Yesterday Kathleen suggested that, rather than making endless dark subtweets about what an evil toxic force we are, Alison Phipps actually tried talking to us like human beings and engage in debate about the ideas at the heart of this conflict.
Of course, that offer was refused. On the grounds that “’Reasonable debate’ cannot counter unreasonable ideas.’ Which is both convenient, and, if taken at face value, a pretty staggering statement from someone who is supposedly in the business of dealing with ideas. If taken at face value, ‘unreasonable’ here would mean something like ‘lacking in reasoned argument,’ or ‘not capable of being justified with compelling reasons.’ Maybe this is what Phipps means, but if so, she would have to, y’know, actually demonstrate that the many reasons we have given for our position are not, in fact, reasonable. Which would, indeed, be the entire point of asking her to intellectually engage with us, rather than just doing an endless ‘tut and move away’ manoeuvre. We have, over the course of the last years, written a decent pile of blog posts and essays and academic papers and twitter threads, explaining the basis of our objections to the ideology of the present form of the Trans Rights Movement, and the effect we think it will have on women and girls. We have received nothing by way of substantive critique which deals directly with those objections, even though we wrote a handy little guide basically asking for it, all of which leaves the distinct impression that advocates of the Trans Rights position don’t actually have a substantive response to our objections. If our position was actually ‘unreasonable’ in the first and most conventional sense, then engaging in reasoned debate with us would be exactly the way of demonstrating that. Of course, we’re going to conclude from Phipps’ swerve that she knows full well that she can’t answer our reasoned objections, and no surprises there – this absolute refusal to deal with the substance of the issue has been the core political tactic of the TRM from the start, and it’s because, simply, they can’t deal with reasoned objections. What they can, and have done, inveterately, instead, is weave a web of analogical relations to explain why we’re evil, why everything we say is evil, and why they don’t have to engage with us or anything we ever say because we’re SO. DAMN. EVIL.
This is actually what Phipps is saying when she calls us ‘unreasonable.’ It can’t be a (potentially) demonstrable claim about our position ‘lacking reasoned argument’ because if it were, the claim that ‘reasonable debate cannot defeat unreasonable ideas’ would make no sense. What it is, rather, I’d suggest, is a moral claim – a claim that we and our ideas are so morally delinquent that we can, and should, be excluded from the community of legitimate speaking subjects. (For a particularly piquant example of this move, here’s the bit where a bunch of our colleagues compared three lesbians to holocaust deniers and people advocating for the corrective rape of lesbians). For a group of people so profoundly concerned with questions of recognition, validation, and the harms of dehumanisation and exclusion, it is marked how absolute and implacable the TR position is when it comes to refusing anyone who questions their ideology or political agenda the merest hint of basic recognition. We are never to be taken as good actors who have genuinely motivated concerns or objections grounded in our own political analysis of the world. We will not be interpreted or understood in anything resembling our own terms, but are, instead, a venomous horde of boogeywomen summoned by the projections of our opponents. Feminism has a term for fashioning groups of people out of your own projections and flattening them into an undifferentiated dark morass that lacks individuated or interior life. We call it othering.
Phipps would say that it is impossible for her to other us, because power. And the use and abuse of the leftist analysis of power in this debate is really what I want to talk about here – because it is unreasonable, and in a way that could potentially trash the credibility of the leftist analysis of power, completely. (Much playing into the hands of the right there people, great work.) My basic point here is that, converse to the usual historical mechanisms of othering , the trope Phipps is deploying here hangs on placing us beyond the discursive pale by using a Tumblrised intersectional ‘Oppression Olympics’-style matrix , one which positions us, and our ideas, as an artefact of privilege and power, and which then allows her to write off anything we say as an instance of morally egregious harmful dominance without actually having to bother engaging with the substance of what we’re saying (which as I’ve said, she can’t.)
As a feminist thinker, I’m kind of bothered about the analysis of power getting totally trashed. The second-wave analysis of gender is precisely about delineating the way normative ideas about how men and women should behave were not naturally given and functioned instead to maintain a sex-based power hierarchy. (Cue all the little MRAs gleefully blaming us for this mess – yes, that’s right, explaining why we want you to stop raping us is exactly like telling you humans are not sexually dimorphic). We do need to examine ideas, work out their historical development, and look at whose political interests they serve. But that’s the entire point. The ideas need to be examined, in themselves (rather than just asserting their badness because power), they need to be given a convincing intellectual and social history, you need to be able to explain how and why they serve the interests of a dominant group, which means, crucially, that you also need to demonstrate, in a way that bears a passing relation to reality, that the group propagating them is actually the dominant group. On all of which counts, the analysis of power Phipps is relying on to delegitimise our speech, flagrantly fails.
Why none of this is reasonable
1. The first thing to note here is how, from our opponent’s perspective, the analysis of power is central to what we’re arguing about – that is, at base, whether humans happen to come in two sexes or not. We think that sex is a material given, and was created by, um, evolution, while on the other side we have a bunch of drunk Foucauldians who have taken it to heart that nothing in the entire world is actually given and that pretty much everything is brought into being by processes of power, for, er, reasons (‘they’re reasonable reasons, which we’d be happy to show you, were you not so unreasonable’). There are two levels of massive dematerialisation here that just won’t wash. First, obviously, the claim that a process of sexual differentiation that began billions of years ago is somehow a simple artefact of white-colonial-heteronormative-patriarchy is just utter bullshit, and making this claim is probably the single most damaging thing anyone has ever done to the credibility of leftist social analysis. Second, you actually have to give me a convincing account of why and how ‘thinking sex exists’ was produced as an idea and why and how that idea serves the interests of a specific power structure. Along with the ludicrousness of that old favourite ‘colonialism invented the gender binary,’ one of the most common queer-typical responses here would be ‘heteronormativity,’ to which I’m going to ask, why does heteronormativity exist, and whose interests does it serve? It makes no sense to assert that we invented male and female people because we just have a random normative system of thinking male and female people exist and a random normative system of thinking that male and female people should mate to produce live young. If you want me to accept that something as apparently materially evident as human sexual dimorphism is actually an artefact of power you better tell me a pretty stellar story about how that normative system arose and whose interests it serves. Telling me it causes people pain won’t cut it. Nor will telling me we invented sex to enforce heterosexuality and then not explaining why we’d want to enforce heterosexuality. (‘IT’S NORMATIVE’ *sweeping hand gesture*) And I’d wager you can’t actually explain why we’d enforce heterosexuality without tying it back to a historic system of appropriating women’s bodies as a reproductive resource, and you wouldn’t want to go doing that now would you?
2. Because arguments about human sexual dimorphism being an artefact of power are such a tottering pile of weak, implausible, ahistorical rubbish, a great deal of what Phipps – and many like her – are devoting their energy to here is casting us beyond the moral pale by analogical guilt-by-association. Specifically, by trying to triangulate ‘thinking sex exists and is politically meaningful’ with other sets of political beliefs that are clearly artefacts of power and are widely accepted by leftist thinking to be morally abhorrent. We’re all familiar with these formulations – ‘you’re Nazis,’ ‘you’re Christian fundamentalists,’ ‘you’re the same people who supported Section 28’ etc. etc. And the one I want to focus on here – because it’s key to Phipps’ forthcoming book and was also raised by Mona Eltahawy’s intervention yesterday – is the claim that our beliefs are in some sense inherently racist and/or are to be understood as an artefact of white supremacy.
The first thing to note here is that to demonstrate that ‘thinking sex exists’ is a racist idea you actually need to demonstrate that it is, in itself, a racist idea. That is, that there is something specifically in the idea itself which can be demonstrated, with some kind of evidence, to conceptually or materially support the fundamental structure of white supremacy. Spoiler. We’re not going to get that – I’m tempted to say ‘because it doesn’t exist,’ although, that said, if anyone thinks they’ve got it, I’d be really interested to see it. What we are going to get instead is a lot of stuff that looks like this:
i) Privileged white women are racist
ii) These are the same privileged white women who think sex exists
iii) Therefore, thinking sex exists is privileged and racist
iv) Therefore, sex does not exist and anyone who thinks it does is privileged and racist
As well as the small sticking point that no one has yet shown that ‘thinking sex exists’ is plausibly an artefact of power (yes yes of course, the magic Judith Butler dust, silly me), there are two more reasons this won’t fly. Firstly, because the claim of a perfect overlap between ‘privileged white women who are racist’ and ‘privileged white women who think sex exists’ is rhetorically produced and empirically spurious. Within the structure of intersectional feminist discourse this projection is actually perfectly circular, to question IF (in its Tumblrised form) and any of its axioms (especially TWAW or SWIW) is, de facto, to be racist. Convenient. This, of course, neatly eclipses the Black feminists who reject the way intersectionality has been appropriated in this conflict, reject what they perceive as the inherent racism in some of its formulations (suggesting POC didn’t recognise sex before white people explained it to them, for one), and who also maintain that sex is a material reality and the axis of female people’s oppression. Which brings us to the second point, the fact that some white women are racist (which of course they are) and that some of those same white women hold that sex exists, doesn’t actually demonstrate in any meaningful way that one view follows conceptually from the other, and given that most non-white people also think sex exists, that’s really not very surprising.
The claim of relation being presented by Phipps does, however, have something more to it than mere coincidence (no matter how manufactured or distorting). I’ve discussed this in more detail elsewhere, but the core of this thought is the purported analogical relations between ‘excluding trans women from the category of woman’ and either a) ‘excluding Black women from the category of woman’ or b) ‘excluding Black people from the category of human.’ The apparent consonance on these analogies relies on what I’ve called elsewhere ‘the sovereign imaginary’ – the idea that excluding people from recognition, resources and rights has often been historically justified by acts of othering, and by constructing excluded others as some type of menace of threat. Within leftist discourse, this type of othering is an operation of power and involves the projections of a dominant class onto a marginalised class for the purpose of shoring up that classes’ material privilege and/or group identity. Thus, the argument goes, just as white people maintain their position of dominance by othering and excluding Black people, so then ‘cis’ white women maintain their position of dominance by othering and excluding trans women. As such, the gender critical position is structured by the same mechanism as racism, ergo, it is implicitly tied to racism and white supremacy.
There is a LOT to say about this. Probably the most important being that this analogical set of relations only holds if we accept the claim that white women are the dominant class. To be properly intersectional about this, we should say that they are members of the dominant class in being white, and members of the subordinate class in being women. Insofar as this is a conflict over access to sex-based resources, it is not immediately evident why the charge of ‘whiteness’ should invalidate women’s claims that we have, as a class oppressed on the basis of sex, the right to our own spaces or political self-definition. But the fact that this argument seems to work so well has a great deal to do, I think, with the endless reflexive repetition of the intersectional axiom that ‘middle class white women are privileged,’ which functions, effectively, to communicate the denial that women are oppressed qua women. (The middle-class white woman is oppressed only on the axis of sex. If you persistently position her as a member of the dominant or privileged class, what you’re implicitly communicating is ‘sex-based oppression isn’t really oppression.’ Useful that.) Our claim, by contrast, is that female people are oppressed because they’re female, and that with respect to a sex-based conflict, female people are most definitely not the dominant class. To wit: Women are not the white people in this analogy, and I’d really like someone to explain how female people are the dominant class qua female people, without resorting to analogies with race, or summoning the cis/trans binary. This question of the perceived balance of power between the warring parties here is critical, because it’s only if gender critical women can be decisively shown to be the dominant class that our position is rendered an illegitimate act of sovereign exclusion and we can be cast beyond the pale. If not, we are just a bunch of women drawing a reasonable boundary in response to an unreasonable attempt to appropriate our political identity and rights, by, on our reading, members of the dominant class. Which is precisely the interpretation Phipps is paddling furiously to avoid.
We should also note what exactly is being concealed here by positing ‘cis women exclude trans women from womanhood’ as a conceptual cognate of ‘white women exclude Black women from womanhood.’ Because I’m going to say that what’s being concealed is the reality of sex, and the conflation of sex and gender enabled by pretending this horrendous clusterfuck is a bun-fight over some mythic essence of womanhood which confers some kind of privilege we’re all so jealously guarding. (To be clear, being white confers privilege, being a woman does not, unless, that is, you’re an MRA). The roots of this analogy come from the fact that white and Black femininity have historically been constructed in divergent ways – principally by patriarchal power’s interest in confining white women to the home, while exploiting Black women’s enslaved or menial labour. Insofar as ‘womanhood’ means ‘the image of patriarchal white femininity’ then it’s true that Black women have been ‘excluded’ from that category, and that white women steeped in the discourses of white supremacy perpetuated that exclusion. But, as I’ve said many times, whatever this fight is about, it’s not about access to the font of ‘womanhood,’ whatever the hell that might be, and especially not if ‘womanhood’ means ‘white patriarchal femininity.’ Black women might have been excluded from ‘womanhood’ if that’s what you think it means, but that’s not what we think it means. In fact, we don’t think this nebulous gendery ‘womanhood’ that no feminist gave a shit about until five minutes ago really has much meaning other than as a linguistic sleight-of-hand for you to avoid the fact that we are talking about sex. Black women are included in the class of women because they are female. Trans women are not included in the class of women because they are not female. That’s it. And to suggest that the femaleness of Black women is in some way analogous to the non-femaleness of trans women, is, in fact, to repeat the masculinising racist devaluation of Black women that you’re purportedly calling us out for. Seriously, quite how you have the sheer brass neck to go around calling us white supremacists when you’re peddling an argument that reduces to ‘if Black females are female then males are female,’ is utterly beyond me. No. Really. Just fucking stop it.
3. The last point I want to make here is an extension of the discussion above about how central it is to Phipps’ position to posit gender critical women as agents of political dominance, both with respect to analogies with race, and more generally, to allow for the dismissal, tout court, of anything we might say as simply entrenched power protecting the status quo. As we suggested above, I don’t accept that on a true reading of the intersection of axes of oppression, that women, white women, or even middle-class white women, are straightforwardly ‘privileged’ in a manner which justifies the absolute refusal of the legitimacy of our claims. Moreover, if we look, for just a moment, at the actual reality of institutional, government and corporate support for the two sides in this conflict, the idea that a bunch of crowdfunded middle-aged radical feminists and lesbians are the lynch pin of hegemonic political dominance becomes even more absurd than it appears on first inspection. The list of evidence one could provide to back this up is so extensive it’s hard to know where to start. Phipps herself is, of course, a much-marginalised Professor of Gender Studies, at the University of Sussex, where she runs an MA course which repeats the trans/intersectional catechism mindfully, week in week out, without, one would imagine, much in the way of ‘Terfy’ critical scrutiny. On the day Phipps was sneering about how GC academics couldn’t possibly be experiencing censure because ‘look at this cartoon of a massive big megaphone,’ her colleague in arms, the venerable Professor Sally Hines, was reporting on her project on pregnancy in trans men, beneficently funded by EHRC. There is also the much-noted project at King’s London on ‘The Future of Legal Gender,’ (‘We’re erasing sex, boom boom!’) also funded by the EHRC, along with three other universities. By contrast, there are, to date, no academic projects by GC academics in receipt of public funding. And we have to ask, if – as both Phipps and I would probably agree (finally, something!) – the modern university is a neoliberal and patriarchal institution, why it’s so uninterested in our status-quo enforcing ideas, and so very keen on supporting a gender agenda that will purportedly bring the entire power structure to its knees any. minute. now.
We could, of course, ask the very same question about government funding. In 2018, Stonewall, the mothership of the Trans Rights Movement in the UK, received funding from the UK government to the tune of £233,000, with £90,000 from the Scottish government (as well as all the cash they made handing out those ‘Diversity Champion’ gongs to big business and the NHS and the army and MI-fucking-6 in return for telling them lies about the Equality Act). North of the border, the Scottish government has also funded a number of organisations pushing the Trans Rights position, including the Scottish Trans Alliance (£181K in 2018) as part of the Equality Network (91% funded by ScotGov), and Scotland’s alleged women’s organisation Engender (£275K from ScotGov in 2018. Note Professor Phipps, this is ‘mainstream feminism.’ They’re on your side). During this time, during the whole of recorded history in fact, gender critical feminist groups have received precisely fuck all by way of public subsidy. That is, the UK and Scottish governments are giving large amounts of public cash to special interests groups that are pushing for the political erasure of sex, and who have specifically petitioned the UK government to remove women’s single sex exemptions from the Equality Act, and in order to protest proposed legislative changes that would impact women’s rights, we have had to run a somewhat motley, make-it-up-as-you-go-along grassroots campaign, funded almost entirely by individual donations. Such are the facts of our social and political dominance. (And if you want to wheel out that propagandist shit about us being funded by the Christian right I want receipts, ideally delivered to my bank account.)
None of this, of course, is news to anyone here. But what staggers me is how, after a heady array of financial, pharmaceutical, corporate and media institutions – not to mention the police and the spymasters general (who’s the carceral feminist now then eh?) – added their fulsome support to the campaign for GRA reform, it’s possible for someone like Phipps to carry on with her barefaced schtick about how she’s the voice of the marginalised and powerless, while we’re the living breathing pointy-toothed embodiment of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. This may be a post-truth world, but the facts do not stack up. If you want to tell a tale about political power, and whose interests are being served, a web of alleged analogical relations, untethered from – and indeed contrary to – evidence about actual material or institutional interests, and which, when you think about it for more than two minutes, has no conceptual coherence whatsoever, won’t do the job. Or rather the job it will do is convincing more and more people that the left has lost its fucking mind, and that when we point at anything in the world and say it’s produced by power, we are talking unfathomable, unreasonable bollocks. Which, I have to tell you Professor Phipps, is a tragedy I’m going to hold you at least partially responsible for.
 When I say, ‘converse to the usual historical mechanisms,’ what I mean is that ‘othering’ usually derogates a class by positing them as inferior. This is true for historical othering along the three main structural axes – sex, class and race. (Notably, anti-semitism is an exception here, because, interestingly – given the woke-left/anti-semitism overlap – that also functions by positing the other as darkly and demonically powerful). By contrat, the intersectional ‘Oppression-Olympics’ strategy works by derogating a group because of their power and privilege. There’s a lot we can say here, about the ethics of ‘punching up,’ and I am not in any way suggesting that power should not be subject to the most stringent of criticism. However, problems arise, partly because of the issues I deal with in the footnote below, and partly because, as I’m suggesting throughout this essay, the analysis of power being used here is all squiffy. It’s actually quite possible for people from oppressed classes to other members of a dominant class, insofar as treating them as an undifferentiated mass with no specific individual humanity. The traditional leftist view is that the moral valence of such a gesture is inflected by power, principally because power means that your act of othering is part of an entire structural mechanism of oppression, rather than you just individually being an ass. This is more or less right. (I remain deeply unconvinced however, by the way wokery has taken this as carte blanche to just run around being shitheads to anyone they coercively assign as a boomer). And the fact it is more of less right means then that the moral calculus depends exactly on a correct and truthful representation of who is the powerful and who is the oppressed. Our claim would be that Phipps is actually the hegemonic voice here – as we’ll see towards the end, the trans ideology/intersectional feminist alliance has pretty much achieved full institutional capture in this country. From our perspective then, what is actually happening here is that a hegemonic voice is posing as the marginalised, and is othering us – the group presently excluded from the table of power on this issue – by positing us as the privileged. 21st Century Meta-Othering. Eat your heart out.
 For more on what I’m calling ‘Tumblrised intersectionality,’ please see here. There are several points here, the first being that this variant doesn’t actually look at the way things intersect, at all, and rather uses a single cumulative up down aggregation which produces a hierarchy of oppression.
If you used a matrix like this, what you’d get is, woman (-1) plus cis (+1). That is, being female effectively doesn’t count as an ‘oppression’ at all, because apparently, the oppression of being female is neatly canceled out by the privilege of not being trans (hence, being female, becomes, by not being trans, a privilege in and of itself, even though it is a fundamental axis of material oppression – handy trick hey wokebros?). If you then add race and class to that, the ‘middle class white woman’ would score +2, hence positioning her as straightforwardly ‘privileged,’ and completely erasing recognition of the axis of her oppression. This is a) bullshit b) anti-feminist and c) not intersectional at all.
The second thing to note, as Jonathan Haidt usefully does here, is that the single axis cumulative privilege score has a strong moral valence. Further to ‘Notes on how this screws up left-wing analysis,’ the concept of ‘privilege’ – which once served a powerful function in explaining how people who are not limited by certain oppressions are remarkably bad at understanding how such limits impact other people – has now become a form of black/white moral calculus. In the left-wing moral imagination, ‘privilege’ has basically become an avatar of ‘sin,’ signs of which must be subject to moral surveillance, rooted or called out, atoned and prostrated for, and, if the sinner is lucky, mercifully forgiven (if not, you get canceled and sent to hell, where the devil sticks forks in you for an eternity while reciting the intersectional catechism). What is particularly important about this moral hierarchy, is, in concert with a deformation of standpoint epistemology, it creates a hierarchy of who can speak, whose needs are centred, and who is considered to be the credible truth-teller. This is the heart of what is happening in the left-wing mind with respect to the dissemination of trans ideology. Trans women have WAY more oppression points that boring old white women, and hence, their political narrative is true and ours is an evil artefact of power. Case closed.