Assuming you agree with my reasoning in the first two parts, you may as a socialist may still find yourself reticent about actually saying so publicly – especially in relevance to sex and gender. Here, I’m going to lay out two of the historical and contemporary reasons why you are likely to feel that way. If you find this persuasive, that should (in most cases) be sufficient to establish the remainder of a moral case for you making your position known, and provide some strategies of argument to draw upon in doing so.
You may object that there are reasons of pragmatism, political strategy or self-preservation that prevent you from making your beliefs explicit. You may well be correct, although in many cases I’d suggest this considerations now actually enhance the moral imperative to speak out. I’ll look at those points last.
Firstly, if you’re reading this without having looked at parts 1 & 2, please don’t. I know they’re long reads, but they’re the necessary foundation. Those who agree with the positions I’ve laid out there are more likely to find the following useful. Those who disagree and wish to argue will find my core arguments and definitions laid out there.
Secondly, please note the contrast with the first two parts, where I’ve argued simply that facts exist independently of our feelings or our moral schemas. The alert amongst you will have noted that I’ve offered a hostage to fortune in my opening paragraph above by talking about feelings as an important thing, when in the first two parts I contrasted them with facts.
Here I’m talking about the morality of our action or inaction, and I’m assuming that both you and I have a roughly egalitarian distributive morality in common. Where feelings, morality and personal motivation are concerned, terms always and necessarily become far less precise. In particular, I argued in parts one and two that our feelings are not entirely knowable, even to ourselves.
That continues to be the case. But that is no reason for us to avoid seeking to act morally – in line with what we believe or feel is right from our reflections upon evidence and logic. It is also no reason for us to avoid seeking to know the historical structures that have created our own feelings of trepidation about acting morally.
People claiming that self-identification trumps biology and should be believed automatically now constitute a powerful and confident social bloc – at least as far as gender is concerned. (There is still not, in my understanding, any widespread rhetorical support for people seeking to label themselves with a given ethnicity or disability without the support of some form of widely or universally agreed social fact). Liberalism, having retreated from the idea (or appearance) of redistributing wealth from the rich in order to maximise the individual liberty practically available to all, has engaged in a strategic metamorphosis to ‘progressivism’. ‘Progressives’ – often morally correctly – have sought to insist that their markers of progressivism be adopted in toto throughout all the causes they choose to support.
Incorrectly, at least from a socialist perspective, it has become normal for progressive markers to be held as more important and urgent than the achievement of greater substantive equality, and then to be substituted for it. Hence the widespread idea that the elections of Margaret Thatcher or Nancy Astor should be celebrated rather than merely regarded as historical facts signalling the achievement of one particular kind of procedural equality.
The difficulties in that idea are, I trust, obvious.
Socialists have in turn overwhelmingly accepted the idea that they should be ‘progressive’, and have often included favouring “trans rights” – that is the right of biologically natal men to define themselves as women and thereby to gain access to the social goods associated with biologically natal women – within that progressiveness.
There are two main, and connected, reasons for this.
The first is that socialism, from its meteoric reemergence in the wake of the Iraq War and the 2008 Crash, rose (and, arguably, fell) within movements that had already accepted the label of “progressive” as a coded way of avoiding mentioning socialism or relying solely upon it. Instead of battling the individualistic idea of “progressivism”, and seeking to rid those movements of the liberals who espoused it to the detriment of wider economic equality, socialists overwhelmingly adopted it and sought to keep the liberals on board. Even declared Marxists, armed with the most brutally materialistic analysis possible of the shape and failings of capitalism, which perfectly explained the crash, accepted this compatibility.
Once again, the damage that American fundamentalism has done to English language usage throughout the Anglosphere was partly responsible for the compromise. Few on the left wanted to jeopardise the progress being made by Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez et al by aggressively insisting on foregrounding their distinctly unAmerican belief in socialism as a standalone idea.
This was understandable.
The violent suppression of socialist (and socialist-adjacent) speech and action has been a key building block of America since at least the early Twentieth Century, from the murder of striking wobblies, through the murder by judge of Zacco and Vanzetti, through McCarthyism, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Fred Hampton, to the postmillenial resurgence of corporate-backed fanatical white supremacism and outright fascism that resulted in the attempted US coup on January 6th this year.
By contrast the progressive agenda elected the first black president, albeit that his time in office may have largely served to illustrate to many the hollowness of progressivism.
Still, he didn’t get assassinated, so that probably seemed like something.
The second also relates primarily – at least in one sense – to ideas in the rise of milennial socialism. This is the key role that was (and still is) played by “theory” in the reshaping of what was considered to be academically “radical”.
No, I don’t mean any particular type of theory, except for the set of ideas that came to have a collective noun of “Theory”. It came to be possible to have an academic career by creating writing that systemically eluded sense, and which insisted that doing so was somehow to escape the oppressive nature of the “Enlightenment project”. Where this kind of writing was meaningful enough to read anything definite from it, its key move was to argue that “truth claims” were only ever “claims”, and that the appearance of any universal “truth” they posited just served established interests.
Oddly, it was and is perfectly normal for many academics to treat these species of argument as being “true”, and to seek money from universities and academic publishers for making them and appearing to believe them to be true.
The “radicalism” of these perspectives was not a radicalism related to changing the world (as in “this is what is happening, here’s the proof, and here’s how stuff could change if you wanted to change it”), but to challenging established ways of looking at the world.
Marxists had tried to change the world in various ways, but the point, it became increasingly clear, was to reinterpret it.
The more obviously the resulting ideas strayed from demonstrable reality or meaningfulness, it seemed, the more determined the case. Here’s an example from Luce Irigiray:
Is E=mc2 a sexed equation? Perhaps it is. Let us make the hypothesis that it is insofar as it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us. What seems to me to indicate the possibly sexed nature of the equation is not directly its uses by nuclear weapons, rather it is having privileged what goes the fastest.
This example became mildly famous for a moment in the late 1990s because of the way it was ridiculed and shown up as scientifically and philosophically meaningless by two left-wing scientists, Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. Their book, Intellectual Impostures, took on the abuse of science by some key “postmodern” philosophers, and showed that sheer verbiage was increasingly being used as a way of disguising scientific ignorance, or of deliberately spreading absolute lies about physics and biology and applying those lies as arguments in support of social scientific positions.
Sokal and Bricmont’s work was an attempt – too late – to stem the retreat from stark reality in important parts of the social sciences and the humanities.
I knew it was too late because I started a degree as a mature student around the time it was published. The thinkers it tackled were precisely the ones in fashion amongst postgraduates when I graduated. Any attempt to point out Sokal & Bricmont’s case against the abuse of fact was derided or ignored. When I became a postgraduate student “Theory” had become a powerful orthodoxy amongst the youngest staff members and the most ambitious postgraduates – those being the ones looking for jobs in American universities. The only concession they made was to abandon the term “postmodernism” as already being passé, and to glory in the host of possible labels it was possible to attach to their preferred variants of “Theory”.
The argument had the kind of emotional power that essentially difficult things have for intelligent people (or people who regard themselves as such). At the point when they could feel that they understood, there was a real sense of superiority and achievement.
Responding by saying that their alleged understanding was actually a mere surrender to nonsense was a guaranteed way of losing friends.
“Theory” had ceased to have the scientific (or social scientific) meaning of “theory” as being something related to and explaining fact. Indeed, the prospect of engagement with fact (or the possibility, desirability, or existence of fact itself) seemed increasingly to recede from postgraduate seminars foregrounding “Theory”.
I studied in a politics department, by the way.
Methodological and philosophical “radicalism” of the sort represented by “Theory”, of course, looks on the printed or internet page a lot like political “radicalism”. It’s easy and comforting to think that by “challenging” history and knowledge you’re presenting real problems to an unfair and exploitative system. Because Sokal and Bricmonts’ work never achieved the influence necessary to reverse the anti-factual flood, we now face a large cohort of academics whose jobs, self-esteem and career-long claims to both foundational knowledge and political radicalism depend on believing the factual world can be remade, in some way, by professional imagination unsullied by either meaning or accuracy.
And, indeed, by the systematic professional pretence that fact is constructed by thought and language, rather than being something that is discovered and described by thought, language and observation. It is this professional attitude – this knowing and salaried lie – that underlies mindbending linguistic shifts such as that from “sex” to “gender assigned at birth” in the most basic description of who and what people are.
The power dynamic that results from progressive academics and their students adopting these linguistic strategies has resulted in them absenting themselves from the field of factual battle against the right and far-right, and instead installing themselves in positions of power as linguistic arbiters of what people on the left are allowed to say and to think, and which people are allowed to be on the left without declaring themselves ashamed.
Alongside the rise of “Theory” in the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries was a related rise in perceptions of the negative aspects of society being related to, or directly stemming from, “masculinity” or “patriarchy”.
Lots of the writing and action that used these ideas as a motivating factor, or as a hook, or found them to be important social factor as a result of rigorous research, was good and important and egalitarian. It would, after all, be very surprising if the near-unchallenged dominance of men in most relatively technologically advanced societies had not had some adverse consequences over the course of a few millennia.
There’s also some problems with it.
The biggest of these come with (explicit or implicit) claims that there are distinct ways of thinking and feeling that are ineffably “feminine” and “masculine”, rather than that people think differently in response to the factually different situations in which they find and make themselves.
I’m not going to dive into the vast and contentious literature and arguments on this.
I don’t need to.
Whatever difference there may be between the brains of men and women, the last half-century in most of the western world has demonstrated that there are no social roles that either women or men are incapable of performing solely because of their ways of thinking or feeling. Whilst there’s held to be many interesting instances that indicate the reverse, these often break down when examined more closely. Let’s see two indicative examples.
That there’s not yet been a female world chess champion is likely to reflect the far greater numbers of men who play, the physical rigours of international sporting schedules, the low pay of professional chess players (as chess players) throughout history and their resulting dependence on profoundly sexist structures of networking in business and journalism, the lower initial pay of women throughout history making gambling less inviting and accessible, the time it takes to gather the knowledge necessary to compete, and the collaborative and nationalistic nature of the game at the highest echelons throughout most of the later twentieth century. The fantastic Netflix series Queen’s Gambit does a great job of addressing all those things in fictional form, incidentally, if you’ve somehow managed not to watch it yet.
Despite all these factors, Judit Polgar managed to attain world no. 8 ranking in 2005. If I gambled, I’d look to put money on a female world champion emerging either from the cohort of women who’ve started playing because of that series or one of the young geniuses they end up coaching.
There’s also, looking at the more gruesome side of life, never yet been a lone female serial killer (or at least, none have been caught. There’s obviously a small chance this just means women are much better at it). Again, however, a mixture of social factors along with the decisive factor of the physical strength and speed involved in killing people and hiding bodies probably provides sufficient explanation for this. Historically, men have and have had far greater access to the varieties of specialist training involved in these fields, as well as the tools involved in them. The number of women involved in the most physically arduous parts of the military, building and recycling trades are still negligible in most places, for instance, and it’s still nearly accurate to talk of “binmen” rather than “waste disposal operatives”.
With increasing mechanisation in warfare, waste disposal, robotics and surveillance technologies, and the possibilities afforded in all of these by the spread of 3-d printing, however, this too is likely to change.
Especially since we are well aware that it is possible for women to be spectacularly callous or actively murderous in similar ways to men. Or, indeed, exactly the same ways.
It’s not unusual for us to see strong evidence of this whilst still spectacularly ignoring it, such is the power of the myths of “masculine” and “feminine” attributes throughout history and across the political spectrum. The writer of this piece, (which is otherwise good) manages to show his unreflective subscription to the idea of masculine and feminine qualities in spectacular fashion. Despite the fact that most of the death camp staff in the picture he uses are women, he nonetheless attributes the Holocaust throughout to the evil of “men”.
A subtler version of the feminine / masculine schema draws upon part of the logic provided in Simone de Beauvoir’s great work The Second Sex. This is that being a woman is something that is learned, that “one is not born, but becomes, a woman”. If you take this perfectly literally, it denies the fact of biology itself. But the unimpressive state of cosmetic surgery (etcetera) when that book was published in 1949, suggests that we should not take it perfectly literally. It is a demand for freedom, and a powerful expression of resentment at the way that women were and are forced to act in stereotyped ways because of their bodies and the way that their society forces them to inhabit and shape their bodies and behaviour.
In the time since that book was published, it’s become normal around much of the world for women to be political leaders and to hold positions of acknowledged importance in most social fields. Women are now at the heart of many of the decisions and social structures created almost solely by men at the point de Beauvoir first wrote. Powerful women, just like powerful men, use their full panoply of choices to regulate and control the lives of less powerful women and men for their own ends. But they are now routinely celebrated both for using the stereotypes de Beauvoir complained of, when that’s what they’ve done, or resisting those stereotypes, when that’s what they’ve done. With the steady and increasingly fast redistribution of wealth upwards since the early 1970s, this means that in much of the West the restrictions de Beauvoir railed against, where they continue to exist, press increasingly heavily against the poorest and most obscure women. The richest and most prominent women, in contrast, are congratulated – often inaccurately – for “succeeding in a man’s world”.
With the aggressive delegitimisation of redistributive egalitarian thought per se following the end of the Cold War, up to the 2008 Crash and the candidacies of Sanders and Corbyn over the last decade, it became common for socialist and socialist-adjacent scholars, thinkers and activists to look for more winnable battles.
One way that was possible was in radically shifting the meaning of feminism. It became common to move away from an attempt to build a social order that was as equal as possible, and that had its basis in well-informed opposition to the historical oppression and exploitation of women due to bodily difference.
Instead some “feminists” sought to celebrate the idea that womens’ thought was essentially different. Obviously it’s difficult to establish such a claim on a rigorous basis in the face of the evidence that women are perfectly capable of the same intellectual tasks and social roles previously performed virtually solely by men. Let alone in the face of the fact that historians regularly show evidence of them being done perfectly competently by some women even in eras when a heavy burden of social expectation favoured them being done solely by men.
The next logical move in the attempt to sustain this error is to sidestep it. Instead of claiming all “women think like x”, its safer instead to move to gender rather than retain sex as the object of analysis. That is, to say that there are feminine, rather than female, ways of thinking. This has the benefit (if you’re attached to any variant of the idea that men are from Mars and women are from Venus) of absolutely avoiding the possibility of ever being disproved.
Rosalind S. Simson, in a paper that’s absolutely supportive of this idea of feminine thinking, unintentionally lays out the difficulties with it:
Let’s be clear though, Margaret Thatcher thought like a woman, because she was a woman. Neils Bohr thought like a man, because he was a man. The same can be said of all women and men who have ever existed. This does not mean that – outside the historical circumstances they live through – women and men think in essentially different ways.
But the ascription of feminine thought to someone we’re intended to like, and masculine thought to someone we’re intended to dislike, has thus been removed from the need for evidence. Presumably we’re supposed to see anti-fascism of the type Bohr practiced alongside his physics research as “feminine”, and cutting public services like Thatcher did as “masculine”. But there’s no necessary correlation.
Indeed, if you were genuinely desperate to label particular patterns of thought as having such correlation, Thatcher’s embrace of free-market economics was very feminine. It depended on the lie of national budgets as being precisely like household budgets. And the Latin and Greek term from which “economics” derives its name did mean simply “household management”. If you adopted this logic, the core problem of our society would be that it was (insofar as household management is considered as feminine) altogether too characterised by feminine thought.
But in our time, the idea of feminine thought has largely been taken, on an unquestioned basis, as essentially positive or at least neutral. It’s also been broadly and smoothly accepted that it’s something associated mostly with women.
Simson, for instance, in the article quoted above, notes that there have been a number of objections to the methodology of psychological and sociological studies that claim to find that women think in more feminine fashion, but decides not to bother to look at those objections – whilst insisting nonetheless that the category is useful and should be retained. (Simson 2005).
But, in fairness, Simson’s careful to say feminine thought and masculine thought are not better or worse than each other.
This is no longer the rule.
It has instead become a commonplace to claim that there is something essentially wrong with masculine forms of thought. At its most extreme, this can mean that anything men do that is wrong can be held to stem from being masculine, whilst nothing they do that is right can be. This Vice article on fourth wave feminist writer John Stoltenberg, for example, quotes him rejecting the commonplace modifier of “toxic” masculinity to make precisely this case:
“He contends that the parts of manhood that we view as non-toxic don’t actually have a designated gender—and describing these actions or qualities as masculine just reflects our disdain for women.”
This is not a mindset that restricted, by any means, to “the left”, however broadly you use the term. It has become normal for businesses of every size to accentuate the feminine and eliminate the masculine, with this example being paradigmatic:
Personally, I’m sceptical about private businesses that claim not to compete, and not to hustle. And in this case, at least one of the companies this business promotes has a commission-based marketing model built around low-waged women – the very epitome of “hustle, competition and scarcity”. This is not to say that Karina and Christy, or even their clients, are knowingly hypocritical – it’s merely to say that there is no way of pursuing business for profit that is not any of those things. Claiming “Feminine wisdom” doesn’t change this.
Although the idea of feminine thought being positive and masculine thought being negative is not unique to the left, however, the left has adopted it more completely than has the right.
It has also joined them to other causes not necessarily related to sex. John Stoltenberg, in the interview quoted above, moves on to suggest that racism always (no, not sometimes, actually always) stems from masculinity. The italics are mine:
“Every time a white person disses a black person, they’re acting out the manhood structure of saving face from another white man‘s violence by targeting a third party. You can see this happening institutionally, globally… It’s all the same story of a gender identity that doesn’t exist except by putting down somebody.”
Note that he actually says “man’s violence”, rather than any formulation that might demonstrate that masculine thought is what is at issue.
If you accepted the notion of masculine thought or masculinity, and saw this absolutism as reasonable, your logical step would be to avoid being masculine. If you genuinely accepted that being masculine in this way correlates with being a man, and that being a man made you racist, the moral step would be not to be a man. Stoltenberg actually just about avoids saying this, but seems oddly careful to sound like he does not:
“Someone can be big, burly, and gruff-voiced but still not wear the mask of manhood. With that in mind, we can take a lesson from the trans community about character continuity. If someone is transitioning from male to a trans woman, it is the core self that makes the passage from one vessel to the next. Our character is divorced from our gender.”
The disclaimer that character is “divorced from gender”, of course, destroys the entire idea that there are gendered ways of thinking and being, and thus makes nonsense of the claim that there are any lessons to be learned from any community which is defined by gender. But this is not the point we’re intended to take. The intended interpretation is that men must learn from the trans community (or, more exactly in this case, those who are seeking to become women) solely because they are people who are seeking not to be men. Although it is acknowledged that there’s no factual ground for the claim that they know more than other men, men are expected to “take a lesson” from them anyway.
John Stoltenberg’s logic and moral assessment is not that unusual, despite the gaping logical holes in it.
The simultaneous rise of perspectives derived from “Theory”, and from the perception of “the feminine” as a repository of unchallengeable virtue, provide powerful and interlocking intellectual backgrounds for the ideologies supportive of self-identification. This is despite these ideas being plain wrong when they are straightforward enough to be meaningful. They also provide an endless reservoir of emotionally powerful lines that can be used to attack any argument from reason or fact that you may seek to put forward.
In terms of ideas, then, these factors are likely to explain much of your unwillingness to engage.
Willingness to point out such logical holes in the claims of feminine and masculine forms of thought and “being” is one of the ways in which it has become routine for people who reject the idea of gender self-identification to be exiled from egalitarian political causes that they are (or would be otherwise be) wholly supportive of.
Especially, and centrally for our purposes, this includes socialism.
To reject “feminine thought” can result easily in accusations of “misogyny” – even when it is women rejecting it. To reject the wisdom of those who substitute “gender” for “sex”, and then seek to change gender as if that meant to change sex, is to lay oneself open to charges of “transphobia”.
To make the kind of arguments I made in the first two parts of this blog, and have supplemented here, is to lay oneself open to charges of being a “TERF” – a word that’s now just over a decade old, and was invented entirely as a mechanism of abuse.
These are not mere arguments over words though. They have concrete consequences.
I’m now going to look, under the headings of “pragmatism”, “political strategy” and “self-preservation”, at some examples of how disagreement with gender-based reasoning has been suppressed and silenced on the left, and some of the effects that’s had.
At its simplest, it’s perfectly possible to lose a job you’re perfectly competent at, simply for insisting that sex is real. Or, to put it in the formulaic way that is now routinely designated as hatespeech, for saying out loud that “trans women are not women”.
This is what, famously, happened to Maya Forstater. Her job was a fairly high-powered one at the Center for Global Development (CGD hereafter). I’m not exaggerating when I say “high-powered”. This is one of the world’s larger thinktanks. It counts amongst its personnel a former president and a number of prizewinning economists, amongst many others. Most of its output is laced with heavy statistical analysis – meaning that it is essentially reliant upon a high rhetorical regard for precise fact (I make no claim here about the reliability of any of its facts, by the way. See part one for this distinction).
Her contract was not renewed because she had upset fellow staff by insisting upon the right to state that biological sex is real, although she had also said that she would refer to people as the gender they choose to identify as out of courtesy. Those fellow CGD staff did not want to debate the issue, but to ensure that even to talk about it was held as unacceptable. They succeeded.
The employment tribunal judgement found that Forstater’s insistence that sex is real, and that it is not biologically possible to change one’s sex, is not a “protected opinion” in law. That is, the tribunal judge found, at the preliminary hearing, that it’s fine to sack somebody for insisting that sex is real, because it fails one of the legal tests of protected opinion. That is, to determinedly state that sex is real is:
“… not worthy of respect in a democratic society”.
Faced with this kind of demonstration effect for what can happen to a professional in a high-powered job stating the reality of sex, it’s perfectly understandable that many people won’t speak out – or even think out loud – because of concern for their careers. Because of this, it is logically impossible now to know the true nature of public opinion on this issue.
Forstater’s blog is here, incidentally. If you scroll down to the bottom you’ll find a list of media links including some that are hostile to her perspective. (Of those that are favourable to her, only one, sadly for my purposes here, is from an unashamedly left-wing source).
If you’re wondering where you’ve heard Forstater’s name before, here’s a reminder:
There’s a fair chance that the weight of vitriol directed against Rowling for supporting Maya Forstater has reached your notice at some point. Because much of that attack has come from the left, you may as a socialist have felt awkward about even reading and considering Rowling’s own words. I mean, you would, if you’d seen this first and treated any of it as rigorous rather than as incompetent character assassination. I tried to do that, got bored, and thought maybe I’d read what Rowling actually said.
On a far less high-powered scale than Forstater’s case and Rowling’s support for it, the fact that some people feel unable to speak about the issue is exactly how I found myself forced to address it. I was asked to speak about “gender” in a fairly informal debate a couple of years back. My sole qualification to speak, it turned out, was that the women who’d been canvassed about speaking had thought better of it. From an initially lackadaisickal approach to figuring out what the issue actually was, my involvement became more intense as I quickly found everybody with any knowledge whom I talked to about it saying odd things like “you’re brave” (honestly, I’m really not) or, more chillingly, “take care”. On arriving at the debate I found, again oddly, that there was nobody to debate with – the woman who ended up volunteering at the last moment to represent the position that gender was as real as sex was in reality neutral about it herself.
In conversation afterwards, however, I found myself in conversation with a trade union staff member and a secondary school biology teacher in a school in a deprived area. Both are proudly left-wing and of working class origin. Both have taken the path they have in their careers in large part for those reasons. Both told me they were worried about the consequences in their working lives if it was known that they agreed with the case that I’d put. Their fear – or at least how they stated it in those conversations – was not for themselves but that their egalitarian professional aims would be impeded by the furore, or sacking, they felt would come from being open about their position.
That is, they would be less able to act effectively for their working-class members or teach their working-class students.
At some point, they felt they might have to make a stand, but until then they felt the most practical thing for those they seek to help was to keep shtum and wait for a change in fashion.
That’s a pragmatic and egalitarian perspective worth some respect, but it obviously carries the danger that it will tend to reinforce the fashion of denying sex as a fact and further constrict those who seek to oppose it.
For socialists agreeing that there are problems with self-identification, it is unlikely to be the main political motivation for political involvement and action.
It may therefore appear rational to avoid conflict on the issue for the bigger cause. After all, every political movement, social club or household with more than one member necessarily involves such compromises on some occasions.
That was my position for a long time.
However, proponents of self-identification commonly insist that their demands must be dealt with prior to (or, at least, absolutely simultaneously with) all others. Those who disagree with them are defined as not being socialist – and, indeed, are labelled as bigots, transphobes or oppressors.
Here’s a recent (15th February 2021) example of the kind of rhetoric I’m talking about.
That message caused a fair amount of outrage about its attempt to chill freedom of thought and speech, especially in its targeting of two people who are socialists by any definition that does not absolutely depend upon the acceptance of gender self-identification as constitutive of reality, Oxford University Labour Club responded to the concern: by ratcheting up its rhetoric and its accusations of hatefulness against those who might dare disagree publicly with them, and seeking to turn that disagreement into fundraising monies to further promote self-identification.
The event McDonnell and Todd were addressing was about education and inequality. This seems “relevant” to something.
The thousands of people engaging in the resultant discussion about gender issues as a result of Oxford University Labour Club’s demand that the event be cancelled has ensured that the prime thrust of the discussion has been utterly overlooked. At a time when the social ill-effects of private education – and particularly the pipeline from Eton to the upper reaches of Conservative cabinets, has become a powerful and popular theme, this is deeply unfortunate.
Across the Atlantic, the way that gender self-identification has largely been seen as synonymous with the left has given serious impetus to the right and the far-right in North America. This in turn (because the Anglosphere constitutes a vast but relatively closed ideational bubble) has fuelled the right and far-right across the English-speaking world and amongst those who speak English to a high standard across the rest of the world.
The most famous example in the academic sphere is the rise to prominence of Jordan Peterson. This happened almost solely due to his refusal to promise to use the gender pronoun students chose to be addressed by, and the claim that this could add up to breaking a law that was then being introduced in Canada. Mass appeals followed for him to lose his university posts. That in turn resulted in him creating an alternative media for himself. He used the publicity to set up a Youtube channel to bypass the state-supported academic sphere, and established a host of courses and parallel educational institutions on the back of it.
The left’s accomodation to (and incorporation of) antifactual thought gifted the right a celebrity and gave him the air of a martyr. The outrage gifted him a serious political organising capacity and an independent income, whilst allowing his name to become commonplace amongst the kind of self-educated intellectuals (of every class) who could otherwise be naturally drawn to rigorous versions of egalitarian thought.
That is some fucking awful political strategy.
The recognition by the right of the success of Peterson in this (along with other similar episodes) has also led to a thawing of attitudes on the right and far-right to same sex attraction. Self-identification has become a “turning point” issue to enable right-wing recruitment of gay people.
This may be difficult to grasp if you’re on the left. Let me explain.
Socialists, liberals and progressives can be justly proud that in earlier eras they (more often than the right, at least) supported equality in law and in society for gay people. Those earlier eras are recent enough that the memory of them is still very powerful. But there is no necessary connection between this and supporting the right for a person to be treated as they wish, in law or society, because they incorrectly believe themselves to be a different sex from the body they actually have. (In case you’ve forgotten, this is the case I made at length in parts one and two).
Indeed, because same-sex attraction is logically predicated on the recognition of factual sex, to insist that gender can override sex is perfectly compatible with denying the possibility of somebody simply being gay. To respond to anyone pointing this out with the accusation of “transphobia” is to encourage them to join forces with people and groups on the right.
To insist, similarly, on withdrawing left-wing media platforms for people who openly sympathise with the logic I’ve presented here even when they are there to address something totally different is to ensure that they will go elsewhere. To be blunt, articulate left-wingers with serious expertise are being explicitly denied a voice unless they go to right-wing outlets and accept being shut out of all left-wing movements, or until they strongly publicly condemn themselves for any previous statement they’ve ever made against self-identification. Here’s a fairly typical example, from the ethical policy of New Socialist:
It is, on this evidence, absolutely true to say that the left is suppressing free speech. The conventional left comeback to this is to point out that there’s a vast array of right-wing media out there, and therefore it must be nonsense to say that free speech is being suppressed. This is essentially, and knowingly, misleading. Left media is suppressing free speech on the left, and it is doing this very effectively.
Enforced confession, retraction and public displays of contrition are required for any socialist or progressive who has expressed even smallest doubt about self-identification or gendered thought. New Socialist, you’ll have noted is perfectly comfortable with forced confessions of regret for previous wrongdoing.
If you don’t do it, you don’t get published in these outlets, no matter what subject you’ve written on, or how important your writing is for the left. End of story.
For socialists also involved in movements for national independence, such as those in Wales, Scotland, Ireland and many other places, there is another political dimension to consider. On a strategic basis it’s fairly normal to treat the leading political parties within those movements as actually being serious about independence, and as able to accomodate most of the wide range of views that implies. That is not now true either.
In Wales, to argue against natal men’s access to women’s rights on the basis of self-identification is now contrary to the official policy of the leading pro-independence party, and is lumped in with other “phobias” to suggest that anyone who differs is a bigot:
Even to say that the suffering currently faced by trans people is not actually of the same order as that of people murdered by the Nazis is no longer legitimate speech in Plaid Cymru, as Helen Mary Jones’ recent enforced apology for the “pain and hurt” caused by sharing such an argument demonstrates. This is such an astonishingly counter-intuitive situation that Wales Online has managed to put out an article claiming, in passing, that she’d actually been censured for saying exactly the opposite thing to what she’d actually said.
In Ireland there has been a campaign for a similar apology, also demanding resignation, for a Ógra Sinn Fein staff member who made a case a lot like the one I’ve made here. Those seeking his resignation have couched their demands in “progressive language” similar to that shown here to be inadequate.
There have only been eighty odd signatories to that petition, which was posted in March last year, and neither Sinn Fein or its youth organisation are in government. In terms of effects upon the party organisation of Sinn Fein, or upon Irish politics more generally, that particular episode is only a minor one – even if it’s indicative of a wider political environment.
In Scotland, by contrast, battles relating to gendered thought and gender self-identification are currently threatening to rip the Scottish National Party apart, and to entirely derail the Scots independence movement in consequence. These are of a seriousness that go so far beyond political strategy that it is right to consider them unambiguously as relating to silencing on the basis of self-preservation.
Because the two issues in question relate to high-tempered arguments, to the law, and to contemporary politics in a nation with a unique legal verdict system, we’ll have to take some explanatory legal and political detours for the sake of clarity.
There are two political cases relating to gender and feminine thought that are worth socialists considering, with implications that are still currently playing out in Scottish life. In the first, somebody whose continued political appeal appeared to be a threat to a centralising party leadership stayed out of jail because of unanticipated honesty within the court system. In the second, the determination to revise the law on gender self-identification has assumed an importance within the SNP that makes it appear bigger than the aim of independence itself.
Last year, Alex Salmond was found “not guilty” of twelve charges of attempted rape, sexual assault and indecent assault. In Scots law, uniquely in the world, a “not guilty” verdict means that the accused (legally speaking) absolutely did not do the stated crime.
One other verdict was returned. Let’s look at the nature of that verdict, which is one that’s unique to Scotland, and how that compares to verdicts in the rest of the world.
Around the rest of the world, a “not guilty” verdict merely means that there’s some room for “reasonable doubt” that the defendant committed the crime they’re accused of. “Reasonable doubt” admits a very wide stretch of meaning – from “they were on a different continent at the time of the crime, and a billion people saw them on eight hundred TV channels addressing the UN General Assembly” to “three years ago there was a false conviction due to a 3mph inaccuracy from the speed camera that recorded the accused doing 85 in a 30 zone”.
In Scotland, where doubt is anything less than total, the “not proven” verdict is available. To simplify a bit more for you at the back:
Scottish “not proven” = Rest of the World’s “not guilty”.
Scottish “not guilty” = Rest of the World’s “definitely not fucking guilty in a million years”
Obviously, this is a complex field of law with all the debates that implies, and there’s some nuance further than this. But there is no mistake here about the essential function of the law. The thirteen verdicts returned on Alex Salmond are all equivalent to a not guilty verdict anywhere else on the planet. Twelve of them are stronger.
This matters because Salmond is still being treated by much of the Scots media, by a substantial part of the Scottish government’s and SNP’s human structures, and by a number of associated charities and NGOs as if he were a rapist, because some women said so, and because we should now “believe women”, whatever motivation they may have for false or mistaken allegations.
Feminine thought is to be considered as inherently superior to masculine thought when it comes to who to believe in a courtroom, no matter what the decision of the court actually was, and no matter that the judge and the majority of those making the decision in the courtroom were women.
This mindset is still powerful in the upper reaches of the Scottish establishment, despite the verdicts, and the substantial evidence of illegal collusion between the anonymous complainants against Salmond in last years’ trial. The clearest picture of this could be seen on April Fools Day last year, when Dani Garavelli’s attack piece on Salmond (and the verdicts of the court) here was amplified and celebrated across social media by virtually the entire Scots media class. (It was not then paywalled, as it now is). Most of the original text was contained in the comprehensive intellectual and factual demolition offered here by Craig Murray.
Craig Murray is now facing a jail sentence for contempt of court as a result of his blogging activity, incidentally – which is why that blog you just followed the link to is now unavailable. His crime is of providing information that would permit “jigsaw identification” of the complainants in the Alex Salmond case, even though similar jigsaw identification potential was arguably created by those who sought to portray Salmond as guilty whatever the outcome of the court case.
The context this episode can best be understood in, is that Alex Salmond as SNP leader forced the initiative and made the 2014 referendum on Scots independence happen.
He resigned following the “No” vote. The leadership role – popularly understood within the independence movement as being about winning independence for Scotland – passed to Nicola Sturgeon. So far, there’s been no referendum rerun, or any sign of movement towards independence. This is despite Brexit and the long process of the vote and then negotiation over it giving ample opportunity for fresh impetus towards independence.
Sturgeon, though, in sharp contrast to Salmond, has been more focused on securing a permanent SNP majority and a reputation for governmental “competence” than on getting Scotland out of the “United” Kingdom. There have been no inspired pro-indy gambles like the first Indyref announcement – but only an increasingly rigid hierarchisation around a prominent clique within the SNP. Those tempted to challenge that clique or favour alternative pro-independence power centres or leaders may well have considered the cases against Salmond as a partial – and very serious – warning. Legal cases regarding sexual misconduct have been a favoured weapon against effective left and anti-colonial activists and whistleblowers for a very long time. The cases of Oscar Wilde, Charles Stewart Parnell and Julian Assange should spring readily to mind.
Hierarchisation in the SNP has favoured a group close to the leadership who regard feminine thought and styles of leadership as reality, and as superior to other forms of thought and leadership, in the way that I’ve rejected here. Their coordination of complaints against Alex Salmond (in a case with legal consequences which are still in play) is one of the effects of that mindset coming to dominate a government. The unanticipated honesty and courage of the Scots’ government’s own prosecutor – that is, him obeying the law and respecting facts rather than automatically “believing women” – was decisive in destroying the case against Salmond.
Alex Salmond is a seasoned politician who has an astonishing memory for events and statistics, a good grasp of court procedure, and a relatively high status in Scottish life. But the ideology of the feminine went a long way down the road towards deliberately wrongly imprisoning him on multiple counts of rape. Much of the media, the left and the independence movement continue to insist upon acting as if he is wrongly free, and as if the anonymity of those complainants who deliberately co-ordinated dishonest evidence against him is the only consideration to emerge from the case.
Whilst he has not been silenced, it is hardly from the want of powerful enemies trying to do so.
The ideology of feminine superiority addressed here – which is absolutely opposed to the sexual equality that most non-academics still (I’d suggest rightly) associate with the term “feminism” when they are positive about it – has been the key force shaping the attacks upon him. It will continue to be a key force shaping those attacks as SNP supporters seek to destroy the Alba Party’s right to exist.
You could still claim that nobody actually got silenced or cancelled as a result of this ideology, however. It all worked out in the end, or something.
You’d be wrong.
Joanna Cherry can fairly be described as a “brilliant” politician. I don’t make claims like this lightly, so let me explain why.
Against a political and media class hellbent on handing “Britain” to the the Eton Parent-Teacher Association and their friends at Facebook, she stopped the prorogation of parliament in September 2019. That is, she prevented an unelected Tory leadership from having unquestioned and total access to all the institutions of power in the run-up to both Brexit and the 2019 election.
To put this as clearly as is merited: If there’s anything decent remaining in this shithole of a Union, there’s a fair chance you have her to thank for it.
On the back of that action, her parliamentary majority in the December 2019 election increased massively. She had transformed Edinburgh South West back from being a marginal to being a safe Westminster seat for the SNP.
That’s not all though. Going back a little further, her founding “Lawyers for Yes” in 2014 was important in how close that Indyref vote was. The strategy of founding a mosaic of groups with different reasons for wanting independence – and able to make differing and even mutually contradictory arguments for independence across parts of civil society that party politics couldn’t openly touch – meant that it was impossible for the “No” side to successfully portray independentistas as merely dreamers, fanatics, and SNP members. It was this that led to her getting into the Westminster Parliament as an SNP MP in 2015.
So far, so good.
But Cherry guaranteed her status as persona non grata for those favouring self-identification by stating that biological sex is real, and doing it in no uncertain terms. In May 2019 she said that “women don’t have penises” is an “undeniable biological fact”. This seems fair – if you accept the idea of biological fact determining who is and who is not a woman.
The alternative perspective, as we’ve seen, doesn’t really hold water.
The context was that she was opposing Scottish Government changes to laws on gender recognition – that is, on who can legally say that they are a woman, use women’s facilities, compete in women’s sports, provide counselling and support to women as part of reserved services etcetera. You can get a clue about how visceral and frightening the response was from a close read of the SNP Women’s Pledge here, and the number of signatories who were willing to express their concern to a closely restricted number of people within the SNP – but not to be identified publicly.
Or, you could simply note these few lines from that letter:
“The lack of action taken to address smears made by SNP MPs is one thing, but on the same day of her firing Joanna Cherry was again on the receiving end of credible threats of violence, this time of corrective rape, resulting in her having to go into hiding for her own safety and the subsequent arrest of a male SNP member…”
The man was subsequently charged. The italic, by the way, is mine. I didn’t want you to gloss over quite how sick the temper of this issue has now become.
The threat was made on the same day that Cherry was removed from the SNP front bench in Westminster.
Given Cherry’s position on self-identification, her sacking from a political party that now appears determined to espouse it unreservedly, and the SNP’s statement that she had been sacked because of her “behaviour” (interpreted by MacWhirter at the Herald thus), it would not have been a big surprise if she’d jumped ship to the new Alba party. Or resigned the whip and continued to sit in Westminster as an independent. Or any number of the other possible courses of political action that might have followed from her heartfelt piece in the New Statesman a few days after her sacking.
The one thing that nobody seemed to have anticipated was her releasing a statement six weeks later that she would be “taking some time out” of her parliamentary work on health grounds.
I believe her entirely.
There’s few more debilitating threats to health than a credible threat of violence. And she had, with that New Statesman article, affirmed that there was an atmosphere of government-led McCarthyism and witch-hunting against people like her (and like me, as you’ve gathered) who do not accept self-identification as fact. She has spoken out clearly for a long time, and she deserves a break.
For those of us who have not, there is no such excuse.
It’s tempting in a piece of writing this length to try to cover everything on the subject. But ten or a thousand times the number of words expended here would not be sufficient to illustrate the grossness of the philosophical error we’re looking at, let alone the messiness of relevant political events as they are happening.
Hopefully, I’ve shone a light on the historical process that’s made self-identification – falsely – appear to many to be synonymous with socialism itself, and demonstrated some of the urgency of combatting it.
Making this case will cause me to be excluded from many socialist groups, and lead to accusations of bigotry. I’ve dealt with exactly how this now works in left-wing media, and how it’s perfectly designed to make it appear that anyone who argues against it has “moved to the right” because they are forced into writing for right-wing media in order to have any platform at all.
For the avoidance of doubt, I have not moved to the right. My priority in my thinking (and I hope, in my actions) is in achieving a far more materially equal social world.
I’ve shown through the three essays here that the insistence on embracing self-identification contrary to scientific fact is philosophically unfounded, is incompatible with socialist-derived considerations of right material distribution and action, and is shutting people out of socialist movements. All these arguments also apply, for exactly the same reasons, within the independence movements that many socialists support.
Social facts cannot generally hold out against actual facts when they oppose them. Because of this, the tighter the popular perception of association between socialism and gender self-identification, the more dramatically the left will lose as long as it insists on maintaining that link. A repeating pattern will emerge of small, promising left groups angrily disintegrating following attempts to “center” “trans issues”. Conspiratorial explanations will be offered for this, and some may even be true. But no conspiracy will be necessary.
The left’s willingness to go along with anti-scientific “Theory”, and the bizarre and illogical conjoining of this with a reflexive and unquestioning allegiance to being “progressive” will lose them potentially enthusiastic members – who will largely leave quietly and be politically inactive out of disappointment and puzzlement for some time. This quiet obstacle to effectiveness will be compounded by the inevitable failure of the left to protect working-class women, medical professionals, and teachers from the legal results when they question or reject the idea of gendered thought, when they are attacked by a man using the claim of self-identification cynically in order to gain access to women in especially vulnerable and intimate settings, or when they reject the slogan that “Trans Women are Women”. There will be representation for those people – but it will come from the tabloids, the right and the far right.
When I started writing these pieces, some time back, it didn’t seem much like it was something of immediate importance for Wales. There seemed no need, as far as Welsh politics went, to prioritise this issue or to rush.
I wrote too slowly.
“Yes Cymru” is now torn and under pressure – because of the insistence within its Central Committee of attempting to overcome “transphobia” on an immediate basis, rather than because of any difference of opinion directly related to Independence. “Trans rights” – meaning the “right” of men to be treated as if they were women because they (claim to) believe themselves to be women – has trumped independence as the organisation’s central aim. For some people, this is actually a fully conscious step:
“The rights and dignities of transgender people to live a live free of prejudice and intolerance are more important than the cause for welsh independence, because none of us are free until we are all free.”
(All mistakes, whether logical, grammatical, or other, are reproduced as in the original).
Conscious or not, however, this set of ideas is fated to fail because of its spectacular lack of correspondence with observable fact and instinctual human understandings and its corresponding need for mystificatory, impenetrable and mistaken theory. Organisations that subscribe to self-identification wholeheartedly will suffer corresponding reverses alongside sudden and catastrophic losses of support as whole friendship networks cancel their membership or allegiance in reaction to minor “Emperor’s New Clothes” moments. Those who remain will, in general, remain puzzled about why their best organising efforts have failed, despite it having been repreatedly explained in great detail. The automatic and inaccurate attribution of ‘bigotry’ and ‘fascism’ to anyone who disagrees with self-identification means that warnings like this one will remain generally unheard by socialists – even after it’s too late.
Simson, Rosalind S. “Feminine Thinking.” Social Theory and Practice 31, no. 1 (2005): 1-26. Accessed February 8, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23558685