Stop telling us feminism means making women work more

Figures released recently by the ONS show that 3 in 4 mothers with dependent children are now in work, more than ever before. Second-wave feminism has long treated women’s entry into the workplace as an unalloyed good. The ONS numbers, and the rise in the number of working women, were met in just this way by Claire Cohen at the Telegraph, who writes that this rise is ‘surely good news, but we need to examine what sort of work these women are doing. Have they been forced to cut their hours to care for their children, as one in three women told the ONS they had compared with just one in 20 men?’

Cohen’s turn of phrase suggests millions of women chased weeping from rewarding careers into resentful servitude wiping bottoms and scrubbing doorsteps. Children are presented as a burden, or an obstacle to the more satisfying business of slaving over a hot spreadsheet. The ONS report is more circumspect, observing rather more neutrally: “Almost 3 in 10 mothers (28.5%) with a child aged 14 years and under said they had reduced their working hours because of childcare reasons. This compared with 1 in 20 fathers (4.8%).” So are women, as Cohen puts it, really being ‘forced’ by the inconvenient demands of dependent children to crush their career aspirations under the burden of school pickups and bottom-wiping?

Back in 2001, sociologist Catherine Hakim presented a multidisciplinary approach to understanding women’s divergent work-related choices in the 21st century: ‘preference theory’. She showed how five transformations have coincided to give the majority of women in advanced liberal economies more choice about their lives than ever before: contraception, equal opportunities, the expansion of white-collar work, the creation of jobs for secondary earners and a general increase in the importance of individual choice within liberalism.

Hakim argues that in the context of these transformations, women’s greater freedom is expressed in three main preference clusters: home-centred, work-centred or adaptive. In other words, given the choice, around 20% of women will choose a home-centred life, 20% of women will choose a work-centred one and the rest – the vast majority – will prefer a mix of both.

The ‘adaptive’ group, she suggests, is the most diverse, containing women who want to combine work and family as well as career ‘drifters’ and those who would prefer not to work but are compelled to from economic necessity. As a group they are responsive to social policy, employment policy, equal opportunities legislation, economic cycles and other policy changes governing areas such as school timetables, part-time working, childcare and so on.

Though Hakim’s work on preference theory is nearly two decades old now, Equalities Office statistics released last week support her tripartite breakdown of women’s preferences: nearly two decades after her book was published, around 20% of UK mothers are working full-time, 20% are not working at all and the rest falling somewhere in between.

The Equalities Office sees women’s divergent employment behaviour post-baby as a bad thing, with the introduction full of discussion of the ‘large pay penalties’ experienced by women with children, and the ways in which taking time out to propagate the species is ‘damaging for career progression’. The inference throughout is that women are compelled through the unfortunate demands of motherhood to cramp their soaring career dreams to accommodate the exigencies of dependent children. The report as a whole is full of bright ideas for policy levers that could be applied in one way or another to equalise this post-baby burden between the sexes and equalise the working patterns of mothers and fathers. But if Hakim is right, is it not possible that today’s statistics just reflect the way women prefer to work?

Flexible working, maternity leave, good quality childcare and so on are excellent things and should be celebrated. But so is not feeling pressured by the entire aggregate voice of the policy and media machine to increase our labour force participation at the expense of time with our families. It should not be beyond the capacity of commentators and policy wonks to consider that plenty of us are working about as much as we’d like to, and just consider other things as important as, or more important than work: for example the ability to flex a schedule to nurse a convalescent toddler, rather than chasing her out to the childminder miserable and full of snot. Or (God help me) sewing Halloween costumes. These things matter too, even if no MP can take credit for them and they do not show up in the sainted GDP stats.

Rather than presenting women’s part-time preferences as evidence of the hill feminism still has to climb, or the malign depredations of sexism, those good people at the Equalities Office and elsewhere might turn their minds to ways in which the diverse range of mothers’ work and family priorities could be better supported – including those choosing to work less.

Why liberal feminists don’t care

A society that venerates health, youth and individual autonomy will not much enjoy thinking about birth or death. We are born helpless and need years of care until we reach the happy state of health and autonomy. At the other end of life, the same often applies: the Alzheimer’s Society tells us there are some 850,000 dementia patients in the UK and that this will rise to over a million by 2025 as life expectancy continues to rise.

If we are reluctant to dwell on the reality of human vulnerability at either end of life, we are unwilling to give much thought to its corollary: that (somewhere safely hidden from the more exciting business of being healthy, youthful and autonomous) there must be people caring for those who are unable to do it themselves. Someone is wiping those bottoms.

Traditionally, this job of caring for the very old and the very young has been “women’s work”. To a great extent, it still is: the OECD reports that, worldwide, women do between two and ten times as much caring work as men.

In the UK, this tends in statistics to be framed as “unpaid work”, a sort of poor relation of the economically productive type that happens in workplaces and contributes to GDP.

Carers UK suggests there are around 9 million people caring for others in the UK part or full-time, of whom up to 2.4 million are caring for both adults and their own children. Women carry out the lion’s share of this work: 60% according to the ONS. Full-time students do the least and, unsurprisingly, mothers with babies do the most. Older working women carry the heaviest load of people in employment, with those in the 50-60 bracket being twice as likely as their male counterparts to be carers whether of a vulnerable adult, a partner or a child or grandchild.

Second-wave feminism pushed hard against the pressure women experience to take on this work of caring. Within this variant of liberalism, caring work is routinely framed as a burden that imposes an economic “penalty” while harming the economy by keeping skilled women away from the workplace. The OECD report cited above states: “The gender gap in unpaid care work has significant implications for women’s ability to actively take part in the labour market and the type/quality of employment opportunities available to them.”

The implication is that, once freed of this obligation, women can then pursue more fulfilling activities in the workplace.

So what does this liberation look like in practice? According to a 2017 report by the Social Market Foundation, women in managerial and professional occupations are the least likely to provide care, as are people with degree qualifications. The number working in routine occupations who also donate more than 20 hours a week of care in their own homes is far higher than those in intermediate or professional occupation.

In other words, higher-earning women are to a far greater extent able to outsource the wiping of bottoms to less well-off people, who are themselves typically women: 90% of nurses and care workers are female.

These women are then too busy to wipe the bottoms of their own old and young, who are sent into institutional care. Such institutions are typically staffed by women, often on zero hours contracts, paid minimum wage to care for others all day before going home to do so for their own babies and elderly. The liberation of women from caring is in effect a kind of Ponzi scheme.

This is a problem for our liberal society, for two interlocking reasons. Firstly, the replacement of informal family-based care with a paid, institutional variety renders caring impersonal, in a way that invites cruelty. Indeed, cases of care home abuse are well documented – see herehere or here – and the number is rising: the CQC received more than 67,500 in 2018, an increase of 82 per cent over the already too high 2014 figure of 37,060.

It is difficult to see how this could be otherwise. Caring for those who are physically or mentally incapacitated is emotionally testing even when we love those we care for. An exhausted worker on a zero-hours contract, paid the minimum wage to perform more home visits than she can manage in the allotted day, is unlikely to have a great store of patience to begin with, let alone when faced with a refractory “client”. The entire system militates against kindness.

Secondly, and relatedly, it turns out that the informal, traditionally female networks in which caring for the young and old once took place were actually quite important. Those networks also ran church groups, village fetes, children’s play mornings – all the voluntary institutions that form the foundation of civil society.

When caring is treated as “unpaid work” and we are encouraged to outsource it in favour of employment, no one of adult working age has time for voluntary civil society activities any more. If the number of people caring informally for relatives is waning, replaced by institutional care, so is voluntarism: between 2005 and 2015 alone there was a 15% drop in the number of hours donated (ONS).

The result is loneliness. Almost 2.5m people aged between 45 and 64 now live alone in the UK, almost a million more than two decades ago. Around 2.2 million people over 75 live alone, some 430,000 more than in 1996. In 2017, the Cox Commission on loneliness described it as “a giant evil of our time”, stating that a profound weakening of social connections across society has triggered an “epidemic” of loneliness that is having a direct impact on our health.

Several generations into our great experiment in reframing caring as a burden, we are beginning to count the cost of replacing mutual societal obligations with individual self-fulfilment: an epidemic of loneliness, abuse of the elderly and disabled in care homes, substandard childcare. A society liberated from caring obligations is, with hindsight, a society liberated from much that was critically under-valued.

What is the alternative? Some would prefer a more communitarian approach to caring for the old and the young. Giles Fraser recently wrote on this site that caring for the elderly should be the responsibility of their offspring:

“Children have a responsibility to look after their parents. Even better, care should be embedded within the context of the wider family and community. […] Ideally, then, people should live close to their parents and also have some time availability to care for them. But instead, many have cast off their care to the state or to carers who may have themselves left their own families in another country to come and care for those that we won’t.”

These are strong words and there is much to agree with, but the barest glance at the statistics shows that in practice what that means is “women have a responsibility to look after their parents”.

If we are to count the costs of liberating society from mutual caring obligations, we must also count the benefits, as well as who enjoyed them. Society once encouraged men to seek worldly success, underpinned by the imposition of an often-suffocating domestic servitude on women.

Liberalism blew this out of the water by declaring that in fact both sexes were entitled to seek some form of worldly activity and fulfilment. It is not enough to point to negative side effects of this change and say: “Someone needs to be resuming these mutual caring obligations or society will disintegrate.”

To women well-accustomed to the widespread tacit assumption that it is they who will pick up those underpants, wash up that saucepan, pack that schoolbag and so on, this sounds a lot like a stalking-horse for reversal of societal changes that, on balance, most of us greatly appreciate. In truth no one, whether liberal or post-liberal, wants to confront the enormous elephant that liberal feminism left in society’s sitting room: the question of who cares. Who, now that we are all self-actualising, is going to wipe those bottoms? There are no easy answers.

This article first published in Unherd

Miserable babies in industrial childcare

THE Times reports that a chain of nurseries has invested in ‘frustration toys’ for children prone to biting. The Tops Day Nurseries operations director said: ‘The children learn that if they get the sudden desire to bite they can select a teething toy or similar to bite on to release the urge.’

With more than three-quarters of UK mothers of dependent children in work, non-maternal childcare is overwhelmingly the norm for young children in this country, and it makes its impact, at a mass scale, on their development.

Decades of research show that maternal attachment – meaning the strength and security of the bond between mother and young child – is of crucial importance in laying the foundations for psychological wellbeing in later life. We have known since 1997 that children spending more than ten hours a week in poor quality childcare are at increased risk of for unhappiness and insecurity.

That children left in ‘industrial’ childcare settings (however committed individual staff may be) are likely to be less secure than those cared for by a loving mother at home will not come as a shock to readers of The Conservative Woman. What is disturbing is the rising prevalence of nursery behaviour indicating infants’ frustration and unhappiness. It suggests an epidemic of infant misery across the country as barely-verbal preschoolers shuttle between screen time at home as their overworked parents scrabble to complete domestic chores around full-time jobs, and sometimes chaotic nursery settings which function less as caring environments for development than holding facilities for children whose parents cannot afford to look after them themselves.

Stones would weep for these poor babies. For their mothers as well: I know too many women who spent weeks in a state of bereavement, sobbing in the office loos on returning to work after maternity leave. Eventually, those mothers became accustomed to suppressing the visceral desire to be physically close to their baby (for a 12-month-old is still a baby). Presumably their babies adjust – at whatever cost – as well. But for the most part, these sobbing mothers are returning not to fulfilling careers but to mundane jobs. They have little choice: the alternative is not staying at home with their baby but having their home repossessed.

The conservative stance on these matters has for some time been to see the problem in terms of women’s needs (not babies’ needs) and their assumed desire and priority for fulfilment via the workplace.

Now too much screen time and the pressures on working parents, which means they are not spending time talking to their children, are blamed for the rise in children’s problems communicating. 

Seeing the situation through this lens alone ignores the way public policy, from left and right, has been falling over itself for years to put the entire population – male, female, young and old – under this pressure by driving them out of the home and its purported ‘economic inactivity’ and into GDP-boosting employment instead.

To glance past this and place the blame solely on mothers, as individuals, for the misery of their babies in industrial childcare is at best wilful blindness and at worst a kind of sadism. Where are the voices in our political discourse who are unafraid to stand up for mothers and mothering and say that some things matter more than GDP? That top of the list is family life and especially the needs of young children?

This article was first published in The Conservative Woman

Motherhood put and end to my liberalism

I was raised to believe all the usual liberal things about men and women. How humans are all broadly the same apart from differently shaped genitals and some socialisation; how sexist stereotypes alone are what hold women back in the workplace; how success in the workplace and the world at large is what men and women, to equal degrees, do (and should) aspire to. How parenthood, not motherhood, should have equal impact on both parents; how having a child would be a temporary blip in a life otherwise oriented outwards, towards the world.

Then I had a baby. It is commonplace to observe that life after becoming a parent is different from life before, which is true, and one part of this was my cherished liberal beliefs running aground on the physical reality of being, not a parent, but specifically a mother.

For me, becoming a mother involved 12 surreal and painful hours of labour followed by a crash C-section and a week on a drip. Recovery took a month. On sharing this with other women who are mothers I discovered that most of us have a horror story of one sort or another about childbirth, but that a polite omerta exists around sharing these either with men or with non-mothers. On the whole this is probably for the best, or no woman would ever consider getting pregnant. But it is only the first layer in a cloak of obfuscation that lies over the nature of motherhood.

Gestating a baby is physically punishing, and one sports science study compared it to running a 40-week marathon in terms of energy expenditure. Getting the baby out is not easy, either. Although, mercifully, fewer women die having babies in Britain nowadays thanks to modern obstetrics, childbirth still carries a high risk of sometimes life-changing complications.

Women who have had one or more babies by vaginal delivery are at double or treble risk of developing pelvic floor disorders – that is to say, anal or vaginal prolapses or urinary or even faecal incontinence. And once the baby is there, breastfeeding demands some 500 or so additional calories a day, is painful to establish and comes with a risk of mastitis and other unpleasant experiences.

This life-changing experience collides at a fundamental level, as I discovered, with the liberal vision of all humans as equal, rational individuals, for whom embodied existence is a mere servant to the pursuit of individual desire. To the extent that it is a liberal movement, much of feminism has focused on freeing women from those aspects of our traditional roles that seemed an impediment to women’s freedom to fulfil ourselves.

Freedom from domestic drudgery; personal safety on the streets; recognition as equally deserving of the right to vote, own property, succeed in the workplace and so on. More recently, this being largely accomplished, third-wave feminism has focused more on liberating women from the necessity of even being female, declaring that “Trans women are women” and that about this “there is no debate”.

This is all (or mostly) good stuff; I have no desire to live in the nineteenth century. The problem with where we are now, though, is babies. When it comes to the most gruelling aspects of propagating the species, there is no means by which the work can be equally distributed between the sexes. Males cannot give birth, unless you count those male-identified females who are periodically reported in the papers as “pregnant fathers”. Neither can males breastfeed, and it is arguably breastfeeding where the roles of a mother and her co-parent in a couple really begin to diverge.

A breastfeeding mother needs to stay physically close to her baby, and runs on the baby’s timetable for months. That is to say, on a two, three or four-hour feed-play-nap loop regardless of whether it is day or night. The other partner, meanwhile, can support the mother in practical ways but is considerably more free to maintain a normal daily schedule or return to work, as most fathers typically do following the legally-allotted two weeks. (Indeed, fewer than a third of fathers take their legally permitted two weeks’ paternity leave, according to a report earlier this year.)

Reports lament the poor uptake of shared parental leave, but given that males cannot breastfeed, it should not come as any surprise. Or is the idea to ask mothers who have endured cracked nipples, blocked ducts and sleepless nights establishing breastfeeding to then move their baby onto a bottle after a few months so daddy can have a turn at home? Not going to happen.

This in turn shapes how housework is divided. There is no doubt that socialisation plays some role in a differential distribution of housework between men and women, but the rubber really hits the road when children arrive, and this is to no small degree because of a mother’s desire to be close to her baby. It will feel logical for a mother to take on the lion’s share of house and child management during maternity leave.

By the time she returns to work – and over three-quarters of mothers with dependent children in the UK now work – it is highly likely that a pattern will have emerged in which this is normalised, and the mother has become more oriented toward managing the household while her partner is more focused on work.

Then there is what I call the “Mum Bluetooth”. This is more difficult to describe but likely corresponds to what attachment psychology calls “maternal attunement”: the capacity mothers have (to a varying degree according to their own psychological background) to tune into and reflect their infant’s state of mind. Non-mothers of course have some capacity to attune to infants, but for most healthy mothers there is an intensity to the connection that is simply not evident in others, however fond they are of the baby.

I routinely found myself waking a few moments before my daughter did in the night, even after she moved to her own room. The sound of her hungry cry would cause my milk to let down and all rational thought to cease until she was fed: the only occasion in two decades of driving where I have ever damaged a car was trying to get it around a sharp corner with my hungry baby daughter screaming in the back.

I embarked on motherhood with a vision of myself as rational and autonomous. It was unsettling the least to find myself in this messy, leaky symbiosis with a wholly dependent infant whose cries caused me to lactate and lose the ability to think coherently. I am not saying we should shrug our shoulders at the different ways men and women are treated by society, on the grounds that it is a biological inevitability. I want rather to suggest that the simplistic picture of sex equality promoted by popular feminism has a motherhood-shaped blind spot and, as such, lets both sexes down.

Popular depictions of motherhood in our culture tend to go two ways. Motherhood is either an adjunct (or obstacle) to other more worldly achievements but of no notable value or difficulty in itself, or else it is a pastel-coloured ideal of domesticity cleansed of the blood, milk, excrement and hormone-driven altered states of mind.

Left-flavoured liberalism generally ignores the embodied nature of motherhood, and assures us that sexist stereotypes, and those social patterns that conform to sexist stereotypes, are an oppressive creation of the patriarchy designed to keep women from fulfilling our true potential. Right-flavoured liberalism tells us these same patterns are simply a matter of “choice”.

The truth, though, is that carrying and nursing children is neither exactly choice nor coercion: it is an animalistic experience that cuts profoundly across the fantasies implicit in liberalism of free, rational individuals for whom liberation means transcending our physiological natures.

This matters. We cannot think politically about the place of family life in society, or indeed about sex equality at all, unless we can look frankly at what motherhood is, rather than at the motherhood-shaped space gestured at by a liberal focus on identities and economics. Maternity leave in Britain is far better than in many places but it has been a long time since a political party of either Left or Right dared to suggest that many mothers might want to spend years rather than months at home with their children, and adjust the tax codes accordingly.

Motherhood is a crunch point where the liberal pursuit of individual freedom collides not just with communitarian obligations to others in society, but our very nature as biological creatures, yet for political reasons the ball has been dropped and kicked into a corner by Left and Right.

While our mainstream liberal culture pretends that all humans are essentially identical apart from our dangly bits, it will continue to recoil in disgust from the messy reality of motherhood as a deeply animal experience. And so mothers will continue to be as overworkedguilty and burned out as they currently are, and our birth rates will continue to plummet. Perhaps, finally, it is time to restart the long-overdue public conversation about what motherhood is, and move beyond the polite political omertà that covers the subject.

First published at Unherd

You can’t outsource family life

As if schools did not have enough to do, the Children’s Society charity now wants teachers to monitor pupils’ wellbeing. 

UK children are among the unhappiest in the world and it is no wonder. Everyone has to work to make ends meet so children routinely spend 40-plus hours a week in often noisy, chaotic institutional childcare, outdoor play time is heavily supervised and constrained or simply nonexistent, and parents are too exhausted even to gather the family for dinner. 

Add to that a social life that skips real-life contact for the narcissistic filter of social media, confusing messages about sexuality that blend extreme permissiveness with anxious prurience, doom-laden prognostications about the environment, a shaky economic climate and a dearth of adult role models who wish to behave like adults, and it is no wonder children and young people are confused and unhappy.

But what on earth does anyone imagine will be improved by asking schools to measure this? A child’s wellbeing originates, first and foremost, with his or her family. Certainly a school can contribute to wellbeing but if home life is miserable there is not a great deal teachers can do about it.

The only way this suggestion makes sense is if you accept the premise that the proper place of family life is not with families but within institutions – that in fact families are no longer up to the job and schools should, wherever possible, make up for that shortfall. But loading ever more responsibility on to schools for offsetting the disintegration of family life is to compound the problem. It says to parents: this situation is fine, pray continue doing as you please, and never mind how it affects your children because it is the job of schools to pick up the pieces. Send them to reception class in nappies because you cannot be bothered to potty train them. Don’t bother teaching them to use a knife and fork: they’ll learn it at school. You don’t need to teach them to read an analogue clock – they’re taking them all down from exam halls anyway.

Every additional report suggesting more ways to outsource the duties of family life to state provision encourages adults to abdicate responsibility. It reassures parents that ‘adulting’ is optional, because there are institutions that will make up the shortfall.

Yet more insidiously, with that superficially attractive freedom from adult responsibility comes an ever more profound loss of freedom to conduct family life in the private sphere, or indeed in any way other than that sanctioned by the state. Perhaps that might be to the benefit of a few children with genuinely awful parents. But what of those of us who wish simply for the freedom of conscience to diverge from the official morality of the therapeutic state, and raise children according to our own values?

This article was first published in The Conservative Woman

Can societies survive without blasphemy laws?

So today I was mulling gloomily over the way hate crime laws seem to have taken seamlessly over the function of blasphemy laws in the UK. I decided to look up when blasphemy was abolished as an offence in the country, thinking it might be sometime in the 1970s. Wrong – blasphemy was abolished as an offence in 2008. The acts governing hate crime (the Crime and Disorder Act and the Criminal Justice Act) were added to the statute book in 1998 and and 2003 respectively.

The CPS’ own website states that

The police and the CPS have agreed the following definition for identifying and flagging hate crimes: “Any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice, based on a person’s disability or perceived disability; race or perceived race; or religion or perceived religion; or sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation or transgender identity or perceived transgender identity.”

These laws have been used in recent times for such diverse purposes as fining a man who taught his girlfriend’s dog to make a Nazi salute and arresting a woman for calling a transgender woman a man.

The common feature of both the blasphemy laws of yore and the hate crime laws of today is that both prohibit speech considered harmful to society’s morals. That society’s morals are no longer situated in a common belief system (such as Christianity) but an atomised, individualistic inner space (as expressed by the definition of hate crime as anything which is perceived by an individual as being such) is neither here nor there. Certain tenets cannot be challenged lest doing so harms the fabric of society.

It’s also neither here nor there that some of those moral tenets are unprovable or unfalsifiable in any objective sense: the Resurrection of Christ, say, or the existence of some magical inner ‘gender identity’. Indeed the more outlandish a protected belief the better, because the function of blasphemy laws is to compel moral obedience, and what better sign of moral obedience than to see people dutifully repeating something that is in no sense objectively true (such as that men can become women) on pain of being punished if they don’t comply?

My argument here isn’t that we should abolish hate crime laws as we did their predecessors, the laws of blasphemy. I don’t want to rant, Spiked-style, about the threat from blasphemy and hate crime laws to free speech so much I want to ask: have we ever really had free speech? It seems no sooner did we get rid of one set of rules about what you can’t say than we replaced them with another. There was, perhaps, a couple of decades where blasphemy was effectively defunct despite the statute remaining in existence and before hate crime came to be. But the collapse of controls on speech for religious reasons is nigh-simultaneous with the rise of controls on speech for social justice/equality reasons. The Human Rights Act 1998 forced blasphemy law to be restrained by the right to free speech; the same year, the Crime and Disorder Act made hateful behaviour toward a victim based on membership (or presumed membership) in a racial or religious group an aggravating factor in sentencing. (Insert chin-stroking emoji here.)

This leads me to suspect that human societies cannot, in fact, survive very long without laws of some kind governing speech. I’d love to see a counter-example. But I’ll be astonished if anyone can point me to a state that has abolished religious blasphemy without replacing it with controls on speech for other reasons, whether (under supposedly atheistic Communism) to forbid speaking against the Dictator, or (under supposedly individualistic, pluralistic liberalism) to forbid speaking against individuals’ notional right to self-define without reference to the collective.

Much as every human represses some aspects of their personality in order to function, every society does so too; it is a foolish or short-lived society that makes no effort to clamp down on behaviours or opinions that pose a threat to what that society considers the good or virtuous life. If that’s the case, is there even any value in trying to fight what feels like a rising tide of authoritarian busybodying keen to tell me what I can and can’t say? Or should I just pile in and make my bid to be on the team who’s in charge of deciding what should or shouldn’t be banned?

Right now, the two groups jostling most energetically for that position in the UK are the proponents of ‘intersectionality’ and the radical Islamists. If Nassim Taleb is correct, and social mores are disproportionately set by tiny ideological minorities purely based on the strength of their conviction, then whether we end up punishing those who assert that men cannot become women or those who draw cartoons of Mohammed will be a straight fight between which of those groups is more determined to blow shit up if they don’t get their way.

I don’t really like the way this argument is going. If I’m right, then social mores in a few decades will bear few resemblances to those of today And whether they’re structured with reference to authoritarian liberalism or radical Islam I don’t think I will particularly like their shape. But there’s nothing I can do about it – the moral majority in the country is firmly post-Christian and, as I’ve argued elsewhere, a society that can’t be arsed to defend its moral traditions is guaranteed to see them supplanted by ideologies with more committed adherents. And indeed, the kind of Christianity that did once upon a time get out of bed to defend its moral tenets by any means necessary would probably, in practice, be as repugnant to me as either of the likely moral futures toward which our society is heading.

 

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

Liberation politics and reactionary parasites

I was thinking today about that fungus that takes over an ant’s nervous system and leaves the ant moving, but as a parasite host rather than an ant: forced to leave the nest, climb to exactly the right height above ground and then stop until the fungus erupts and throws spores out in the hopes of catching and infecting another ant.

Liberation politics has developed parasitic infections that function in much the same way – to colonise its host and control the remaining shell to pursue their own interests.

The great movements, founded on presumptions of human universals, that sought to end the mistreatment of some people based on – say – sex, race, or sexual orientation, have in their latter days become a vehicle for campaigns that use their form but in effect push directly back both against the universalist foundations that enabled the first great civil rights gains and also against the stated aims of the liberation movements that preceded them.

The concept of ‘Islamophobia’ conflates criticism of the Islamic faith with anti-Muslim prejudice and thence with racism to argue in effect for a blasphemy law. The notion of ‘transphobia’ piggybacks on the gay liberation movement to argue for the legal abolition of biological sex as a meaningful category for rights or entitlements, and in the process renders the very notion of homosexuality meaningless. White nationalism makes the argument: if everyone else is allowed to speak from their ethnic heritage, why shouldn’t we? And why shouldn’t we lay claim to the best that Western culture has offered, seeing as others wish to impute to us all the worst? (This maddening trope is excellently tackled here). And men’s rights activism turns the language of feminism against itself to claim that not only are women not oppressed, in fact the entire project of feminism is a plot to obscure the enslavement and subjugation of men, performing all the nastiest, most dangerous and violent jobs in society to precisely no thanks or appreciation.

I don’t have any proposed solution to any of this. It probably needs a deeper analysis of the dissolution of that field of presumed human universals, upon which the previous battles of liberation politics were founded, than I’m capable of while sat on a sofa watching Teletubbies with a poorly toddler. But that image of the fungus-infected ant leaving its nest and climbing, zombie-like, to exactly 25cm above the forest floor comes back to me whenever I see (for example) self-styled feminists castigating other women for refusing to refer to the Soham murderer Ian Huntley as a ‘she’.

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.