Identity Politics

12 Mar

This from a woman who describes herself as ‘exited from prostitution, highly critical of the practice of buying sex and increasingly alienated within feminist circles’:

Trans activists [seek] to convince you that because a small minority have  ambiguous genitalia or an unusual combination of sex characteristics, sex-based definitions of “woman” and “man” are unreliable and … [we must] … accept their alternative definitions based on “identity”.

This is fallacious on several levels, the most obvious being that even if you accept that intersex people disprove binary sex (they don’t) and sex is socially constructed (it’s not) at best that would lead you to conclude there’s actually no such thing as a “woman”. This is not the conclusion trans activists want you to reach. They do think there’s such a thing as a “woman” and are saying it’s what trans women are.

Contrarian Quinn: Everybody Knows What A Woman Is, Including Trans Activists.

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A year ago Vancouver City Councillors voted to withdraw funding for a women’s shelter, due to its refusal to admit males self identifying as female. A few days ago I read – sorry, can’t find the link now – that this refuge, the oldest in Canada, has had to close as a consequence.

With two exceptions I’ve kept out of the transgender debate. Not because I think it unimportant but because I don’t feel sufficiently well informed on it. Believe it or not I try, maybe not always hard enough, to confine my posts to things I know something about.

Syria, say.

One of the exceptions came when, in writing of Chelsea Manning’s heroism in light of one B. F. Skinner, I used “she/he” rather than “she”. This drew flak below the line at OffGuardian. I guess I asked for it when, towards the end, I penned this provocation:

The moment s/he agrees to help the United States – on any number of metrics the world’s most lawless nation; its most ruthlessly warmongering too – to lock up Julian Assange and throw away the key is the moment she walks out a free woman.1

Or man. Like I could give a flying fuck about identity politics at times like this. Or the niceties of operant conditioning. What I care about is yet another person of courage and principle paying top dollar for those virtues in a world of morality and sanity stood on their heads.

The second occurrence? That would be two days ago in a FB debate which at times bordered on the tetchy. Ad hominems and virtue signalling, accusatory non sequiturs and the odd flash of I-know-more-transgenders-than-you-so-there! shared space with a soupçon of old fashioned strawmannery. That said, as social media spats go, this stopped short of the downright nasty.

Its nadir came early on when, in response to my citing the Vancouver case, a woman academic voiced anger and sarcasm at men “crawling out of the woodwork” to wave the flag of women’s rights. The context makes clear she meant (among others) your humble servant – though to the best of my knowledge she doesn’t know me, nor I her.

Challenged to say what I’d done this week for women’s rights, I cited the post I’d just written on pensions. With saintly renunciation I choked the impulse to ask in return what she’d done for Chelsea or Julian – things had already got too personal. And to give my challenger her due she did come back in more respectful tone, albeit without retracting the crawling woodwork sneer.

I don’t intend here to rehearse the arguments of that FB debate. You can read them for yourself by clicking on this screen grab of the early salvoes.

(Update 13/3/20. I’ve deactivated the link on finding that the debate was within a closed group, so only FB friends of the poster could access it. I considered posting screenshots but that might breach copyright. Contact me at writerroddis@gmail.com)

If you follow the debate in full you’ll see it has a number of participants but the only one known to me is Bob, a man I have considerable respect for.2 Not least because of his principled stand on academic casualisation. A full time lecturer and UCU rep, he has fought tirelessly for a better deal for zero hours academics at Sheffield Hallam University, where others have ignored an issue that doesn’t play well with full time academics not always bright enough to see past the ends of their noses.

As for these FB exchanges, judge for yourself. And let me take responsibility for my own poor word choices. Given the sensitivity and complexity3 of an issue that burst onto the mainstream only recently, and in sharply polarised form, I would have done well to adopt an opening tone a shade more circumspect than identity politics weaponised!

As I said, I don’t intend to repeat any of the arguments here. You’ll make your own mind up – if you haven’t already. Rather, I want to explain my stance in light not of the specific question of gender identification but of my issue with identity politics at large.

And since I’ve been on the receiving end of folk putting two and two together to get a lot more than four, I’m keen to avoid doing the same. I do not suppose all who take a different view on the trans issue have, ipso facto, that lack of class understanding I detect at the heart of identity politics. Many do though, and what follows is addressed to them.

I’ll start with what I do not mean by a class understanding. I do not mean the workerism of I’m working class me, tha knows. Such crassness has a long and dismal record of teaming up with reaction in the labour movement. It also confuses social class with political-economic class.

Most relevant here, it too often informs a blithe dismissal of racism, sexism and homophobia – at best relegated to ‘stuff we’ll sort out after the revolution’ and at worst rejected out of hand as a distraction from the ‘real’ struggle – which turns many away from class politics and into the politics of identity.

So what do I mean? I mean an understanding that capitalism – inherently crisis ridden, divisive and self contradictory – is at once both highly adaptive and deeply unstable. And premised on exploiting the unique capacity of human labour to create market values over and above its own.

Denial of that last debars mainstream economists of all stripes from understanding their own subject. In particular, it leads even the best of them to a sincere but utterly misplaced belief that those things all sane people hold dear – peace, the rule of law, responsible custodianship of the planet, an end to poverty, racism, sexism and much besides – are all compatible with a system founded on and still fuelled by exploitation, racial genocide and dependency on unsustainable levels of narrowly defined growth.

Am I being reductive? I think not. A believer in the adage that to be born is to suffer, I long ago abandoned any idea of humanity, individually or collectively, ever arriving at some sunlit upland where life is a gas: one never ending Xmas Day. Rather, I see capitalism as an existential threat to be removed if there’s to be any future at all.

Do feel free to write in with your grounds for disagreeing. Meanwhile, what has this to do with identity politics? Glad you asked. I should start by saying what I mean by the term. I mean the reifying of gender, sexual orientation, creed, skin colour and the rest as though these things can be understood separately from class rule. And as though they were not routinely appropriated for reactionary ends …

… as when a courageous individual, a man who lost everything for daring to tell us the darkest truths about those who rule, is deserted by what should have been his staunchest support base – the liberal intelligentsia – because ‘liberal’ media smeared him relentlessly as a rapist.

Or when that Vancouver shelter is forced to close. Of which I’ll say two things. One, its policy is always to direct transgenders to refuges which will accept them. Two, in response to those who demand evidence of transgenders abusing access to women-only spaces, I have none to hand. Again, do feel free to write in if you have evidence either way on the point.

But lets stick with that Vancouver shelter a moment. Evidence or no, we are speaking of women fleeing male violence. Have we come full circle, that their fears can now be so readily set aside? And why must all – as opposed to some – women’s shelters open their doors to males who self identify as female?

Then there’s the weaponising of the ‘homophobic’ charge. Describing Putin as homophobic did its bit in eliminating any Western ‘progressive’ push back against the manufactured detestation of “Russian aggression”. I don’t know whether or not he’s homophobic. I do know the question is perfectly irrelevant given “our” alliances with the likes of Saudi Arabia! And I do know that, as always, the lofty reasons given for “our” sanctions on Russia are not the true reasons.

One last example of identity politics appropriated by reaction. I and others were castigated in sometimes vile language back in 2016. Why? We refused to accept Hillary Clinton as lesser evil to Donald Trump. The fact Clinton was urging “no fly zones” in Syria which threatened direct confrontation between the world’s foremost nuclear powers counted for nothing. Hillary was a woman so, in the eyes of many who really should have known better, she was for all her faults the progressive choice.

(True, Trump rolled over the moment he hit deep state opposition to his early attempts to work with Russia on defeating Isis. But we’d made clear all along we weren’t rooting for that clown. This was too much nuance, alas, for Clintonites who shared with my trans-activist interlocutors a habit of “putting two and two together to get more than four”. Moreover, Trump’s war crimes in the Middle East are odious but have two ‘virtues’ given how low the bar is here. One, DRT’s chilling honesty – relax folks we’ve secured the oil! – shows the true face of America’s rulers far more reliably than does Obama’s urbane sanctimony. Two, they have yet to rival, on the scale of moral insanity, HRC’s proposed gamble.)

Let me broaden this. The millions of lives blown apart by wars on the global south waged by a black President and his female Secretary of State were and continue to be overwhelmingly non Caucasian. (Usually Arabs, though Persians may join them yet.) Only slightly less obvious, once we give the matter a moment’s thought, is that they are disproportionately female. Yet so many who wear non sexist/non racist credentials as badges of pride seem perfectly at ease with the intelligence-insulting rationales offered for the ongoing slaughter.

Only connect, said E.M. Forster. Yet so few do – and that’s my gripe with identity politics.

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  1. Am wiping (tiny trace of) egg from face. Hours after posting today’s piece, a West Virginia judge has in the last few minutes ordered Chelsea’s release. West Virginia, it’s worth noting, is where America likes to prosecute its whistleblowers. Heavily dependent on military and intelligence services employment, juries there can be relied on to take a dim view of the Mannings and Assanges. That Chelsea has been released just one day after a suicide attempt leads me to wonder if Washington is as sure of itself on the Assange case as it likes to make out.
  2. Good guys like Bob have IMO been too quick to back radical trans-activists, as distinct from transgenders at large, without thinking it through. Too quick, also, to conclude that we who say sex is biological and binary – and are dismayed by the threat to female-only spaces that “self identification” has created, and by the shoddy reasoning and verbal thuggery which has promoted it – are by that fact transphobic. I oppose transphobic bullying – as I do violence to women, gay bashing and white Alabamans in funny hats with burning crosses. But I don’t buy sex as a spectrum and don’t think males ‘identifying’ as female belong in women’s refuges or should use women’s changing rooms. Forgive me too if I’m underwhelmed by biological male Rachael McKinnon snatching gold in a women’s sprint cycling event …
  3. That complexity shows in the Employment Tribunal case of Maya Forstater, fired after tweeting that sex is biological and not a matter of subjective identity. The judge found that: ‘the claimant [may say] there should be spaces restricted to women assigned female at birth. However, she can do so without insisting on calling transwomen men [which] necessarily involves violating [their] dignity [so] is not protected under the Equality Act 2010’  As a courtesy to Chelsea Manning, of whose courage I am in awe, I dropped the ‘she/he’ in my post on her release. But a courtesy is one thing. A legal imperative to refer to a person as ‘she’ if that is ‘her’ wish – or to be precise, loss of legal protection for failing to do so – is another. Postmodern refusal to accept any boundary between subjective and objective is a slippery slope in more ways than one.

12 Replies to “Identity Politics

    • Ah, thanks mate! I read so much stuff on so many platforms that I frequently lose track of who said what, where and when. I’ve at times resorted to ‘liking’ a FB post I find flawed or even repellent, simply for ease of retrieval via Activity Log.

      Of course, I still have to remember that it was FB rather than Twitter or a BLT exchange somewhere or any one of a dozen other media …

      • Btw, I was interested in reading the FB exchange you posted a portion of above, but when clicking on it, I got the following error message:
        “Sorry, this content isn’t available at the moment
        The link you followed may have expired, or the Page may only be visible to an audience that you aren’t in.”
        Is this because you are Bob’s FB friend and I’m not, perhaps?

        • I’m indebted to you again Steve. I am indeed Bob’s FB friend and it hadn’t occurred to me that this might be a closed group. I’ve changed the link so a click on the image takes you to the next post, Identity Politics (appendix). There you’ll find screen grabs of most of the debate. It continued for a short while after I left it – I just checked now – but nothing I saw as important has been added.

          Update 17:08. Steve I’ve taken the link down as it might be a breach of copyright and I haven’t the energy to track down every participant and ask permission. I can send you the screenshots if you want.

  1. I have an old friend I communicate with on the internet and, during one exchange, I facetiously invented a condition I called AOGS. It means “Arrogant Old Git Syndrome”. And it is MY condition. To choose an extreme manifestation: the sentiment, “All music made after 1979 is shit! And I don’t even need to hear it I KNOW it’s shit anyway!”

    I only mention this because, even with the best will, I glaze over whilst reading essays on the trans issue. And I’m afraid this article is no different. So perhaps it’s AOGS. But I suspect it runs deeper – or rather, AOGS itself may have a serious side i.e. that people in their late 50s, having read and heard about so much more bullshit than those younger, feel they have no time or tolerance for it. My secret feeling is that the trans issue may have something to do with that capitalist compulsion to interminably create new markets by creating new demographics – in this case, a more fundamental version of the development of various musical “subcultures” e.g. mod, rocker, hippy, punk etc.

    If I come across as an ignorant old grump then …well all I can do is echo Dylan: Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.

    • Responding to that last sentiment, a woman I was going out with twenty-five years ago had a severely disabled son, and was very active in disability politics. She advises professionals and civic bodies on social inclusion with a particular slant on disability. I recall her telling me how everybody was on their best behaviour when she addressed them. The truth is, most of us are far less interested in Doing The Right Thing than in Not Being Seen To Do The Wrong Thing.

      In fact some of us are too far gone even to tell the difference.

      It was a blessed relief, she told me, when a stultified discussion finally burst into life because someone (typically a lowly menial, by definition not sense-addled by a liberal education) finally voiced what everyone in the room was thinking.

      Why should my child be held back by a mentally handicapped kid in her class?

      My point being that political correctness, a close sidekick of identity politics, pays far too much attention to the policing of language and thought. So let us indeed not speak falsely, since the hour is indeed getting late.

      • Strangely enough I myself have a disabled son. And the worst thing we ever did was send him to mainstream secondary school. Primary school was fine. They made an effort to include him. He was given the job of making microphone announcements and ended up with the nickname “Tannoy Boy”! But at secondary school he was basically just shovelled in with a perfunctory gesture and was miserable till we used a “special school”.

        On the topic of obsessing over trivial matters, there’s a story about the American speaker and author Michael Parenti who was attending a union meeting where a lot of liberal folk were talking about rights for people who like this kind sex and that kind of sex etc. An old grizzled leftie at the back shouted out “What about rights for people who are too tired to have sex?” And the room cracked up. Again – it’s the old ones who can best sniff the bullshit.

        • Snap! My ex did, after a long struggle, get her son – who could not speak and required intimate care – into a mainstream secondary school. The ‘victory’ was hollow: awful for all concerned, especially this beautiful (now deceased) boy.

          Right of access to mainstream schooling is a crude response to the huge and complex problem of social exclusion on ground of disability. And the parsimony of the welfare state even before its systematic dismantling has much to answer for. Those special schools, as you’ll know better than I do, are dustbins for all who don’t meet the criterion of ‘normal’. Kids with hopelessly incompatible care needs are crammed into the catch-all category of ‘retard’. It speaks volumes that this option has for you and your child proved the lesser evil.

          I like what I’ve read of Parenti.

  2. I came across this salient observation on the matter in a BTL comment on a recent offguardian article which succinctly sums up the issue:

    “……the liberal/left obsession with gender and identity politics and
    virtue signalling is a disaster politically, mostly because it has so
    little real public support as the vast majority of people have more
    important things to worry about.

    What’s ‘good’ about identity and gender issues is that basically they
    are about applying ‘labels’ to people and ideas, which are ‘good’ or
    ‘bad.’ This means one doesn’t really have to think to much about the
    real context or how the labels used, whether it’s right or wrong
    underneath the label, but instead concentrate on the label itself.

    This is all incredibly superficial and incredibly dangerous, and in
    reality something, a way of thinking from before the European
    Enlightenment. It’s like we’re back in the Middle Ages. Successfully
    apply the label ‘witch’ to someone for something, and the ‘judgement’
    has already happened and all that’s left is a pro forma trial before the
    sentence, punishment and execution!

    For example, the way the ‘double rape’ label was so sucessfully applied
    to Assange and destroyed his public reputation. Or that Corbyn was a
    ‘fucking racist and antisemite.’ Or that Putin is the new Hitler.
    Or the Skripal Affair. Whatever happened to them? Or Gadaffi created an
    army of black mercenary rapists!

    It’s a pattern that’s repeatedly over and over again. The State applies
    false labels to people and it’s virtually impossible to challenge what’s
    happening because to do so opens one up to the charge that one is a
    ‘witch’ too!

    It’s really a terrible tragedy that so many on the left and liberals go
    along with this nonsense as well. One would think that people on the
    left would be incredibly sceptical of virtually everything that appears
    in our ‘trusted’ media, but sadly they don’t seem to be anymore. What
    happened?”

    In essence what it is saying in cases such as the women’s rape centre forced closure is that if this was carried out by anything which had the simplistic label of “the right” attached to it there would be solidarity demo stations in the street over the closure.

    Rebrand and relabel something as “left” or “progressive” and it’s possible to enforce and get away with any old reactionary policies and behaviours.

    People have lost their jobs and ability to earn a lving as a result of this. And, as you intimate, the same Labour Leadership candidates who have publicly come out in favour against the principles of due process in regard to accusations of anti-Semitism being sufficient to warrant an automatic guilty verdict and punitive sanctions have done the same over this issue.

    What I cannot wrap my head around is this:

    Back in the eighties going through the OU systems courses we had to go through exercises to teach how to succinctly and accurately describe and define a system as objectively as possible with no wriggle room for ambiguity and alternative subjective interpretations.

    The statement at the core of this issue – “trapped in the wrong body” – represents the best example I’ve encountered since that time of such a description.

    There can be no objective based ambiguity or wriggle room. This does what it says on the tin. It explicitly says and recognises the biological reality trapped in “the wrong body.”

    If that is a male body there exists in reality specific biological features and characteristics which are sex based, rather than gender based. Like having a prostrate which a female biological body does not possesses. And vice versa.

    No one would argue, for example, that someone legitimately identifying as female who regards themselves as trapped in a male body should have such gender based rights protected by refusing to medically treat them for any prostrate issues on the grounds that by doing so you would be violating their gender based rights by treating them as a male.

    Again, vice versa examples also pertain.

    Now to be frank I cannot see why anyone would have a problem with the start point position of someone being trapped in “the wrong body.”

    Unfortunately, there exists a proportion of people who clearly do have a problem with that because some of those who take the position based on that statement, its content, context, and unambiguous real world meaning actually disavow it in the next breath by denying it through conflating gender with biological sex as though there were no difference in objective reality.

    The old fashioned description of such a position is of wanting to have your cake and eat it.

    To have it both ways at the same time.

    This represents a form of doublethink that would have impressed both Orwell and O’Brian.

    To hold two (in this case mutually) contradictory concepts/ideas in one’s head at least the same time and believing both to be true.

    And, again to be frank, I find such approaches to be immature. Like mardy arsed kids who have not grasped that they are not the center of the universe, who think, like Karl Rove, that it’s possible, desirable and realistic to create your own reality and force everyone else to adapt their lives to the child ego.

    And, as with the Board of Deputies who lay claim to speak and act on behalf of every single member of a defined community to the extent that they actively seek to silence and witch hunt members of that wider community who do not agree – referring to them as “self hating Jews”; members of the wider trans community who voice disagreement are similarly actively targeted and villified as transphobes and/or have their existence denied.

    That particular position and approach is not progressive it is in fact deeply regressive as it denies the concept and reality of society. It represents the core idea attributed to Thatcher that there is no such thing as society – only the atomised subjective individually self defined (made up) reality.

    Which is not only the ultimate pure form expression of self based selfish Capitalist individualism but the antithesis of class politics, socialism and any form whatsoever of social cohesion.

    Years ago, still at school, I read E.M Forster’s short story ‘The Machine Stops’ (if you’ve not read it’s well worth the time) and wondered at the time how such an atomised individual anti-social society which even denied the existence of family and family relationships could ever come about.

    The answer to that question is becoming clearer by the day.

    • Dave I’ll come back when I’ve more time to the substantive points you raise – and I’m glad other people read Forster! Meantime, I’ve reformatted your comment so the OffGuardian BTL comment you cite stands out more clearly. Please check that I haven’t included your own words, or excluded those of that BTL commenter.

      • Rebrand and relabel something as “left” or “progressive” and it’s possible to enforce and get away with any old reactionary policies and behaviours.

        Yes, this expresses better than I did what I mean by the appropriation of ID politics for reactionary ends. And I’m glad the comment you quoted cited Putin. Spoilt for choice, I considered citing that too but brevity won out. By labelling Putin homophobic (rightly or wrongly but in any case irrelevantly given “our” alliances with Riyadh!) any liberal opposition there might otherwise have been to the manufacture, by rightwing and liberal media alike, of anti Russia hysteria was put on the back foot. (Update: after writing this, I changed my mind. I’ve now shoe-horned the Putin point into a short paragraph between the Vancouver and HRC examples.)

        Ditto Mugabe, for whom there is rather more evidence of homophobia, but even more evidence that his refusal to play along with postcolonial imperialism (as Mandela had played along) was the real driver of his vilification in the global north.

        Expect to read that Nicolás Maduro eats babies and has transgenders boiled in oil …

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