This isn’t a general essay, more the upshot of the ongoing intra-philosophical spats, so it might not be of interest to all of you..
So, anyway, someone calling themselves Dr Specious (ho ho), possibly one of our philosophical colleagues in disguise, turned up and pass-agg pointed me and Kathleen and Holly at this paper, which I haven’t yet read fully, but makes the prima facie sketchy claim that we should assign gender (do you means sex?) not on the basis of ‘facts’ but on the basis of political calculations related to oppression (there’s a lot to say about this in itself, some of which I point towards in what follows, but, yeah, you want us to utterly conflate judgements of fact and value and then rearrange reality so it’s determined by nothing but power – or the alleged critique of power – do you??? What could possibly go wrong????) Anyway, we got into a bit of a back and forth, in which my take was ‘if you wanna run around aggressively calling people bigots you should probably demonstrate that you have decently engaged with their arguments beforehand.’ I sent them a link to this, and was promptly told I didn’t deserve engagement. However, this morning this turned up, along with the proclamation that it was “mostly incoherent and hypocritical drivel.” Well now…
I started typing up a response, which, in the immemorial words of the ever lovely Arthur Chu, got ‘obnoxiously long.’ (Whyyyyy must people insist on thinking in long sequences of joined up ideas?? WE WANT BAD ANALOGIES AND SLOGANS AND WE WANT THEM NOW). Anyway, it got long, so I decided to stick it here. Take and/or make of it what you will 🙂
Numbers refer to the points above.
4. What it means is that second person pronouns are extended to you by another person. The phrase ‘my personal pronouns’ is an ontological contradiction. You do not ‘own’ the pronouns other people use to recognise you, because they are a speech act which marks another person’s recognition of you. When you claim that another person’s recognition of you is something you ‘own,’ you are making a claim to have something akin to a property right over another person’s recognition, that is, you are claiming you have the right to dispose of someone else’s recognition as you see fit, and you are further attempting to give leverage to the claim that is they who have done something wrong if they challenge this right. Other people’s recognition is not the kind of thing over which one can, or should, attempt to claim property rights. Because other people’s perceptions and judgements about what they perceive are fundamental to their own freedom of belief, and are integral to their own right to understand reality as it presents itself to them. Attempting to appropriate them, make specious property claims over them, and enforce those specious property claims through more or less explicit social sanction, up to and including shouting at strangers in public space, is a form of domination. It is also an attempt to exert pressure to undermine their own perceptions – that is, it is, precisely, gaslighting.
(If you’re interested, here is a position on this laid out by our trans allies with which I broadly agree).
9 and 13. I will deal with the nonsense name analogy in a moment. So, to deal with the other issue, yes, social pressure is how we enforce norms, correct.
a) I find it pretty interesting that a political movement framed in significant respect by a critique of supposed anti-normativity, and a clear exploration of the disciplinary nature of norms, and how they function to construct and enforce identity, is suddenly so very interested to defend itself in terms of ‘but social pressure is just how we enforce norms *shrug*’ To wit: radical queer and trans activism is, like, the least queer thing I have ever seen.
b) I’m not actually one of those people who thinks norms are necessarily bad (and I’m pretty suspicious of an intellectual movement that so readily tells us norms are bad when they interfere with men’s sexual gratification (Mr Foucault), but is more than happy to wheel them out to make people conform to queer normativity). Anyway, the point is, I think it’s kind of important not to either accept or reject norms on the basis of the fact that they are norms, but rather, to interrogate them carefully, in each instance, and examine what they are for, what harms they are protecting us against, or what goods they are trying to enact. That is, we don’t just get to say, ‘pronouns are a norm and there is no issue when we use social opprobrium to try and enforce them,’ without interrogating that norm.
Here there are two issues, one of which is to do with the issue of possible conflicts over the harms and goods that issue from the enforcement of that norm, and the other to do with the nature of the norm – and these are both actually interlinked.
i) As your example of the n-slur indicates, one of the issues here is a thorough conflation of judgements of value and judgements of fact. The n-slur is entirely a judgement of value, it is a word that serves no function other than derogation, and derogation that is placed evidently within a historical structure of power. It is the conceit of your political ideology that people’s judgements about the sex of another person is an analogous example, but this relies on the claim that the only reason we might want to insist that someone is the sex that we perceive them to be, rather than the gender their pronouns assert they are, is for the purposes of derogation – and this is actually the basis of the entire tottering pile of normative coercion that you have constructed to enforce your ideology. You seem to be unable to comprehend that some people care about reality because they care about reality, because we think that coercively enforcing norms that do not correspond to our perceptions of reality is the ontological heart of totalitarianism – like, Orwellian is overused, but really, this is Orwellian, to the letter. If you destroy the reality base of norms, or of any shared aspect of social life, you are saying that the only thing that should determine what we all agree to be true, is power. Maybe you want to live in that world? If you do, I can only conclude that you’re either an authoritarian, or an idiot. It is not, y’know, the case, that ‘alternative facts’ are really bad when Trump uses them and totes fine when ‘progressives’ use them,
ii) This conflict over fact and value is also related to the fact that this is basically a conflict over harms. What you will not acknowledge is that we are resisting this because we consider the erasure of sex to be a harm to women. I appreciate that people experience it as a harm when their identity is not validated through social recognition. That is why the vast vast majority of us are happy to extend that recognition on the basis of human decency, and kindness. What has happened, however, is that the trans rights movement has refused to accept the adequacy of freely offered recognition as politeness and turned ‘my pronouns’ into an enforced mandate – including people getting fired from their employment for not complying. (“You won’t be imprisoned” “You won’t be physically forced.” No, you’ll just be called a bigot, socially ostracised, no platformed, the police might be sent around to check your thoughts, and you might lose your livelihood. None of this is in any way coercive, but we are doing it to enforce norms mind.)
At the point at which people started telling us that there was no such thing as male and female biology, and that the being of a man or a woman was determined only by gender identity, you converted a norm that was functioning on the basis of politeness into an ontological judgement that many people do not accept, and then you attempted to use that as the basis by which to demand access to services etc. That is, you took something extended in kindness, turned it illegitimately into a statement of fact, and then used that to try and make rights claims to services already being used by female people, who have reasons to be concerned about the presence of male-bodied people that you are only ever capable of handwaving and dismissing (ps – if you want to talk about norms and harms, you don’t get to pretend that the harms to one group must be given unilateral precedence over those to another group). Which is all to say, you guys have seriously taken the piss. And you’ll find that people cease wanting to be polite and respectful to people who have taken that recognition and used it to try and take their rights away. Strangely.
18. ‘Some feminists believe that the performance of gender doesn’t change someone’s sex…what’s the point here?’ Are you fucking kidding me? The point is that you are trying to mandate that we all agree with an ideology that is committed to the political erasure of sex. We think that sex matters, politically, and that legally abolishing sex is very bad for women. That’s the point.
19. Your ideological movement circles insistently around the claim that all our analysis and objections are illegitimate, and that everything can just be handwaved as an expression of our hatred or phobia. What I mean by ‘this is not a pretext’ is that we want our objections and arguments to be dealt with and not consistently dismissed, and we’d like it recognised that we exist, in our own right, have our own interests, our own analysis of the world, and that it’s not ALL ABOUT YOU. (On this, and re: both the stuff on narcissism we’ll get onto in a bit, and Christa Peterson’s response to our Daily Nous piece, can you, for a second, think about the absolute narcissism of reducing a whole slew of different feminist objections to the acronym ‘TERF.’ Female people will be defined only in terms of what they will not give to male people. How very novel.)
20 a) Indeed we might. And let us also note, that you cannot get through any form of intellectual engagement, even with something as sober as the text I gave you here, without being snarky. I said this to you yesterday, and I will say it again. The aggression coming from you people is staggering, and you’re so high on your piety you are completely impervious to what a bunch of bullies you look like to many of the observers of this conflict. I do not want to be part of any form of progressivism that has pickled its brains in this much Zizek-vibe. To return to the point about ‘feminism,’ it looks like a load of cock-waving Red-Terror-romanticising masculinist bullshit to me.
b) I’ve missed some steps? Or you are just being disingenuous? One of the main justifications for controlling our speech is that we are ‘making people unsafe’ and this claim of ‘unsafety’ is frequently leveraged by the additional claim that the kind of violence that trans people are subject to is in some way produced by feminists. Where are my stats? The stats that prove that patriarchal men don’t commit violence against trans people because they have read too much feminism (or are influenced by feminism)? I think if you want to make that claim, the onus to demonstrate that it’s not the obvious bullshit it looks like is on you. I’ve explored this is detail here.
21. The name analogy. Proper names are not analogous to words referring to people’s sex. Proper names have no semantic content other than denoting the person to which they are attached (not quite true, to be more precise, they don’t have any denotive content other than picking out a particular person, proper names do of course have historical, class-based, ethnic and racialised connotations and they are sexed (clearly not before 1492, when sex was invented)). However, they do not name any specific material feature of that person’s being (other than denoting also, their sex). I cannot perceive a person’s name by looking at them. I do not walk down the street and more or less consciously perceive the names of everyone that passes me by. If someone tells me their name, there is no basis, prima facie, on which I might dispute that name, because I have no perception of my own of some material facet of their being which may contradict it. And there is no political power structure which is attached to ‘the class of people of x proper name,’ and which has led me to have a certain number of bad experiences which correlates with ‘the class of people of x proper name.’ That is, they don’t function in anything resembling the same way. Apples and oranges as we say in the trade. One more for the ‘big bag of shit analogies.’
22. ‘Conceptually identical’ means, in this context, ‘the same idea as.’ It’s incredibly opaque I know. *Flat stare*
As I’ve said, your analogy is rubbish, but even were it not, calling someone by the wrong name would be an act of impoliteness, and not an act of structural violence or oppression, unless you could demonstrate that there was an entire power structure which qualified for the description of oppression which hinged on illegitimately calling people ‘Becky’ when it was not their name. (We might wonder here whether that this choice of name is entirely accidental. It’s actually interesting right? Because no one is going to argue, given the nature of power, that calling white women ‘Becky’ is a form of oppression. Derision, maybe. Justified derision containing important political critique? In part. A more-or-less conscious way for you to slip in that endlessly-recycled imputation that only oppressive white women believe in sex? Maybe that too).
And while we’re here, what you guys really need to do, is actually work out a coherent account of why people believing something as manifestly true as the fact that mammals are sexually dimorphic is actually the basis of a historical act of structural oppression. And it needs to be an account that actually bears some relation to the historical record, doesn’t rely on ahistorical appropriative racist bullshit like ‘colonialism invented the gender binary,’ and gives a convincing explanation of why the recognition of sexual dimorphism functions in itself (i.e. that doesn’t conflate sex with its social construction through patriarchal gender) as a form of oppression, and is not merely the recognition of a material fact. I have outlined several times, that I fully accept that trans people experience discrimination as an adjunct of patriarchal gender. I have not, however, ever heard an account that convinced me that trans people are oppressed qua trans people as a class by a system that is specifically motivated by the benefit conferred to the class of non-trans people, and I have never heard a convincing account of how that mechanism might hinge specifically on the recognition of sexual dimorphism in itself. And on that, I don’t know if you’ve clocked it, but your ideology might be uniquely distinguished by being based on dereification rather than reification. You’ve taken the normal functioning of ideology – ‘passing the constructed off as the natural’ – and flipped it, so we get ‘passing the natural off as socially constructed.’ It seems rather apt for the spirit of the age, don’t you think? We like to call it ‘the unconcealment of patriarchal ideality.’
23 and 26. I recognise trans people’ needs. That’s why I think this is a rights conflict, and I want to work out a solution which can meet trans people’s needs without violating women’s rights to comfort, dignity, safety, political representation etc. Quite what solution we could find is going to be a hard road. We won’t start walking it until we we start to recognise that both sides here are people, with needs and vulnerabilities, and start trying to thrash it out. Your move.
It may however be the case that I don’t think that someone else’s needs immediately give them license to something (didn’t we used to have some old idea about other people’s rights ending at my nose or something?). Because we don’t generally accept, say, that people have a right to sex from other people because they need or want it, do we? (Apart from the fact, of course, that your movement actually makes that argument all the time – and specifically in relation to lesbians’ self-determination, and to the question of sex by deception (apparently ‘sexual autonomy’ is not an absolute right when it interferes with trans people’s validation – are you joining the dots about why we think this might be some narcissistic rapey bullshit yet?)) In fact, in general, if we were using a consistent moral calculus, we’d recognise that the right to refuse someone something we don’t want to give generally trumps someone else’s needs. Because forcing someone to give you something when they don’t want to is, um, narcissistic domination (aka, ‘the psychic structure of rape, colonialism and material appropriation in general’.)
Anyway, it’s interesting you should bring up mirrors, because…
25. Wow. You really don’t understand the first thing about the feminist critique of psychoanalysis, object relations theory, French feminist philosophy, or the analysis of patriarchal narcissism, do you? True fact: We think primary narcissism is a retroactive patriarchal construction used by masculinist thinkers in order to obscure the mutually constitutive nature of human subjectivity. We further think that construction is used to reify narcissism as the normative model of human subjectivity, and functions to exculpate and reify the developmental, social, and ontological system which justifies male narcissism and the domination it creates. And we think that when many adults – often of the male variety – dominate other people, often in a modality of narcissistic rage, and refuse to recognise that they can’t always get what they want because other people have needs and have said no, that they actually are, indeed, having a big person’s tantrum.
If you understood this, you would understand how male narcissism connects male violence, the appropriation of women’s bodies, the domination of nature, capitalist appropriation, colonisation and the legacy of racialised violence. You would understand that the anti-sovereigntist critique you have reductively collapsed into the normative axiom of ‘inclusion’ (and then turned into another binary), is, at its root, about the critique of patriarchal narcissism, and that when you make of it another binary (WE GOOD. TERF BAAAAAD), use it to other your critics, and to attempt to coerce and appropriate, I’m inclined to think you haven’t learned a fucking thing from the Derridean strand of post-structuralism. Which is all to say, I am beyond bored of being piously lectured about being a bad feminist by people who don’t actually understand how patriarchy works. Go read some Irigaray. FFS.
28. I refer you to my previous point about your apparent non-familiarity with feminist philosophy’s elaboration of models of relational intersubjectivity, and the critique of patriarchy as fundamentally structured around the narcissistic inability to enact intersubjective recognition. The master-slave dialectic is a reifying masculinist lie, say all the witches and the mothers.
Shall we burn them for it?