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Philosophy

Gender Roles and Starting Points

Having been in higher education for a number of years, I know that certain ideas are popular. One of them is the idea that men and women (or boys and girls) are equal. Everyone wants to agree with that. But people understand what equal means in different ways. One private school in Sweden has decided to implement their understanding of equal that there are no true gender roles – into the classroom. Is their understanding right? More importantly, how do we find out what the right understanding is?

The first place to begin with a debate like this one is to understand both sides of the debate. This is to understand why these people believe as they do. On side let’s call it the egalitarian side believes that gender roles hinder self-expression. They also believe that children ought to be free to express themselves in ways contrary to any well-defined gender role. Furthermore, they believe that boys have an unfair advantage in society. This is as much as the article describes. I think that they value the freedom of expression and personal choice. They believe that gender roles are a social construct they are made by other peoples choices. So it is perfectly acceptable for us to reject these roles and choose our own role.

The other side – lets call it the complementarian side believes that gender roles are at least partially determined by nature while equality is a matter of value. So they believe that men and women are both equally valuable, but the roles they have are different. Each gender complements the other. They believe that while we should value freedom of expression, acting contrary to our natures will only lead to unhappiness. So gender roles are not a social construct and they are not made by other peoples choices. So it is not perfectly acceptable for us to reject these roles. In fact, failing to teach children these roles may amount to a form of child abuse.

I suppose that one might mention other positions, but if you wish to affirm that men and women are equal then these are the only options available. Either gender roles are completely a matter of convention or they are not. So which understanding is right? How do we find out? We do not find out by promoting one side without knowledge of the other. We do not find out by socially promoting one and insulting the other. We do not find out by calling one side biased. I think that the best way forward is to ask which one is true. Any evidence for which one is true ought not to assume one side is right before proving it. Any study will ask two questions: are gender roles (partly) determined by gender and are gender roles good. The first question is a scientific and social question. The second question is a philosophical question. Even if gender roles are (partly) determined by nature, we will not know if we should act against them unless we know that they are either good or bad. And one cannot determine which one is right by arguing about equality.

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