Those who look into the abyss
Words can have all manner of meanings. Paul Demarty takes issue with Amanda MacLean on trans rights
Amanda MacLean’s article, published in last week’s paper, offers a reasonably cogent presentation of the gender-critical (GC) take on the transgender question.1 But unfortunately it is also afflicted with all the usual defects of such accounts.
We might begin at the beginning, with the comparison between the dominance of Scottish Calvinism in centuries past (with its attendant ostracism and even violence against the supposedly ungodly) and the “new orthodoxy” of trans rights and the various cancellation campaigns against GC feminists and the like. The irony is obvious to anyone familiar with both sides of the argument, since in this respect they are almost exact mirror images of each other: either one is a ‘trans activist’, who relentlessly demands conformance to an eccentric creed on the pain of being ‘unpersoned’ some way or other; or one is a ‘fascist trans-exclusionary radical feminist (Terf)’. Since both sides have mutually excluded each other from the class of good-faith opponents, neither can very often be found willing to admit there is a debate to be had at all. It would all be rather comical, if the effects on the wider movement were not so toxic.
That is a rather trivial question, in the end. Comrade MacLean’s substantive argument is that the words ‘woman’ and ‘man’ refer to people of the female and male sex respectively; that the mechanisms of patriarchal dominance include the attachment of stereotypes (submissive, emotional women vs aggressive, intellectual men, and so on) to these sexual differences; and that the trans movement’s redefinition of ‘woman’ and ‘man’ to correspond to self-identified gender inevitably reproduces these stereotypes. MacLean acknowledges that “women should have a natural alliance with trans feminine people”, but concludes that in fact the ideology reproduces social conservatism, down to the shaming and ostracism of non-conformists.
It seems, first of all, important to point out that one group who disagree with this account are … the actual social conservatives, who - via ‘heterodox’ outlets like Quillette and The Critic and so on - happily publish people from a gender-critical feminist background on the issue and pillory the trans rights movement. If the latter is reproducing ‘traditional’ gender roles after all, then clearly Toby Young and various frothing bishops did not get the memo.
MacLean takes four exemplary ‘trans-inclusive’ definitions of womanhood: one from a textbook for counsellors that has, so far as I can tell, since been retracted; and three from activist-academics. She does not offer specific and detailed refutations of these definitions. In the case of one of them - culled from Grace Lavery in the midst of a Twitter flame war - that is perhaps fair enough, but another is merely a single phrase ripped out of context in a long, philosophical paper by Katharine Jenkins,2 which includes, among other things, criticisms of the prevailing self-identification fetish of trans rights activism - criticisms that would seem to apply to some of Lavery’s writings, although I do not know if she is an explicit proponent of self-ID.3
Any open-minded reader of Jenkins’ article must, surely, conclude that she is no keener on the actual content of gender identities than comrade MacLean. Her explication of her ‘norm-relevance’ account of gender identity, immediately following the quoted sentence, makes that quite clear.4 This does not mean, of course, that Jenkins has necessarily succeeded in producing an analytically rigorous philosophy of gender identity; but to argue as if she (and, indeed, the trans movement more generally) simply affirms stereotypes is a caricature: she does not. She argues that gender roles have sufficient reality to produce stable identities, even across sex lines; and indeed ‘between’ them in the case of non-binary people.
The final definition is Andrea Long Chu’s notorious idea of femaleness as a universal condition of negation, which she specifically denies is an account of biological sex or gender. It seems to be more of a grand theoretical-rhetorical flourish, after the fashion of Lee Edelman’s robust queer theory classic, No future. Another frequently culled quote from the text - “Everyone’s female, and everyone hates it” - is illustrative of how well Long Chu thinks of this ‘condition’. Again, I do not defend this on its merits (it seems to be, admittedly on the basis of a fairly light skimming of reviews, a piece of art-school post-post-structuralism), but merely to establish that Lavery plus Jenkins plus Long Chu plus the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy equals one giant amalgam; and if they have anything in common, it is the idea that the actually existing female gender identity is, politically or therapeutically, problematic - which surely Amanda would accept too.
Is it all, then, some vast misunderstanding? We might look at it naively and almost say so. After all, the argument seems to be between trans and trans-inclusive feminists, on the one hand (only the case of trans women is especially neuralgic), and GC feminists, on the other - both of whom suppose that the bundle of stereotypes that constitute ‘the feminine’ are problematic for women’s wellbeing. Their dispute is merely over who gets to be included in the category of people so disadvantaged. It is, in the end, a dispute about language - about the use of the word ‘woman’. There is a use that refers very abstractly to human biology, and a cluster of usages that refers rather to the cultural accretions around that biology.
Keeping our ‘naive’ spectacles on, we might find this bizarre, for no other reason than that thousands - perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands - of words in the English language have multiple and related usages. We use the word ‘high’ in the phrases, ‘high life’, ‘high on marijuana’ and ‘high treason’ in completely different senses, but by the time we have learnt two of them, the third feels more natural. Ordinary speakers of English suffer no difficulties here, nor in the innumerable other examples we could have used. So in this case: we could very well affirm the two sentences, ‘A woman is an adult human female’ and ‘Trans women are women’, without contradiction, because the word ‘woman’ is used in two different senses - in the traditional logical language, it is used equivocally.
But, in the end, neither party to this dispute has any interest in such a resolution - a clarification of terms and perhaps a robust, but non-antagonistic, discussion over which sense is relevant to this or that question. Rather each sense is turned into a Procrustean bed for all the data of social life: in order not to give offence to trans women (and indeed pre-op trans men), as Amanda points out, many institutions now use offensive and idiotic euphemisms like ‘people with cervixes’ and ‘menstruators’ (and there certainly are ideologues who demand such contortions on pain of ‘cancellation’); GC feminists disagree on what exactly is the correct noun for trans women, but ‘woman’ without qualification is certainly out. (Amanda goes for ‘trans-feminine’, which is - we take it - a deliberate refusal to use ‘trans woman’, but not as incendiary a formulation as ‘autogynephile’ or such like.) Uniquely among all words in the language, there can be only one meaning of ‘woman’!
GC people will no doubt object that it is, after all, them who suffer from this language-policing, not the trans-affirmative crowd, and that is certainly true. The routine use of wild exaggeration, catastrophising rhetoric and straightforwardly libellous innuendo against gender-critical types by their enemies should be called out as deeply immoral and a blight on the left. As a public figure, let us say, JK Rowling is certainly fair game for criticisms of her political views; but the idea that she is somehow responsible - as is routinely claimed - for trans teen suicides is simply a lie; there is no more evidence for that than there is of her involvement in the Rohingya genocide. This, to borrow Talleyrand’s phrase, is worse than a crime: it is a mistake. It is obviously a grotesque calumny, credible only to people who are already true believers, and thus makes it easier for the right to caricature the trans movement as a bunch of deranged fantasists and launch hypocritical crusades against ‘cancel culture’.
But this all seems to be a matter of contingency. It is the trans-affirmative crowd who have the upper hand in middle class professional circles at the moment, so they have the means, motive and opportunity to marginalise their enemies, at least in that milieu. Yet we have little confidence - given the GC attitude that what is at stake is the protection of women’s spaces from violent men - that they would behave much better if the gender wars had shaken out differently. In her talk, Amanda disdained to get involved in arguments over who can use what toilet, though she could not in the end resist a pop at “nude male bodies in women’s changing rooms” - presumably a reference to the recent Wi Spa incident, in which a biological male was alleged to have exposed their genitalia to women and girls at a California health club, resulting in a culture-war flare up.5
The fact that we can list all these incidents individually, however - in toilets, prisons, changing rooms and whatever else - tends to suggest that any increased risk is extremely marginal. Bluntly, the changing room pervert is not the typical perpetrator of sexual assault; he merely fits a particular cultural stereotype of a predator familiar from pulp entertainment. (Besides which, the idea that the biggest threat to inmates of women’s prisons is a handful of biological males coming out as trans, honestly or otherwise, and getting a transfer, rather offends against common sense.) There is no evidence of any connection between broad social and legal support for self-ID and statistically meaningful differences in rates of sexual assault; in the absence of such evidence, the implication is offensive, and people are right to be offended.
So long as both sides insist on treating the language of gender as a zero-sum war of extermination, what is thereby excluded is a common programme against the traditionalism which in fact threatens both the gender-nonconforming in toto and the aspirations of women to full social equality.
The gender wars tell us a great deal about how we might get there, if only in the negative. The radical feminist conjecture that the self-organisation of women as women would produce a counterforce adequate to the task is proven decisively wrong by this whole sorry episode; we apparently cannot even decide what a woman is, and our disagreements over that have gotten only the more bitter over the years. All identity politics involves a discreet ordering of what is the most authentic experience of the oppressed, anyway; since this ordering cannot be acknowledged without abandoning the whole edifice, any disagreements about what it should be inevitably descend into acrimony.
That is not to say that people’s experiences - the concrete mechanisms and effects of oppression - are irrelevant to politics. Indeed, it is because they are paramount that they are such a poor basis for formulating a programme; what is produced by them spontaneously is a melange of different existential conditions, often in contradiction, and only by looking at the whole matter ‘top down’ can we hope to meet these competing needs.
‘Competing’ is the word here. Were there not a problem of scarcity - who gets to use the wholly inadequate municipal resources for domestic and sexual violence victims, refuges, women’s health services, and so on? Who gets to count towards a law firm’s diversity statistics? Who gets to compete at the elite level of sex-segregated sports? The question of whether gender is better defined in terms of biology or felt identity or ‘norm-relevance’ would be merely a recondite academic matter.
We are accustomed, on the left, to stating abstractly that questions of special oppression ‘must be linked’ to our opposition to capitalism; but this is precisely the link. Capitalism generates sectionalism as a necessary form of false consciousness; a perspective that overcomes the fighting over crumbs from the table must, necessarily, be socialist. A society capable of meeting diverse personal needs in general needs not have a fixed account of the relationship between biological sex and personal identity to function; and at that point perhaps compromise will be possible on the particular immediate issues.
‘Orthodoxy and its discontents’ Weekly Worker September 16: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1363/orthodoxy-and-its-discontents.↩︎
Much to the embarrassment of pro-trans liberal media outlets, who claimed the whole thing was fake news, charges have now been filed against someone with a history of such sexual offences. This person’s stated gender identity remains unclear.↩︎