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.