Diversifying Cultural Norms, or Being Nonbinary

Any general culture acts as a mirror which enables the individual to recognize himself – or at least recognize those parts of himself which are socially permissible.

What do cultural norms, or as the British art historian and cultural critic John Berger puts it, what does general culture have to do with lived diversity? This article wants to suggest that diversity in a society can be measured by the extent to which cultural norms are open for a diverse range of lived social realities. Diversifying cultural norms, then, means to engage in a process of allowing individuals from all social backgrounds to recognize themselves through those norms. First, two authors, Charles Mills and Thomas Laqueur, will be presented to shed light to Berger’s expressions with respect to categories of race, sex, and gender. Second, being nonbinary will be given as example for such a diversification, or queerization, of cultural norms, referring to the work of philosophers Judith Butler and Robin Dembroff.

To begin with, Berger is set in conversation with the philosopher Charles Mills and his thoughts on White ignorance. Mills (2007) argues that both in our everyday life as well as in the academic tradition our way of cognitively perceiving the world is influenced by the discrimination of some parts of the population, or to be more precise, our perception will be filtered through concepts that come along with that domination. Therefore, the ruling group’s “[c]oncepts orient us to the world, and it is a rare individual who can resist this inherited orientation” as we are all “seeing things through the concept itself” (Mills 2007: 27). Mills analyzes the racialized conceptualization of the world through White normativity and ignorance, that is the idea that White lives and perspectives are normalized whereas Black ones obliterated. He is less interested in an individualistic epistemology, i.e., how the cognitive acts of individuals are based on prejudices, but rather in a social epistemology, i.e., the knowledge-bringing functioning of processes of groups, communities, etc., and the way individuals interact with them (cf. Mills 2007). Mills describes those processes and interactions as normative, for they are not naturally given or neutral towards the outer world and one’s position in it. In the contrary, those processes make up general culture, or cultural norms, and thereby shape how we perceive reality and how we situate ourselves in it. Furthermore, they define what parts of ourselves and others we recognize as being “socially permissible” in that a “white epistemology of ignorance” as Mills (2007: 35) calls it, determines “the concepts favored (e.g., today’s ‘color blindness’), the refusal to perceive systemic discrimination, the convenient amnesia about the past and its legacy in the present, and the hostility to black testimony on continuing White privilege.” Hence, what exactly is to be understood as socially permissible depends on an epistemology which is itself already premarked by social constructions, allowing Mills to claim that dominant forms of exclusion and discrimination (such as sexism, racism, queer- and transphobia, xenophobia, …) “have not been the exception but the norm” (Mills 2007: 17, emphasis added). Far from being diverse norms in the sense stated in the introduction, these given norms only allow a small part of society to develop their full potential, whereas women, Black, queer, or disabled people, to name just some exemplary groups, are determined by features that are socially impermissible.

Like Mills’ analysis of the intertwining of race and epistemology, Thomas Laqueur (1990) traces back how scientific accounts on sex and gender were permeable to social worldviews in given periods of time, from the Greeks to the 20th century. Sex means here the biological difference between two types of human beings, “man” and “woman” (whereby the existence of intersex people is not considered) while gender stands for the social interpretation of this distinction. Laqueur tries to demonstrate a conceptual development from a one-sex model, predominant from the Antiquity to the Middle Ages, to a two-sex model, prevailing since the period of so-called Enlightenment. The first model regarded gender as the real, differentiating category between souls and sex as its bodily epiphenomenon, such that the female genitalia were perceived as negative, inwards oriented and thereby weak version of the male ones (cf. Laqueur 1990: 6). The second redefined gender no longer as an ontological but social category, relying on a distinct sex difference that serves as the epistemic base for any prescriptive biological foundation for societal sexist hierarchies (cf. Laqueur 1990). The change of this conceptual apparatus influenced and was influenced by a change in scientific discourses particularly biology and medicine, but also philosophy or pedagogy. In other words, the mirroring function of general culture, which according to Berger allows for self-recognition, never offered a neutral or a realistic description of reality, but instead mirrors, in a normative way, what is itself a socially construction, e.g., racial or sexual hierarchies.

How then, is it possible to diversify those cultural norms that determine our perception of what is real and counts as the norm? Mills (cf. 2007) suggests that one first needs to learn recognizing their existence to be able self-distancing oneself from them. When it comes to racism, this implies exposing White ignorance as a form of denial of (past’s) racists actions and concepts’ influence on present inequalities. Regarding sex and gender, Judith Butler (1990: xx–xxi) critically points out that “[i]t is not possible to oppose the ‘normative’ forms of gender without at the same time subscribing to a certain normative view of how the gendered world ought to be.” In other words, how can one change the view in which bodies and sexual acts are perceived without risking to simply replace the normative field of possibilities by a new one? And how is this to be done, if the conceptual framework of how people are seen is underwritten by racist, sexist, and heteronormative codes?

One way could be to embrace “the cultural emergence of those ‘incoherent’ or ‘discontinuous’ gendered beings who appear to be persons but who fail to conform to the gendered norms of cultural intelligibility by which persons are defined” (Butler 1990: 23). A culturally intelligible (gendered) person would be someone who was, for example, assigned the female sex at birth and has learnt to make herself understandable in society according to the rules that apply for the female gender, whereas a trans man might be perceived as ‘incoherent’ since people (violently insist on) read(ing) him as a she, although he behaves and appears like a he. Building up on Butler (1990: 24) and their idea of intentionally and repeatedly “fail[ing] to conform to those norms of cultural intelligibility” that provide coherence and continuity, Robin Dembroff (2018: para. 28) suggestion to cease the embracement of “being gender trash” aims for disrupting “the categories that allow persons to be marked as gender trash in the first place”. They call this approach being nonbinary.

Yet, spoken with Butler (1990: 40), living “‘before,’ ‘outside,’ or ‘beyond’ power is a cultural impossibility and a politically impracticable dream” as one always repeats the norms, even when doing so in opposition to their original content. Queering them, hence, means to cite or repeat them critically, allowing for a displacement of “the very gender norms that enable the repetition itself” (Butler 1990: 189). Building up on this problematization, Dembroff’s call for being nonbinary relies on their idea that this must remain a “radically anti-essentialist” project, that is an approach which does not create new categorial norms one has to conform to, but repeatedly tries to escape them (Dembroff 2018: para. 25), for only then it can be helpful in recognizing the power dynamics of gendered reality. Thus, individuals might be eventually able to self-distance themselves from the gender obsession, as Dembroff (2018: para. 25) describes the constant perceiving of people “through binary gender concepts.” In that sense, the strategy of being nonbinary renders the normative conceptual apparatuses, shaping our perception of the world, more accessible for everyone to recognize themselves through them. Therefore, it is a step towards diversifying cultural norms.


Berger, J. (1967): A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor. New York: Vintage International. 8. Auflage 1997.

Butler, J. (1990): Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge. 3. Auflage 1999.

Dembroff, R. (2018): Why Be Nonbinary? In: Aeon Magazine, 30.10.2018. Online verfügbar unter: https://aeon.co/essays/nonbinary-identity-is-a-radical-stance-against-gender-segregation [Zugriff: 04.12.2022].

Laqueur, T. (1990): Making Sex. Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Mills, C. (2007): White Ignorance. In: Sullivan, S.; Tuana, N. (Hg.): Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance. New York: State University of New York Press. S. 13–38.

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