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Charles Taylor’s Social Imaginary Essays

Why do people act and perceive the way they do? This can be explained by Charles Taylor’s social imaginary. There are underlying thoughts and rules in society that shape the way people think. Sometimes topics such as sexuality, which most people view only in one way, may not be so clear after all. The social imaginary is what enables the practices of a society. This is done though making sense of ideas and expectations.
It is “how they [people] fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations” (Taylor pg. 23). Charles Taylor seems to focus on how people envision their social settings. Our social imaginary is “shared by large groups of people,” and “is that common understanding that makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy” (Taylor pg. 23).
In other words, the social imaginary is what makes common practices and ideals socially acceptable. Without it, no one would know how to interact with others. It is like a complex, unsaid law, given to people that allows them to carry out their social lives. Taylor relates his idea to government elections where he explains, “Part of the background understanding that makes sense of our act of voting for each one of us is our awareness of the whole action… this kind of macrodecision, in other words, has to meet certain norms if it is to be what it is meant to be” (Taylor pg. 4). However, only relevant backgrounds can apply to an act or scenario for it to make sense. It is also explained that understanding different practices, makes them possible. While at the same time, the practice itself is what carries the understanding. These practices are implicit in society; people know how to act in different situations, and with whom, without being told. A social imaginary has always been in existence, even before humans started theorizing about it. Taylor has explained three different types of social imaginary: explicit, symbolic, and tacit.
The explicit level of the social imaginary is the level that anyone can overtly talk about, it is obvious. Take a stop sign, for instance, this is something that everyone can see and talk about. When people see a stop sign it is a known rule to come to a complete stop. This is an example of the explicit social imaginary. The tacit dimension consists of the implied rules of the social imaginary. If a teacher came into class and started baking a cake, this would not be normal. Students would perceive the teacher in a confused way, as this is not something a teacher should be doing in class.
The idea that a teacher is supposed to teach and not bake is one of the unsaid rules of the tacit social imaginary. Symbolic social imaginary is the level that involves both explicit and tacit traits. For example, blue is for boys and pink is for girls. These are just colors; however they are recognized symbolically as things for girls or things for boys. Anne Fausto-Sterling is someone who does not see sex as clearly black and white. She believes there is more than just male and female sexes, and that this gray area should not be looked down upon.
In her article, “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough,” she describes the five sexes in which she has categorized these people who do not fall under male or female. The medical language uses the term “intersex” to group all intersexual bodies. However, Fausto-Sterling breaks this group down into three groups. Hermaphrodites, or herms, “possess one testis and one ovary (the sperm and egg-producing vessels, or gonads)” (Fausto-Serling pg34). Herms can technically become pregnant and also impregnate someone else. Male pseudohermaphrodites (the “merms”), have testes and some aspects of the female genitalia but no ovaries” (Fausto-Sterling pg34). Merms are not able to become pregnant. “Female pseudohermaphrodites (the “ferms”), have ovaries and some aspects of the male genitalia but lack testes” (Fausto-Sterling pg34). Ferms are able to become pregnant.
Fausto-Sterling believes in the idea that these three categories of human sexes should be considered additional sexes, along with male and female. It seems crazy that people like this exist in our world, yet we don’t even have names to identify them. Even language refuses other possibilities; … I have had to invent conventions –s/he and his/her- to denote someone who is clearly neither male nor female or who is perhaps both sexes at once” (Fausto-Sterling pg 33). Although the concept of intersexuality has existed long before our time, people still view this is as a controversial subject. Some doctors perform surgeries on intersexual infants in order to make them “normal. ” But who is to say what normal is? Doctors say their policy reflects the “wish that people be able to ‘fit in’ both physically and sychologically” (Fausto-Sterling pg34). However, Fausto-Sterling states cases where children growing up as intersexual “adjusted to their unusual status,” and found that “there is not a psychotic or a suicide in the lot” (Fausto-Sterling pg38). Therefore maybe being a transsexual isn’t as bad as society makes it seem; maybe doctors should not be performing surgeries on infants while they are not yet able to make decisions for themselves. Charles Taylor’s social imaginary plays hand in hand with Anne Fausto-Sterling’s five sexes.
The fact that most of society today does not accept intersexes just because it is not the norm is a social imaginary. It makes people act is if the only sexes that exist are male or female. Fausto-Sterling says, “Scientific dogma has held fast to the assumption that without medical care hermaphrodites are doomed to a life of misery” (Fausto-Sterling pg37). Although there is evidence to prove this otherwise, the social and scientific stigma holds this statement as true. Many believe that both intersexes and their parents will suffer in life, if they do not change their physiology.
This social imaginary is made up from the idea that there are two and only two sexes: male and female. “Why should we care if there are people whose biological equipment enables them to have sex ‘naturally’ with both men and women” (Fausto-Sterling pg37)? Fausto-Sterling is talking about the inability for society to see people different from themselves as acceptable human beings. A tacit part of this social imaginary would be defining a person by their intersexuality, or thinking that “normal” males and females are superior to intersexes.
As well as affecting judgments and medical practices, the perspective on sexuality that the social imaginary creates also affects laws. In some states in the U. S. , the sex of a child on their birth certificate is able to be changed if a doctor has performed the surgery on the child. However in other states, it is illegal to change the sex of a child; they are still seen as their original sex based on their chromosomal makeup. “Modern Anglo- Saxon legal systems require that newborns be registered as either male or female” (Fausto-Sterling pg35).
There is no category of intersex to be registered under. The social imaginary creates skewed perspectives on sexuality in society. In the court case of Littleton vs. Prange, Christie Lee Littleton was a transsexual female, born male. She was “diagnosed psychologically and psychiatrically as a genuine male to female transsexual” (Littleton vs. Prange pg68). Christie’s doctors believed that this meant Christie, and any similar case, is “psychologically and psychiatrically female before and after the sex reassignment surgery” (Littleton vs. Prange pg68).
Christie went through with her sex reassignment surgery and continued her life by marrying a man. It is stated that “Texas (and Kentucky, for that matter), like most other states, does not permit marriages between persons of the same sex” (Littleton vs. Prange pg69). Therefore, in my mind, Christie was legally looked at as a female at her time of marriage, since she and her husband had a ceremonial marriage ritual. However, the judge did not share the same views as me. Christie Littleton was found legally male and her marriage was found invalid.
Therefore, in the event of her husband’s death, “Christie cannot bring a cause of action as his surviving spouse. ” Christie lost her case. It is stated that “the majority assumes that gender is accurately determined at birth,” in the dissenting opinion by Alma Lopez (Littleton vs. Prange pg71). This leads me to believe that social imaginary did in fact play a role in the decision of the Littleton vs. Prange case. When Christie’s gender on her birth certificate was changed, and lawfully corrected, only the original birth certificate was taken into account in the hearing.
It seems to me that the social imaginary on sexuality influenced the judge’s decision. Although Christie was not biologically female, she was told, and doctors testified, that she was medically female. This leads me to believe that maybe the judge did not view Christie’s marriage to her husband as legitimate, since it is not a typical marriage. I do not agree with the judge’s decision. I believe that since Christie was legally married to her husband, she should be found as the surviving spouse of her husband.
Although gay marriage is illegal in Texas, she is technically now female. The marriage should never been accepted in the first place if it was to be questioned later on. As you can see, the social imaginary can create controversies and flaws in our practices, judgments, and laws. Who is to determine what sexuality someone is, and how? Most people view sexuality as male or female, but there are more possibilities. The five sexes and the social imaginary are things that can and should be changed and/or considered in the future of society.
Works Cited

Fausto-Sterling, Anne. The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough. The Sciences, March/April 1993. Print. Taylor, Charles. Modern Social Imaginaries. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004. Print. Christie Lee Littleton, Appellant v. Dr. Mark Prange, Appellee (excerpts). Bexar County, Texas: 288th Judicial District Court, 1999. Print.

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