Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

79: Judith Butler part V:
Competing Universalities

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         In her essay “Competing Universalities,” (2000) Judith Butler gives us her take on the nature of universalizing notions and campaigns that purport to expand justice, equality, freedom and democracy but that do not quite do that. In particular she centers in on the theory and notion of sexual difference and the campaigns for gay marriage and gays serving openly in the military (Q1).
         The primaryness of binary sexual difference is a dead end meant to make the world appear intelligible, natural and stable when it is not. As we saw earlier the heterosexual matrix of two sexes leading to two genders leading to the attraction of opposites is a political imposition that has no real empirical justification but is used to create one of two identities which then control people's behaviour throughout their entire lives within the very narrow confines of masculinity and femininity (Q2).
         Identities based on sexual difference are always based on politically privileged types (of which only a tiny minority ever qualify) or ideals (which do not actually exist). Since all politically privileged types exclude (by the necessity of definition) all others and because ideal's miss or strip something of reality both lead to outwardly imposed repression and alienation (Q3).
         To have a politically privileged type and/or an ideal is always and in every case to have proscriptive behaviour and intelligibility imposed on us often exercised through foreclosure, pathologization and disenfranchisement. Therefore “...sexual difference should be rigorously opposed by anyone who wants to guard against a theory that would prescribe in advance what kinds of sexual arrangements will and will not be permitted in intelligible culture.”(Q4)
         In other words sexual difference is a potentially damaging theory because it feeds 'the fantasy to ideals to norms' spiral of thought that makes fighting the evils of normalcy harder by strengthening the existing fantasy of two sexes, the ideal of two genders and the norm of the nuclear heterosexual family. Recall from an earlier session that identity is partially formed from the loss of a love object. Butler argues that identity is similarly also formed from the foreclosure of opportunities caused by existing fantasies, ideals and norms.
         There is hope: “In the case of foreclosure, where certain possibilities are ruled out so that cultural intelligibility can be instituted, giving discursive form to the foreclosure can be an inaugurating moment of its destabilization.”
         Two current issues (at the time of the essay in the year 2000) in which opportunities for LGBT community have been foreclosed are marriage and the military service. Some with in the LGBT community want to open up these institutions; to expand equality, freedom and social justice; to overcome arbitrary limits; to universalize more basic human rights by expanding membership in these institutions. Others within the LGBT community (including Butler) question the universal possibilities of freedom, equality and justice within these institutions and in so doing wish to destabilize them. Judith Butler argues that opening up these institutions to the gay and lesbian community “...extends the power of the very institution and, in extending that power, exacerbates the distinction between those forms of intimate alliance that are legitimated by the state and those that are not.” In the case of marriage, many rights and benefits are only secured by state sanctioned marital status thus strengthening the power of the state to regulate human sexual behaviour.
         The alternative which Butler supports is “ ask for a delinking of precisely those rights and entitlements from the institution of marriage itself.” (Q5)
         When any institution's membership is modified all that changes is the distribution of people in the in-group versus the out-group. If the in-group expands and the out-group contracts then greater degrees of pressure, alienation and powerlessness ensue as the out-group becomes relatively more abnormal. Thus the normalization of a select few is purchased at the price of increased abnormality for the remainder – this is a deepening of oppression, injustice and the tyranny of the majority. It is also a fracturing of the LGBT community for when monogamous gay or lesbian couples seek to identify in marriage with straight couples they are breaking alliance with “...people who are on their own without sexual relationships, single mothers or single fathers, people who have undergone divorce, people who are in relationships that are not marital in kind or in status, other lesbian, gay, and transgender people whose sexual relations are multiple (which does not mean unsafe), whose lives are not monogamous, whose sexuality and desire do not have the conjugal home as their (primary) venue, whose lives are considered less real or less legitimate, who inhabit the more shadowy regions of social reality.” (Q6)
         The only way to increase the democratization, the equality, the freedom and the justice in society is to fight against institutions that are designed to create in-groups and out-groups by taking away from these institutions the power to create privileges and entitlements for in-group members and preventing the access to these privileges and entitlements to the out-group.
         Q1 What are your current views on the expansion of marriage to include gay and lesbian couples. How do you feel about the legitimacy of polygamy (one man with many wives as in Islam), polyandry (one woman with many husbands as in Tibet), polyamorous marriages (open marriages or having many friends with benefits)?
         Q2 How does the idea of the heterosexual matrix (two sexes leading to two genders leading to attraction of opposites) strike you today? Is it possible that there are other equally legitimate forms of loving relationships?
         Q3 Judith Butler believes that we have all been molded to fit into our assigned genders. Those of us who most identify with our assigned genders have been molded best but we are all molded by outside forces and that most of us did not choose our current identity. How do you feel about the idea that you are most likely entirely the product of your environment?
         Q4 Feminism is usually considered to have come in three waves: first wave feminism centered on political equality and women's right to vote; second wave feminism centered on economic equality an the rights of women to do any job that men could for equal pay. Third wave feminism broke away from the notion of equality and fights for the differences of needs for the two sexes (for example the rights to maternity leave, public breast feeding and female centered pornography). Judith Butler is considered postfeminist and broke away from all three in the sense that there are not two real sexes and genders with needs and wants but a multitude of people with many varying needs and wants that are not served well with dichotomous thinking. With which wave of feminism (if any) do you sympathies?
         Q5 The two seemingly progressive choices we seem to be given are 1) to expand freedom and equality in stages (which is relatively easy but causes more harm than good) or 2) to expand freedom and equality in one smooth stroke (which is much harder to accomplish but actually does expand freedom and equality). Are these the only two progressive choices? If so which do you believe we should support? If they are not the only choices then what else can we do?
         Q6 Should the rights and privileges of marriage be extendable to all these groups?
         Q7 There is a fundamental difference between saying “you two people DO NOT have the rights and privileges of marriage” and saying “you two people CANNOT have the rights and privileges of marriage.” Butler believe that expanding the qualifying criteria of marriage to gay and lesbian couples maintains and strengthens the second statement for those who cannot get married. The fight for gay marriage is therefore the wrong fight. The political fight should be aimed at eliminating the possibility of the second statement; eliminating the need for state sanction of marriage. How do you feel about gay marriage now?

© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren