Feminism vs trans-cis-demi-genderblah: why you should care

Very much enjoyed Sam Harris’podcasted discussion with Douglas Murray on topics ranging from transgenderism to leftist apologism for Islamic terrorists and the migrant crisis. Towards the end he said (I’m paraphrasing slightly) something to the effect that he’d given up on the left and its narcissism of small differences, could not bring himself to care about its internecine battles because sod them, there are more important matters at stake.

I do broadly agree with him that there are more important things going on in the world at present than the debate about whether or not a penis can be female (of course it can’t, you idiot, it’s a penis). Nonetheless, the quarrel between the feminists and the transgenderists is worth paying attention to, even if you’ve reached a general state of exasperation with the entire grievance-mongering, self-flagellating, virtue-signalling, political paralysis-inducing nonsense that is the post-Cold War leftism of identity.

It’s worth keeping an eye on because to my eye it is evidence of some (albeit tiny) green shoots of hope. One of my core frustrations with identity politics, and more broadly with the speech code restrictions it imposes on society in general, is the way it insists on dealing only with the world as it should be. Any inconvenient facts about the world as it actually is are either ignored, denied, explained away or countered with shrill accusations of bigotry.

Remaining with the feminists, for example, this can be seen in the rage that breaks out whenever somebody dares suggest that women who don’t want to get taken advantage of might want to consider not getting falling-down drunk in the company of oversexed men with dubious morals. Of course ‘She was drunk and I was horny and she didn’t say no’ is no excuse for raping an unconscious woman, however she came to be unconscious. But some unpleasant scumbags will take advantage, and the best way to avoid being the victim is not to get shitfaced when surrounded by dodgy pervs. And yet any attempt to point this out is met with furious accusations of ‘rape apology’ and ‘victim blaming’. On the one hand here, we have people who adhere rigidly to a vision of the world as they believe it should be (any sexual contact not preceded by explicit consent is assault) and wish to police all departures from that vision. On the other, we have those who observe the world as it is (most people are okay but there are some predatory toerags out there) and wish to take pragmatic steps to encourage individuals to use their judgement to avoid unpleasant outcomes.

One of the recurring themes of Murray and Harris’ podcast was the bad faith with which the left has attempted to silence or toxify the real and necessary discussion around Islamism and integration of migrants in Western societies. We could see this as another instance of one side insisting only on a discussion of the world as it should be (everyone is nice to everyone regardless of faith; white people are extra nice to brown people because colonialism) meeting and condemning in the shrillest possible terms others’ desire to discuss the world as it is (many Muslims have no desire to integrate in the West; further, some of these think the West is a sink of moral squalor and are willing to blow themselves up in order to combat this iniquitous den of moral filth).

The strange insistence of this type of leftism on denying any narrative but that of the world as the imaginer would like it to be be finds a natural common cause with the genderists. Here, the privileging of wishful thinking over observable reality becomes an individual’s emancipatory right: I am whatever gender I say I am, because no-one else can dictate my identity but me. This sacralisation of solipsism as a human right further demands that any physiological facts that contradict the individual’s self-definition, such as possession of the wrong sex organs, are simply discounted. Because I say I am a woman, my penis is a womanly penis. And because most of the arguing I do about this is on the internet, whether or not I actually have a penis seems, some of the time at least, less relevant. Therefore, I will claim that it is not relevant at all and in fact that mentioning said penis makes you an oppressive bigot.

Returning to the quarrel between the feminists and the genderists, my slender green shoot of hope  grows from the fact that feminism may now be forced to lead the charge against the madness of identity politics. For if genderism is allowed to run riot, feminism stops being possible. I’m not talking about the whiny type of virtue-signalling feminism that tries to get prominent scientists sacked or protein shake adverts banned; I’m talking about the very necessary type of feminism that runs women’s refuges or rape helplines, and campaigns for abortion rights and against FGM. Because the world is still, in quite a few ways, a more difficult place to navigate safely if you’re the owner of tits and a uterus than if you’re the owner of a penis. Most of the pragmatic, grass-roots, truly meaningful feminism aims to address problems that accrue to women because of their physiology. But if the genderists win, and focusing on the physiological aspect of these difficulties is erased because it conflicts between the genderists’ vision of the world as it should be, then feminism becomes conceptually impossible. Thankfully, numerous feminists have woken up to this and are insisting that no, your delicate feelings and desire for me not to rain on your parade does not take priority over certain immutable physiological facts and no, pointing that out doesn’t make me a bigot, it makes your protests deluded and monumentally self-absorbed if not actually mentally ill. Because that’s what we’re talking about: a group of people who wish to rewrite reality in the name of social justice. We need to call this what it is – madness – and pedal rapidly backwards from the conceptual framework that permits this madness to take hold.

I understand the reluctance of many to get involved in the internecine quarrels of the left. Nonetheless I would urge anyone who is concerned about the increasing fragmentation of Western culture, and particularly the inability of our intelligentsia to counter divisive grievance and oppression narratives with observable and accepted facts, to make common cause with those feminists currently in the front line of the fight to save the reality-based community.

SJWars: Trans ultras vs Radical Feminists, and why it matters even if you aren’t trans or a feminist

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.

notes: identity politics is not compatible with democracy

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

identity politics:

  • 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?

Labour chucks women under the bus. Again

Guido Fawkes reports on yet another gender segregated rally in Oldham, attended by Labour MPs.

Remember, this is the party of the appalling pink campaign bus with the vaguely pornographic name, aimed at making women – those hair-and-makeup-obsessed idiots marginalised by all those nasty penis-owning politicians – engage more in politics because, er, pink. And Harriet Harman.

Newsflash, Harriet. If you showed an ounce of spine in challenging the sort of vacillating, self-interested equivocation that allows an Oldham by-election to be fought in campaign rallies where women sit off to one side – because it’s cultural discrimination, so that’s OK apparently – then perhaps a few women would take you more seriously when you try and pitch yourself as actually giving a shit about women’s rights. But the Left doesn’t give a shit about women’s rights. This fact is well documented. Like all other types of minority rights, the Left is only interested in women’s rights insofar as they can be used as a platform for virtue-signalling and painting the opposition as nasty antediluvian bigots. But when it comes to actually making difficult decisions, involving actual moral principles rather than a wet sort of relativism allied to a ruthless craving for power, what do we see?

Sit over there, sisters, and welcome to the new champions of tolerance and gender equality.

Reading today: We can’t keep the bad guys out; the turn against Marxism; the maintenance of civilisation

Rosa Brooks for Foreign Policy writes on how we can’t keep the terrorists out.

Cressida Heyes for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy discusses the retreat of radical left politics into the American academy as a possible motivator for its focus on identity rather than class issues.

Sam Harris and Douglas Murray discuss migrants, terrorism, Anglicanism and Jack Monroe (podcast, 1:56).

 

The science of finger-wagging

Not long ago, a relative of mine asked to see me and my husband to discuss ‘a concern’. Somewhat bemused, we agreed; it transpired that what he wanted to raise with us was his worries about what he perceived to be our excessive consumption of alcohol while trying to conceive a child. In essence his message was that we should stop drinking or the result would be a child with behavioural problems and/or special needs.

His concern was, he told us, born of his ‘studies in biology’. He came armed with helpful print-outs of articles from the internet, one for me and one for my husband. He even had notes about ‘the science’.

Never mind the accuracy of his perception that either of us is a raving alcoholic (we’re not) or indeed the validity of the ‘science’ he wanted to share with us (debatable) or indeed the appropriateness of a not particularly close family member attempting an intervention in such a profoundly intimate area of our married life (extremely debatable). The point of relating this distasteful episode in our family life is to exemplify a general trend that has only become apparent to me since notions of parenthood appeared on my radar: namely the co-option of ‘science’ to deliver what are, essentially, moral precepts.

Two things collide here. The first is the general injunction in modern society to avoid being ‘judgemental’, for fear of the cruelties this will supposedly inflict on anyone experiencing moral censure. (Theodore Dalrymple writes beautifully on this subject here, arguing in essence that while the backlash against moral censure is in some ways a justified reaction against past cruelties, determined refusal to apply moral judgement to individuals can result in far worse cruelties especially when institutionalised in the mechanisms of the social state.)

The second is the ebbing away of any source of authority except science. Religions are increasingly perceived as sources less of moral authority than of bigotry; received opinion is ignorant until proven enlightened; we no longer listen to what our mothers told us about childrearing, preferring to rely on ‘guidelines’ issued by bodies such as the WHO. This is by no means confined to child-rearing but assumes particular force  when applied to the sensitive subjects of bringing new humans into the world and their subsequent nurture.

The result is a situation in which moral precepts (women should not drink, at all) piggyback on sensible advice (don’t neck a bottle of vodka a day while pregnant or it will harm your baby) and are delivered in a supposedly ‘non-judgemental’ way via ‘scientific’ studies of dubious validity. The advice they offer is that because it cannot be proven that any level of alcohol consumption in or around pregnancy is 100% safe, it should be avoided entirely. The fact that the same could be said of any number of substances is neither here nor there; the motivation for choosing to focus on alcohol is obscured and the finger-wagging can proceed.

Emily Oster’s delightfully nerdy book Expecting Better provides solid meta-analysis of many of these studies, offering anxious modern mothers a route through the anxious discourse of pseudoscientific finger-wagging. What it has less room for, though, is a critique of the culture within which science is thus weaponised. Frank Furedi notes on this subject that

If science is turned into a moralising project, its ability to develop human knowledge will be compromised. It will also distract people from developing a properly moral understanding of the problems that face humanity in the twenty-first century. Those who insist on treating science as a new form of revealed truth should remember Pascal’s words: ‘We know the truth, not only by reason, but also by the heart.’

It is no surprise that this is evident nowhere more than in discourses around childrearing: all societies feel, justifiably, that they have a vested interest in the processes whereby new members are created and socialised. No area straddles the public and private sphere more delicately. There can surely be few areas where taking a moral stance is more understandable, and the obfuscation of such stances behind pseudoscience is disingenuous at best, if not downright destructive both to meaningful science but also to our shared understanding of right and wrong.

With all this in mind I would have preferred my relative to come right out with the moral stance. I would have disabused him of his mistaken perception of my lifestyle and all would have been well. As it is, the cloaking of morality in science has left an uneasy sense of a misperception impossible to rectify because cloaked, an insulting criticism impossible to challenge because disavowed, and an unhappy rift in my family circle.