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  Holly Lawford-Smith’s work in its entirety because it so precisely encapsulates what is going in the gender debates.

 

Earlier this year, the Institute of Art and Ideas invited scholars and activists to consider the question, How Can Philosophy Help Us Understand Transgender Experiences? Following the publication of this article, three of the authors withdrew their contributions and issued a statement of retraction outlining their reasons for doing so. In this third article, one of the original contributors Holly Lawford-Smith responds to arguments raised in the retraction with her own perspective on the debate around gender.

Radical and gender critical feminists think the best way to understand gender is as a set of harmful norms, which are applied to people on the basis of their sex. A female person, for example, is subjected to norms that tell her to take great care over her appearance, to be helpful, kind, caring, and warm. A male person is subjected to different norms, for example telling him to be strong, bold, clever, and stoic, to not care much about his appearance. What’s key here is the subjection part: norms are applied to us by others, throughout our early childhood socialisation, both inside the family and in school and by peers and extended family members, and all the way through our lives. Some kinds of violations of the norms are tolerated; people are not generally too bothered about a kind boy. Other kinds of violations are policed: a boy likes to play with dolls, and his uncle berates him for being ‘gay’ or a ‘sissy’; a girl is full of ideas for play and takes the lead with other kids, the parents of the other kids call her ‘bossy’ or ‘too big for her boots’. Understanding gender as a set of harmful norms has a lot of explanatory power. It accounts for why particular male or female people are subject to bullying, social sanctioning, or victimisation—namely because they fail to conform to the norms applied to their sex. Feminists have for a long time preferred to understand gender in this way, and to advance the claim that those norms are pernicious and constraining. There’s nothing that one has to be like simply because one is female, or because one is male, they say. Be whatever you want to be.

Recently, this view of gender, and this ‘advice’ dispensed to male and female people, has become contested. Some insist now that gender is not harmful norms but rather is identity. Gender-as-identity is the view that everyone has an internal, subjective sense of their own gender, and that this—rather than their sex—is what determines how they should be treated by other people, and by the law. In the state of Australia where I live, the parliament has just passed a law that replaces sex with gender identity on birth certificates, in a way that is likely to be authoritative for other parts of the law which deal with what was previously sex discrimination. So gender-as-harmful-norms is not only contested, but its contestation has had serious social uptake in some places.

You might think this is a reasonable disagreement. And if it is, there’s a lot for both sides to discuss. Do we need both of these concepts? Does it make sense to get rid of the concept of gender as harmful norms while the norms are still in operation and harming people, in particular female people? Can both concepts exist side-by-side, or will the contestation have to be settled with only one victor? How exactly can the concept of a gender identity be made coherent? (See also this piece, where I say more on the topic of gender identity).

What is peculiar about this issue is that one side, radical and gender critical feminists, approach it as a reasonable disagreement. They argue for their views in popular and accessible venues, and defend the views on social media. They are willing to debate with their opponents, and they are willing to read what their opponents have to say. They are able to articulate what the concerns of their opponents are, accurately, and give responses to those concerns.

The other side, however, approach it as an unreasonable disagreement. For them, radical and gender critical feminist speech is hateful speech or harmful speech. Those who utter it are reprehensible humans and should be treated as such. Engaging with such speech only dignifies it, which makes engagement into a kind of complicity. People with this view will tend to block on social media rather than engage; and will tend to refuse to read what the other side has to say because they believe it to be beyond the pale. The inevitable result is mischaracterisation and straw-(wo)manning. If you don’t read what a person has to say, you cannot be in a position to give an accurate reconstruction of it, let alone to be charitable to it, to ‘steel-(wo)man’ it (to make it into the strongest possible version of itself before responding to it).

There was an example of this clash of perspectives recently, with a retraction statement authored by several academics on the side of gender-as-identity. The Institute of Art and Ideas had asked academics and activists to contribute to a forum, giving 200-word answers to the question “How can philosophy change the way we understand the transgender experience and identity?” The forum featured contributions from Kathleen Stock, Julie Bindel, and myself, on the gender-as-harmful-norms side, and Robin Dembroff, Rebecca Kukla, and Susan Stryker, on the gender-as-identity side. As soon as they found out they were “co-platformed” alongside (which, note, merely means appearing on the same page as) us, Dembroff, Kukla, and Stryker called for their contributions to be withdrawn, and made statements on social media to this effect. In their co-authored statement they went a lot further, accusing the gender-as-harmful-norms side of speech acts that are “acts of violence”, as well as comparing engagement with us to participation in conversation with holocaust deniers, white supremacists, and over the question of “whether corrective rape should be used to cure lesbianism”.

If this is not hate speech, then it’s something awfully close to it. Stock, Bindel, and I are all lesbians. The choice to use that example was obviously intended to target us with violent, lesbophobic, and degrading imagery; to put us in our place. Our conception of gender-as-harmful-norms helps to explain it: we have violated the gender norm “be accommodating of males” by refusing to accept the claim that when a male asserts that he is a woman, he is in fact a woman. We are being subject to misogynistic policing (in this case, even more disappointingly, by two female people) in the form of a reminder of what male people can do to female people who don’t conform to the norms. This kind of policing is completely unacceptable in any context, and certainly in a disagreement between academics over what the right conception of gender is.

It’s also completely unacceptable to appropriate other social groups’ genuine and horrific suffering, including the genocide of the Jewish people, slavery and colonization of people of colour, and rape of lesbians, for political point-scoring against people who hold a philosophical position you don’t like. In making the last move against lesbians, Dembroff, Kukla, and Stryker use speech that is more hateful than that they accuse us of using. Buried underneath the hyperbolic and incendiary rhetoric, there is a reasonable disagreement over what the correct conception of gender both is and should be. Kathleen, Julie, and I will continue to articulate our side of that disagreement in accordance with the norms of our respective professions. We look forward to Dembroff, Kukla, and Stryker doing the same in the future. If not, we request that they at least leave the rape talk out of it.

   The precarious social positioning and aspirations that hamstring women described by Beauvoir in 1949, still ring true today.

“In The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir argued that women were at a disadvantage in a society where they grew up under ‘a multiplicity of incompatible myths’ about women. Instead of being encouraged to dream their own dreams and pursue meaningful projects for their lives, Beauvoir argued that the ‘myths’ proposed to women, whether in literature or history, science or psychoanalysis, encouraged them to believe that to be a woman was to be for others – and especially for men. Throughout childhood, girls were fed a steady diet of stories that led them to believe that to succeed as a woman was to succeed at love – and that to succeed at other things would make them less lovable. 

Although some of Beauvoir’s claims have dated, her method in The Second Sex was groundbreaking, two-fold and still worthy of attention: in the first volume, she explored some ‘facts and myths’ that had been written about women by men. In the second, she sought to describe what it is like for women to become women in the world where men defined them in these ways – and how it led many to feel divided and dissatisfied.

Whereas boys were brought up to believe that they could value their own independence and creativity and have flourishing personal relationships, on Beauvoir’s analysis, a woman’s education too often led her to feel ‘torn’ between choosing freedom and choosing love. ‘Woman’, she wrote, is ‘doomed’ to feelings of failure and guilt, because if she succeeded at conforming to mythical ideals of femininity she would be a mirage, not a person. She was expected to embody ‘an inhuman entity: the strong woman, the admirable mother, the virtuous woman, and so on’. Because femininity is so closely associated with prioritising the needs of others, with being likeable and giving, when a woman ‘thinks, dreams, sleeps, desires, and aspires’ for herself, she becomes less feminine – which, in the social currency of 1949 at least, meant she became a worse woman.”

It isn’t just on Twitter where transactivists go blithely on ignoring arguments, nope.  Parallels exist in academia as well.  Holly Lawford-Smith writing at the Quillette illustrates the divide between gender critical and establishment (woke) philosophers.

 

“Perhaps another reason why things have gotten ugly is that the underlying disagreement is not one that can be settled by reason alone. Perhaps there is simply a fundamental moral disagreement over the extent to which a person’s internally experienced identity matters, and should be respected and affirmed by others. If you can’t settle things with reason, yet you think they must be settled somehow, you’ll have to deploy other tactics. Is this the explanation we’ve been looking for?

Let’s start with the idea that identity matters. In almost all the cases of identity we’re familiar with, there’s some fact that underwrites the corresponding identity. A white-appearing person who identifies as indigenous is accepted as indigenous because of her ancestry (and perhaps her cultural ties, acceptance by indigenous communities, and so forth). There are facts that make her identification true (and that, if absent, would lead to her identification being rejected). But when a male-born person asserts that they are a woman, what are the facts at issue? There are many answers we could give here, such as that the person has dysmorphia about their sexed body, or has dysphoria in regard to gender roles, or has lived life “passing” as a female person for some length of time, or is accepted as female by other members of the community. Unfortunately, establishment feminist philosophers—following trans activists in the wider society—tend to reject all such answers, and assert that subjective identity is all that matters: If someone asserts with apparent sincerity that they feel like a woman—or is a woman—then the person is a woman. But that’s like saying that a person is indigenous if she says she is, and that any questions about ancestry are tantamount to the denial of one’s humanity.

But we can supplement the claim that identity matters, and thereby get closer to fully explaining the ugliness of this debate.

Add to it the claim that trans people are one of the most vulnerable social groups in society; and that one of the most humane and effective means we have for lessening their vulnerability is to affirm their gender identity, and thereby lessen the suicide risk associated with dysmorphia and dysphoria. To the extent that questioning the veracity of gender identities may be said to interfere with the social acceptance of transgender people, such questioning may be cast as morally reprehensible, uncaring and dangerous.

If true, this would explain the abusiveness of establishment feminist philosophers—and the wider trans-rights activist community. This view presumes such high stakes that it can be invoked to justify even the most uncivil and abusive forms of discourse. But it also undermines the very idea of truth-seeking, since embedded within the argument is the idea that it doesn’t really matter whether transwomen are women: All that matters is that we act as though they are women, because the focus is on the instrumental value of assertions supplying trans women with a certain kind of emotional and moral support, not determining the existence of an objectively real truth.

Under this analysis, when gender critical feminists show up and argue that transwomen are not actually women, or that they shouldn’t be treated as women for all social and legal purposes, they miss the point and talk past the establishment feminist philosophers. The point of the discussion, as the establishment feminist philosophers see it, isn’t to determine the truth of the underlying claims, but to provide succour to a vulnerable community. They are doing politics and calling it philosophy.

Adding to the frustration and anger of the establishment feminist philosophers is the fact that there’s literally no way they can communicate their real argument—namely that we should act as if trans women are truly women, even if we know they are not—because if this argument were said out loud (or, worse, stated in print or online), the whole project would collapse. Transwomen would know what even their most vocal allies secretly believe. The only possible strategy is instead to yell out conclusory slogans and then protect them from contradiction with all available methods—insults, attempts to deplatform, social ostracism, reputational damage, complaints to employers, online harassment, the lot.”

Well it’s good to know that bullshite still flows downhill, I suppose.

Being able to name reality is so darned important.

Ms.Peckham makes the point that the only way to stop this gender inanity is to be brave enough to say “No” to its inherent foolishness and to continue to say no despite the woke backlash.

 

 

“How do I know I’m a woman? Because I have female biology: a uterus and ovaries? Or because I like “feminine” things: sparkly clothes, make-up, vamping about. What if they appeal less than “masculine” stuff: muddy sports, short hair, boots. Am I then not a woman, but some in-between gender? Should I demand that the world calls me not “she” and “her”, but “they” and “them”?

The Oscar-winning singer Sam Smith, a gay man, has “come out” as non-binary because, rehearsing a dance routine, he discovered a “vivacious woman inside my body”. He said of his fat-deposits: “There’s a bit of a woman in me who won’t let me look like that. I put on weight in places women put on weight. That spring-boarded everything.” So Smith knew his “gender identity” wasn’t male because he frets about his figure like us ladies. Just as Eddie Izzard believes that he has “girl genetics” because he paints his nails.

This is progress, I’m told. Feminists must embrace the idea that womanhood is predicated upon hoary old stereotypes while flamboyant or “vivacious” gay men must accept they are not really male. That I refuse to call Sam Smith “they” is not from disrespect (I never misgender trans people) but because the concept “non-binary” is sexist, homophobic and, above all, damaging to the mental health of fragile young people. And we should have the courage to say so.

Yet because policymakers and broadcasters prefer to surf rainbow flag approval than suffer a Twitter storm, in just a few years, with zero debate, public institutions have converted to a new state religion: the magical, wholly unscientific belief that biological sex does not exist while “gender identity” is real.”

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