a multitude of sins (or virtues?). Efforts to reform language, especially that concerning race, gender, and sexual orientation, are seen as quintessentially PC. The idea of ‘inclusive language’ has become an important part of Western culture.The belief is that altering language-use will change people’s perception of social reality, and, finally, change social reality itself. Among its more recent manifestations are quite widely adopted changes in the use of personal pronouns and gender terms.

Zhuangzi a.k.a. Chuang-Tzu

The list of discouraged ‘non-PC’ words is long and depends on the exact ideology of the person or group you ask, but I want to concentrate here on how this all relates to gender. I believe that a critical reading of PC gender language through Daoist philosophy can be most enlightening. Many transgender or gender-nonbinary people use pronouns different from the ones they were assigned at birth, including ‘they’ in the singular or ‘zhe’ and ‘zher’. Entirely new gender terms have had to be created to match gender language with gender usage. In 2016, the State of New York issued a list of thirty-one ‘protected genders’, among which were the terms ‘gender fluid’ and ‘gender gifted’, and not only ‘bi-gendered’ and ‘cross-dresser’ but also ‘pan-gender’ and ‘androgyne’. ‘Gender fluid’ means a gender that fluctuates (controlled or uncontrolled) between the other genders, while ‘gender gifted’ refers to a person who does not actually fluctuate but has the mental capacity to do so.

There is a spirit abroad in the modern world calling for certain old words to be avoided, and new words to be coined, in order to improve human behavior. The ultimate objective of this reform is to make language match an ideal reality. The sociologist Stuart Hall has called this approach ‘extreme nominalism’ because to him PC seems to assume that ‘if things are called by a different name they will cease to exist’ (‘Some “Politically Incorrect” Pathways through PC’, in The War of the Words: The Political Correctness Debate, ed. Sarah Dunant, 1994).

Culture Wars in Ancient China

For another perspective on all this, let’s pay a visit to ancient China. Zhuangzi (also written Chuang Tzu), a philosopher who lived in the fourth century BC, was a pivotal figure in the development of Daoism and main author of one of its central texts. He was a language skeptic, which means that he didn’t believe language could convey the ultimate truth of the world. In this he opposed Confucian thinkers such as Xunzi who had a vast ‘correction of names’ project, because Confucius himself had argued that “if names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things” (Analects, Book XIII, Ch 3), adding that “If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.” Early Confucian texts such as the Analects and the Mencius highlight the necessity of making social roles (that is, titles or names) correspond with their enactment. So in state affairs, the first thing to do is to ‘correct terms’ because otherwise ‘speech will not follow’ and ‘affairs will not be accomplished’. However, for Zhuangzi, ‘names are arbitrary’. For Zhuangzi specifically, human reason sets limits upon everything, and the mind attributes enduring essences to things so that our will can establish something solid around us. Through language, the mind constructs a reality, but this is not ‘real’ reality, but the mind’s version of it. Zhuangzi did not believe that language could ever fully convey the world. Here Daoism is opposed to the orthodoxy not only of Confucius, but of the Mohists, Xunzi, as well as some other Chinese philosophers who require clear standards for the use of names.

The School of Names, or School of Logicians, are traditional labels for one group of thinkers who concentrated on the analysis of language. It became notorious for logic-chopping and the invention of paradoxes. Huizi (Hui Shi), the most prominent representative of this group was also, oddly enough, a great friend of Zhuangzi and many arguments between the two have become famous in the history of Chinese philosophy. Huizi saw logic as an investigation of the underlying structure of reality. His approach was in some ways related to that of the Mohists, a group with paramilitary leanings who advised local rulers on how to defend themselves against sieges by invaders. Although Mohism was more opposed to Confucianism than any other philosophical school, Mohists took the reform of language the furthest, and wanted to classify word uses to regularize the way that terms are used in everyday speech. In later Mohist writings, great effort was made to assign precise and unambiguous definitions to words, and technical vocabulary was devised to clarify grammatical and logical features of language. When ambiguity could not be eradicated from ordinary terms, new words were coined.

All these groups wanted clear standards for the use of names to avoid chaos. Against this, Zhuangzi comes across as a linguistic liberal. Chris Joachim said that Zhuangzi “stands out among thinkers, Chinese and Western, for his positive appreciation of chaos” (Wandering at Ease in Zhuangzi, edited by Roger Ames, 2016). This doesn’t mean Zhuangzi thinks that chaos is best. He does indeed suggest a ‘chaotification’ of reality, but only of reality’s linguistic aspect, which will lead to a better appreciation of the nature of reality beyond language. Linguistic liberalism itself does not generate disorder.

Zhuangzi further holds that fixed language standards are, first, unattainable, and second, unnecessary or even bad for communication. Names are dynamic, as the existence of nicknames demonstrates. Daoism also criticizes what it perceives as excessive scholasticism, and recommends “to educate the spontaneous energies rather than use [the mind] to think, name, categorize and conceive ends and principles of action” (Chuang-Tzu: The Inner Chapters, trans. A.C. Graham, 2001).

In ancient Chinese philosophy everyone believes in the Dao, the flow of Nature. Confucians believe that within this flow certain essences can be marked off from others and from the rest of the world and given names. They created an elaborate system of moral values based on tradition and familial relationships. Against this, on a Daoist view existence is a process through which life manifests itself as it unfolds, and rules, systems, names, and pronouns cannot grasp this reality. This does not mean that everything is relative because nothing is fixed, and nothing can be spelled out. Daoism does not abandon all standards, but the Daoist sage simply finds that the real world is not a system of rules with permanent correct linguistic distinctions. Daoism criticizes those who believe, as the Logicians do, that the correct matching of names and things leads to knowledge, and that the relations of ‘same’ and ‘different’ determine what is real and right.

Does Zhuangzi’s position on language reflect some of the criticisms of modern-day Political Correctness? Critics such as John Lea believe that the purpose of Political Correctness is “to induce correct opinion rather than to search for wisdom and liberate the mind” (Political Correctness and Higher Education, 2008). More radically, Doris Lessing wrote that, just like Communism, it “debase[s] language and, with language, thought” (‘Political Correctness’, New York Times, June 22, 1992). In recent decades Western philosophy has been obsessed with the power of language. The idea has been widespread that when language fails to represent the world adequately it should be reformed. Political Correctness follows this tendency by arguing that false essences perpetuate error and injustice, and need to be corrected by modifying language. One Daoist criticism of PC might be that it invents new terms not in order to overcome essentialist thinking, but rather to create new essences. PC does want to overturn our existing linguistic preconceptions about reality, and here it certainly resembles Daoism. However, by concentrating on language, PC merely creates a new reality. It still attempts to grasp this dynamic world by means of language. From a Daoist point of view, although the PC mind passes judgments that go beyond traditional distinctions, it cannot imagine that reality could be different from anything the linguistic mind can grasp.

PC activists don’t necessarily say that the new terms they introduce and advocate are reality. Still, they suppose their language to accurately reflect the reality that lies behind it. For Zhuangzi, however, language can never do this, for the simple reason that any reality beyond language is fluid and so not essentializable. There is no fixed thing there. However, reality is not chaos in the sense of incoherent nonsense. The real chaos is rather the petty knowledge acquired by the reasoning faculty, which counts, quantifies, and invents rules and names. Beyond language, there is an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of things, and the Daoist sage attempts to observe this reality and not merely the world as shaped by linguistic conventions. Knowledge must be knowledge of the dynamic multiplicity of things, and not of linguistic entities. This is why the Dao De Jing says, “Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know” (Ch.56).

Language has its conventions, but it’s only language. For the Daoist, behind the linguistic conventions, there is culture; and culture is ‘chaotic’, if only because it does not always follow conventions or rules. Culture is dynamic and constantly emerging. We can never say that ‘this is always true’ or ‘this is always false’ in a culture because culture is constantly changing. New components constantly emerge, some fuse, and others are rejected. Applied to genders, this would means that gender emerges from the culture, or that identities and genders are produced by our ways of behaving and our ways of seeing while we are living in cultures.

Radical Equality

The Daoist idea of the ‘equalization of things’, were it to be applied to gender, would bring about an equalization of gender on an existential or cultural level. An equalization of gender follows because Daoism wouldn’t make statements about fixed gender essences or about the linguistic rules linked to these essences. Daoism would not attempt to equalize gender essences: it would rather talk about how genders exist in culture, also recognizing that the state in which all things are equal is in constant flow. Chapter 2 of the Zhuangzi (the eponymous book is the collected teachings of the master),which is called the ‘Discourse on the Equalization of Things’, suggests that the logicians are “talking about objects which have no definitely fixed contents.” Now if objects have no definite content, then genders, as aspects of objects, must also be without fixed content.

Political correctness by contrast encourages us to equalize essences by using equitable language. This is an unlimited pursuit because, in order to be as precise as possible, all essences marked out by language terms (basically, nouns) need to be split up into sub-essences, and these sub-essences must be ‘equalized’ in turn. New genders, new norms, and new quotas constantly need to be created and updated. By creating a new linguistic reality – for example by inventing new genders – PC produces no less an essentialist view of culture. If we call Person A – who looks like society’s traditional idea of a man ­– ‘she’, we may believe we have circumvented our personal, subjective preconceptions about what a woman looks like. We might believe we have attained a state of judgmental neutrality, since we are no longer slaves to the ‘male looks = male essence’ paradigm. However, Person A is still ‘somehow’ considered to look like a man and not like a woman. This shows one way in which their real life is therefore still different from the essence referred to by the new pronoun. Once again, the reality does not fit the box created for it by language. And inventing a new pronoun just for her doesn’t solve the problem either, because her existence is cultural and always enacted in a multidimensional cultural context, and thus more complex than any essence conveyed by a pronoun. Her gender is in fact fluid, not in the sense that she identifies with the term ‘gender fluid’ (let’s say she does not), but in the sense that the reality she presents is fluid – as is everything around her – and no pronoun can accurately retrieve this fluidity. We can agree on certain pronouns because they make sense within the cultural situation in which they are enacted. But we should not agree on them because we believe that they correspond to some essence. Strictly speaking, pronouns should not be created, but should always emerge though cultural play. Therefore, to recognize the existential state in which all things are equal is not a confirmation of prejudices, but rather a coming to terms with reality.

So what would ‘equalization’ of genders mean in a Daoist sense? It would mean acknowledging that fixed gender identity simply does not matter. Daoism ‘equalizes’ genders in the sense of cultural gender equality. The only thing that matters is the cultural interaction we have with the person. The interaction should be civilized, polite, respectful… but for the Daoist the use of pronouns can never be ‘correct’ in the sense that correctness means pointing to an essence.

PC implies the contrary approach because it essentializes gender relations, gender terms, and gender pronouns, then attaches ethical meanings to them. Yet by making gender terms static, it thereby makes them more prone to becoming sources of prejudices and preconceptions, even though the declared aim is precisely the opposite. When it comes to avoiding prejudices, the Daoist (and Zen Buddhist) policy of ‘no-mind’ is much more efficient, because what can be more egalitarian than saying that gender terms and pronouns do not matter?

From a Daoist point of view, then, instead of inventing new gender terms, one should simply be silent about gender. Culture or civilization will do the rest. Instead of searching for the correct labels for gender essences, Daoism takes the cultural existence of genders at face value. Bringing about such a shift requires a consistent process of ‘chaotification’. PC does the contrary: by changing names, it creates new ‘reality’ through the establishment of new essences.

From a Daoist perspective, not being attached to a ‘gendered self’ does not mean that one has no gender. Nor does it necessarily mean that just anything goes, and that anybody can change gender at any moment, in a gender-fluid way. A Daoist sage would likely hold that an individual cannot be defined through gender, and that therefore, gender identity cannot be reduced to names or pronouns. Daoism ‘chaotifies’ the existing linguistic reality of genders, then, in order to grasp a chaotic unity that has no defined limits. For the Daoist, a biological male wanting to be addressed as a woman, and the question of accepting their request or not, might be matters not of ethics but of aesthetics. And in aesthetics, things (identities, pronouns, etc) are fluid – as fluid as the culture surrounding the people involved. So this ‘chaotic unity’ might include someone X using a male pronoun when addressing a biologically male Y who wants to be recognized as a woman, except that when X uses ‘he’, he is aware that Y’s maleness is not an essence, so leaving the presumed maleness or femaleness of the person in a chaotic state. He does not attempt to rectify the name, he simply refuses to create a new essence for Y.

Fluid Conclusions

So, what would Zhuangzi have said about gender? My guess is that he would have said, “Since names do not matter, you can call me whatever you want. Call me he, she, or zhe. The meaning of the pronoun emerges each time anew from the cultural context.” Daoism believes that all essences, including names, are merely products of the mind. Consequently, genders have no essence: they are only what we believe them to be. And in that case, any language reform becomes redundant.

Zhuangzi would refer to the cultural chaos that constitutes reality as ‘nothingness’ or ‘namelessness’. Laozi has a marked preference for this idea, too. Ordinary people experience the world with genders, values, and races as part of a multiplicity of things. However, this is only the worldly perspective. From the point of view of the Dao, valuations, boundaries, and their accompanying flaws are not real. What is real is the nothingness of genders, values, and races. The true Daoist sees only nothingness, which means that he sees neither color, nor race, nor gender. Ecstatic intuition obtained through sitting in oblivion has made the sage blind to color, race, and gender. And if there is no gender, there can be no ‘true’ and ‘false’ genders either.

There is a human tendency to look at the world in terms of good and bad, black and white, male and female, and many more. However, aren’t these distinctions always blurred to some extent in cultural contexts? As Hans-Georg Moeller writes, “good and bad prove to be extremely shaky categories. One changes into the other, they are subject to continuous change and reversal” (The Moral Fool, 2009). This also applies to genders. Ethicists, logicians, language reformers, and gender theorists want to sharpen the focus on the blurred reality so that male, female, and other qualities become more distinct, more differentiated, and more visible. The Daoist suggests instead that we keep reality blurred and chaotified, and accept the meanings that flow out of the cultural play we usually call ‘reality’.

© Thorsten Botz-Bornstein 2022

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein is Professor of Philosophy at the Gulf University for Science and Technology, Kuwait.

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