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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org)
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.
- 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.
- 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 …
- 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.