“Gender” — 19 notes on a virtual war
Clearly, no woman can without bad faith be situated beyond her sex.
— Simone de Beauvoir
This is the post where I risk dying in the crossfire of the “gender” war.
Before I begin, I want to cite two books upon whose arguments I will rely substantially in building my own argument. Sex, Gender, and the Body, by Toril Moi, and Changing Sex, by Bernice L. Hausman. Citations of these authors are from these two particular books. Moi is not a post-structuralist, and Hausman is (and Moi recommends Hausman on this topic).
My motivation for writing this — which will be very rough and incomplete — is to as close as I can for now produce the essay I wish I’d had before being dragged into what I’ll describe herein as “the gender war.” I don’t “come down” on either side of this “war,” nor do I think I’ll resolve it. I hate it, I think it’s absolutely tragic, and my only hope is that we can find a language that bridges the divide.
I won’t provide that language in a half-assed essay, obviously, but if I can convince people to at least dispense with the rancorous ad hominem attacks and the general attitude of belligerence, I’d be ecstatic. What I know of trench warfare, real and figurative, is that trenches mean neither side is advancing and both sides are trapped in a grinding mutual destruction pact. I’d be delighted if there could be a white flag that says we will continue to develop our contending arguments without demonizing someone else for disagreeing.
Up front, I’ll say that the pop-post-structuralists bear the most blame for this, so you can cancel me now, if you like. Or you can read what I have to say.
Wars, real and figurative, can be observed on the battle lines, but not understood. To understand a war, one has to look to how each side originated and developed, as well as what larger political (or philosophical) goals underwrite the war. For that reason, we have some preparatory work to do before we engage the question on the battle lines, where the war devolves into naked brutality and attrition.
Let’s sort out that word . . . gender.
First used in the 14th Century, gender meant “a subclass within a grammatical class (such as noun, pronoun, adjective, or verb) of a language that is partly arbitrary but also partly based on distinguishable characteristics (such as shape, social rank, manner of existence, or sex) and that determines agreement with and selection of other words or grammatical forms” (Merriam-Webster).
From the Latin, genus, meaning (the noun) kind.
Medically, gender means the anatomical sex of a patient. In the overwhelming number of cases, there are two anatomical “genders” — reproductive males and females. People are not sexed at birth based on their brains, but on their regenerational anatomy.
This is one valid use of the word “gender.”
Culturally, until the past few decades, gender was also used to represent “the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex.” With the growth of feminism, the term gender here came to represent the stereotypical versions of masculinity and femininity — social constructions built around anatomy, and the “systemic” power of men over women — which tangentially was deployed against “gender minorities” for their gender nonconformism, understood as a threat against this “social” gender.
This is another valid use of the term “gender.”
More recently still, gender has also been used to represent something called identity.
This is also a valid use of the word “gender.”
These are all historically related, but they’re definitely not the same.
I’m parsing the word because there has been a tendency to confuse the various uses of the term, which leads some to argue against phantoms. And some even pit one definition against the other, which has also hardened the impasse between contenders in the “gender war,” which I explain below.
Next on the set-up-the-premises list: the “sex-gender” duality, which is a first cousin of the nature-nurture duality, or dichotomy — a dualism of “opposites.”
The nature-nurture dichotomy grew directly out of a nature-culture dichotomy, which was also a gendered notion ([male=culture] is privileged and dominant over [female=nature]). The distinction between sex-and-gender grew out of these. How did the sex-gender dichotomy begin? First, we need one more word sorted: essentialism.
From the word, essence. Essentialism, the kind we are discussing, is the belief that some essence “precedes” a thing’s own concrete instantiations. Essence, here, “precedes” existence. Not precedes temporally, but precedes hierarchically. Existence unfolds within essences. It’s a gauzy philosophical concept, which 20th Century philosophers challenged, especially those called existentialists, who said, “No, existence precedes essence.” Ergo existence-first makes an existent-ialist. (Existentialists, who are anti-essentialists, are going to help us out of this impasse, I hope — specifically Simone De Beauvoir.)
There are two kinds of essentialism — here we’ll tighten the definition to mean gendered characteristics that are naturalized, that is, ostensibly transhistorical (and innate) features of gendered persons. The most obvious and pertinent of essentialist gender categories here would be masculinity and femininity — the idea that certain (even non-sexual) characteristics correspond consistently with men and women respectively. One form of gender essentialism is traditional, reaching back into antiquity: the idea that the entire universe is complementarily gendered (two essences), and that men and women are human instantiations of those essences. The other kind is bio-essentialism, which came much later and is related to social Darwinism.
Again, historically related, but not the same.
In the late 19th Century, there was a belief that the “ovum transmits hereditary characteristics and sperm cells transmit acquired characteristics” (Moi, 16). This is the “pervasive” view of gender, meaning being biologically male or female is not restricted to differences in sexual anatomy, but that one’s gendered non-anatomical characteristics are generated by a kind of sex-juice that “pervades” every cell of the embodied person.
It was this same school of thought that claimed there were “male brains” and “female brains,” a notion that regained traction among those who claim a mismatch between “female brains” and male bodies, for example.
The late 19th Century medicalization of gender — bio-essentialism — was constructed upon past (pre-modern, traditional) essentialisms and merged nicely with the bourgeois ideology of social Darwinism which was ascendant in Western culture, including the “progressive” ethno-nationalist masculinism promoted by Theodore Roosevelt . . . and more lately Donald Trump. The biological “facts” regarding male and female brains conveniently validated the cultural status quo — or the prevailing Western bourgeois gender norms — naturalizing them. It’s nature, impervious to critical intervention.
It wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s that this notion was systematically challenged by Robert Stoller and Gayle Rubin, based on medical work with patients who were either intersexed (hermaphroditic) or “transsexual.” This was when the transsexual’s experience of a “dilemma” (later called dysphoria) was popularized as feeling a mismatch between mind and body, or being “born into the wrong body.” In the case of both the intersexed (hermaphroditic patients) and self-described “transsexuals,” the solution — proposed by physicians, of course — was surgery and drugs that restored patients to full membership in a normative gender. That is, restoration within the normative gender binary.
Ah, essentialism returns.
Stoller, in 1968, proposed that sex refers to something biological, whereas gender refers to something simultaneously psychological and cultural. Rubin refined Stoller’s thesis, claiming that procreational dimorphism as well as “sex drive” were in the biological sex category, whereas gender was an oppressive system of ideas and practices socially constructed upon those biological differences. (As Maria Mies said, “same old [nature-culture] dualism.”)
Anyone who now adheres to any aspect of Rubin and Stoller has been squashed into a vague generalization called “gender critical” as part of a kind of Girardian enemy-naming. The other term of abuse is TERF (more on that later). A note, however: Girard points out that without this enemy, the social solidarity of one’s “allies” dissolves into internal rivalries.
Toril Moi points out that Judith Butler (neo-Nietzschean) and Catharine McKinnon (post-Marxist) share a fore-mother in Rubin because they have each staked their (now antagonistic) responses on the sex-gender distinction based on their Nietzschean and Marxian orientations respectively. Each, as we’ll see, has its own strengths and weaknesses. Given that these two orientations are the combatants in the gender war (we’ll get to it by and by), this is important.
There is a very good reason that the two general intellectual tendencies in play here originate with Marx and Nietzsche. Max Weber said that the intellectual climate of the modern world was forged by Marx and Nietzsche (and Freud). Each philosopher, in his own way, terraformed the ground of Western philosophy for the 20th and 21st Centuries.
Meaning and intent
A word now on language.
Following Toril Moi’s employment of Wittgenstein’s “ordinary language philosophy,” we’ll begin with the premise that any act of speech is underwritten by the speaker’s intent. “The meaning of a word,” wrote Wittgenstein, “is in its use.” When we talk, we participate in the construction of meaning. A word, on its own, especially a word with variable definitions, does not carry its meaning inside. Its meaning is carried by the intent of the speaker or writer.
The late Andrea Dworkin and Judith Butler, for example, would disagree on some things, but when they use the term gender, they are not appealing to the same meaning and they would each acknowledge (were Dworkin still alive) that this is true. They are not struggling over the term — about which they would each acknowledge that they mean different things — but over a much deeper philosophical contradiction between Dworkin’s post-Marxist orientation and Butler’s neo-Nietzschean orientation.
I will use the term to mean at least three things, which ought to be discernible from context: gender-as-power-structure (Marxist feminism, post-Marxist feminism, and womanism), gender-as-essence (traditional, pre-modern, most common), and gender-as-identity (post-structuralist, or neo-Nietzschean). By refusing one unifying definition of gender, one is no longer obliged to valorize one definition over another. Interestingly, the French use the word sexe (hat tip to Toril Moi here), which can be used interchangeably to represent any of these meanings, which are determined by context.
We’ll grapple here with the post-Marxist and neo-Nietzschean orientations, which are at war with each other in some academic and political circles; but let me say at the outset, my own orientation differs from each, and from the traditional, and I will criticize each in its turn. Take a note — I am not taking a side, because neither “side” is my enemy (which will lead some to declare me an enemy for not sharing their enemy).
My entrance onto this field began with extensive study of various constructions of masculinity for a critique of militarism. Studying the issue of socio-political power and war, my own focus fell on gender as an historically-developed power structure. For this post-Marxist (radical) feminists, Marxist-feminists, and womanists had the most to contribute to my understanding of militarism. Consequently, my main feminist references in the study of war and masculinity were from this general orientation. If my focus had been discursive practices, I probably would have relied more heavily on the “poststructuralist” neo-Nietzscheans.
Inevitably, I was met by a kind of reaction from neo-Nietzscheans, from whom I’ve also gained insights. From there, I found that two “sides” had hardened against each other over the issue of transsexuality/transgenderism and that this trench war was carried into the left more generally, where it creates a nice fracture line for the right to exploit. Welcome to the war.
Each orientation would have something valuable to contribute to the conversation, were it not for the partisans of each orientation absolutizing their positions against one another. I will say at the outset, in the interest of full disclosure, that I remain closer to the radical and-or Marxist feminist orientation.
This intervention is my own working through this gender war.
Sexuality as accommodation
I consider these things — things called gender , whether “identity” or “orientation” or just “sexuality”— as accommodations. Any time we begin with sociological abstractions, we’re in danger of missing the particular as we reify the generalizations; and if our generalizations are met with exceptions in the particular, failure to reconcile the general and particular (and even the singular) results in errors.
I’ve know multiple people in my life who changed “identity,” changed “orientation,” adapted their “sexuality.” Prisoners in single-sex institutions do it all the time. It’s not fixed, by which I mean static, by nature or nurture (a false dichotomy) in my view, because sexuality (the blanket term I’ll use here) is one aspect of a person’s whole development, with all the singular adaptations that contextualize and define a person’s life. The various taxonomies of sexuality are impositions from outside the life of any actual person — a grid of abstractions thrown over the person like a capture net. This is a very poststructuralist metaphor, by the way.
These gender taxonomies are historically specific, not transhistorical. The phenomenon of sexuality-as-accommodation is transhistorical; though with the sexual revolutions of the twentieth century, the number of ways available for people to accommodate themselves with regard to sexuality has proliferated into a kind of desperate cacophony.
Particular human beings — there are no other kind — are trying to get by in the world as best they know how in a world not of their choosing. Each of us is born into a particular place and time with a particular set of material conditions and cultural dynamics, and in every realm of thought and practice these particularities substantially determine what choices — reflective or reactive — are available.
I will not advocate for any “right actions” with regard to things like sexual orientation or proclamations of gender identity here, because I believe that sex/gender is inextricable from every other aspect of one’s life. What is “right” is determined by particular practices and by the context of said practices.
Sexualities are not reducible to the nature-nurture dichotomy. Human beings — as evolutionary beings — are “biologically determined” not to be biologically determined. Our plasticity is an aspect of what can rightly be called human nature. We are adapters. Our “sexualities” are no different.
Just as we learn to like our own particular types of food, because they are available, we learn how to be sexual beings inside a cultural milieu with pre-existing gender norms. You can’t be “non-binary” without a binary to be against.
We also learn how to be based on the limitations of our particular situations — parents, siblings, friends, education, built environment, economics, etc. etc. I do not believe that sexuality is biologically determined, which is not to say that “biology” [read: embodiment] doesn’t have something to say on the matter.
Gender is constructed — by whatever definition — around and through our embodiment as a sexually dimorphic species. We procreate through the union of two different forms of gamete in a way that corresponds to all other vertebrates. But this procreational generality does not explain what gender norms are, and only crudely contributes to figuring out what creates these norms. You can’t explain a Nina Simone track by describing the anatomy of her vocal chords.
The actual individual person is always trying to match his or her desires to what the environment has on offer, and even those desires are culturally constructed on, over, under, around, and through material bodies. Nature and nurture are only separable as questionable analytic categories, never in reality. All desire, beyond the bare-life necessities, is learned, and learned in imitation of the desires of our various models.
I see identity and sexuality in the light of Michel De Certeau — as tactically situated within the warp and weft of emergent circumstance. Actual persons seek survival and accommodation (finding advantages, comfort zones, refuges, or safe spaces) in particular social milieux as well as singular personal circumstances, with whatever tools, coping mechanisms, and interpretive frameworks to which they have access.
“Getting by” in “everyday life.”
The claim that “sex is just sex” is obviously false. Sex is never just sex. It always has a context, and part of that context is always the pre-existing, historically-conditioned power gradient between men and women (which includes the marginalization and demonization of sexual minorities).
It’s not difficult to understand, for example, why certain women — and in substantial numbers — work to maintain and perpetuate patriarchy: because some women (a) find it a matter of survival in a world where lack of power translates into dependency or (b) they receive benefits from their own position . . . accommodation.
There is one particular and problematic type of accommodation that I believe has contributed mightily to our contemporary controversies (and cul-de-sacs). The internet has dramatically reshaped our semiosphere. In conjunction with a phenomenon I’ll call competing victimizations — a product of the petit bourgeois retainer class, operating through both “civil society” and the media — internet communication has distilled categories of oppression (with class consistently unmentioned), which are based on very real social phenomena, but which have come to valorize “victimhood” as somehow corresponding to greater “moral capital.” If I am gay, and I complain of my treatment at the hands of homophobes, there is always someone who can identify someone or some category who has it worse. In our utterly enclosed, atomized, and alienated world, any distorted need to belong is amplified almost to the point of pathology.
When, in this culturally impressionistic way, victimhood comes to equal virtue, or a claim on virtue in a psychic economy of scarcity, the “most oppressed” has the most moral standing, in virtually any situation, with no consistent account of what is meant by oppression. The entry ticket into the more amorphous categories — like “queer” and “non-binary,” speaking here on gender — is a simple claim that exists apart from the actual practices in one’s life; but what it can buy you out of is being relegated to the top of the heap as a “white cis-male” . . . or whatever.
It reminds me of when it was fashionable for some white people to claim to have “Indian blood” (meaning indigenous, not South Asian). But the bigger problem than those folks who claim one identity to escape another is the notion that being included in a category of oppression equates to virtue, or “moral capital,” when the world is far more difficult than that. Oprah is black, but she is far from oppressed.
Being a member of an oppressed class is not tantamount to moral superiority. In fact, the lower one is on the social ladder — measured in material means ,that is, the closer one is to bare life — the more one is compelled to commit “immoral behavior,” because survival in a hostile, enclosed world often requires more ruthless practices. I’m reminded of that stupid-ass bumper sticker, “Mean people suck,” that I used to see on the teal Volvo station wagons prowling through Chapel Hill. Try sleeping outdoors or begging or running out of money for food after paying rent, and you’ll likely not be possessed of a sunny disposition. It’s pretty easy to be nice when you’re warming your hands around a $6 cup of creamy enhanced coffee in your hipster coif.
Being shit upon, in other words, does not transfer some special moral standing to the shit upon apart from the injustice of being shit upon itself.
I need to quote Davin Heckman here, whose remarks foreshadow the rest of this piece:
I think there are two factors operating here… one is the way in which the internet searches for shorthand descriptors or tags that are easily machine readable. The more complicated renderings of experience that are the actual expressions of identity are sidelined in favor of a growing number of discrete designations. We have a growing number of ways to designate the ways in which gender frames our encounter with the world and it can seem like a good thing in that it breaks down the stark dichotomy of masculine/feminine… but these discrete designations are inferior to the emergent character of human language and the singular negotiations it offers in the context of its use. So, suddenly every one is searching for labels from among a list, when in fact, no such labels exist as anything but a shorthand. But the designers of databases don’t really care — 7.5 billion self-conflicted identities would create messy, unworkable data. But 100 categories, 1000 categories, 10,000 categories, are manageable to a machine and they can be coordinated for marketing/surveillance purposes. Secondly, if you can cultivate singular individuals into “subscribing” to a categorical designation and the affiliated ideology as a point of pride or expression of consciousness, then you have a degree of submission to the interpellating message of network space. A sleight of hand operates here, because you can see how social class and economics are occluded in these constructed identities (class is mentioned, but only rhetorically, but without any sort of rigorous analysis). So, you convince people to subscribe, essentially to consumer categories while class is typically left uninterrogated.
Secondly, we are incentivized to actively seek categorical designations ourselves, as the network privileges short comments. Long comments are unread (and in some cases, even made impossible, as in twitter). So, rather than use our language to describe what we mean, what we feel, what we sense… we actively seek out shorthand tags that can do the work for us, and thus invoke a kind of imagined solidarity that can protect us from critique. In this economy of language, long comments become suspicious, they set off alarms. The mere invocation of nuance suggests that one does not subscribe to the prevailing ideology. One becomes immediately suspect, deviant.
If you look at actual subcultures in a historical context, one common thread is the cultivation of language. The use of slippery codings, wordplay, and aberrant semiotics… the valorization of storytelling, punning, and poetics… these are the companions of cultures of resistance. So, we really should ask ourselves what happens when we so willingly permit the network to colonize language? What are the platforms giving us with one hand, but taking away with the other? The real answer to this question is revealed in the metrics that undergird the space, for it is not the language itself that reveals merit. It’s how many likes, retweets, follows, shares, views, clicks, etc. that these crude renderings generate. Instead of holding up solidarity as the mechanism by which we carve out space for robust individuality, the new logic puts up demographics as the mechanism by which we express a parody of individuality, and in so doing we effectively rebrand mass consumption as democracy, and publicity subverts the public.
As an aside, I do not use the prefix- cis, because it was invented precisely to support the disappearance of (natal) women and girls as political subjects. It is part of an effort to enforce a vocabulary that begs the question — the premise of the prefix already assumes the validity of the conclusion. The term itself requires acceptance of a set of pop-poststructuralist assumptions (see Note 16) — the main one being that any use of the term “man” or “woman” that remains unmodified constitutes an automatic “erasure” of trans people. I call bullshit. And not just because I am not powerful enough to erase anything with a word. More later. “Erasure” is a metaphor, a hyperbolic one at that. You can’t erase people with a word.
Right now, let’s talk briefly about that Triassic concept — patriarchy.
The Academic War
Patriarchy is a term that has gone out of style. As I’m using the term, it means men’s historically constituted power over the lives of women. And by men and women, I mean the ordinary language use (vernacular) that refers to procreational, or natal, males and females (studies show this to be 999 out of every thousand people, the other one being physically intersexed, or hermaphroditic, which is not “both sexes,” but a physical disorder). (Poststructuralists and pop-poststructuralists contend that sex is “assigned” on birth certificates, which is ideologically-motivated drivel. The baby is described based on what is observable — 7 pounds 8 ounces with labia. Failure to describe what is evident — the sex of almost all children at birth — would amount to medical and scientific malpractice.)
The objective of feminism/womanism (not the liberal counterfeits) was and is the emancipation of women from the domination of men. Feminism/womanism were and are part of a movement against patriarchy — domination by men as men over women as women. This doesn’t mean that the movement against patriarchal power is without complication by the realities of economic class, “race,” ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, etc.
There is a history here, in particular in the Academy, where “leftism” took refuge after it was driven out of the streets. We are still living with the consequences of leftism’s retreat into the Academy, where it has gradually lost touch with the lives of everyday people. The gender war began in the academy, and has migrated into the small but growing street-left . . . where it has acted as sand in the gears of leftist political projects.
Marxism came under concerted attack in the public sphere after World War II, and by the nineties it was being torn apart inside the Academy where it had been driven. The CIA began reading neo-Nietzscheans like Foucault and Derrida with an eye to shouldering Marxists out of the Academy in the mid-1980s. The academic suffocation of Marxism was not purely conspiratorial, however, and was assisted through thousands of small selections (like who got tenure) valorizing the poststructuralist/postmodern philosophical orientation until it became almost an academic orthodoxy with certain key premises that were and are antithetical to those of Marx. I’d remind readers at this point that Marx and Marxian insights have always constituted a threat to capital, and capital holds power over the academy. Not absolute power, but great power nonetheless, and more with each passing day.
This is not a reflection on either Marx or Foucault per se. I’m neither a Marxist (anymore) nor a Nietzschean. Even though Marx and Foucault have fundamental disagreements, the works of both can be profitably combined, especially the conflict-theory aspect of Marx and Foucault’s work on disciplinary regimes, in ways that complement and amplify one another. As far as I know, no one has yet developed the grand unifying theory for everything.
Driven into the academy, Marx-influenced scholars also encountered a new division among themselves as Marx-inflected feminists began examining gender (as structural power) in many of the same ways that Marx had unpacked class. As Catharine McKinnon would write, “Sexuality is to feminism what work is to marxism — that which is most one’s own and yet most taken away.”
This feminist challenge from within was met with ferocious backlash from many Marxists — especially and not surprisingly male Marxists. And in this hostility to these particular feminists, male Marxists found a common enemy to share with the host of other demographics who were and are hostile to feminism more generally. To this day, thinkers like Andrea Dworkin are misrepresented (straw women), ritually denounced, then dismissed by people on the left and the right.
The crux of this particular form of feminism growing out of Marxism was, as stated above, the status of women as sexual beings. These “radical feminists” were responsible in large part for our present-day awareness of sexual harassment as a thing and for the death of legalized rape within marriage, as just two examples. Naming men (as a class) as a class enemy, while highly problematic as we shall see, was a fertile approach that revealed a great deal about men, women, and power.
Now, as we arrive at the topic of power, we can make another philosophical distinction between the post-Marxists and neo-Nietzscheans about power.
Power — historically contingent or demiurge?
Let’s map post-Marxist (radical) feminism and neo-Nietzschean (poststructuralist) feminism to see where and how they are both alike and different.
Marx (1818–1883) and Nietzsche (1844–1900) were both German philosophers. Marx was the secular grandson of a rabbi; and Nietzsche was the son of a Lutheran pastor. Both suffered various debilitating injuries and illnesses throughout their lives. Nietzsche’s intellectual career ended in 1889 when he suffered a severe and permanent mental breakdown that some historians suggest may have been caused by tertiary syphilis, but there are still competing speculations about his madness. Marx worked almost to the end of his life, when he was taken by smoking-related bronchitis. While their careers overlapped, there seems to be no evidence that they ever engaged with one another’s works. Marx was focused on applying his “flipped” Hegelianism, whereas Nietzsche was an intellectual heir to Schopenhauer. Both reacted against the European bourgeoisie, but in markedly different ways.
Marx and Marxists, as well as Nietzsche and Nietzscheans, both have three main things in common. (1) They reject traditional essentialisms. (2) They criticize liberal modernity. (3) They rely upon historical accounts to establish their arguments. These are not inconsequential similarities.
Marx has been proven wrong in his Hegelian assumption about history being a “progressive” process. That progress was an illusion based on misplaced technological optimism as well as modernity’s (and Hegel’s) optical illusion making change appear as improvement (improvements enjoyed by Hegel and his class, leaving Hell in their wake for others whose land, blood, and sweat made those “improvements” possible).
Nietzsche cannot be validated in his assumption that history is a mere manifestation of the will-to-power, in part because he’s already kicked the slats out of any standard of evidence or proof by denying their validity, and in part because most of us can identify the many ways in which we and others we know do things al the time that are clearly not manifestations of the will-to-power. I don’t feed my wild birds or play with my grandchildren or cook for Sherry out of any will-to-power.
Nietzscheans are proud sophists, so they can chase fallacy with fallacy by simply claiming (as the modernists do with scientism) that what may not appear to be a manifestation of the will-to-power is in fact the will-to-power, papered over by layers of rationalization. Like the universal Darwininsts, they don’t have any smoking gun to confirm their arguments, but they are extremely confident that all will turn out as they say based on facts which they just haven’t yet identified. (This ain’t science.)
Nietzsche’s inheritors have slyly conflated — as many Heideggerians do — mental states with being in general, even substituting mental states for ontology, privileging perception over what is perceived, and suggesting that the facticity of what is perceived (or that which exists and has not yet been perceived) is invalidated by the fact that we each perceive idiosyncratically as individual persons. Not only is this a non sequitur, it vastly overstates the relative “strength” of idiosyncrasy of perception and thought in comparison to the way that perceptions are conformed to what is observed in common — that is, what exists prior to our perception of it.
Most drivers obey traffic lights. They all see the traffic lights in the same place. They obey traffic lights based on cultural and legal conventions. They may also obey out of a sense of duty to ensure public safety. Perception. Cultural construction. Moral sensibility. But every individual driver who encounters the lights, responds to them similarly . . . including poststructuralists.
On the other hand, because Nietzsche (like Marx) was a creature of his own time and place, the resentful son of a bourgeois German preacher, he can be excused to some extent, because the world he inhabited — both that of the Lutheran bourgeoisie and the nineteenth century European academy — was boiling with various and sundry power plays masked by grotesque hypocrisy. So his error was over-generalization, even if his perceptions were quite valid within his own slice of society. I say the same about Freudian and Lacanian psychology . . . they feel fitted to those of us who have inherited the formative norms, ideas, and prejudices of Western bourgeois culture. They describe jack shit about a Haitian peasant.
What both Marx and Nietzsche observed around them had been naturalized. Marx made a career of de-naturalizing society-as-it-was, and yet substituted a new form of naturalization (Hegelian “progress”). Nietzsche simply added another layer to naturalization by positing the will-to-power (as supra-personal force field) as his anti-metaphysical metaphysic.
Contingency is a metaphysical claim.
History, for the poststructuralists, is transformed into geneaology, a means for deconstructing social norms that are taken to be inherently oppressive. The goal is to escape from history’s encumbrances (which is a thoroughly liberal, modern, and “progressive” view). For the Marxists, history is a past from which one learns to identify patterns (structures) as well a developmental process in which we all continually participate.
These two general orientations migrated into feminism as an opposition, based on incommensurable assumptions about how personhood is constituted, about subjects as agents, and about political practice. These contradictions came to a head in a debate about “transgenderism.”
Trans-history is not trans-historical
Trans as a prefix suggests movement across or between something. Trans-continental, trans-historical, trans-portation, trans-late, trans-fats. In terms of gender, the prefix has multiplied. Trans-vestite, trans-sexual, trans-gendered.
I’ll take most of my research on this topic from Hausman, because she is a Foucauldian (a neo-Nietzschean) who is nonetheless critical of other neo-Nietzscheans, but who cannot be accused of taking sides in this war between post-structuralist orthodoxy and radical (post-Marxist) feminism. She is an historian above all else, and her specific genealogy of “changing sex” is not in dispute. Her genealogy of trans-everything, while Nietzschean, also serves the purposes of the most hidebound historical materialist. It makes her work a good bridge at a time when we really need a bridge.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that gender came into use to mean “the social aspects of sex identity.” This is a story about medical practice, technology, and the uses of “pathology.”
In 1958, a patient named Agnes approached the UCLA Department of Psychiatry asking for surgery to remove her penis and an atrophied scrotum. She presented with otherwise female secondary sex characteristics — breasts, no facial hair, and wide hips, for example. She told the doctors that, in spite of being raised as a boy, she’d always “felt like” a female, and that her secondary sex characteristics had appeared spontaneously. Robert Stoller — mentioned above — was one of the psychoanalysts involved with her case.
Her medical team diagnosed her as having “testicular feminization syndrome” — the testicles “producing excessive estrogen.” Then there came a surprise. Five years after the surgery to remove her male genitalia, she confessed that, beginning at the age of twelve, she had been taking his/her mother’s estrogen supplements. The doctors then changed her diagnosis to “transsexual,” that is, anatomically of one procreative gender, while feeling like the other.
The DSM-III, published in 1987, codified this “dysphoria” disorder-diagnosis as follows:
The essential features of this disorder are a persistent discomfort and sense of inappropriateness about one’s assigned sex in a person who has reached puberty. In addition, there is persistent preoccupation, for at least two years, with getting rid of one’s primary and secondary sex characteristics and acquiring the sex characteristics of the other sex. Therefore, the diagnosis is not made if the disturbance is limited to brief periods of stress. Invariably there is the wish to live as a member of the other sex.
The important point here is that Agnes and others who followed Agnes were categorized as having a medical disorder, like a cleft palate or a deviated septum. Dis-order implies a norm that qualifies as order, that is, some essential constellation of complementary characteristics that are proper to men and women.
Until the diagnosis of transsexual came along, surgical intervention for gender minorities was limited to the intersexed — people with both male and female anatomical features. The goal for the treatment of intersexed people — make a note — was to correct their anomalous anatomy by making them appear to be either male or female with the ambiguities erased. In other words, restoring the early twentieth century Western normative gender binary.
The diagnosis, as well as the medical intervention of “sexual reassignment surgery” (a misnomer, inasmuch as these surgeries and post-op protocols do not make men into reproductive females or vice versa), was made possible only in the latter 20th Century based on the emergence of new developments in plastic surgery and endocrinology.
[T]hese links between medical technology, medical practice, and the advent of “sex change” . . . have been ignored by most scholars who study the subject, who more usually understand transsexualism as representative of a transhistorical desire of some human subjects to be the other sex. (Hausman, 2)
Self-described transsexuals from the sixties onward embraced the medicalized status of “disorder” because this disorder diagnosis was prerequisite to obtaining the surgery. Compare this to how other gender minorities — gays and lesbians — have fought against being diagnosed as disordered. Transsexuals wanted into the “medically supervised space” of the DSM and the surgical suite, while diagnosed “homosexuals” wanted out — no pun intended.
This created a peculiar dynamic between patients and doctors, wherein anyone seeking sexual reassignment surgery for whatever reason would study the stated symptoms of the disorder and repeat them to doctors to secure the surgery they desired. Doctors who did these surgeries, likewise, leaned into these self-descriptions — rehearsed and not — to pursue their own vocations and ambitions (and profit).
One of the criteria for sexual reassignment surgery was an outward display of essentialist gender —an anatomical male who displayed “feminine characteristics,” or vice versa. Doctors even had to “prove” whether or not the patient was demonstrating real or “illusory” masculinity or femininity (think about that).
This runs counter, obviously, to the feminist term gender referring to the unequal division of social power between men and women, which carries with it a deep critique of the association of “masculine” and “feminine” characteristics with men and women respectively — a rebuke to both traditional essentialism and bio-essentialism.
Transvestites — people who dress and act in “drag,” but who have no desire for surgery and who readily change from one performance to another — are tied directly to essentialist gender inasmuch as they do not dispense with masculinity and femininity, but reproduce them with a special and self-conscious emphasis. This is paradoxically called both parody (this is not who I am, because there is no “I”) and identity (this is who I am), depending on how and to whom is it being explained.
In both cases, transsexuals and transvestites who Stoller had studied claimed to be heterosexual and often vehemently denied any trace of “homosexuality,” in some cases because to be diagnosed as a homosexual would make them ineligible for surgery. It was within this constant struggle — between patient and doctor, between doctors, and for definitions that would support medical practices — that doctors inadvertently contributed to the poststructuralist account of gender as pure performance. They needed some consistent criteria for determining whether to go forward with surgery.
[I]f medical science had the power . . . what factors should the physician take into account . . .? Increasingly, physicians depended upon the patient’s sense of him or herself as a sex. (Hausman, 6)
This was when gender was interiorized; only later would this interiorization be weaponized in the gender war in the desire to control, even enforce, how one is seen by others. But first, gender had to jump out of its medical corral and into sociology, and from there into political circles as well as the cultural fads of body modification as “self-engineering.” This would also map nicely onto the Nietzschean notion of “inventing oneself” through a series of “performances” (a thoroughly ahistorical, even magical idea, in my view, but one which Hausman, my interlocutor here, accepts . . . hey, there’s always room for dialogue).
The question of transsexualism and surgery was taken up in the 1970s by “cultural feminists” who were highly critical of the whole phenomenon because it intentionally and systematically reproduced gender essentialism — notions of naturalized masculinity and femininity that perpetuate the domination dynamic encoded within them.
Some of these “cultural feminists” had to walk back their theses a bit as they themselves — in a kind of reaction — started making a talisman of the “natural” female, which contradicted in some sense their own aversion to the biological determinism at the heart of gender essentialism. I am sympathetic to their critique of gender essentialism, but what produced this contradiction was . . . going back now . . . the sex/gender, nature/nurture dichotomy of Gayle Rubin and Robert Stoller.
Failure to account for this history has led some radical feminists to adopt an almost conspiratorial account, first of “transsexualism” and later of “transgenderism.” We’ll come to that, because this tendency, combined with the emphasis on “enemies” in post-Marxist conflict theory, would come to constitute one battlement in the gender war.
NOTE on dysphoria and the DSM: Dysphoria is a symptom — the medical definition — part of a patient’s subjective reporting: a feeling. A medical sign is differentiated from symptom in the traditional medical SOAP note (subjective-objective-asessement-plan). Symptoms are subjective, signs are objective. “I have chills,” is patient reporting — subjective, a symptom. A recorded fever is a sign — objective. Similar symptoms can be traced to many different causative factors. We cannot say what causes gender dysphoria, because the causative factors (which seem not to interest most people in these debates) may be quite variable.
The DSM is trying to straddle the nature-nurture fence by listing a symptom as a disease. What is it a symptom of? It could be many things, but the very first question, in terms of developing hypotheses, is: what in our own gender formation, beginning at birth, has contributed to this sense of dis-Ease? In our early day-to-day experience, how does watching gender unfold in the home, daycare, school, social media, et al, affect our understanding, and how does the form of understanding shape our interpretation of the experience of gender formation? I grew up as a boy, and I was shaped by both general cultural expectations and by my specific home environment. But if my experience in trying to conform to cultural and parental expectations feel wrong because I am being asked to suppress aspects of my own personality in formation — because they are considered feminine — then I might misinterpret that to mean that being feminine is like being female.
I can only experience gender dysphoria through a pre-existing lens of essentialized gender. This presupposes acceptance of the naturalness of femininity and its naturalized association with being female. Or let’s talk about girls, who lack freedom, have their agency suppressed, are asked to play the victim, are threatened with being the victim, and are excluded from many rewarding activities — in other words, girls who see a shitty deal for girls in patriarchal society, even if they can’t articulate it like this. Is it any wonder that they might lean into the idea of “becoming” male?
Let’s not even begin with the various traumas kids encounter — boys being told to distance themselves from beloved mothers as part of the rite of male passage, or girls seeing brothers lifted up while they are suppressed. Sexual abuse? The dynamics of parental relations?
Why are almost nine out of ten pubescent/post-pubescent declarations of dysphoria from females? One suggestion from the Littman study on rapid onset gender dysphoria (ROGD) — albeit couched in highly medicalized terms (social contagion, peer contagion . . . we used to say peer pressure) — is the contribution of social media to the formation of new peer networks that quickly become self-reinforcing. We already know that anorexia, for example, can center reinforcing peer groups that valorize the disorder. The need to belong has grown more powerful as traditional social networks have dissolved before the atomizing juggernaut of capital.
The body as a situation
There’s a lot of academic bullshit written about “the body,” and the struggle within the gender war often revolves around this abstraction. I have little patience as a rule with most discussions about “the body,” because THE body doesn’t exist. Bodies exist, not the body. Human beings, actual persons, are embodied beings. By casting “THE body” like a net over all actual embodied human beings, not only are the singularities of actual embodied humans dissolved, the persons thus dissolved are all reduced to component parts — i.e., mind/body/identity.
Another reason for my rejection of “the body,” as used in some academic and popular discourse, is the “proprietary body,” an invention of liberal philosophy. By proprietary, I mean something alienable, something owned . . . like a coat or a shovel. There is, in fact, no actual proprietary body — my body, your body, her or his body — because the “possessor” exists as a body and ceases to exist as such when the body dies. If I “own” a book— my book—the “I” is alienable, or separable, from the book. Not so with “my” body, which is to say . . . me. If I lose the book, the me is still there. If the body dies, the possessive I, as we understand it in a secular sense, disappears.
Further down, we’ll get to why this is relevant (and I’ll avoid altogether, for this essay, the question of ensoulment, because this essay is for a general audience, not just fellow Christians).
It may seem contradictory after my rant against “THE body” that I would cite Toril Moi’s book, Sex, Gender, and the Body, as a set of essays that actually support my position. Refer to the earlier note on the meaning of language residing in the speaker’s or writer’s intent.
Moi is responding to these liberal/neoliberal/poststructuralist abstractions about “the body” with a particularly helpful metaphysical/phenomenological claim from Simone de Beauvoir — who Moi has read in the original French and thereby discovered how bad translations have concealed many of Beauvoir’s key insights from the English-speaking world.
Beauvoir calls one’s visible, sensible, inescapable, and culturally-marked body a situation. (Franz Fanon said something similar about living as a body marked by “blackness.”)
Beauvoir was heavily influenced by phenomenology — the philosophical study of lived experience from the first-person perspective. She does not mean — as most of us would infer — that “the body is always in some situation.” That’s the easy reach. Beauvoir was saying something far more epistemologically disruptive. She said that the body itself is a situation, because one’s (sexed) body is the “general medium for having a world” (Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology, 146).
Beauvoir is trying to de-objectify bodies (as “THE body” objectifies “it” — effectively disembodying the speaker) by adopting the phenomenological (lived experience) point of view. For her, our biological existence is of the utmost importance, because we live as biological bodies. This does not mean, however, that biology per se determines our lives or actions. “Biology” is important, but it’s not “destiny.”
Moi treats Beauvoir in the context of a discussion about what makes a woman a “woman.” Not only is one’s body the very basis of one’s existence, that body is a “sexed body.” Historically, to be female and human (a natal “woman”) is to experience things like menarche, pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, and (if a woman lasted that long after serial risky pregnancies) menopause, but not just these bodily functions. Woman is also a way of being perceived, recognized, responded to by others in the world.
Each of these uniquely female experiences is further contextualized by time, place, and tradition. And in most cases, these embodied experiences are contextualized by woman being seen as the Other. This is the phenomenological leg of modern male supremacy.
So those who move through the world as women — here still speaking about natal females — also move through a world of perceptions about what women are; and so to be a woman is to be situated, bodily and in the realm of perception and norms. Regardless of the “external” situation, or environment if you will, she moves through these environments with a sexed body, a body marked by sex in the eyes of others, that mediates her existence, but in a very particular way as that Other.
Biology, as a practice, is incompetent to either describe or interpret “the” body . . . as a situation . . . because the practice of biology, as well as the realm of biology, are already limited to what can be controlled, observed, and quantified.
The body is an inescapable situation, which finds itself part of environmental situations. A man and a woman participating in identical environments are already in different situations based on how they are embodied. The sedimented experience of the lifetime of a woman is distinct from that of a man, even if all other factors are similar. This is exactly why, whereas one might say the everyday definition of “woman” means someone with a womb, she remains a woman (to other everyday people) if cancer compels her to have her ovaries and womb surgically removed. She is not reduced to a part.
No natal-man exists with the memory of menarche, just as no man exists with the memory of being the butt of menstruation jokes. Likewise, if you ask most men today if they check the back seats before the get into their cars, they’ll say no, whereas most women will tell you yes. No man can describe first hand what it’s like to give birth.
This has been one of the skirmish lines in the gender war, as some feminists have asserted that being a “woman” (natal female, perceived broadly as “woman”), and a woman as a political subject, has to include more than a claim or a feeling. It must include this background of the sedimented experience of the lifetime inhabiting a female body and being marked from birth by a body recognized as female.
Feminism began as both a movement to emancipate women from legal and cultural oppression and inequalities, and as an interpretive framework that privileges the standpoints of women. These two efforts — political and intellectual — are closely related yet distinct.
Politics is about actively seeking greater power in those decisions that affect communities as a whole. Intellectual effort can be put at the service of politics in polemics, but for it to be valid on the terms of intellectual practices there are standards which include dispassionate analysis, fact-checking, peer review, and so forth. Politics as it is practiced today is aimed at winning (like a little war), whereas intellectual labor is aimed (hopefully) at increasing understanding.
Feminism aimed at making women both political subjects and the objects of research and analysis. This is a key distinction, and a distinction also between conflict and critical engagement.
Until the 1990s, the feminist project was confronted by patriarchal tradition seeking to retain male prerogative and dominance based on both traditional essentialist and bio-essentialist accounts of gender (often contradictorily mixed together) which consigned most women to a general subjugation by men (even this was nuanced, but nuance is the enemy of the polemic).
Feminism steadily gained ground in this struggle, though it also faced ferocious backlash (which continues today) as well as a good deal of cross-critique within feminism and within the broader context of social movements generally. And feminism was not innocent by today’s standards. Early white feminists aligned with white supremacy; and liberal “feminism” has become a pernicious ally of the recently “woke” petit bourgeois retainer class, who seek to derail any discussion of economic inequality.
In the nineties, however, feminism faced a new challenge as poststructuralist feminists challenged the definition of woman in a way that some feminists claimed has undermined the feminist project by disappearing woman-as-political-subject. This grievance is valid in my view, inconvenient and uncomfortable, but valid nonetheless . . . however, it is not some kind of conspiracy — an unfortunate reaction by some feminists to the bad-faith, McCarthy-esque behavior of some poststructuralists.
The fallout from this intellectual movement — poststructuralism — ramified through feminism-as-a-political-project as a rift centered on the definition of the word “woman.”
Emblematic of this redefinition is the assertion, “Trans women are women,” which many feminists challenged because it ignored the importance of woman-as-identity based on “the background of the experience of being marked from birth by a body recognized as female.”
In Moi’s essay, “What is a Woman?” she compares the standpoints of the radical feminists and the poststructuralists (two “sides” in the gender war), then looks to Simone de Beauvoir for a partial resolution. (I am skeptical about resolution, because both sides begin within incommensurable premises — a situation that can quickly devolve into competing and ever more dogmatic assertions.)
As noted above, the common intellectual ancestor of both the radicals and the poststructuralists was Gayle Rubin and the sex-gender dichotomy. Radicals said that “patriarchy” constructed gender upon biological sex, whereas poststructuralists like Judith Butler retain the distinction, but do something very different with it, i.e., convert sex in the sex-gender duality into the body, which is then itself reduced to a construction.
If you read Butler’s Gender Trouble, then read her subsequent work, Bodies That Matter, you will see how the latter is an attempt to plug the holes in the anti-theory theory of the former. Her insistence on Nietzschean categories that translate into “the body as pure construction” painted her into a corner when asked things like, “How come men’s bodies are never constructed as pregnant?”
Although they [poststructuralists] want to radically change our understanding of sex and gender, they retain these concepts as starting points for their theories of subjectivity, identity, and bodily sexual difference. With respect to sex and gender, poststructuralists are reformist rather than revolutionary. (Moi, 4)
Butler’s ultimate claim here — one with political ramifications — is that if you define men as those born with testicles and women as those born with ovaries, then you are automatically re-inscribing these oppressive norms that constitute the sexed body. This is plainly not true — a non sequitur on top of a questionable premise. If it were true, then we might ought to rid ourselves of “oppressive” gynecologists or midwives, for example, whose attention to the sexed bodies of natal-women fails to conform to the poststructuralist account.
Moi characterizes the Beauvoirian account of body-as-situation using Merleau-Ponty’s term, “ambiguous.” That is to say, a human body is simultaneously subject and object (see above), neither pure nature nor pure meaning.” (Moi, 69) Think about this nature-meaning synthesis (ecosemiotics?) with reference to our recognition that we are bodies which will die (Is that “constructed,” too?).
I don’t believe that an embodied person is a base/superstructure of sex (biology) and gender (culture) as the post-Marxists would suggest, because these cannot be extricated from one another except as abstractions, nor is a person a disembodied “gender” (here meaning pure social construction) that renders one’s physically sexed body inaccessible except as construction.
Butler writes, “Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to reproduce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being.”
The slippage from Beauvoir’s ‘woman’ to Butler’s ‘gender’ is obvious. Here Butler leaps from the thought that for Beauvoir, a woman is always becoming, always in the process of making herself what she is, to the rather different idea that, for Beauvoir, a woman must therefore be gender, that is to say, an ‘ongoing discursive practice’, a continuous production of a ‘congealed’ social form. Butler and Beauvoir are both anti-essentialist. But whereas Beauvoir works with a non-normative understanding of what a woman is, Butler thinks of a woman as the ongoing production of a congealed ideological construct. For Butler a woman is gender, and gender is simply an effect of an oppressive power structure. In short, Butler’s concept of gender does not encompass the concrete, historical and experiencing body. (Moi, 75)
The common genealogy of radical feminists and poststructuralists based on Ruben’s sex-gender distinction gave rise to “gender norms” for the former and “gender identity” for the latter. Moi paraphrases Beauvoir in saying, “Each woman will make something out of what the world makes out of her.” Accommodation!
The controversy over the word “woman” in the struggle for and against the claim, “Trans-women are women,” then, is only superficially a fight about the definition of a word. This is a controversy between privileging “norm” or “identity” in the application of each to politics.
There’s no heavy lifting for anti-feminists when they say — to the public — that women are not men, and vice versa. They win that argument in public. Every. Single. Time. Those poststructuralists who insist that the designation, woman, is completely arbitrary will find no purchase with ordinary people. And by associating “feminist” with this arcane neo-Nietzscheanism, they discredit a movement in the eyes of plain people. I know this is not an argument . . . that something is invalid if it is unpopular; but in this case, the preponderance of evidence is actually with ordinary people, and not academics (many of whom I like) and hipsters (many of whom I honestly don’t).
“The meaning of a word is in its use.”
Radical feminists are post-Marxists. Marx developed a “conflict theory,” the Hegelian offshoot of a progressive vision of history wherein history, according to Marx, is driven “forward” by conflict between classes. In the radical feminist framework, men-in-general and women-in-general are studied as if they were contending classes, with men being like the bourgeoisie and women like the proletariat.
The objective of radical feminism is to achieve a gender-less (gender here meaning a structure of oppressive norms) society (as the objective of Marxism is to achieve a class-less society). Since these are understood from within as structural conflicts, the political response has been for radical feminists to seek the solidarity of all women in confronting the class-enemy: men-as-a-whole. (This has been taken to mean that radical feminists are anti-every-man-that-comes-along, which is plainly wrong, given that most of the radical feminists I know and have known — and I have known quite a few, some being my mentors — loved their fathers, have been married to or had male partners, and many of them raised sons.)
Nonetheless, this framework lends itself — as many Marxisms do — to a war episteme, or what I call the strategic mindset. The world is divided into friendly combatants, enemy combatants, fellow travelers, civilians, spies, traitors, and enemy agents. (Womanism, which likewise regards patriarchy as an historically conditioned structure, lays the emphasis on “the politicization of tenderness,” a decidedly non-war episteme.)
The radical feminist view of patriarchy as like-class is enormously helpful as hermaneutic, but there are pretty significant limitations to its application, because the analogy, taken as totalizing, breaks down rather quickly under examination. The factory worker does not share a household with the factory owner.
There is a systemic form of oppression at play here, and the class analogy exposes an aspect of it, but patriarchy is secured by far more than this direct exchange of obedience for sustenance and-or protection. The totalizing error of seeing male-female structural relations as class, combined with a war episteme (which inevitably becomes paranoid), leads some radical feminists to see their own sisters as not just potential allies, but also as potential enemy agents when they disagree. This unfortunate tendency by a few, and I emphasize few, however, does not negate all their arguments . . . by a long shot. This hasn’t stopped their enemies from reducing all challengers to this minorty.
Poststructuralists still have no credible direct response to the comparison of MTF trans people — who insist on being recognized (there’s that demand for a particular type of recognition) as “women” — with the case of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who spent years posing as an African American and claiming, after she was exposed, that she was African American because she felt African American inside.
Obviously, this struggle over a word has both sides ignoring Wittgenstein’s ordinary language insight that the meaning of a word is in its intent . . . not carried within it as if one word is a briefcase instead of a flexible signifier.
This returns us to Beauvoirian identity based on the lifelong sedimentation of lived experience as “a woman” (natal). Radical feminists insist that to be “a woman” is to experience not only one’s body (as animal and as situation) but the lifelong experience of being recognized and treated “like a woman” in patriarchal society as well as having been socialized within patriarchy. They have a valid point.
I had a battalion commander in Haiti who had lived his entire life until he was forty years old as a man, as a white man, as a military man, and with the full complement of male privilege and power. He transitioned after he left the army.
Is she a woman now in the same sense as my sister, who was born female, raised in a patriarchal household, with all the distortions that creates, not just between father and child but mother and child, the emphasis on making oneself sexually attractive, the indoctrination into femininity, all the inequalities of treatment in comparison with her brothers, all the male pressure for sex including near-assaults and assaults, all the putdowns as “bitch” and “cunt,” the dismenorrhea, the three pregnancies and births, etc. etc. etc.? No. But is my former battalion commander a mere “female impersonator”? This is, given the context of the debate, purely provocative, and can be corrected by simply demanding that we define our terms.
The argument being made by the radical feminists is the same as the argument being made against Rachel Dolezal. “Woman,” for them, is a political identity, exactly as African Americans, who likewise reject biology as definitive of identity and still cling to African American as a political identity based on common lifelong experience within oppressive social structures, with an eye to solidarity in resistance to those structures. (African Americans and women — including but not limited to African Americans — have found these solidarities challenging : another essay.)
Radicals also point to other examples: children who are not old enough to consent being allowed to undergo sexual reassignment surgery is one, as is the case of an MTF trans boxer being allowed to compete as a woman against other (natal) women . . . and winning because she carried over the physical strength and entrained aggression of a natal man.
Both of these cases — allowing confused children to be surgically “sexually reassigned” and MTF trans competing in women’s sports — queer the pitch (pun intended) of poststructuralists whose framework cannot easily accommodate these “exceptional” cases.
There was a recent dust up over Tulsi Gabbard questioning MTF trans persons competing against natal-women in women’s sports. I abhor Tulsi Gabbard and think she is a political charlatan (never disqualifying unfortunately); but those who oppose her on this specific concern have substituted name-calling for reasoned argument, calling her a “transphobe,’ which ignores the fact that an MTF trans person carries over male advantages into sports.
I myself have been called this, and TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist), for disagreeing with people about what forms sexuality in persons; and I have been called a TERF for merely stating that radical feminists have some valid points. This is just a kind of poststructuralist McCarthyism.
I’ve also been called a SWERF (sex worker exclusive radical feminist) for opposing full-on legalization of prostitution. The thing is, first of all, I study radical feminists — for good reason, I might add — but I don’t claim it as some identity. Some of my radical feminist acquaintances would even argue that as a man I have no standing to claim the term “feminist.” More to the point, however, I have never “excluded” anyone. (My take on prostitution here) This so-called “exclusion” as it is employed, is not exclusive at all, but an accusation hurled at people for questioning aspects of the doctrinal narrative of certain “activists” who use this epithet like punitive little cops.
The problem many radical feminists brought to the table here was mirroring the poststructuralists throwing down the word, woman, as a gauntlet — defined anatomically. Ergo, the dismissive putdown for MTF trans persons being “female impersonators” or, worse, moles for the forces of patriarchy. As radicals and poststructuralists are co-inheritors of Rubin’s sex-gender dichotomy, each has now chosen a side in this dichotomy, and neither side has shown much movement.
Tactically, this has created a kind trench warfare where neither side advances (because each side fails to understand itself as having incommensurate theoretical premises with the other, as opposed to each side being the other side’s embodiment of evil). On the surface, this appears to be a battle over the definition of woman, but what is being fought out are the two aforementioned and differing philosophical orientations.
Once recognized as such, one might hope, there is at least the possibility of finding a language and set of meanings that accommodate both perspectives. What’s going on now has created a fissure through which the right can drive a train (and it is!).
Let’s return now momentarily to Wittgenstein’s plain language. The meaning of speech is in its intent, and it is conveyed through context. No word, on its own, can carry the kind of weight, or even danger, ascribed to “woman” here by both sides.
When “woman” is used in everyday speech, its use is more often than not a specific designation. “The woman down the street in the grey ranch house told me the city will repave next week.” To hold up the word “woman” as a category that somehow floats above any specific situation as a universal, contested or not, is a reification. “Woman” as open category which anyone can claim is a reification. “Woman” as political identity fixed onto biology is a reification. The battle over the word is a struggle between reifications which nonetheless have tremendous political import, if nothing else because this struggle to reconcile two positions with incommensurable premises has created a divisive impasse that does not serve everyday women (the subject/object of ‘feminism’) at all.
Define terms first.
NOTE on “rights”: Certain trans activists today — who are not fully representative of trans folk — are demanding not the right for themselves to do and be what they want, which I (and most feminists) support, but for a right to be perceived in a particular way. This is rights-talk ab absurdo, the migration of a right (in liberal law, which is what we have now, rights attach to individual persons themselves) from the individual to how others perceive that individual — which effectively dismisses the personhood of every person other than oneself.
One of the most bizarre manifestations of this is a demand on lesbians by some MTF trans people (some transitioned, some still with penises)to desire them (or be labeled transphobic). This is an ideology jumping the shark. The pseudo-logic here is (premise) “trans women are women,” (premise) lesbians desire women, (conclusion) lesbians ought to desire trans women.
Staking claims on a word.
Political identity is a category of analysis. It is never manifest except in real persons; and in real persons it does not occur as a bounded and reified concept, but within an incessant tactical rank-ordering of desires in response to an agent’s projects and the circumstances under which he or she pursues them. Any actual person is irreducible.
Like other such categories, “political identity” is useful as a tool as long as we don’t try to use it inappropriately . . . as in reducing a person to such an identity and turning her into a cipher or a token and effacing her unique and embodied personhood. Here’s the example of “Janie” which I used in Mammon’s Ecology:
Abstraction can be understood as folding something into something bigger, or encompassing. You, the individually unique person named Janie in Oakland with her two kids and a job at the dentist’s office, might also be an American — but there are many Americans who are not Janie, a female —and there are many females who are not Janie, an African American — and there are many African Americans who are not Janie. Any of those latter categories wraps around the personhood of Janie and submerges it into a more abstract category. As a human, Janie is a member of a species, yet more abstraction — more encompassment. As Homo sapiens, Janie is of the Family Hominoidea, the Order of Primates, the Class of Mammals, the Phylum of Chordata, the Kingdom Animalia, and then within the overall category Life. Each stage in this taxonomy further abstracts Janie or encompasses Janie. The “biosphere” to which we have referred and of which we are a part is an abstraction that encompasses unimaginable local complexity in every continent and ocean, every region, every watershed, every field and pond and town, even every unique inch of soil.
Abstraction is a trade-off. We get more clarity about what differentiates a category from everything apart from it, or conversely we demonstrate what joins more than one thing into a greater whole. Janie’s American citizenship qualifies her to vote, for example; and Janie’s status as an African American in a racialized culture creates a kind of solidarity — a political identity — with other African Americans that may influence if and for whom she votes. But we also conceal/erase the differences between everything captured inside the abstraction. Janie can interpret her status as a mammal in ways that are helpful, for example, in determining certain valid medical generalizations. On the other hand, her status as a mammal does little to resolve her conflict with an insurance company, or help her figure out what to do with her visiting grandmother, or which movie she and her husband want to watch with the kids on Friday night. The real danger of abstraction is that it can lead to lazy thinking in the guise of serious thinking, or worse, self-deception. Janie herself cannot be boiled down to any of those encompassing categories, nor is it advisable to uncritically project group characteristics on her. Janie is one generation from a Louisiana Creole family that lived near the coast, for example, and so she can catch and clean fish unlike many other females, she speaks a second language unlike many Americans, and she is Catholic unlike most African Americans.
Beauvoir’s appeal to becoming is very helpful here. Janie became Janie through her experience. As to being a woman, she became a woman through both the recognition of the female-ness of her embodiment and through constant interaction with a world that widely recognized her as a woman. If Janie met a genie who could turn her into an anatomical male with a spell, she would not be — except superficially — a “man” in the whole vernacular sense.
The poststructuralist notion that thinking in terms of men and women (here meaning natal males and females) is inherently oppressive (because sex is biology is essence, etc.) requires a great deal of heavy intellectual lifting, because plain people around the world persist in seeing these two main categories as given.
They do so because only one tenth of one percent of humans — a mammalian sexually dimorphic species — are born sexually ambiguous; and every birth including our own was a result of this dimorphism. This does not automatically mean that “sex is biology is essence.”
It means we’re animals.
Some white people tell African Americans that claiming Black as a political identity is invalid because biological science shows that race is a social construction. It’s nonsense, of course, because social constructions have immense power and very material consequences. I could say the same thing — as some poststructuralists I have known have tried to convince me — that woman as political identity is just “reinscribing” the binary, and that the way forward is to rip up the categories man and woman altogether. Speaking personally and politically, I think this reflects the worst of academic naiveté (now transmogrified by popular culture).
On the other hand — and this is a completely different argument than woman-word-equals-essentialism — the political identity woman has certain contextual limitations, inasmuch as it ignores class or ethnic differences.
When Carole Pateman wrote her groundbreaking work The Sexual Contract, which was entirely valid for many women with regard to the public-private dichotomy, she received pushback from Black feminists. Yes, for many women the domestic situation where the private reality of often cruel male domination was hidden from the eyes of the law was where they suffered their most direct oppression. But the situation for a Black woman, her critics noted, is somewhat different; because Black people generally find the white-dominant public sphere to be the greater danger, and the private realm of home to be the refuge . . . even when there was male dominance there in various forms.
Political identity is important, but not totalizing.
Feminism is, at bottom, a challenge to modern patriarchal power.
Patriarchy is a slippery term, even though it is easily definable as male power over women (Pateman notes that with the overthrow of feudalism, patriarchy became andrarchy — the potential entitlement of all men [fraternité] over all women, instead of “rule of the fathers.”) It is slippery because what it defines is slippery and in many cases ambiguous. The patriarchy of Confucian Chinese royalty is different from the patriarchy of middle-class modern Argentinians is different from the patriarchy of the 15th Century Irish peasantry.
Moreover, in each of these categories, there is much variation. Consider how flexible present-day heterosexual “marriage” is. While marriage has particularly patriarchal origins (which does not imply that this form of marriage can be reduced to patriarchy), many present-day marriages can be the site of intentional counter-patriarchy, and even be transposed into non-heterosexual unions. (Marriage is also an accommodation — certain legal rights as well as social status attain to married couples.)
To count all “patriarchies” the same by saying — even as I have in certain contexts — that “patriarchy has messed up the world for seven thousand years” (or whatever) is to ignore (at our peril) how and why all those differences occur.
My only overarching thesis, above, is that sexuality is always an accommodation within the circumstances that people find themselves. We make ourselves in a world which makes us.
My other hypothesis, about male violence and the persistence of violent patriarchy — explicated at length in Borderline — has a great deal to do with the practice of war. War reproduces violent masculinity, and violent masculinity in turn reproduces war. And war has been part of the landscape since at least the Bronze Age.
The most fertile secular critiques of feminism I know from within late modernity’s interpretive frameworks, including the critique of radical feminism, has come not from poststructuralists, but from Black and “third world” feminists. Precisely because the situation to which these latter women have had to accommodate themselves is markedly different from the world of educated American white women, for example.
Consider the different first responses of an educated white woman and a working class African American woman to two key feminist concerns — abortion and rape.
Black women may indeed join white women in the effort to prevent the criminalization of abortion and opposition to rape (and rape culture); but there are some pretty big caveats regarding the history of forced abortion and sterilization supported by early white feminists and the use of the rape accusation by white women to precipitate the lynching of Black men. Consider further the woman who has immigrated from El Salvador or Mexico, who may not share the liberal position on abortion, or the Haitian peasant woman whose contact with Northern liberals has always included the attempt to destroy her own culture.
The postmodern quest for the personal is a theory-generated attempt to escape from the bad effects of theory, and as such has all the hallmarks of theoreticism: it is overgeneral, prescriptive, and impervious to experiences running counter to the theory. (Moi, 164)
Feminism — post-Marxist and neo-Nietzschean— can still be imperialist.
This is not inevitable, and it has created a great deal of confusion. I make the claim that both the post-Marxists and the neo-Nietzscheans have a few things for which they must answer, and this has to do with the epoch of modernity of which each school is a part. That is, each has tried to impose modern “universals” on all.
For post-Marxists, this has been an effort to frame patriarchy as the system-enemy and gender (described as power) as the ideological-enemy. Patriarchy/gender is described first as universal and transhistorical, whereupon gender abolition is seen as the universal solution.
Gender, in the traditional essentialist sense — the form of gender that “gender abolitionists” want to “abolish” — is a kind of academic distillation of a social phenomenon that has been consistent in every known human culture to date. The “essentialist” category itself is après, a reflection on gender as a transhistorical phenomenon applied to something that is already there (as the existentialists assert . . . existence precedes essence). Everyday people who participate in gender — the division of men and women by forms of labor, tools, dress, manners, and preoccupations — do not stop and think, “Wow, I’m reproducing an ‘essentialist’ account of gender.” It’s naturalized.
But is it inevitable?
The jury is still out. Whereas many social divisions are marked by a division of labor, there is a chicken-and-egg question about which comes first, gender as social dynamic giving rise to the division of labor, or the division of labor giving rise to a more general gender. There can be little doubt that among our hunting/gathering ancestors, women nursing children limited women’s mobility, which certainly contributed to certain divisions of labor. Well past the Stone Age in fact, until only recently. These divisions, however, like the division of labor that shakes out in many homes we would recognize based on complementary aptitudes, do not necessarily involve a fixed hierarchy of power. (They most often do, but again . . . chicken/egg, and oh yeah context.)
One of my feminist mentors, raised in the radical feminist school that is most closely identified with “gender abolitionism,” lives on a boat. She knows a lot about boats, and has many skills related to the maintenance and operation of boats. But she noted, being a person who has always been open to experience in a way that didn’t foreclose it with ideology, that when doing work with her partner — a man — that there were things she couldn’t do, or couldn’t do as well as her male partner, based on height and muscular strength. Over time, they had developed their own household division of labor, which led her — with her keen interest in anthropology — to speculate precisely about a gendered division of labor without hierarchy. More to the point, however, she openly wondered whether or not some gendered division of labor might not be inevitable.
[Complementarity does not automatically imply hierarchy. Every real relationship is in some ways complementary (even if some use the term to paper over oppression).]
I share her question, and tend to believe that gender — defined as divisions of labor, tools, dress, manners, and preoccupations — will always be a part of every human society, a potential fact that is concealed to some degree by the development of ever more complex forms of automation, which neutralized the strength differences that divided some gendered labor, that are already on an environmental path to their own eventual destruction. Two hundred years from now, I doubt much of what we now see of technological society will have survived.
So I’m skeptical, to say the least, of the whole notion of “abolition,” because (1) customs and traditions and locally hegemonic ideas cannot be wiped out by some decree and (2) this idea of wholesale abolition of a phenomenon that is manifest in many, many forms doesn’t appear to be possible.
By that, I do not mean, as some may jump to conclude, that gender is “natural” in the same way that many traditionalist apologists do to justify the notion that biology is destiny. I am saying that a gendered division of labor will always emerge and even persist based on practical concerns. There will always be knock-on effects with regard to tools, dress, manners, and preoccupations. This is not necessarily something that admits of no exceptions nor is necessarily enforced by violence.
Gender abolition, like poststructuralist claims that “metanarratives” are there to be “subverted,” has an imperial undercurrent.
Why do I say this can be “imperial”? Here is where I return to the post-Nietzscheans as well as the post-Marxists, because both schools begin by imposing their Western modernist categories from apart and above on everyone else . . . and demanding in some cases that those primitives within or abroad dissolve their traditions and customs to fit with core nation, “progressive” sensibilities.
Some post-Marxists want to “abolish gender” for everyone everywhere as a kind of (imperial) civilizing of the natives. Traditions must be razed like a forest going down before the bulldozers.
Poststructuralists, on the other hand, who claim to eschew “metanarratives” fail to recognize how such a claim is itself a metanarrative. This is why I say that postmodernism is not post-anything. It is modernism, every bit as much as Marxism, or liberalism. In fact, poststructuralism is far closer to liberalism (in its relentless individualism) than Marxism. Marx, at least, has leveled the most incisive critique of modernity from within its own categories.
David Bentley Hart helps me explain this poststructuralist anti-metaphysic as its own metaphysic and as just another imperial project of civilizing the natives.
The notion that there is such a thing as the inherent violence of metaphysics [metanarratives] rather than simply the relative violence and peacefulness of particular metaphysical regimes I think is a little silly. But more to the point, the claim to have escaped the metaphysical seems to me only to reiterate — or maybe I should say ‘re-inscribe’ — the most imperious of classical metaphysical gestures, that of the transcendental vantage through some sublime moral and dialectical labor of spirit achieving a privileged perspective capable of the transcendental surveillance of all other stories than its own. To me, this is a repetition, albeit transcribed into a particular social and ideological key and inflected with a particular sensibility — merely the late modern story of enlightened reason inhabiting no perspective at all and therefore entitled and enabled to dissolve all ‘merely local’ narratives into provisional, mythical, tribal chatter.
Hart is articulating a third position, neither post-Marxian nor neo-Nietzschean, both of which he critiques as part of the same violent epoch, modernity. Hart is an Orthodox theologian. On the surface, our shared distaste for universalizing narratives may appear like the poststructuralist rejection of metanarratives. This is a deceptive appearance. Metaphysics is inescapable. But again I digress.
The poststructuralist slippage into reflexive opposition to reified (and enemy) “objectivity” and “universalism,” in what some call “a return to the personal” (Moi, 148), is not argument, but the foreclosure of argument. By its standard, there is no possibility of employing the judgement necessary to discern when, where, and how to strive for dispassionate analysis (in the vernacular, “objectivity”) and appeal to universals.
If I am suffering from drug-resistant malaria, I’m all about my physician employing microbiology universals regarding its etiology as well as the chemical universals regarding its treatment. I do not need my physician to explore all my personal reactions to the experience of drug-resistant malaria, which are important to me as an inescapable misery, except as this personal experience relates to my symptoms in a larger picture which includes a dispassionate analysis of my pathology.
If I want to build a bridge, then (vernacular) objectivity is my unmodified standard in drawing up the plans. Context, context, and context.
Objectivity — understood here in the vernacular — aims at phenomena that are verifiable apart from anyone’s personal beliefs, but it is not the same as objectivism, the underwriter for scientism (not the practice of science), or the fallacious and arrogant belief that nothing which truly exists can escape scientific quantification.
The irony here is how poststructuralism and its slippages consistently fail to conform poststructuralism’s own stated premises. It rejects “universalisms” with its own universalism; and it attacks “binaries” by creating its own binaries. The irony of poststructuralist feminism is that this dogmatic personalism and rejection of all metanarratives would return women to exactly that position from which feminism aimed to emancipate them: trapped on the “subjectivity” side of a gendered subject-object dichotomy. That is not to say, however, that this is the intention of poststructuralists organized into some anti-feminist conspiracy.
Nonetheless, just as women began to throw off some key patriarchal constraints, poststructuralism — the great grandchild of Nietzsche — comes along to rebuild the cage, dress it up in obtuse language, and call it liberation.
[O]ne of the major strategies of sexism is to imprison women in their subjectivity, thereby curtailing their freedom to transcend the narrow confines patriarchy has prepared for them. (Moi, 154)
If we stay with this interesting bit of irony, however, we miss the larger unifying factor that joins the two combatant forces in the gender war.
The war episteme
We do not need a theory of language or speech acts geared only to emergencies, crises, and conflicts. Although such theories heighten . . . critic’s sense of excitement, it leaves us resourceless in front of the ordinary and unremarkable, so that we have nothing to say about the many felicitous speech acts we engage in every day. (Moi, 146)
The term episteme is borrowed from Foucault. It does not mean knowledge as a direct reflection of reality — for example, “There is a tree outside my window and I know that tree is there” — but a set of shared cultural assumptions that are so frankly accepted that their bases are largely unquestioned, giving them the appearance of the kind of direct knowledge evident in the example of the tree. Epistemes are organizations, or sets, of shared social certainties — “the historical, non-temporal, a priori knowledge that grounds truth and discourses, thus representing the condition of their possibility within a particular epoch.” (Wikipedia: “Episteme”)
What is a war episteme? Let’s look.
Marxism’s most unfortunate totalization error, in this writer’s opinion, is the post-Hegelian reduction of all social evolution to conflict. It’s not surprising inasmuch as modernity’s evolution — which was happening at a breakneck pace — was driven by war and conquest. Marx’s other error with regard to our theses — hyperbole really — was his assertion that philosophy should seek not only to understand the world but to “change” it.
When we combine a description of social development as driven purely by conflict with the belief that philosophers (and their followers) are specially equipped to engineer “futures,” we might be forgiven for how this combination puts us into a mindset appropriate for war — for conflict, strategic separation, suspicion, and control.
I am not saying that philosophers (and academics) ought to sit on the sidelines like gnomes. I’m saying that this idea — that the main purpose of philosophy is to “change the world” — not only ignores the value of understanding (or how and why this project only ends with the last philosopher); it ignores the fact that all of us, each of us, changes the world every single moment of every day. It is precisely because our every action ramifies, and ramifies in ways that are only partly predictable for a very short time, that intentional “world changing” has such dangerous potential. Marx, and most of us, imagine that the world being susceptible to change is somehow associated with the delusion that we can predict how those changes ramify. The Greeks had a word for this: hubris.
At any rate, we have seen this not only among Marxists. The entire project of capitalist modernization has similarly adopted a war episteme, beginning with Man’s “conquest of nature.” Our whole obsession with competitions of various kinds is built into the Thunderdome of survival in capitalist society. And we have all been indoctrinated into war by the everpresence of war. Little wonder then that when we organize to “change the world,” we organize for a fight . . . or what we imagine to be one. This includes not only Marxists, of course, but pretty much the whole of a fundamentally combative society.
This is a gendered phenomenon, reaching back past the Bronze Age, wherein masculinity/masculine virtue is constructed around the archetype, the paragon . . . of the warrior. Violent hegemonic masculinities are produced by the hegemonic practice of war; and the practice of war reproduces violent masculinities. I try to avoid transhistorical generalizations, but I feel quite confident about this one. So it is more than a little ironic that some feminists — post-Marxist and neo-Nietzschean alike — have chosen to meet each other on a field of battle, so to speak, and its shared episteme of conflict to the death. Both are reproducing the most durable and destructive framework bequeathed to us by transhistorical patriarchy, albeit in ritual-discursive combat.
The war episteme divides the world into allies and enemies. Disagreement is intolerable in two ways. First, disagreement itself constitutes The Enemy, as it has in the gender wars. Secondly, disagreement within one’s own strategic intellectual redoubt becomes intolerable, leading to the kinds of conformity that generate groupthink, cliques, gatekeepers, and enforcers. Disagreement comes to equal attack, which calls for counter-attack. Our very thinking is reshaped in support of our militarized “objectives.”
Now we are in the trenches.
Anyone who has even observed one of the many “splits” in supposedly revolutionary organizations has seen this play out, often not even over meta-analysis, but splitting over strategy differences — as if any of these grouplets ever even had the capacity to implement a strategy.
In the gender wars, the main struggle is now for “identity.” Who gets to claim this identity — woman? Ordinary language understandings are swept away, and the mere word becomes the hill we fight for. Identity, framed this way, becomes not descriptive but prescriptive — a demand that others see one in a certain very specific way. This is not new as a form of struggle . . . I remember when Muhammad Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay and how that shook things up.
Identity politics, as it is now practiced by, say, the Democratic Party establishment, subsumes all argument into identity (racial, gendered, national). “You believe that because you are white.” Or, “Kamala Harris is representative of racial progress because she is Black and Asian.” In other words, all arguments become ad hominem. It’s absurd, of course, because one can absolutely make an argument which can stand apart from the personality and social position of the speaker.
This is where the obsession with some reified “authenticity” combines with the fallacy that the only truth claims which can be valid are subjective to form a toxic brew of competing “victimizations” and the imagination of disagreement as a form of “erasure.”
Excursus: It’s amazing to me, as someone who lived for over two decades in an intensely violent milieu, how promiscuously people (on line, especially) use the term “violence.” Refusing or refuting your argument is not violence. Perceiving things differently than you is not violence. Violence is a fucking helicopter gunship, a white phosphorus grenade lobbed into a house full of people, kicking the shit out of a detainee, an air strike. Violence is pulling a gun on someone. Violence is when your partner beats the living shit out of you. Calling a refusal to conform to your beliefs “violence” is idiotic, an argument from extreme hyperbole.
When someone declares another person to be a TERF (trans-exclusive radical feminist, a McCarthyite term of abuse), this constitutes an ad hominem argument, that is, making the person and not that person’s argument per se into the issue. This is meant to kindle the hatred of others against the person herself (and to foreclose examination of her actual argument); and this is why I exit any conversation where this bullshit gets thrown in and generally avoid anyone who uses it.
I won’t tolerate it (meaning I stop participating) because it’s a fallacy, one, and name-calling, two. I won’t tolerate it because it throws all heat and no light. I won’t tolerate it because its intent is to simultaneously shame (cast out) and enforce ideological conformity, to maintain the solidarity of the in-group by directing hatred at the scapegoat, not achieve greater clarity around the issue.
Likewise, while I am more sympathetic to the post-Marxist view on several accounts, I shut down automatically when I hear a radical feminist characterize everyone who disagrees with her position as (a) an enemy, (b) a conspirator, or (c)a traitor. In this case, the abuse is not an outcome of ideological conformity so much as it is an expression of a war episteme that counts men-in-general (with specific exceptions) as a class enemy, and . . . again, reinforcing group identity around hatred of the common enemy.
It’s similar to the terrific dust-ups on the left around the Stalin-Trotsky debates, or as my late friend Mark Jones called them, the “Tralin-Stotsky debates.” Anyone who falls away from the line becomes “enemy.” You are with us, or you are with the enemy.
Because neither side gives way — because they talk past each other in the absence of some shared ground from which to observe and analyze both positions (incommensurable premises) — the “debate” has descended into a kind of name-calling and competing purity-pollution codes. And because this has devolved into competing ad hominem arguments, each side demonizing the other, the will to reconcile has been swept away by emotional investment in the war — i.e., defeating or destroying the other. On the sidelines, the political right-wing can only salivate.
I am not positing some moral equivalence. The bulk of my blame goes onto the most rabid poststructuralist inheritors — the purveyors of “cancel culture.”
What will, I hope, become clear in what follows is that the regulatory norms of “sex” work in a performative fashion to constitute the materiality of bodies and, more specifically, to materialize the body’s sex, to materialize sexual difference in the service of the consolidation of the heterosexual imperative.
— Judith Butler
We live in a period of casual voyeurism and exhibitionism, of frenetic simulacra, casual disembodiment, and grueling alienation — but I’m being redundant. Is it any wonder that some academics have come to claim that “subjectivity” (perish the thought of an actual subject!) can be reduced to “discursive performance”?
We naturalize what we experience every day. The postmodern anti-universalist universal is easy to naturalize in a world where we are atomized, where we are pitted against one another, where we cannot afford our attachments to place, where our very bodies have been commodified . . . even to ourselves. “Self help” is a genre about marketing oneself, of learning the correct performance.
I get why Butler believes our lives are reducible to a collection of performances, just as I get why Nietzsche rebelled against his father’s bourgeois existence. Butler’s dense, convoluted language, however, in its ongoing attempt to escape the “metanarrative,” makes my head hurt.
The poststructuralist “genealogical” rejection of metanarratives reads [moral variability based on context] as proof of the fraudulence of metanarratives. The poststructuralists have a metaphysical stance, too, but one that’s denied and which effaces the self or person as an embodied continuity, or a life with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Instead, one’s life is reduced to a set of discontinuous performances. It’s not just shit philosophy, in my view, but really bad politics.
In 2005, if I recall correctly, I was in a meeting where I said that masculinity is a core issue in understanding militarism, I was challenged by a man who’d been thoroughly enchanted by post-structuralist gender non-argument arguments. He said that we have to leave behind all vestiges of The Binary, “just shuffle everything up.” Which involved refusing the words man and woman as carriers of a metaphysical disease . . . and, as it turns out, this also effaces woman-as-political-subject. Patriarchy and poststructuralism are totally okay with this.
Foucault famously compared rape to a punch in the face and set the stage for the untrue truism that “rape is not about sex, but power.” As if they are exclusive. Rape is absolutely about sex, which defines it by the way; but with the analogy to being punched in the face, he disappeared women as political subjects around the issue of rape. He also disappeared (not all) men as uniquely and overwhelmingly the perpetrators by default; and together these disappearances included patriarchy as a social structure that specifically incorporates rape on a continuum of domination.
My friend’s comment about “shuffling it all up” was not a reply to my point, actually, but an attempt to foreclose my premises, and not a very good one. The thinking behind this politics of “shuffling” is magical all the way down. The “subversions” of poststructuralist faux-politics remind me of 2003, when the world had the biggest demonstrations in history to prevent George W. Bush from occupying Iraq. The demonstrations came and went, but without any power behind them, Bush and his staff ignored the protests and did what they wanted to anyway. But, hey, we put on a hell of a performance.
Poststructuralist “transgression,” like drag and other performances that aim to “displace” political/material reality through ironic “shuffling” begin with high visibility — oh, that’s unusual! — and some opposing reaction — oh, that creeps me out!; then people get used to it and it fades in significance until it has no effect at all. In the end, it doesn’t “displace” shit. This “opposition” is taken in by a cosmopolitan professional class, domesticated, then put in the service of capital as a lifestyle with a retail tag.
While it allegedly eschews any philosophical grand narratives, poststructuralist performance politics is a kind of vulgar philosophical idealism mixed with sophistry (Nietzsche attempted the rehabilitation of the Sophists, after all). The idea that changing-ideas (or making others uncomfortable) changes conditions (Marx reversed this formula) is an easy fit for academics, as the gatekeepers of ideas. Oddly enough, Marxists and post-Marxists— mostly those with university degrees (not all!) — are subject to the same error as their poststructuralist rivals — philosophical idealism.
“The personal is the political” was a statement that gained traction in the 1970s among feminists. Like many such statements — designed to provoke thought — it has been subject to an impressionistic slippage of meaning based on the reinterpretation of the statement in the absence of the statement’s original context. (Hausman calls it “discursive transpositioning.”)
In the original, this was a broadside against the public-private dichotomy in liberal law, which recognized rights as existing solely in the public sphere and concealed that which was in the ‘private’ sphere from the eyes of the law — a subject covered very well by post-Marxist law professor Catharine MacKinnon in Toward a Feminist Theory of the State.
Feminists were talking about how much of women’s oppression (at the time, and to a great extent still) takes place in the home, where the oppressor is an intimate, most often a male partner. Marital rape was legal until just decades ago, because “a man’s home was his castle,” akin to what Maria Mies called the rule of “the little white man” in the context of postcolonial patriarchy. But its decontextualized reinterpretation, with personal now meaning a person’s feelings instead of a theoretical private sphere, was easily conflated in the imagination of many with the (sometimes likewise decontextualized and reinterpreted) shibboleths of post-structuralism.
Such impressionistic slippages occur multiple times as this language is taken up from academics by those academic peers less well-versed in the totalities of a particular theory or philosophical claim, then by the academic community in general, whereupon the slipping language is again reinterpreted within non-academic circles occupied by members of the academic community, and then by degrees out into popular culture where it has been transformed into something that demagogues and advertisers can manipulate.
In the early 2000s, Barbara Duden and Silja Samerski collaborated on an investigation of what the term “gene” meant after undergoing these slippages. They called this popular imagination of the ‘gene’ a “pop-gene.” Samerski is a geneticist, who has a clear grasp of the scientific meaning of “gene,” which required years of training in her practice to acquire. Hers is a very empirical form of knowledge that requires a good deal of discipline to attain. But when the notion of ‘genes’ was simplified, for example, to include in medical literature for potential patients, genes were pulled from the text then filtered through the minds of readers, where genes were reinterpreted into forms of magical thinking. In some cases, even paranoia as people became obsessed with “defective” genes.
We may refer to the “woke-tivist” phenomenon that as pop-post-structuralism.
Whether for pop genes or personal politics, impressionistic slippage moves from the more rarified and contained atmosphere of the Academy into the street, so to speak, but along the way it is distorted; and as these pop-revisions of academic categories begin to flourish in popular culture, they are subject to the biggest distortion of all — commodification.
By the time commodification takes hold, the “personal” politics that originally challenged the public-private separation in liberal law is transformed. The subject, whose personal feelings have become paramount, is sold back to itself as a kind of ‘virtuous’ narcissism — self fulfillment via ‘lifestyle.’ It is this tendency, in my view, that forms the basis of liberal identity politics — which has taken poststructuralists accounts of gender (and race, though poststructuralists have contributed precious little to critical race theory), simplified them, distorting them in the process, and making them the toys of marketers and polemicists.
On the one hand, this manifests in superficial critiques of, say, a style of speech or manner being “too masculine,” or “too white,” without reference to the content of what is being said. On the other hand, it lends itself to the politics of identiarian placeholders, tokens, and symbolic paragons. “Hillary Clinton should have been elected because it was her turn as a woman,” without a single reference to actual policies that might benefit women, or the nation as a whole. Every declaration by a woman cannot be counted as valid because she is a woman; and likewise, every declaration by a man cannot be reduced to male privilege, etc. These are not arguments, but often-belligerent reductions with agendas that involve discrediting the other speaker at all costs. And here’s the thing, if this works to discredit A (male, white, straight), based purely on identity, it works just as easily against B (female, Black, gay) . . . and the latter has been the case far longer than the former. One thinks here of Audre Lorde’s remarks about “the master’s tools.”
Post-Marxists see identity as historically constructed. Neo-Nietzscheans see identity as performances. Aristotelians see identity as continuously formed in social settings (character formation) and sedimented.
The practice, of which I approve, of examining the speaker to establish her or his standing on a particular topic (lawyers talking about law, e.g.), does not translate into every word spoken or written by someone can be traced back to the speaker’s demographic “identity.” When the speaker/writer discusses her or his personal experience, then identity has greater standing; and when the speaker/writer is discussing something impersonal — the state of international relations, for example — the same thing can be said by those of several and other identities, and its validity can still be established independently of those identities.
Breaking this down to “speech acts,” it turns out that the “anti-essentialists” of poststructuralism are returning to an essentialism they never really abandoned — whether its “female brains” in male bodies or the reduction of every speech act to the identity (read: social position) of the speaker — the latter suggesting that only particular kinds of thought can precede a speech act because only a particular kind of person can think thoughts that way.
This personalist dogma takes an obvious truth — that there are general epistemological differences between groups who share the same experiences — and tries to turn some very fuzzy epistemological claims into an ontology. This tendency devolves rather quickly into anti-intellectual sophistry. Not surprisingly, Nietzsche (whose social position as a 19th century bourgeois European male [who held women in very low regard]) is immunized from this reduction, which he helped father. Because they have mistakenly universalized the term “objective” and demonized it (here that slippage begins), their response to objectivism has been subjectivism. More precisely, as Toril Moi names them, they are positioning a “pan-subjectivism” in opposition to a perceived “pan-objectivism.” (Moi, 149) They have created their own universal binary, this time foreclosing any critique that would bring impersonal evidence or proofs to bear on it. All arguments become unapologetically ad hominem.
None of this criticism is to say that position doesn’t matter. The trick is not to make a false choice between impersonal and personal speech acts, but to employ one’s judgement to determine when, where, and how personal and impersonal are used.
Speaking for myself, as a kind of feral scholar and gonzo social critic, I like to jump back and forth dialectically, as a writer, between personal and impersonal, not to oppose them, but to allow personal experience (that might be recognizable by readers who have similar experience) and impersonal (“objective,” empirical, etc.) to illuminate one another for the reader. But the claim that “all knowledge is situated,” taken as an axiom, suggests than one person can’t use the same map as a stranger to find a restaurant or a park. Or that we have to know the biography of the cartographer before we can really read it.
Trans-identified people in the US — where researchers have surveyed — appear to be around .6 percent of the population, or six out of every 1,000 persons. The data is somewhat scarce, and the survey methods have some built-in challenges; but there also appears to be an uptick in these numbers which we’ll discuss further along.
The whole “natural-disordered” contradiction described by Hausman remains unresolved. Gender dysphoria — the symptom named as a disease — is obviously real for some people; but again it is descriptive of a state of mind, not a definable disease with a specific etiology. Dysphoria is defined as “an emotional state characterized by anxiety, depression, or unease; in pathology, impatience under affliction; a state of dissatisfaction, restlessness, fidgeting, or inquietude; impatience under affliction; morbid restlessness; dissatisfaction; the fidgets.”
I have long been critical of the psychiatric bible, i.e., the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), for its relentless medicalization of every aspect of human behavior. When I realized that the DSM has a listed “disorder” for not being able to do math well, I was done with it. This is part of a trend that caught hold in the early twentieth century and which has advanced alongside what Ivan Illich called medical monopolization — the trend to define personal and social problems as medical, in which physicians and researchers have become a sort of priesthood and everyone becomes a walking collection of diagnoses. We have become a diagnostic society, a disembodied society wherein we each self-objectify through the proprietary body and stand apart from our embodied existence to optimize ourselves within a risk management paradigm. So it is unsurprising that when we experience any form of difficulty, we tend to reach for a medical explanation. More and more, that explanation is accompanied by pharmaceuticals (which themselves iatrogenically contribute to various “disorders”).
Within that medicalized paradigm, however, there remain many contradictions, some of which can be identified within the medicalization paradigm itself. Dysphoria — “an emotional state characterized by anxiety, depression, or unease” — has several sources that are themselves listed as dysmorphic disorders: dissociation, post-traumatic stress disorder (I was diagnosed with this, which I experience as regret and grief associated with a dangerous and amoral career), autism, body dysmorphia, schizophrenia, e.g. I myself was intensely dissatisfied with my own body as a youngster, because I was extremely small until I reached puberty, whereupon I became just small. What I didn’t have at the time was the internet and a menu of ostensible diagnoses from unvetted sources that I could interpret in my own still very undeveloped mind.
I was a Special Forces medic for a time — kind of PA without the microbiology. As the go-to person on a detachment for all things medical, one of my biggest peeves was the number of high-speed, low-drag, manly-man Green Berets who were self-diagnosing hypochondriacs. Now these were grown-ass men, who had volunteered for serial torture courses just to be brought into our little fraternity; but a shocking number of them — especially after pre-deployment medical briefings — would come around pestering me to run labs (we had portable labs calls tac-sets) on their stool, provide certain medications, or check their bodies in various ways, to ward off the fear I had inculcated during the briefings on which pathologies “threatened them” (their interpretation . . . I was always the first to start eating street food or refusing to douse my entire body in DEET) in one or another area of operation (Latin America at the time for us). The point is, fully-fledged adults will misdiagnose themselves routinely, based on partial or partially-understood information and the power of auto-suggestion. (These guys, there were always a couple on every team, drove me batshit crazy.)
Consider now, then, a twelve-year-old who lives in a dysfunctional household with horrifyingly mixed messages about sexuality, who is bullied for being weird at school (a site of incredible cruelty), and who has been relentlessly propagandized by the media on gender norms . . . and he or she experiences dysmorphia — “an emotional state characterized by anxiety, depression, or unease.” The world of adults offers little succor, but the treacherous semiosphere of the internet offers up all sorts of explanations; explanations that sound about right . . . to a twelve-year-old. When I was twelve, I discovered Ayn fucking Rand in the library, and decided she was the world’s premier philosopher.
There are people now who advocate pharmaceutical/surgical gender transition for kids, based on their own accounts of a “disorder” they studied on the internet (or saw on TV, as I have). This is, frankly, insane.
Many people prior to the age of majority who interpreted their dysphoria as being transgendered — but did not “transition” — report that they discovered as they grew older that what they were . . . was gay. Just one example.
Young people who are alienated from adults in all their guises (parents, teachers, etc.), especially with the internet, coalesce into peer groups. Peer groups articulate certain forms of groupthink which, once arrived at, members adapt to by submerging or discarding thoughts and behaviors that might threaten their membership in the group. In a society as enclosed and alienated as ours, the need to experience a sense of belonging is intensified; and we all know that kids police themselves and others to consolidate membership in peer groups. Common enemies are a common occurrence here. (Yes, this is true of adult society, too; but adults at least have the developmental capacity to perform certain kinds of critical mental operations.)
Gender dysphoria (GD) is socially mediated. This shouldn’t be the least bit controversial. The strongest correlation between other aspects of the personhod of gender dysphorics is same-sex attraction. But more than that, there are several varieties of gender dysphoria. Onset is one factor: is the person a child, adolescent, or adult when they report GD? Was the onset gradual or rapid? Is the person experiencing GD attracted to the same sex, the opposite sex, or both sexes? How do these preceding factors correlate to natal-sex? Childhood-onset is usually gradual-onset and roughly balanced between males and females, with a strong correlation to same-sex attraction, especially among males. “Autogynephilic gender dysphoria” is associated with males who report sexual arousal associated with the imagination of changing sex, and its onset is gradual. Rapid-onset GD is most common among adolescent girls, and is the fastest growing form of self-reported GD.
Childhood-onsets, the most common form of GD, are generally first identified by “persistent gender noncomformity.” This should be a giant red flag about interpreting this as the child being “transgendered,” because it is a fundamentally essentialist account that assigns a pseudo-ontological status to socially constructed gender norms. We may as well call the nonconforming boys “pussies” and the girls “tomboys.” Of course these children may interpret their GD as unhappiness with their natal-sex. Around 80 percent of these kids go on to accept their natal sex as they discover that their childhood dissatisfactions were multiply sourced. But if, as is the case with some, their parents support and even encourage the idea that they are transgendered — encouraged in some cases by therapists — then this cannot be discounted as a contributing factor in later decisions to transition.
Autogynophilic GD is experienced first, in most cases, by adolescent males, who generally don’t transition — if at all — until they are adults. This paprticular form of GD is associated directly to a form of sexual arousal, which complicate things a good deal more. The young male becomes sexually aroused by the fantasy of becoming female. The first outward sign of this form of GD is cross-dressing, which should again be a red flag with regard to naturalizing it. These young men are “living into” pre-existing, socially-constructed gender norms. That is not to say that all cross-dressing men are autogynophiliac. At any rate, this particular form of GD correlates weakly with eventual transition.
Another, now controversial, provisional diagnosis of GD is rapid-onset, which involves mostly adolescent girls. I’ll explain the controversy in a moment. ROGD is a very provisional diagnosis that emerges from a study conducted by physician and researcher Lisa Littman and published in PLoS One, a peer-reviewed journal, in 2018, entitled “Parent reports of adolescents and young adults perceived to show signs of a rapid onset of gender dysphoria.” Littman herself has emphasized the provisional nature of this study, as “descriptive and exploratory,” as well as its limitations; but there is enough evidence there to warrant further investigation. Here is the Purpose statement from the Abstract:
In on-line forums, parents have reported that their children seemed to experience a sudden or rapid onset of gender dysphoria, appearing for the first time during puberty or even after its completion. Parents describe that the onset of gender dysphoria seemed to occur in the context of belonging to a peer group where one, multiple, or even all of the friends have become gender dysphoric and transgender-identified during the same timeframe. Parents also report that their children exhibited an increase in social media/internet use prior to disclosure of a transgender identity. Recently, clinicians have reported that post-puberty presentations of gender dysphoria in natal females that appear to be rapid in onset is a phenomenon that they are seeing more and more in their clinic. Academics have raised questions about the role of social media in the development of gender dysphoria. The purpose of this study was to collect data about parents’ observations, experiences, and perspectives about their adolescent and young adult (AYA) children showing signs of an apparent sudden or rapid onset of gender dysphoria that began during or after puberty, and develop hypotheses about factors that may contribute to the onset and/or expression of gender dysphoria among this demographic group. [Emphases added]
Social media socially mediates. Gender dysphoria is socially mediated.
The most controversial aspect of the study is the suggestion that gender dysphoria might be acquired, enabled, or enhanced by the phenomenon of “social contagion.” In short, clusters of sudden-onset GD seem to have appeared in peer-groups that organize online. Comparisons have been made to other disorders, like anorexia or cutting, that have found validation in online peer-groups which encourage these practices. Social contagion is defined as “the spread of affect or behavior from one crowd participant to another; one person serves as the stimulus for the imitative actions of another.” People want to “fit in.” This is most pronounced among adolescents living in the industrialized metropoles, where age segregation has been managerially most enforced. Peasant societies, for example, have very little age segregation, and the goal of fitting in is pursued as the goal of taking more adult responsibility. Subsistence cultures do not have “youth subcultures.” It took mandatory public schooling and the advertising industry to do that.
The reason the Littman report has been “controversial” is that the idea that people might be convinced they are or should be transsexual undermines the naturalization of gender dysphoria, who claim GD is “an innate, immutable sense of incongruence between anatomical sex and personal sense of gender.” Innate and unmutable incongruity! Essentialism anyone? Where did I put that female brain?
Challenging this orthodoxy triggers the most dogmatic of pop-poststructuralists to organize attack-dog outrage mobs to silence interlocutors who deviate from the orthodoxy. The mere existence of a debate is seen as a threat. There’s that war episteme! No quarter!
Simply raising a question — which is all her report does and all she says she intends to do — is blasphemous.
Collecting data from parents in this descriptive exploratory study has provided valuable, detailed information that allows for the generation of hypotheses about potential factors contributing to the onset and expression of gender dysphoria among AYAs. Emerging hypotheses include the possibility of a potential new subcategory of gender dysphoria (referred to as rapid-onset gender dysphoria) that has not yet been clinically validated and the possibility of social influences and maladaptive coping mechanisms contributing to the development of gender dysphoria. Parent-child conflict may also contribute to the course of the dysphoria. More research that includes data collection from AYAs, parents, clinicians and third party informants is needed to further explore the roles of social influence, maladaptive coping mechanisms, parental approaches, and family dynamics in the development and duration of gender dysphoria in adolescents and young adults. [Emphases added]
One of the most pernicious and fallacious attacks on those who question the dogmatic narrative that renders anyone who raises a question to be “TERFs” (or “SWERFs”) is that these people who question the dogma have been given an audience by “right wing” interlocutors.
Some of them are right wing, and some don’t fit nicely along the popular imagination of a left-right ideological continuum. This is a guilt-by-association fallacy combined with a contagion narrative.
I believe that refusal to talk to those “polluted” ones outside one’s circle of trust is a recipe for a kind of ossifying sectarianism that forecloses the possibility of change that many of us claim to desire. More to the point, speaking politically now and as a practical matter, if I support single payer health care, as one example, because it promotes the common good, and another person supports it because they think it’s a right (I personally have little use for rights-talk, as may be apparent), and another supports it because he thinks it will free him up to join a loony militia, I will join with the rights-flogger and the militia nut to work for single payer health care. Bernie Sanders recently joined with one of the most reactionary of his fellow Senators, Josh Hawley, to demand an increase in Covid relief checks.
I oppose letting children who have no physical disability being allowed to transition based on self-reporting, for all the reasons aforementioned. If someone from the American Conservative agrees, then we are tactical allies. But with this trans-controversy McCarthyism that has driven most dissenting voices out of the confused and intimidated left, those who still trust their own judgement on these matters have no one except conservatives who will give them a hearing. And when exactly did pop-post-structuralism manage to make it a sin to talk with people who disagree with us?
My own exit from many “left” spaces has been a response to the growing hegemony of the divisive, controlling, crypto-puritanical, call-out mavens on the left. I haven’t been to a DSA meeting in a year; and I’ve no plans to return. I note, even now, how the left, which achieved some growth and consolidation through the unitive character of elections and the leadership of Sanders, has now begun falling apart again as the sectarian impulse re-emerges — everyone abandoning all forms of unity to scratch and tear at every scab of disagreement to ensure they never heal. It’s not a pretty picture, and it’s an ill harbinger for any actual political project.
What is, and is not, transphobia?
I mean it’s in the dictionary now: “irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against transgender people.” It says nothing about failure to accept a particular theory about transgenderism or questioning its provenance. And yet I know several people who have been accused of “transphobia” who do not fear trangender persons, who have never evinced any aversion to any trans person (for being transgendered), and who have never discriminated against them. Dr. Lisa Littman was excoriated as a transphobe, though there is no record of her fearing, averting from, or discriminating.
Questioning the scientific validity of a claim — so long as one is open to scientific evidence (observed, variable-controlled, inductive) — is not a phobia or a prejudice. One may accept transgender persons and treat them with the same courtesy and respect owed to all without accepting the claim that this condition/identity is innate and immutable — a claim for which there is no scientific evidence.
Rejection of gender essentialism is not “transphobic.” Rejection of the notion that there are “male” and “female” brains which are mismatched with bodies is not transphobic. These positions are merely oblique restatements of the fact that human “brains,” or minds, are simultaneously “plastic” (neuroplasticity) and susceptible to suggestion.
I understand that people “need” to understand as best they can why they or others feel and act as they do; and I understand the urgency of this need when those feelings and actions are part of an attempt to fit in, to find one’s accommodation, and to defend oneself from real or imagined attacks. This does not, however, translate into the accuracy or validity of a theory or explanation, either from a sub-section of the culture or from ideas that are widely accepted in the culture. But when the defense or justification of feelings, thoughts, and actions has been constructed upon a particular theory or explanation, some will predictably conflate the rejection of the theory itself or the explanation itself with some form of personal “attack” on the person or persons who subscribe to that theory or explanation — even if it is clearly wrong. This creates an impasse wherein any interrogation of the theory or explanation itself is no longer a simple intellectual disagreement but a form of blasphemy — a rejection of some sacred dogma.
Neither is it “transphobic” to point out that some people will lie, prevaricate, and invent in their interactions with professionals to get what they want from those professionals. People lie to insurance agents, lawyers, cops, store managers, and — yes — doctors all the time. I know I have. Hausman’s research showed how transsexuals seeking surgery entered into a “peculiar dynamic between patients and doctors, wherein anyone seeking sexual reassignment surgery for whatever reason would study the stated symptoms of the disorder and repeat them to doctors to secure the surgery they desired.”
It is not “transphobic” to point out that children have a very limited bank of experience, an immature capacity for reasoning and self-knowledge, and insufficient experience and information with which to make life-altering decisions.
It is not “transphobic” to question the wisdom of surgery as a remedy for a sense of unbelonging, or alienation. I am not at all “supportive” — intellectually — of people seeking plastic surgery for purely cosmetic reasons, and I have known a few. I think it’s a terrible idea that is promoted by capitalist charlatans. But I do not chastise them, exclude them, vilify them, or withhold respect or affection for them. For them, when they do it, it may seem very urgent; and I’ve done plenty of things I later regretted. I’m not in the habit of telling competent adults what to do, even if I believe they have questionable responses to the problems in their lives. I’m quite sure that many of my acquaintances feel the same way about me. Humility, tolerance of difference, and the benefit of the doubt are the bottom floor of basic human decency.
One tactic has been to deploy a demonizing association of radical and/or historical materialist feminists with people on the right for questioning the pop-post-structuralist narrative on gender. This is a standard guilt-by-association fallacy. I’m not sure when it became unacceptable to identify points of provisional agreement with people not of one’s political tribe, but the contagion-narrative approach to politics has gained ascendancy apparently.
Do some on the right seek a kind of advantage against the left with all this? Absolutely. That doesn’t authorize guilt-by-association fallacies.
There really are some things that some members of the left say and do that are softballs for the right. Attacking people’s faith is one. Declaring them to be “a basket of deplorables” works well here, too. The three-step method of persuasion that predominates social media — You’re fucked up; everything you hold sacred is wrong; and I’m smarter than you — is a biggie. This stuff makes things easy for the right. So does saying stuff like, “There is no such thing as a man or a woman.”
I’ll say this once more for emphasis: it is not a mortal sin to have discussions with people with whom one disagrees. Their ideas, no matter how wrong or right, are not Covid-19.
This tendency to “cancel” anyone and everyone who sticks her or his head up to question this dogma is a deeply Stalinist approach to “reasoned” discourse; and it has included among its execrable tactics the willingness to destroy peoples’ livelihoods. Let me say this clearly: there is no fucking excuse for this.
By the same token, post-Marxists — sometimes in response to these tactics — are not pushing the ball down the field by dismissing people who identify as trasngendered as conspirators in some plot to overthrow women, even if the tactics of some (very vocal) activists effectively undermine feminists.
My plea at the beginning remains the same: stop flamethrowing, listen, reflect, find a common language, and talk. If there can be no conclusion, I’ll repeat Jesus’ advice: kick the dust off your feet and move on. Stop with this mutual-destruction dance. And stop the online McCarthyism. Please. Damn.