On community, communities and identity politics

Today I drove half an hour to a hospital, with my toddler, to visit a dying woman I barely knew personally, just because she is a member of the church I attend. I don’t want a medal or anything; I mention the incident because it left me mulling over the different ways our culture uses the word ‘community’, and what they mean in practice in different contexts.

In the context of a church, ‘community’ means shared values. In that context, people go the extra mile to care for one another in ways that are shaped by the church’s shared value system. Specifically, visiting a dying woman, that might mean reading her a prayer or sharing with her thoughts and prayers sent by other members of the community. It might mean being willing to hold the hand of a near stranger, knowing she is part of my community and that enough of what remained unspoken between us could be taken for granted for her to find my presence comforting, and to allow me to be present.

In the context of identity politics, where nowadays we more often hear the word ‘community’, what does it in fact mean? It means you share your ‘identity’ with other members of your ‘community’, and membership of that community confers some kind of victim points, which can be leveraged for political amplification, or simply to win an argument with someone who possesses fewer protected characteristics than you. It is no guarantor of shared values, obligations, narratives or really anything much. And the more ‘inclusive’ each ‘community’ gets, the less able any community is to argue a coherent political case for anything. The LGB community is a case in point: when it focused on advocacy for people who sometimes or always engage in same-sex relationships it was pretty straightforward, but now it’s supposed to be an umbrella for everyone except the most vanilla heterosexual sex-role-stereotype-embodying people it’s hard to see what it can actually advocate for. (I wrote about how inclusivity kills politics here.)

This postmodern sense of ‘community’ can’t be relied on to come sit by your deathbed, turn up with food when someone else in the community has a baby, visit you when you’re ill or give you a lift to the station if you’re stuck at home. For that, you need shared values. It’s here I think we start to get a clue as to why the revolutionary vanguard of identity politics sounds increasingly religious with every passing day, complete with catechisms (‘trans women are women’), a theodicy (‘privilege’) and an Inquisition (outsourced to Twitter). It’s because, having left a smoking crater where Christianity once sat, the left-liberal vanguard has (unconsciously perhaps) begun to realise how many babies (and dying old people) have been thrown out with the bathwater.

Why transactivists will fail, like Remain (but may yet succeed like Remain, too)

Why gender critical feminists must hold their noses and stand with Tommy Robinson

Last Sunday, thousands marched through London in support of freedom of speech. You wouldn’t know it to look at most national papers. The rally featured a range of speakers including libertarian-left Scot ‘Count Dankula’ (best known for being convicted and fined for teaching his girlfriend’s pug to perform a Nazi salute on video) along with alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and former EDL leader, Tommy Robinson.

Not a nice bunch, for the most part, if you’re of a generally leftish persuasion. Fine. But here’s why gender critical feminists should stand with Tommy Robinson, who has been permanently banned from Twitter for posting material critical of Islam. Because when it comes to defending free speech – even for abhorrent views – provided that speech stops short of inciting violence, he’s right.

The mealy-mouthed phrase ‘Oh of course I believe in freedom of speech, but…’ is heard ever more often among those who wish to be seen as nice, progressive, normal and appropriately leftish. And as it creeps further into normal language, it is increasingly not just those on the fringes of the Overton window who fall victim to the ever narrower definition of what is and is not acceptable speech to make freely.

Having mobilised free speech arguments to challenge the status quo from the 1960s onwards, the New Left has by now (for all that it lost the economic one) comprehensively won the culture war. But, having won, the New Left has gone on to develop an ideological immune system to consolidate that victory, and to prevent any insurgent ideas from threatening its hegemony.

One might characterise this immune system as a determined collective capacity to ignore, mock, smear, misrepresent, delegitimise and where necessary deploy more forceful methods of silencing any voice on the fringes of public discourse that challenges its orthodoxies. Adherence to these orthodoxies is enforced – on pain of expulsion from ‘polite society’ – every bit as pervasively as was regular churchgoing once upon a time. Nowhere is this more clear than in the trans juggernaut.

Not content with its admirable achievements in promoting equal treatment for all humans regardless of race, sex or faith, the New Left continues on a relentless pursuit of personal ‘liberation’ for each individual from all restraints of social convention, faith or even pragmatic common sense. Lately, it transpires, we must all go even further, and be liberated even from settled biological fact: men can be female, and women male; all humans must be freed to transcend their own embodied state, to be whatever they feel they are. To gainsay any individual’s personal identity is, now, to commit an act of intensely personal and cruel violence against an individual’s very sense of self and freedom.

The majority of the left sees this straightforwardly in terms of the next civil rights struggle, now that the one for lesbian and gay equality has been won. It is not enough that we have the Gender Recognition Act, which attempts to balance the right to gender self-expression against the rights of women and children to single-sex spaces. Rather trans activism seeks to force into accepted orthodoxy the notion that biological sex is meaningless, and instead all individuals have a ‘gender identity’, which can be changed in law by a simple administrative procedure (I’ve written about this here).

Women who dare ask questions about how this will impact sex discrimination regulations, gendered violence data gathering, pay gap data gathering, women’s shelters, prisons or changing rooms must be treated as though this new shibboleth is already orthodoxy: they must be silenced, utterly. Doxxing, threats of violence, physical assaults, lobbying Parliament to have the phrase ‘trans-identified male’ reclassified as hate crime are some of the tactics in common use. Mumsnet – one of the few online spaces where critical discussion around transgender activism is not heavily moderated – has seen its advertisers targeted by trans activism keen to pressure Mumsnet into implementing a more forceful moderation policy.

Within the more mainstream politics, a 19-year-old intact male who identifies as a woman was elected as a women’s officer; at least one Labour member objecting to this have been expelled from the Labour Party following a frankly disturbing Orwellian interview; hundreds of women have resigned in protest and the general response of the left appears to be ‘ok fine, good riddance, bye’.

Women are being silenced. Left-wing women. Nowhere is this more painfully clear than in the push to deplatform Linda Bellos, a veteran lesbian feminist and founder of Black History Month.  The mechanisms employed are the same ones as are used to silence other wicked, excluded voices: smears, harassment, and – wherever possible – the levers of law, power, government. And, because the left long since abandoned its previous spirited defence of free speech in favour of protecting its cultural victories via a policy of selected censorship (‘curated speech’ instead of free speech) left-wing women now have no defence against these parasites hollowing out liberation politics for their own purposes. Those feminists protesting at the female-bodied collateral damage that is starting to pile up up in the cause of freeing men to ‘be women’ are instead facing, at the hands of their former comrades on the left, the same tactics that the left has long since used to consolidate its cultural hegemony.

I shan’t quote anyone directly, but I see the hurt, frustration and rage boiling up. ‘What the fuck do you mean, we’re on the wrong side of history???’. How fucking dare you other, marginalise, smear, delegitimise us, who have so long been dutiful soldiers in the noble cause?

And yet, there it is: without the free speech argument, this will continue. It will get worse. The purges will continue within the left. Maybe we’ll see new orthodoxies starting to creep in that don’t even sound very left-wing at all, but can be justified with reference to liberation, equality, discrimination.

Look, I get it. If you’re a gender-critical feminist, you’re possibly a radical feminist. You’re 99.9999999% likely to be pretty left-wing. The cultural revolution is your baby. But babies grow up, and without checks and balances this one’s growing up mean.

The no-platforming, harassment, mockery, ostracism starts out being just for people you don’t like, and don’t agree with. So you don’t speak up. Then they’re gunning for people you thought were basically okay, but maybe you were wrong and anyway you’re afraid to speak out in case you get blowback. Then, suddenly, they’re coming for people a whole lot like you, to stifle an issue you actually really care about.

This isn’t just about saving women from a misogynistic campaign to abolish legal recognition of sex differences in the name of a spurious freedom to ape the behavioural stereotypes imposed on the opposite sex. It’s about retaining, for the left, the ability to save the left from itself – an ability that looks worryingly to be already hanging by a thread. Gender critical feminists are the canaries in the left-wing coalmine. Without a spirited defence of free speech – yes, even for Tommy Robinson – the left will incrementally be taken over by and for interests a long way from the oppressed, the powerless, the voiceless whom the left claim to wish to represent, lift up and defend. Misogynists; paedophiles; those who seek to reintroduce blasphemy laws. It’s all coming.

Gender critical feminists: this is bigger even than a battle to keep the rights women have won. It’s a fight for the soul of liberation politics. Without a spirited left-wing defence of free speech – and let’s face it, this is a pretty radical suggestion nowadays – the left is a sitting duck. For while its immune system is effective at purging antagonists, it is defenceless against parasites. Transgenderism is just the first of many ideological parasites: it has already colonised most mainstream LGB lobby groups. More will follow, each dripping with the magic aura of liberation, open-mindedness, toleration, equality, justice, inclusion and an end to discrimination. Opposing these parasites will mean falling foul of the prohibition on any thought, speech or action that can be painted as discriminatory, intolerant, exclusionary or bigoted.

The only such defence that stands the test of time is the free speech defence, and that means defending it even for those whose views we dislike. It’s time to hold your noses and stand with Tommy Robinson.

Don’t care about gender Self-ID? Here’s why you should

A quick post on the Government’s proposed changes to the law around sex/gender reassignment to make it easier for transgender people to become legally the opposite sex. I won’t go into the feminist objections to these changes, as numerous excellent writers and organisations already summarise this (see here for plenty of links).

Many have ignored the debate so far, seeing it as an arcane internecine spat on the left and good for a chuckle or two, nothing more. But changes to the law on trans issues affect everyone. If you care at all about personal liberty and (relative) freedom from government overreach, here are two reasons why you should oppose ‘self-ID’: firstly, it’s a monstrous power grab by a government already giddy and bloated with the powers it increasingly clutches to itself. And secondly, if this goes through we might as well have done with it and just reinstate blasphemy laws.

It’s a massive government power grab: Effectively the changes replace sex with ‘gender identity’. So what, you might say. But sex is observable: even without peering at genitals humans can identify with near-perfect accuracy whether another human is male or female. Even my 18-month-old can do it and she’s only just learned the words for ‘man’ and ‘lady’. But once someone can declare themselves legally ‘male’ or ‘female’ simply by filling in a form, based on no external factors whatsoever and simply their feeling about what they are, sex stops being an observable property of everyone’s physical selves and becomes ‘gender identity’, an abstract property of everyone’s inner life. At that moment the final arbiter of who is or isn’t male or female stops being the evidence of your and everyone else’s eyes.

In order for ‘gender identity’ to have any meaning, therefore, it needs to be ratified by – guess who? Enter your friendly bureaucratic state. The government will have abolished your sex and given you something called a ‘gender identity’ instead, to which of course only the government can give binding force.

Michael Merrick’s brilliant essay The Labour Family sets out how the same radically individualist concept of ‘liberty’ – articulated on the right in the economic sphere and on the left in the social –  placed the state in direct competition with social structures, networks and traditions as the prime means of individuals’ support.

For liberty to flourish the state had to remain neutral toward the conduct of those residing within it. It could dispense justice where contracts were unjustly breached, but the manner in which they were drawn, the manner in which they ended, and the manner in which they affected third parties and society as a whole remained outside the purview of the state. Yet it also needed vigorous protection and a legislative commitment to mitigate the fallout from such self-centred accounts of freedom. This put the state in direct competition with that supportive web of relationships that traditionally regulated individual behaviour as well as helped absorb fallout when required. In providing an alternative to these networks, in rendering associative, reciprocal, mutualistic society no longer at the core of individual progress and preservation, the state had begun to monopolise the space where society used to be. The result was corrosive to any sort of relational politics; a system with a focus on outcomes, as Ruth Porter explains, ‘removes any connection between action and consequence. In doing so, it destroys the very reflex which encourages moral action. By consequence, this breeds a sense of entitlement. This undermines social bonds both in families and also communities more broadly.

The paradox in the dynamic outlined above is that in order for liberty – understood in a strictly individualistic sense – to flourish, the state increasingly took the place of the customs and networks that had traditionally regulated behavour, thus growing – in the name of freedom – ever bigger.

In a traditionally understood concept of identity, each of us is recognised by those around us as those things we are, in the social sphere: a mother, a husband, a writer, a daughter, a good cook, a teller of jokes, etc. Without that social recognition, that echo returning from the Other that says ‘I see you, and yes, I agree with you that you are [that thing you feel you are]’, each person’s inner feeling about who or what she is can be nothing but empty yearning.

But in the radical individualist new world we are entering, each person’s inner feeling of personal identity is not only paramount but the only truth. Interpellation by the other is, we are told, rendered null and void. Only thus can each individual be freed from the oppressive social gaze to flourish as the unique marvel he or she (or ze or hir or whatever) is.

But there’s a catch. If it’s not the people around me who affirm my identity, it has to happen somewhere. So naturally, again, the state steps in. Much as the state stepped in to create government-sanctioned structures intended to replace those stifling social networks and conventions that had hitherto regulated behaviour, here again in the name of freedom the state gets even bigger.

The proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act are as colossal a power grab by the state as the proposal to make organ donation opt-out rather than opt-in. Not only does the state propose to own my physical organs by default, it also proposes to become the ultimate arbiter – over the heads of all those around me and even of observable truth – of whether I am male or female. Not content with inserting itself between individuals and their social spheres, the state must insert itself between us and our very sex, arrogating to itself the right to determine the truth of something which is in fact inscribed in every cell of our bodies.

 

Secondly, blasphemy. Think I’m joking? Consider this: once the government is established as the final – the only – arbiter of whether I am male or female, then disagreeing with the government’s view that this person or this person or this person are, in fact, women represents an assault on government power. I don’t get to argue with the government about what the rate of income tax is, and if the government says person X is a woman, then they are a woman. Combine that with hate speech rules (which have already shown an alarming degree of mission creep) and you have a situation where refusing to tell lies that have been sanctioned by the state as the truth could land me with a fine or in jail. If that isn’t a de facto blasphemy law I don’t know what is. Indeed in a recent court case where a young trans-identified male, ‘Tara’ Wolf was convicted of assaulting a 60-year-old woman, the judge reduced the fine and declined to award compensation because the victim did not always refer to her male attacker using female pronouns.

To be clear, I don’t really care how people dress or present themselves. I think the world would be a nicer place if we didn’t set quite so much store by whether someone was wearing a frock or makeup or whatever. I’ll even call a man ‘she’ out of politeness, if politeness is warranted. But a dress, hormone supplementation or cosmetic surgery don’t alter someone’s actual sex. The state has no place insisting otherwise. Nor does the state have any place announcing that in fact sex is irrelevant and that to help us be freer it will helpfully supply and manage for each of us a new tailored and oh-so-individual gender identity. But as that awful Breitbart man once said, politics is downstream from culture; the push in our culture continues to be away from the social (relationally understood) toward the radically individualised; I fear many of us will be blaspheming before this phenomenon works itself out.

Master of Eton: trans girls are not really girls

The Master of Eton has announced that should any of his pupils decide to ‘change their gender’ they would be allowed to remain in the school. Now, I’ve met my share of Old Etonians and basis that experience the notion of any current Eton pupil opting to do this seems vanishingly remote. But, says the Master of Eton, if a pupil did he would not be asked to leave the school.

This has been reported by The Guardian as a nice progressive thing. But he also says that Eton has no plans to admit girls. Think about that for a minute. If Eton has no plans to admit girls, but would permit a transgender ‘girl’ to remain at the school, then clearly he considers them to be really boys. Or at least not girls.

I’m not going to do a long rant about male privilege here. But something odd is going on. Trans women seem keen to assert their womanhood in order to insert themselves into women’s changing rooms and other sex-segregated places, but considerably more reluctant to accept a post-transition exclusion from spaces where natal women would not be admitted. Bruce Jenner retains his golf club membership post-transition; the Savile Club in Mayfair has permitted a member to remain despite being in transition to ‘become a woman’. And it appears that the world-class education at Eton, not available to natal girls, is (hypothetically at least) nonetheless available to trans ones.

The ratchet of exclusion, it seems, only works one way. Trans females are 100% genuinely female when it comes to their participation in female spaces, but exceptions are somehow made when the prospect of relinquishing their access to exclusive all-male clubs and societies rears its head. Funny that.

Trans women can’t have it both ways. If Bruce, or the nameless Savile member, or any other male putative ‘woman’ really wants to be a woman, then they should take it for the team and stand down. Accept their exclusion like the natal women they claim they really truly have been all along. Otherwise these august establishments are confirming what women have been saying all along: trans women aren’t really women. If they were, we’d exclude them.

Where is the outrage at this rampant transphobia? Trans activists should be picketing Eton College, Sherwood Country Club and the Savile Club to demand that they treat their transgender members as real women and exclude them. And the fact that this isn’t happening does nothing to dispel the impression natal women are getting, that not even trans women really think they’re women. Not in situations where being a woman might actually have a downside.

Reading today: Camille Paglia on sex crime

The horrors and atrocities of history have been edited out of primary and secondary education except where they can be blamed on racism, sexism, and imperialism — toxins embedded in oppressive outside structures that must be smashed and remade. But the real problem resides in human nature, which religion as well as great art sees as eternally torn by a war between the forces of darkness and light.

Liberalism lacks a profound sense of evil.

http://time.com/3444749/camille-paglia-the-modern-campus-cannot-comprehend-evil/

Why votes at 16 would be terrible for democracy

I am pleased to see the Conservative Party has used an arcane bit of filibustering to scotch Labour’s latest attempt to extend the franchise to 16-year-olds.

It is not immediately clear why the Labour Party is making so much of extending the franchise below 18, though a cynic might point to the idealism of youth and the overwhelmingly left-wing politics of the educational establishment which young people are now legally obliged to continue encountering until the age of 18. But it should not be permitted to happen.

If you look at the people who advocate for votes at 16, they are invariably well-insulated from the consequences of bad politics. Teenagers typically live with their parents and do not pay tax (or certainly the kind of teenager who gets het up about the franchise is unlikely to be already in work and living independently) and as such have relatively little stake in the hard consequences that result from a general election, except at one remove via their parents.

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The kind of teenager who gets passionately het up about politics and wants to vote

Along with the kind of teenager who gets passionately het up about politics as a kind of abstract and vehicle for high-minded ideals (see illustrative example above), and who has little skin in the game as he or she does not yet pay tax or incur adult responsibilities, the other kind of voice calling to extend the franchise is a certain kind of career politician. Such people are insulated from the consequences of bad politics by an influential network, a good salary and plenty of job opportunities should he or she be voted out. For career politicians advocating the policy, extending the franchise is either a kind of grandstanding (you could call it attempting to cling to the coattails of the Pankhursts perhaps) or (whisper it) perhaps a cynical attempt to recruit an extra 1.5 million voters with little life experience and, it is presumed, in the main quite left-wing ideals.

The problem is that these two groups busy trying to tamper with the franchise, at little personal cost to themselves, are trivialising it in the process. Voting seems trivial to them, because the outcome of general elections don’t change much for them. But regular adult voters, who pay tax or receive benefits, drive on the roads, have to navigate the healthcare etc etc, voting is one of the few real and substantive levers available to make a meaningful impact on the direction of the country. Extending the franchise to children too young to drive, to end their education legally or to live independently without their parents’ permission would confirm the already pervasive suspicion that no serious decision is ever put to the electorate in case they make the wrong choice. (The EU referendum is the single, wonderful, accidental exception to that rule, for which the political class will never forgive David Cameron.)

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote we have a chance to return politics to the people and away from the stifling consensus that has deadened political engagement since the end of the Cold War. As Sam Hooper puts it

for too long Britain has been run by cautious, unambitious identikit drones who nominally belong to Team Red or Team Blue but ultimately hold the same basic worldview and seek to inch us incrementally toward their shared vision of the future, without even thinking to meaningfully consult with the people or explain their actions.

The electorate rejected that consensus, decisively. In Robert Peston’s words, the electorate threw all the cards up in the air because it was our only chance to do so. We have a chance now to return democracy to something in which voters have an impact – an end to consensus politics, a chance to put all the options back on the table, to return to politics red in tooth and claw. But for that to happen, politics has to be the preserve of grownups. I don’t buy this idea that minors should have a say too, because they will live with the consequences longer. If that were the case, my 14-month-old toddler should also have a vote, and hers should count more than the teenager’s since after all she is going to live with the consequences longer. Right?

No. You have to draw a line, and anyone who has spent any time talking to 16-year-olds (the normal sort, not the sort that makes speeches at Labour Party conferences) knows that even 18 is pushing it and 16 is just silly. Unless, that is, you intend for voting to be a kind of decorative ritual on top of a technocratic politics that continues along the path its mandarins consider best regardless of which team is notionally in power. In that case, it makes very little difference whether teenagers vote or not, because it makes very little difference if any of us do. But if we want to preserve voting as something that can obtain a meaningful result, on topics that matter, it should not be the preserve of children.