Most people who spend any time on the internets will by now be familiar with the strange spectacle of a vocal minority of transgender activists – usually male to female – seeking to further public acceptance of transgender people by shouting at feminists.
At the root of the argument is the feminists’ contention that many of the things that make being a woman a bit crap as compared to the average man are specifically contingent on 1) being born and raised with female primary and secondary sex characteristics and 2) having been raised in a way that recognises that fact and as a result assigns the bearer a load of societally-defined expectations clustered under the banner ‘being a woman’. Thus, to put it simply, you need to have had a cunt from the beginning to be on the team.
The transwomen’s contention, on the other hand, is that in fact being a woman has nothing to do either with how you are formed physically or how you were treated during your childhood, but is instead a state-independent condition experienced inwardly in a ‘gender identity’. No-one really seems to have a clear explanation for how or why people obtain their ‘gender identity’ or how it may evolve separately from physiological sex in some cases. But the notion that gender is experienced inwardly, independently of physiology, is then supported by studies that purport to show differences between men’s and women’s brains, which claim that the brains of transgendered people are more like those of the opposite sex.
The brain scan studies are of dubious value. The argument fundamentally rests on a philosophical stance that privileges subjective experience over observable reality. Originating in a Marxian critique of Enlightenment universalism, post-modern critiques of such a concept as ‘observable reality’ contend that there is no such thing, as certain powerful groups get to decide what counts as ‘observable reality’ and shape the consensus on its nature to further their own interests. Observable reality is, thus, less of an agreed platform for social interaction than a suffocating fug of false consciousness imposed upon us all in order to perpetuate the status quo and all its oppressions. In that context, the only testimonies that matter are personal, individual ones; and the greater the payload of oppression the testifier has suffered, the more weight his or her testimony should have.
This, then, is the context in which the Great Tranny Vs Feminazi Deathmatch is taking place. Paradoxically, feminists were one of the many groups who argued that for oppressed groups to make headway, the concept of ‘observable reality’ needed to be challenged. How, else, could one question the ‘observable reality’ that women are better at unpaid caretaking, while men are better at running the world? So it has been in women’s interests to question the concept of realities that just are, unaffected by the operations of power or ideology.
This has, as they say, come back to bite the feminists on the bum. Among devotees of these theories, all reality is now tainted by the operations of power and ideology, none of it is consensual: reality is stolen from those weaker than us. And nowhere is this more so than our material, sexed bodies. And because no consensus can be formed any more about what a woman is, suddenly a woman is anyone who says they are one.
The trouble with this stance, in the context of transgendered people and women, is that their interests are mutually exclusive. I won’t rehash in detail the feminist critique of transgender arguments as a quick Google should tell you everything you need to know (if you can bear it); but Sheila Jeffries’ testimony to the Transgender Equality Enquiry sums it up. Briefly, feminists argue that gender (as opposed to sex) is a socially-created construct whatever your genitals and as such we should be working to get rid of it, while biological sex is the only reality we can stick to and hence this should form the basis of discussions about who ‘is’ or ‘is not’ a ‘woman’. Transgender activists, conversely, argue that gender is a socially-created performance whatever your genitals, and therefore it is the only reality. And so we should stop talking about biological differences or we’re being oppressive.
Now, whether or not you think women are sufficiently oppressed, in this day and age, to need a feminist movement, this is madness. Because I have always been a woman, my penis is a woman’s penis? No it isn’t, you fool. Observable reality says there is such a thing as a male sex and a female sex. But wait, observable reality is a politically suspect concept, and wasn’t it you who said that the pain and suffering of those marginalised by such universalist notions should be foregrounded? So stick that in your pipe and smoke it, feminists. And so it goes on.
My hope is that the experience of being hoist with their own Oppression Olympics petard will force at least one type of social-justice warrior (feminists) to see the logic of identity politics for what it is: a whining, corrosive and fundamentally politically useless doctrine that sets all against all in a competition for the mantle of Most Oppressed, while shooting any hope of common discursive ground out from under us in the process. The depressing alternative is the one exemplified by the frankly crackers online whinge-fest Everyday Feminism, whose USP is clickbait-style checklists of ways in which you and I can offend micro-subsets of different grievance categories through thoughtless actions such as showing photos of our children to colleagues in the workplace. In that world no solidarity is possible; all conversations take place on eggshells; the world is, for each of us, what we say it is and each of these worldviews is valid, beautiful and insulated from critique or indeed any burden of proof. Conflicts between personal realities are settled through reference to a pre-determined hierarchy of oppressions in which the more intersections you have on the Venn diagram the more people you are permitted to silence.
Much more is at stake here than the ability to have meaningful conversations about ways in which owning a vagina has downsides. This is about whether humans are able to have any kind of conversation that takes some real-world referents for granted, or whether the notion of ‘real world’ is considered so politically loaded that each of us is left isolated in a kind of miasmic solipsism disrupted only by the nudges and shoves of other ideological attempts to rain on our personal parade.
Arguably the hyper-individualist style of ‘social justice’ exemplified above is a luxury afforded us by a relatively affluent, peaceful and equal society. My hope is that the very cultural specificity of the social-justice movement as enacted by Tumblr proves to be its downfall, and that the practical obviousness of the continued need for a global women’s rights movement succeeds in challenging our collective descent into ideologically atomised madness. But don’t be fooled: this is more than a trivial spat between competing grievance-mongers.
It is clear that the left is enjoying something of a moment, not just in the UK but across most of the West. It has reduced universities to censorious leftist monocultures, is busy imposing its ever more deranged zombie religion of political correctness in public debate and is so effusively full of confidence in its command of the cultural moment that ‘Acid Corbynism’ has caused quite a stir at this year’s Labour Party conference (fringe). Meanwhile the right-leaning press is full of gloomy arguments discussing the Tories’ oncoming demographic Armageddon and crisis of political confidence.
Mulling this over, it strikes me as strange that conservatives should feel thus on the back foot, when there is so much to preserve, so much to care for and pass on to the next generation. The whole of Western civilisation, in fact. Why, then, are conservatives so embarrassed about wishing to conserve?
The doctrine of postmodernism, which advances a wedge of dilettante erudition ahead of its jackhammer of angry philistinism, has used its assault on the concept of canon to leave the best part of three decades’ worth of Western university graduates with barely a piecemeal grasp of their cultural heritage. Even this is filtered for them by their tutors through a lens of guilty identity politics, that reduces everything it touches, no matter how sublime or beautiful, to an ugly scrum for power under ‘cisheteropatriarchy’.
The result is three decades of graduates that simply do not see anything worth conserving. Where conservatism sees our culture as a collective endeavour worth contributing to and continuing, a flame that we all help to carry, the graduates of postmodernism see it as a monolithic engine of marginalisation. A pervasive, miasmic, indestructible force for perpetuating in-groups and injustice, to which the only legitimate reaction is resistance and subversion, and the amplification of voices deemed marginalised. It is in this fundamental perception that much of the ‘snowflake’ stereotype resides, for today’s university students naturally wish to align themselves with the marginalised rather than their imaginary plutocratic oppressors. This leads in turn to the strange phenomenon of Ivy League students, arguably some of the most privileged young people on the planet, throwing public tantrums when their pain and oppression is not validated.
But I digress. My argument is that conservatism’s crisis of confidence lies in the fact that even conservatives have been infected with postmodernism’s anxiety about whether Western civilisation really is worth saving. How could it be otherwise, when we study at the same universities, participate in (to an extent) the same public discourse, live and work with those who would take a hammer to our past? And if it isn’t worth saving, what are are conservatives but a bunch of intransigent junk-hoarders? Or perhaps conservatives just really dig the cisheteropatriarchy? Perhaps they just get off on shitting on marginalised groups and exploiting the poor?
You can see where the current leftist narrative about conservatism originates, and perhaps you begin to see why conservatives struggle to articulate counter-narrative. Because a counter-narrative to this nihilistic, pomo 21st-century mutation of leftism would require saying: I reject your basic premise. Western civilisation is a remarkable collective achievement of some five thousand years and deserves our humble appreciation and positive contribution, not this childish window-smashing. Everything I believe in stems from this premise, while you seem to believe progress can only come about when we tear it all down: the statues, the literature, the music, the architecture, the very notion of high culture itself. And as long as conservatives have even the shadow of a fear that the pomo nihilists might have a point, there is nothing to defend. Nothing to conserve. And if that is true, conservatism really does degrade merely to cheerleading for free-market capitalism or else embittered white nationalism, frothing on Twitter about Islam.
There is something worth conserving. We must say it. Own it. What is Acid Corbynism to the Parthenon, to Rilke, to the sweep of English literature from Beowulf to The Waste Land? To Beethoven’s Ninth? Chartres cathedral? We must fight for our heritage, speak proudly of it, put effort into knowing and sharing it. Don’t let it be destroyed by petty, envious philistinism disguised as radical egalitarianism. In embracing and loving our cultural heritage, and arguing without shame for its continuation, we anchor conservatism in something greater than market capitalism or nativism: in the astonishing sweep of many thousands of years of cultural achievement. A flame worth our helping to carry it on.
a few quick notes on something that has been troubling me for a while.
some basic premises of democracy:
- a demos: group of people with enough shared culture, aims, sense of solidarity
- enables both voting on issues of interest to whole group AND acceptance of majority rule when it goes against them
- presumption of equality, rationality and common humanity
- national groupings seen as arbitrary or harmful
- replaces these with demographic ‘identity’ groupings – sex, age, race etc
- plays down importance of class (lip service in theory, little in practice)
- demographic ‘identity’ groupings associated with a predetermined hierarchy of victimhood
- this hierarchy is presumed to warp or wholly supplant political priorities as stated by any given demos
- objections to this represent either oppression (if coming from someone ‘higher’ up the HoV) or false consciousness if from someone with more oppressed characteristics
- solidarity for common political cause is rendered difficult or impossible because
- no-one can speak for someone with different victim characteristics
- hence large coalitions fragment into fractious special pleading by competing splinter groups
- common humanity – or even enough cohesive group identity – as basis for overall unity of a demos is problematised to the point where majority voting is no longer tolerated
identity politics often uses a deadening form of ‘tolerance’ to obscure the fact that the interests of different groups may be fundamentally opposed – see for example the conflict between the rights claims of transgender activists and those of radical feminists
this is not a zero sum game necessarily but it is not enough simply to ignore it, or resolve it by using the victim hierarchy to render one side of the argument morally unmentionable
we are in danger of throwing the baby of rational debate on a (presumed) level playing field out with the bathwater of enlightenment universalism
and without a social convention of rational debate, in which all are presumed equal and in which all speech is permissible an all positions up for discussion, we have lost a fundamental premise of democracy for we cannot discuss the issues
and without a presumption of some cohesion and commonality, however contingent (accidents of birth, geography, culture) we cannot presume enough solidarity to vote on them
and without debate, and a vote which all can accept, we have no democracy.
is that really where we are going?
What are British values
Freedom, tolerance, gender equality?
Compared to the power of a theocratic Game of Thrones drama, it’s laughably weak
But the Euro elites’ response to each Islamist atrocity is the same – no passion or pride for country because that’s just what the enemy wants.
Obsessive clinging to a bloodless ideal of what Europe is, underpinned by a generalised fear of nationalism and pervasive guilt about our past deeds and present wealth; everyone wants to come here, but we ourselves are forbidden to be proud of it.
Americans recite the oath of allegiance, salute the flag, hang flags everywhere. In Britain the same level of patriotism would be seen as incitement to racism, a foible of the working classes to be tolerated with a shudder.
No wonder radicalism is able to flourish here: the intelligentsia of the country of Shakespeare, Austen and Wordsworth, Watson and Crick, Darwin, Sir Christopher Wren and indeed Sir Norman Foster is ashamed of its past and culture.
- rape culture
- protecting women
- sexual segregation
- consent education
- 60s liberalism threw the door open to ‘do what thou wilt’ and we are seeing the backlash now that people have begun to take that injunction at face value
As I start drafting this I note glumly that, though I support a Leave vote in the forthcoming EU referendum, I don’t think the British will vote that way. The UK electorate is, on the whole, small-c conservative and most of us are quite used to EU interference and perhaps even enjoy being able to grumble about it. Not enough of us get agitated enough about issues of national sovereignty to swing it.
But I also think the EU is going to implode, possibly catastrophically. Not because of its poor performance as a customs union, the disastrous effects of the single currency on the eurozone southern states or even its appalling democratic deficit. These are all symptoms, rather than causes.
The reason the EU will implode is because it is run by people who not only don’t understand ordinary voters with ordinary lives, they actively fear and despise them. In EU circles, ‘populism’ is code for ‘democracy’ and seen as a bad thing. Electorates should be kept in the dark as much as possible, fed simple stories and coaxed along with a mixture of bribes, fearmongering and good old-fashioned obfuscation.
This is all very well in times of peace and plenty. Everyone rubs along and no-one really notices that the ruling elites don’t give a stuff what the electorate want, or indeed that this elite has put in place a system that ensures they don’t have to give a stuff what the electorate wants as they don’t need a popular mandate of any kind to implement it.
But what happens when things start getting a bit hairy? When, for example, contractionary eurozone policies result in 50% youth unemployment in Spain? Or democratically elected governments in Italy, Greece and (arguably) Portugal are deposed for not agreeing with the EU? Or when Juncker decides it wants to force quotas of migrants onto EU countries against the wills of their electorates? (As it happens, this last plan more or less fell apart because numerous EU countries simply refused to go along with the plan; but the technocratic indifference to popular opinion was clear.)
Eurosceptic parties are on the rise across the continent. A significant contributor to this phenomenon is a growing, and in my view well-founded suspicion on the part of electorates across the EU that they are not being listened to. Worse still, even if they are being listened to by their elected leaders, the power to make changes has been taken away from these leaders and is now above their pay grade.