The Rowling affair: Our ignorance, narcissism, and neo-Stalinism reflected back at us

JK Rowling

What could there possibly be left to say about the Rowling transphobia squabble?  And yet, why can’t anyone shut up about it, or at least stick to the facts without relying on partisan cant?

I confess I had no interest in the fracas a couple of years ago, when it seemed to divide twitterers into opposing camps, but the whole thing lingers on, most recently with an Australian election kerfuffle about a Liberal Party candidate, hand-picked by Scott Morrison after he effectively disbanded the NSW branch of the party:

Katherine Deves is campaigning to have transgender women banned from sport but has had to apologise twice in the past week as further statements and social media posts are unearthed with claims including, “Half of all males with trans identities are sex offenders” and likening them to Nazis.

In a casual conversation about this revelation, I facetiously suggested no one should be surprised, given that the Morrison Liberals are so openly neo-fascist[1] in so many other regards.  I hadn’t anticipated both censure for that statement, and then demands by my interlocutors that I reveal my ‘stance’ on the whole issue of ‘TERF right wing activists’, and Rowling acting as their ‘stooge’.

I answered honestly that I didn’t know what TERF is, or what Rowling’s rôle in it might be; ‘explain it to me’, I asked.  No one present had any real answers beyond telling me that TERFs were ‘trans-exclusive radical feminists’[2], and that I must either be of the opinion that Rowling is a grand witch of the TERF coven and must be burnt at the stake; or that transgender people[3] do not deserve their own chosen identity, and include sex predators who are driving young people to unnecessary sex reassignment surgery. There was no in between here.

I’ve never had much time for ‘correct’ answers that appear to rely entirely on unexplained assumptions rather than evidence, or persuasive argument.  Preferably both.

The tone of self-righteousness and ‘moral certainty’[4] in this conversation left a taste much more bitter than the beer I was drinking.  But I did resolve to investigate the whole thing myself.

I was most uncomfortable about what I found.  Not only were the main arguments in the dispute buried under asinine posturing, but their endless, unquestioning repetition reveals troubling truths about our reliance on the vast Google-media-Wikipedia disinformation network that spans traditional, ‘new’[5], and social media.  That disinformation network, in turn, encourages a fearsome and intolerant neo-Stalinism in progressive politics.

I’ll start this inquiry by describing some of the sources about the original social media feuding, and the nature of the allegations.  Doing that led me to consider also the rôle played in this by Google as aggregator of disinformation, the vocabulary of politically laden rhetoric being used, and the modern reincarnation of Stalinist political correctness that seems to saturate identity politics.  To finish up, my personal conclusions are not a comfortable solution, but a recognition that we have become willing participants in online blood sports, offered to us as distraction from fixing the actual problems we complain about.

The Rowling affair

Coming into the issue cold, I thought I’d eschew my comfort zone, which is to look for academic discussion at first instance, and do instead what most others might: Google it.  There’s quite a bit of information about the Rowling controversy, but I also had to dig a bit deeper to understand some of the underlying assumptions repeatedly offered up as undisputed truth.

The most common search returns cite American sources, and, avoiding paywalled content, I quickly found a lot of unattributed repetition.  It struck me, though, that the best written, best referenced, albeit not entirely neutral articles[6] about the Rowling affair come from Vox Media[7].  Some of those form the basis of my own summary here.

In her December 2020 essay, ‘Who Did J.K. Rowling Become? Deciphering the most beloved, most reviled children’s-book author in history’, Molly Fischer appeared to offer a protracted denunciation of Rowling, plugging into the well-worn narrative about money turning people into monsters, in her case manifested most potently by ‘betraying’[8] the expectation of her fans that she would support their various ‘LGBTQ+’ causes.

The essay was written for New York Magazine and reprinted in The Cut[9] (both imprints of Vox) in December 2020.  It offers a history of the Twitter transphobia controversy in the context of portraying Rowling as a woman who has failed to meet expectations.[10]

Her politics had always been comfortably center left. Back in 2005, she had chatted with [fans] Spartz and Anelli about how much she loved The West Wing; in 2009, she contributed to the “Time 100” with an ode to Labour prime minister Gordon Brown. Like her fans, Rowling translated politics into the language of Harry Potter: Voldemort was “nowhere near as bad” as Trump, she declared. Sometimes the analogies were more complicated, as when she cited Dumbledore to explain her opposition to a boycott of Israel. And sometimes she objected to the parallels others saw. Quote-tweeting a woman with 44 followers (Rowling had at the time some 7.5 million), Rowling took issue with her description of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as “a political Dumbledore.”

“I forgot Dumbledore trashed Hogwarts, refused to resign and ran off to the forest to make speeches to angry trolls,” she wrote. She stressed the point two months later: “Corbyn. Is. Not. Dumbledore.” Rowling issued long threads decrying “Saint Jeremy” and lambasting a Corbyn supporter who had called Theresa May a whore. Corbyn, though hardly above reproach, was, notably, pro-trans-rights. He supported making gender self-identification less onerous; he would later, on occasion, introduce himself with his pronouns. One of Rowling’s early gestures that attracted scrutiny on trans rights was her liking a tweet that referred to young Corbynite Labour figures who were trans. “Men in dresses get brocialist solidarity I never had. That’s misogyny!” it read. Rowling’s publicist dismissed the like as “a clumsy and middle-aged moment,” but, if it had been an accident, it was not one her client chose to correct.

Fischer opined that British feminism is more inclined to transphobia, whereas American feminists regard transphobia as largely a right wing conspiracy.  She went on:

Fans began to note with alarm that Rowling followed vocally anti-trans Twitter accounts. Some had also taken note of certain things in Rowling’s crime novels — like the trans character her detective hero taunts by saying that jail “won’t be fun … not pre-op.” All of this mostly passed beneath widespread public notice, however. More prominently controversial was Rowling’s support for Johnny Depp. Set to star in a new Fantastic Beasts movie, he stood accused of domestic abuse. In a statement, Rowling said that, based on her understanding of his case, she was “genuinely happy” to have Depp stay on. Others may disagree, she acknowledged, but “conscience isn’t governable by committee.” Depp was her peer in a rarefied world; they had (at different times) owned the same yacht.

Built into that passage are the assumptions that a fictional character must necessarily reveal the author’s opinions, and that Johnny Depp is guilty.  Of some unspecified but heinous crime.  It’s a ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink, you know what I mean’ indictment.

Maya Forstater was a British tax researcher at a think tank, and after she repeatedly voiced her belief that trans women are men, the think tank chose not to renew her contract. Forstater challenged the decision, an employment tribunal ruled against her, and at this point Rowling was inspired to speak up. “Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security,” Rowling tweeted. “But force women out of their jobs for stating sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill.”

The tweet marked Rowling’s first direct statement on trans issues.[11]

The Cut screenshot
On of the Cut’s articles on Rowling, showing also what preoccupies the ‘stylish’ minds of women in the USA.

Rowling herself acknowledges her support for Forstater (who has since won a court ruling that her opinions might be hurtful, but are not discriminatory) and also that she had Twitter-followed Magdalen Berns, a lesbian feminist with ‘gender-critical’ views who was denounced in some circles as transphobic.  In addition, she admitted ‘following’ an unnamed tweeter, having intended merely to copy the tweet for later reference.  This might or might not be the 2020 tweet Fischer tells us Rowling retweeted, concerning a shop that sells/sold ‘pins that said F*CK YOUR PRONOUNS’.  Or it could have been the follow of a tweet about Corbynite brocialist.

Then came the June 2020 Rowling tweet that appears to be the eye of the storm.  It originated in the language used by Marni Sommer, Virginia Kamowa, and Therese Mahon in their article, ‘Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate’, for devex, self-described as a ‘media platform and job board for the global development community’.  Sommer was, at that time, an associate professor of sociomedical sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University.  Kamowa was a menstrual health and hygiene specialist at the UN-hosted Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council.  Mahon was international NGO WaterAid’s regional programs manager for South Asia and global lead for menstrual health.

Twitter screenshot
The controversial tweet, showing a very large number of likes, though no positive comments about it were ever mentioned by Vox Media.

It seems to me the article presented expert, well-meaning perspectives on an important issue, couched in language aimed at being ‘inclusive’.

The article mentions, in part:

An estimated 1.8 billion girls, women, and gender non-binary persons menstruate, and this has not stopped because of the pandemic. They still require menstrual materials, safe access to toilets, soap, water, and private spaces in the face of lockdown living conditions that have eliminated privacy for many populations.

Of equal concern, progress already made or underway around important gender issues is now halted or reversing. Menstruation serves as a proxy for this observation. 2020 started out as a year of progress, with a groundswell of interest and potential for improved investment to address the menstrual health and hygiene needs of girls, women, and all people who menstruate.

Rowling added her own comment to the shared tweet:

‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?

One of the responses to Rowling’s tweet was from Zeke Smith, a transgender reality TV performer.  Why I picked this one to mention here becomes relevant later.  Smith wrote:

Hi! I’m a man! I menstruate! Stop being an asshole!

The backlash to Rowling’s tweet motivated her to write the essay ‘J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues’, in which she commented that by the time she tweeted support for Maya Forstater:

I must have been on my fourth or fifth cancellation … I expected the threats of violence, to be told I was literally killing trans people with my hate, to be called cunt and bitch and, of course, for my books to be burned …

What I didn’t expect in the aftermath of my cancellation was the avalanche of emails and letters that came showering down upon me, the overwhelming majority of which were positive, grateful and supportive. They came from a cross-section of kind, empathetic and intelligent people, some of them working in fields dealing with gender dysphoria and trans people, who’re all deeply concerned about the way a socio-political concept is influencing politics, medical practice and safeguarding. They’re worried about the dangers to young people, gay people and about the erosion of women’s and girl’s rights. Above all, they’re worried about a climate of fear that serves nobody – least of all trans youth – well.

Claire Lampen, in ‘What Did J.K. Rowling Say This Time? for The Cut, offered the following perspective:

As many people have pointed out in comments on Rowling’s most recent tweets, plenty of cisgender women don’t menstruate, but their gender is rarely questioned because of it. “I know you know this because you have been told over and over again, but transgender men can menstruate. Non-binary people menstruate. I, a 37-year-old woman with a uterus, have not menstruated in a decade,” one person wrote. “Women are not defined by their periods.”[12]

A month later, Lampen, in her article ‘J.K. Rowling Triples Down on Transphobia’, again for The Cut argued thus:

J.K. Rowling, as you may have heard, has some Opinions about trans identity, some of which she aired on Twitter in early June. Sharing an article on period poverty, the author took aim at the phrase “people who menstruate.” As became clear from her subsequent explanation, Rowling believes that womanhood somehow hangs on this biological function, logic that excludes trans women and gender-nonconforming people. Many read her comments as transphobic, and with criticism growing, Rowling published a 3,690-word response on June 10. In this essay, entitled “TERF Wars,” she both broadly declares her support for trans people, while doubling down on her original suggestion that trans women do not actually qualify as women.[13]

In the June 10 post, Rowling named five core reasons for her position. The two that animate the essay, however, are a suspicion that young people who decide to transition (particularly adolescent girls heavily influenced by their peers, an idea that has been thoroughly debunked) often “grow out of their dysphoria” and come to regret their decisions; and Rowling’s fear, as a survivor of sexual assault and domestic abuse, that opening the doors of a women’s restroom to “any man who believes or feels he’s a woman” means “open[ing] the door to any and all men who wish to come inside,” jeopardizing female safety.[14]

Naturally, the existing online criticism of Rowling’s position did not cool with the publication of this rebuttal. One reader summed it up as a “TERF bingo card,” and indeed the term TERF — which stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist and in its current usage, often describes a liberal woman whose brand of feminism excludes transgender women from its push for equal rights — is one that Rowling heard many times between hitting send the tweet that kicked off the controversy, and the birth of this essay.[15]

Twitter screenshot
Another of Rowling’s tweets to cause ‘outrage’.

My own reaction to the articles cited above is that they are far from neutral on the topic, but I think that’s OK.  Journalism isn’t about any faux objectivity, and so long as there’s no pretense at it, readers are entitled to interpretation and perspectives.  I had no trouble spotting them as partisan pieces.  Errors in fact are a different category, and there appear to be a few of those.

That readers might uncritically assume what they read is undisputed or literal truth is not the fault of journalists, but rather speaks to the intellectual paucity of the readers themselves.  Moreover, the articles offer links that should make it easy for readers to dig deeper for themselves.

In digging deeper, however, I was troubled by how seamlessly my Google searches were being directed.  What I mean is that there are underlying and deliberate methods in play to direct me to the search results I got for each of my half dozen search terms, regardless of my intentions as contained in my search terms.

For that reason, I suppressed my immediate instinct to dismiss the entire Rowling affair as a confected controversy of no great importance in the scheme of things (a world facing climate crisis, massive socio-economic inequality, and renewed risk of global war).  Instead I thought I might highlight my search tool’s methods.

Google’s disinformation network

What Google offered me were results ranked in order of its paying customers, followed by references to Wikipedia, and only then followed by other sources, with those not using the https protocol always last, where they were listed at all.[16]

Everyone should know by now that paying customers get first preference as a returned search result.  I’m not sure what Vox’s arrangement is with Google, but I suspect there’s some consideration in play.

There has always been an arrangement with Wikipedia, the details of which are probably commercial-and-in-confidence, and may go back to a time in which Google needed search results for every query, and other source material was still patchy on that earlier internet.  A time in which Wikipedia appeared to provide a valuable, ‘free’ resource.

Wikipedia has long been shunned by all serious researchers as entirely unreliable for at least three major reasons:

  1. The sole requirement for including in its articles an assertion or ‘fact’ is that it has been published by a third party.  That means conspiracy theories published by News Corporation have the same notional validity as a peer reviewed scientific paper;
  2. Control over what goes into an article or is excluded rests with a narrow clique of ‘bureaucrat’ administrators, who often act without even the pretense of neutrality, but with all the charm of the Stasi knocking on your door at three in the morning.[17]  That means anonymous people can determine what the truth shall be and exclude any or all alternative suggestions without having to explain themselves; and
  3. Any Wikipedia article on any topic can say one thing this minute, and quite another five minutes hence. Arguing that Wikipedia will eventually get things right is a moot point.

There are many other reasons why Wikipedia can be regarded as unreliable, if not also as distinctly partisan on political issues, but to delve into them would require an essay in its own right.[18]

It is also true that the Google search algorithm can be, and is actively, manipulated, to the extent that even Google encourages ‘search engine optimization’ (SEO), which has become a niche earner for online ‘content creators’ and code wranglers to ensure a better chance their web pages are returned in searches for key words and phrases.

However, it strikes me that average, disinterested persons, basing their own opinions about the Rowling affair (as with other matters) on a casual Google search, will gain the impression that the truth of any matter is contained in the first few search results returned, regardless that these are not so much a reflection of reality as the commercial ambitions of online businesses.

Using Google as a research tool is therefore likely to reflect the interests of its own business model.  That business model is American.  It reflects a robber baron neoliberal political economy in which profit dominates all other considerations, including especially human dignity.  It is the same business model that applies to social media companies like Twitter, and new media companies like Vox.

So why would this business model support a controversy apparently championing transgender rights against a wealthy author?  Because the model thrives on controversy, which fuels online traffic.  And, because this particular controversy divides political opinion on the nominal progressive side, distracting people from critiquing the real sources for all social inequality, not just the difficulties faced by transgender people.  More on that in my personal conclusions at the end of this essay.

That, then, is the filter through which I arrived at the story of the Rowling affair.  But there is another mechanism to distort the information I accessed: the language, or vocabulary, being used in the articles I accessed.

Vocabulary of the undisclosed

Vocabulary illustration

When authors, journalists, and others tell stories to make sense of the world around them, including its people and the events that occur, they are rarely neutral in the telling.  They use old story-telling devices that work by simplifying complexity in referencing our pre-existing knowledge of well-established narratives—archetypal stories, like the ones about heroes triumphing after successfully overcoming trials, or evil witches subverting the happiness of innocent princesses.

This intertextuality is achieved by using key words and phrases.  For example, ‘summoned’ rather than ‘invited’ speaks of imperiousness rather than friendliness, ‘camp of people’ rather than ‘group of people’ speaks of martial opposition rather than a more casual categorization, ‘power struggle’ rather than ‘interpretation’ talks about dirty politics rather than disagreement (these word choices are all examples drawn from the Molly Fischer essay).

I recognize in the Vox Media articles on Rowling a kind of evil witch story, not hard to evoke for the author of stories about a realm of magic, but also relying on the stereotype of money-corrupted-this-person narrative, shot through with unexplained vocabulary about gender politics that assumes agreed meanings, and excluding other perspectives that might cast Rowling in a different light.  By the nature of online discussions, the vocabulary that creates these implicit meanings is often picked up uncritically and endlessly repeated.  In that way, for example, I found many posts and articles that appeared to come from the same original source(s) because they all used the same terminology and structure in explaining to their audiences what the Rowling affair is all about.

Less clear to me personally, and I assume many others, might be how terms very specific to discussions of transgender politics work to obscure what is partisan politics and what is not.

For that reason, I have examined a few such terms, if only to satisfy myself that I have some understanding of their origins and contemporary meanings, both stripped of emotive or partisan inferences, and not.

Cancellation, cancel culture

Rowling talks about being cancelled, referring to something that is often called cancel culture.  It’s certainly not the first time I’ve come across this terminology, but I never really bothered to investigate it.

So, what is that cancel culture?

Some say it’s just speaking truth to power in a world where the traditional media is owned by the already powerful, and therefore an untrustworthy partisan tool in that regard.  Others see it as lynch mob vigilantism, and still others argue pluralist perspectives in which cancel culture is sometimes right, and sometimes wrong, depending on target, motivations, and execution of cancellations.

From my perspective the contemporary form of cancel culture is principally an artifact of social media, which make anonymous, thoughtless comments easy and free of consequence to the commentators.  I also think that a great deal of what is called cancel culture is not motivated by anything more complicated than malice, spite, and the armchair sadism inherent in enjoying blood sports as a voyeuristic spectacle.

But there’s something else at play too: narcissism.  Remember Zeke Smith, who tweeted for Rowling not be an ‘asshole’?  It seems to me his entire motivation was to use Rowling’s celebrity to enhance his own flagging reality TV profile through ‘virtue signalling’ to an audience he perceives to be receptive to his crude message, especially by offering himself as a transgender victim.  Nevertheless, what he’s effectively saying is: ‘Hey, look at me, I’ve been wronged, but I’m speaking up and you should now watch my television shows’.

I think many others had similarly selfish motivations, including especially some of the Harry Potter film franchise actors.  They were all happy to ride on Rowling’s coattails to profitable celebrity, and then a wave of popular opinion to denounce Rowling when that seemed opportune to bolster their own careers, but none of them ever put forward a coherent reason for finding Rowling guilty of the transphobia they implied.

In the Rowling context, I am satisfied that she engaged in discussions she knew to be contentious, and has a case to answer in an ongoing, civil dialogue about the legal and social status of transgender men.  However, the nastiness and hysteria with which her views were pursued qualifies as base lynchmob blood-lust.  There really seems little effort to resolve a perceived problem, just the desire to attack a celebrity without any real intention of synthesizing opposing arguments, nor any real prospect of silencing her, or others who think as she does.  And there are many of those others, whose perspectives don’t feature prominently in the Vox perspective, except as presumptive right wing political agitators.

In those terms, the negative social media and Vox interpretations of the Rowling affair strike me as vindictive and cruel, in the way children and teenagers can be when they feel they are not getting what they want on their own terms, flatly rejecting any viewpoint but their own.  That’s not what I’d consider a balanced argument, nor proof of transphobia.  See also my consideration of the term TERF below.

Cisgender

Avery Dame, writing for Perspectives on History, traces ‘examples of a cis/trans dichotomy in reference to gender nonconformity’ to ‘1914 in German sexological literature’.

As a term, cisgender combines the Latin prefix cis-, meaning “on this side,” with gender, in contrast to transgender, where the prefix trans- signals something is “across” or “on the other side.”

That initial definition assumes the binary opposition ‘us and them’, and implies the opposition is rigidly fixed.  A more contemporary definition comes from Joanna McIntyre writing for The Conversation in 2018:

The term “cisgender” (pronounced “sis-gender”) refers to people whose gender identity and expression matches the biological sex they were assigned when they were born.

“Cisgender” was introduced so our language could be more fair and inclusive, and to make us more aware of everybody’s experiences of gender. However, the term has critics as well as fans.

Cisgender relates specifically to gender rather than sexuality. A person can be cisgender (often abbreviated to just cis) and have any sort of sexuality. For example, two men may both be cisgender but one straight and one gay.

Because it is a personal identity category, it is difficult to know just from looking at someone whether they are cisgender.

In those terms, it seems to me that it’s a negative definition, meaning a definition based on what cisgender is not, such as transgender or non-binary.  It is a theoretical convenience, and should be interrogated for its specific meaning in each context in which it is applied.  I doubt that it is accurate to characterize all people left over after the LGBTQI+ catch-all are quite as homogenous as the term implies, nor that cisgender today remains cisgender tomorrow, and might not turn back the day after that.

Gender critical feminism

Unlike TERFs, there are quite a number of feminists who describe themselves as ‘gender-critical’, and it seems presumptive to argue that they are merely TERFs by another name.

In October 2020, The Guardian journalist, and self-described gender-critical feminist, Susanna Rustin argued that ‘Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 book The Second Sex set the stage for feminists in postwar Europe’, including the proposition that ‘biological differences as well as social forces’ had to be considered in addressing sexism.  However, Rustin said, ‘the idea that a woman is made (“not born”) out of a female body was mostly accepted until the early 1990s, when the US philosopher Judith Butler sought to overturn it’.

Butler’s argument, set out in her books Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter, is that sex is “no longer a bodily given” but a discursive concept: “a process of materialisation that stabilises over time”. Rather than treating their sexed bodies as the underpinning of their politics, she argued, feminists should embrace the fluidity of gender. Liberation from the patriarchy would be won alongside gay, lesbian, transgender and queer rebels against heterosexism.[19]

Rustin talked about an ‘impasse between Beauvoirian, gender-critical feminists on the one hand, and Butlerian and queer feminists on the other’, which can be overcome only by acknowledging ‘the philosophical basis as well as the practical implications of their disagreement’, which includes the relatively new expansion of ‘the scope of the terms “trans” and “transgender” … to include a range of identities, no longer referring only to people who have undergone a medical or surgical transition’.

Understanding sexual difference to be an important facet of human experience, we seek a form of equality that recognises it. We do not accept the much newer concept of gender identity (the feeling of being male or female) as a substitute. And we think the idea that “sex” can be discarded in favour of more inclusive terminology, as advocated by Butlerian feminists, is naive. Because if “sex” ceases to be talked and thought about, how will we recognise and tackle sex-based oppression, not just in western countries but around the world?

By adhering to what I have called a Beauvoirian feminism, I don’t aim to invalidate anyone else. I recognise the importance of the concept of gender identity for trans people. But it (and with it, the term cisgender) can’t be forced on to women like me who regard questioning gender roles, while advocating on behalf of our sex, as the whole point of feminism. Nor is it accurate to describe us as “trans-exclusionary radical feminists”, as Butler did last week. Gender-critical feminism is more varied than that. (My own influences, for example, include Kleinian psychoanalysis and evolutionary biology.)

None of this means “GC” feminists are in favour of bigotry, or don’t care about the obstacles and prejudices faced by transgender people, or that we deny the existence of people with differences in sex development. What it does mean is that we think rejecting sex as a way of thinking about ourselves would be a terrible error. And that we urgently want to be able to discuss this, in a respectful way, with those who disagree.

In 2011, The Guardian’s Natalie Hanman said of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble that it ‘changed the way we conceptualise gender, which, rather than something stable and given, becomes for Butler a series of performances to express difference: something you do, rather than who you are’.

In October 2021, writing for The Guardian, Judith Butler herself argued that ‘attacks on so-called “gender ideology” have grown in recent years throughout the world, dominating public debate stoked by electronic networks and backed by extensive rightwing Catholic and evangelical organizations’.

For this reactionary movement, the term “gender” attracts, condenses, and electrifies a diverse set of social and economic anxieties produced by increasing economic precarity under neoliberal regimes, intensifying social inequality, and pandemic shutdown. Stoked by fears of infrastructural collapse, anti-migrant anger and, in Europe, the fear of losing the sanctity of the heteronormative family, national identity and white supremacy, many insist that the destructive forces of gender, postcolonial studies, and critical race theory are to blame. When gender is thus figured as a foreign invasion, these groups clearly reveal that they are in the business of nation-building. The nation for which they are fighting is built upon white supremacy, the heteronormative family, and a resistance to all critical questioning of norms that have clearly restricted the freedoms and imperiled the lives of so many people.

The vanishing of social services under neoliberalism has put pressure on the traditional family to provide care work, as many feminists have rightly argued. In turn, the fortification of patriarchal norms within the family and the state has become, for some, imperative in the face of decimated social services, unpayable debt, and lost income. It is against this background of anxiety and fear that “gender” is portrayed as a destructive force, a foreign influence infiltrating the body politic and destabilizing the traditional family.[20]

In a 2021 New Statesman interview, Butler made the following assertion:

Let us be clear that the debate here is not between feminists and trans activists. There are trans-affirmative feminists, and many trans people are also committed feminists. So one clear problem is the framing that acts as if the debate is between feminists and trans people. It is not. One reason to militate against this framing is because trans activism is linked to queer activism and to feminist legacies that remain very alive today. Feminism has always been committed to the proposition that the social meanings of what it is to be a man or a woman are not yet settled. We tell histories about what it meant to be a woman at a certain time and place, and we track the transformation of those categories over time.[21]

We depend on gender as a historical category, and that means we do not yet know all the ways it may come to signify, and we are open to new understandings of its social meanings. It would be a disaster for feminism to return either to a strictly biological understanding of gender or to reduce social conduct to a body part or to impose fearful fantasies, their own anxieties, on trans women… Their abiding and very real sense of gender ought to be recognised socially and publicly as a relatively simple matter of according another human dignity. The trans-exclusionary radical feminist position attacks the dignity of trans people.[22]

While I have difficulty believing that Butler is the sole authority on what is and is not feminism, I am drawn to the argument that social understanding of gender is historically fluid, and I can’t deny being attracted to the argument about human dignity.  Nevertheless, I see some gaping contradictions in how Butler gets there without trampling on the human dignity of people not mentioned in the gender discourse (all those who are declared not feminists or captured by the LGBTIQ+ rubric, for example).

It’s hard not to see Butler’s influence on the Vox Media doctrine on the Rowling affair, even if her name is not often directly mentioned.  That strikes me as dishonest about assuming the topics Butler discusses are already a matter of settled consensus.  They are not.

Identity illustration

LGBTQ+

This term comes in various flavours, all of them used as blanket labels.

La Trobe University explains:

‘LGBTIQA+’ is an evolving acronym that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer/questioning, asexual. Many other terms (such as non-binary and pansexual) that people use to describe their experiences of their gender, sexuality and physiological sex characteristics.

What’s missing from the explanation is a built-in assumption many people seem not to question: that the acronym is catch-all for a ‘community of interests’, as if all people described thus share the same views, aspirations, ambitions, politics, tastes, and so on.

There are absolutely no grounds for that assumption, anymore than there are for supposing such a homogeneity in a geographic community, or a theoretical community of not-LGBTIQA+ people.

The acronym is a convenience used mainly by political actors who find it too difficult to address, support, or decry the separate concerns of diverse and complex individuals.

In the specific context of this essay, I have seen zero evidence that all the people corralled into that acronym should be assumed to automatically share specific concerns about discrimination, including whether Rowling is a transphobe.  For example, I can’t imagine that Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce spares any thought at all for anyone but himself, even after adopting the LGBTQ+ banner to campaign for his own legal right to marry his same-sex partner.

In that context I am particular scornful of people, like Zeke Smith and the former Harry Potter actors, who appeared to find it merely opportune to promote their flagging careers by claiming to ‘stand with’ their ‘LGBTQ+ friends’ in denouncing Rowling as a transphobe.

TERF

Perhaps the least understood and most often uncritically repeated terminology is TERF.  It took me a while to find its origin.

The term trans-exclusionary (not exclusive) radical feminist was likely coined by Sydney-based Viv Smythe, a ‘singer, writer, lapsed blogger, past comedy tragic. Still hoyden about town at heart, but accumulating crone energy’.

Writing as TigTog in her blog, Hoyden About Town, Smythe commented in 2008:

… the Carnival against Sexual Violence includes a post about how yet another murder of a transwoman [triggers] is being reported as the accused “being enraged beyond all reason” about being “duped” about the dead woman’s womanhood (and what this means for all women), while the Carnival of Radical Feminists, (edited to add: implicitly aligning all radfems with the trans-exclusionary radfem (TERF) activists, which I resent), links to yet another post from Miss Andrea that argues that transgenderism should be regarded as just another fetish and that transwomen are wrong and probably deliberately deceptive for claiming that it’s anything more fundamental in respect of gender identity.

In a later interview, Smythe (as TigTog) stated that the term might have been adopted from an even earlier source, and was not meant to be insulting, merely to differentiate opinions within radical feminism:

Obviously, nobody can force anybody who voices what others consider TERF stances to self-adopt the TERF label for themselves, but they can always choose another name for their stance which is not held by all other RadFems. After all, RadFem itself is a label chosen by some feminists to distinguish themselves from other feminists, and those feminists felt insulted that what they were doing was not considered sufficiently radical to fall under the RadFem label, see also the womanist/feminist distinction – distinguishing between different arms of activism is what social activist movements do as they grow and develop and react to change within and without.[23]

And:

Since it’s become in more common usage, no doubt there are some people that use it as a slur. The same thing happened to “radical feminist” and also to “feminist” – any group-identifying word can and will be used as a slur by those who find that group challenging, but that doesn’t mean that the word is fundamentally/always/only a slur.[24]

In a 2018 editorial for The Guardian, Smythe wrote:

I do find the renewed interest over the last few years in writing of mine from a decade ago disconcerting. The Terf acronym has long since left that particular discussion (and me) behind, and been weaponised at times by both those who advocate trans-inclusion in feminist/female spaces, and those who push for trans-exclusion from female-only spaces. I have no control over how others use a word (as it has now become) that came about simply to save typing a longer phrase out over and over again – a shorthand to describe one cohort of feminists who self-identify as radical and are unwilling to recognise trans women as sisters, unlike those of us who do.

And:

Much of the factional divide here comes down to … [a] gatekeeping argument about purity in feminism … Various “waves” of feminism developed as schisms arose regarding which directions were the truest or most effective ways to liberate women from sexist oppression. Those (and new) divisions will always be part of any movement focused on social change, because each step of progress sees further layers of injustice uncovered.

However, the Vox Media stable has been using the term TERF to mean something quite different since at least 2019.  In Katelyn Burns’ ‘The rise of anti-trans “radical” feminists, explained’, the narrative is transformed into a specifically American story, arguing that TERFism arose from 1970s feminism via University of Massachusetts professor Janice Raymond’s book, Transsexual Empire: The Making of the Shemale, which Burns said proposed morally mandating transsexualism out of existence …

… mainly by restricting access to transition care (a political position shared by the Trump administration). Soon after she wrote another paper — this one published for the government-funded, Health and Human Services-linked National Center for Healthcare Technology — the Reagan administration cut off Medicare and private health insurance coverage for transition-related care.

The explicit assertion is that TERFdom is inextricably linked with American right wing politics.

Burns again:

TERF ideology has become the de facto face of feminism in the UK, helped along by media leadership from Rupert Murdoch and the Times of London. Any vague opposition to gender-critical thought in the UK brings along accusations of “silencing women” and a splashy feature or op-ed in a British national newspaper. Australian radical feminist Sheila Jeffreys went before the UK Parliament in March 2018 and declared that trans women are “parasites,” language that sounds an awful lot like Trump speaking about immigrants.[25]

Claire Lampen’s 2020 piece for The Cut, ‘J.K. Rowling Triples Down on Transphobia’, doesn’t even bother looking for origins in terminology anymore:

… indeed the term TERF — which stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist and in its current usage, often describes a liberal woman whose brand of feminism excludes transgender women from its push for equal rights …[26]

In a 2020 New Statesman interview, American gender theorist Judith Butler responded to a question specifically about Rowling thus:

I am not aware that terf is used as a slur. I wonder what name self-declared feminists who wish to exclude trans women from women’s spaces would be called? If they do favour exclusion, why not call them exclusionary? If they understand themselves as belonging to that strain of radical feminism that opposes gender reassignment, why not call them radical feminists? My only regret is that there was a movement of radical sexual freedom that once travelled under the name of radical feminism, but it has sadly morphed into a campaign to pathologise trans and gender non-conforming peoples. My sense is that we have to renew the feminist commitment to gender equality and gender freedom in order to affirm the complexity of gendered lives as they are currently being lived.[27]

Butler is very careful to stay on the side of self-identification when it comes to terminology, but she talks about radical feminism as if it were another label you could impose on someone else, and in the context of the article, implies that this rubric captures Rowling; I doubt anyone has ever regarded Rowling as a radical feminist, least of all Rowling herself.

An inattentive reading of Butler’s The Guardian editorial in 2021 on international discrimination against gender studies might easily be fused with the narrative of TERFism as right wing politics, especially in the intellectually diminutive tumult of social media posts:

Anti-gender movements are not just reactionary but fascist trends, the kind that support increasingly authoritarian governments. The inconsistency of their arguments and their equal opportunity approach to rhetorical strategies of the left and right, produce a confusing discourse for some, a compelling one for others. But they are typical of fascist movements that twist rationality to suit hyper-nationalist aims.

It appears, then, that a casual observer could easily mistake the Vox Media-Twitter doctrine, fully loaded with a range of fearsome associations, as proof positive that TERFs are an evil league of fascist bigots, with Rowling as a figurehead.  Very much the evil witch narrative I mentioned earlier.

All the same, I have yet to find a single person or group self-identifying as a TERF, and a single person or group thus labelled not regarding it as an insult.

On the basis of this examination of the topic, I cannot but see a distinct ideological fabrication at work in accusing Rowling of a TERFdom linked to a whole ideological agenda she has not championed, including especially viewpoints pushed by Rupert Murdoch and the American Republican Party.  I regard the term TERF applied to her and some others as deliberately pejorative and inaccurate, especially insofar as ‘radical feminism’ is concerned.

Repeating the allegations about Rowling’s TERFdom uncritically strikes me as evidence of laziness, very short attention spans, and naïve credulity at best, but luddite anti-intellectualism and sociopathic spite at their worst.

Transgender or transsexual

This is a thorny, divisive matter of interpretation because it requires also considering the difference between gender and sex.

Let’s start with some history.  Professor Stephen Whittle[28] tells us:

We must be careful with our words. ‘Transvestite’ originated in 1910 from the German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, who would later develop the Berlin Institute where the very first ‘sex change’ operations took place. ‘Transsexual’ was not coined until 1949, ‘transgender’ not until 1971, and ‘trans’ (a very British term) not until 1996. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of ‘androgyne’ was recorded in 1552, but it has only been in the last 10 years that people have claimed it for themselves to describe a state of being in-between, or having both genders. ‘Polygender’ is a late 1990s Californian invention used to describe a state of being multiple genders.[29]

This is by no means a complete list of words used by people to describe themselves. Long before Hirschfeld, other cultures had developed their own terminologies to describe ‘trans’ people. From the Hijra of India, to the Fa’afafine of Polynesia, the ladyboys and the tomboys of Thailand, and the Takatāpui of New Zealand, there are a myriad of words used by trans people to describe themselves.

‘Trans-’ as prefix comes from the Latin to be on the other side of, across, or beyond.  That was clearly a meaning describing ‘otherness’, but can also be understood as a progression, from this side to the other.  In terms of transgender, then, it could mean to be across genders (possessing both?), be on the other side of (an assigned gender?), or transiting between.  If we think of non-binary identities, can it also mean transcending gender altogether?

Whichever the case, it is a label that immediately draws attention to a context in which gender distinction is important, and depending on precise context, can come laden with meanings not explicitly spelled out, including the narrative of an LGBTQ+ fight against discrimination by fascist bigots.  What many people appear to find difficult about this is the necessity of critical thinking rather than any reliance on pre-digested meaning when it comes to applying such terminology.

In the context of Whittle’s article, the difference between transgender and transsexual is that the latter literally transforms into a new gender, by medical means.  That’s not so obvious with the term transgender.

This is where the disputed difference between gender and sex comes in.

Remember Maya Forstater?  The woman who lost her job for allegedly transphobic views.  Her principal argument appeared to be couched in terms of international law and human rights:

Erasing the category of biological sex undermines the ability to define and protect transgender status as a legal characteristic which requires its own protections from harassment and discrimination.

When Rowling expressed her disapproval for the initial ruling against Maya Forstater in a tweet, she used the hashtag #ThisIsNotADrill.

In her The Cut essay, Molly Fischer told us:

“This Is Not a Drill” is the title of a Medium post on the case by the British philosopher Kathleen Stock, who had taken up Forstater’s cause. Apart from advancing philosophical objections to trans identity, Stock’s work focuses on aesthetics, and in that field, she is a proponent of “extreme intentionalism.” Set in opposition to Continental theory, this view holds that fiction is “a set of instructions to imagine certain things” — a book means whatever its writer says it does. The author is always right.

I’m not quite certain whether this is deliberate misdirection or just a failure to read the essay, and a linked one, about the difference between gender and sex.  Those essays have zero relationship to aesthetics or extreme intentionalism.

In her medium essay, Stock cites British Employment Judge James Tayler:

I do not accept the Claimant’s contention that the Gender Recognition Act produces a mere legal fiction. It provides a right, based on the assessment of the various interrelated convention rights, for a person to transition, in certain circumstances, and thereafter to be treated for all purposes as the being of the sex to which they have transitioned.

In this case the judge talks about sex, and transitioning.  Are we to infer that this transition is a medical one?  Or does transitioning imply only a personal preference?  My literal reading of the passage, without legal training in such matters, makes me think he meant a medical transition, erasing as much as that is possible the characteristics of a previous sex.

Stock went on to ‘disqualify’ the judge’s ruling on the basis that it is a legitimate philosophical belief that sex cannot be altered.  Meaning, Tayler would also have to make a ruling on legitimate beliefs being illegitimized by the Gender Recognition Act.

In her separate essay, ‘Can You Change Your Gender?’ Kathleen Stock makes a case for differentiating between sex and gender:

… the answer to the question “Can an individual change their gender?” depends on which of the many different meanings of “gender” is being invoked by the questioner. For two of these – gender as fitting a social role and as gender-identity – the answer is yes, sometimes. (This conclusion doesn’t entail whether these are notions of gender a society should legislate around; that is a separate question).  For three of these – gender as sex, as sets of normative stereotypes applied to sex, and as socially-constructed sex – the answer is no.

Why is that important?  I defer to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, which published a glossary of terms that includes:

Gender/gender identity: one’s sense of whether they are a man, woman, non-binary, agender, genderqueer, genderfluid, or a combination of one or more of these definitions. Gender can be binary (either a man or a woman), or non-binary (including people who have no binary gender at all and people who have some relationship to binary gender/s).

And:

Transgender/Trans: umbrella terms used to refer to people whose assigned sex at birth does not match their gender identity. Trans people may choose to live their lives with or without modifying their body, dress or legal status, and with or without medical treatment and surgery. Trans people may use a variety of terms to describe themselves including but not limited to: man, woman, trans woman, trans man, non-binary, agender, genderqueer, genderfluid, trans guy, trans masculine/masc, trans feminine/femme.

Trans people have the same range of sexual orientations as the rest of the population. Trans people’s sexual orientation is referred to in reference to their gender identity, rather than their sex. For example, a woman may identify as lesbian whether she was assigned female or male at birth.

It strikes me that when we discuss gender, we are talking about identity, but when we talk about sex in this context, we are talking about biology.  Unlike some others, I do not agree that someone’s personal preferences can force others to ignore biology as a science.

Without reference to anyone else, but acknowledging I may not be the first person to argue as follows, I think we use terminology like trans or transgender precisely because it creates a new category of identity that is not man or woman, but could be both, or neither.

‘Trans’ for transitioning implies precisely a state between, not a starting or end point.  If all transgender women were in fact women, what is the point of the term ‘transgender’ at all, and how would it be possible to be transphobic about their identity?

This isn’t just semantics, but goes to the core of the entire Rowling transphobia argument.  I am not satisfied that the Google-Media-Wikipedia disinformation network has adequately addressed these points in offering up Rowling to us all as a transphobe.

Transphobia

This might seem like an obvious term, like homophobia, but it’s not.  Homosexuality is not an issue of biological sex.  Homophobia is not a fear of biological sex, but of sexual preferences.

I’ll adopt the definition of transphobia offered by the UK community interest company TransActual:

The core value underlying all transphobia is a rejection of trans identity and a refusal to acknowledge that it could possibly be real or valid.

Transphobia has no single, simple manifestation. It is complex and can include a range of behaviours and arguments. The consequence of transphobia is that trans people struggle to live openly and comfortably in society. An ultimate outcome may be the erasure of trans people as a viable class of people.

Already we have to make some judgements.  Is ‘trans identity’ a single, definable quality, or a body of diverse qualities.  I suspect the latter.  But does that mean that any identity claim by a transgender person rejected is necessarily transphobia?

As already argued, is a transgender woman a woman, or a transgender person?  We need a definitive answer to that question before we can allege transphobia at all, and before we can claim the struggle to live comfortably in society for only a certain class of people.  If we fear erasure of trans people as a viable class, aren’t we denying from the outset that they are in fact men and women, rather than trans men and women?

I don’t think there is any prospect of convincing arguments in the near future about this conflict, so I turned to an old analytical device: ‘what If I were one of them?’.

Let’s assume for a moment that I’m a trans woman.  Would it be transphobia for someone to say I was ugly, or fat, or stupid?  I doubt it.  That’s just insult.  But if the proposition were that I am those things because I’m a trans woman, that would strike me as phobic.

Now, as a trans woman, would I be offended by other women saying that I am not a woman in a biological sense?  Yes and no.  If I identified as trans, that seems a reasonable point.  If I identified as a woman, it would be a moot point.

What about Rowling in particular?  Should she be silenced, or has she the right to say things I might regard as offensive?

Who is Rowling to me?  No one in particular.  I have never read any of her novels.  I once tried a Harry Potter story, but gave up after a few pages, and have never been tempted to read the Galbraith novels.  I liked the first three Harry Potter films as harmless distraction, but not as a devotee.  Hence, I didn’t have expectations of her, or feel betrayed by her, as a fan.

What’s left about Rowling that makes her unkind words about my hypothetical transgender identity so toxic?  I think it’s a stretch to compare Rowling with the very real and influential bigots all around me, like many elected politicians, purportedly representing thousands of my compatriots, and the billions of adherents to mainstream Christian, Jewish, or Muslim denominations that regularly spew messages of hate about a whole range of people, including transgender people.

For me, the discrimination that would hurt the most would likely come from disapproving relatives, followed by those immediately around me every day, and then any legal inequalities I might encounter.  Rowling and all the fanatics fighting about her opinions would be a very distant distraction.

Would I think Rowling is a transphobe?  No.  I might think of her as misguided, but I would recognize in her words also the attempt to define and defend for herself a sense of identity similar to my own identity ambitions.  I might even feel a little sorry for her that her sense of self is weak enough to require denying it to someone else.

Thinking as a human being, I might also object to people threatening her with murder, or crass insults, or censorship; if I thought it was right to do that to her for mere opinion, why wouldn’t it be right to do it to me, or to anyone else?

Identity politics: the new Stalinism

There’s something about the nature of the Rowling affair, as it played out on social media, and then spilling over into new and even traditional media, that is quintessentially repugnant.

It reveals a barbarian witch-hunting mentality, like the McCarthy anti-communist purges in the USA, and the model for it, which were the Stalinist purges themselves.

The proposition is, at the outset, that anyone can identify any component of personal or group identity, argue that people notionally belonging to that identity group are being persecuted, and anyone disagreeing with tendentious arguments about that group, its identity, or its claims for nominal equality, deserves to be pursued by pitchfork and torch bearing mobs out for blood, albeit in the full spectrum of the contemporary media space.

Taking the Rowling affair as a model for how that works, it begins with the neo-Stalinism inherent in any proposition that one identity group’s claims trump all others.  A recipe for continual conflict.  How is it that a notional transgender identity group’s demands to a right to define itself any way it chooses trumps Rowling’s right to define herself as a woman in any way she chooses?

What’s lost in the heat of argument is the idea of pluralism: multiple, apparently conflicting positions on these matters can exist without any need to demonize any of them.  If that were not true, Catholics and Protestants, for example, would still be murdering each other in all nations where they now coexist peacefully.

The argument in the Rowling affair is presented as bipolar, demanding that only one side can be right and true, as if pluralist democracy didn’t exist and couldn’t accommodate such turf wars.

But who is the final arbiter of conflicting, apparently mutually exclusive claims?  The temper of the lynch mob?  Some other moral and political abacus of truth?  In this particular case, and others like it, the authority being appealed to is political correctness.  Not the meaningless kind anyone can invoke to justify any argument at all, but the original Leninist-Stalinist kind.

Writing almost 30 years ago, American management academic Peter Drucker wrote:

It was from the Stalinists, and especially from the Stalinists in academia, that [Senator Joseph] McCarthy learned his tactics of character assassination, of unproven, undocumented allegations, of persecution by lies, innuendos, and intimidation. And it was largely because academia had so ignominiously submitted to the Stalinists ten or fifteen years earlier that McCarthy knew that he could attack it without running much risk of encountering resistance. Above all, American academia was so deeply imbued with guilt feelings for having acquiesced in, and submitted to, Stalinist political correctness–and, in many cases, for aiding and abetting the denunciation, slander, and persecution of non-Stalinist colleagues–that it was cowed by McCarthy’s scurrilous attacks even though, as events proved soon enough, the senator was all bluff and little more than a big stink.

In 1927 the French writer Julien Benda (1867-1956) published a work, La Trahison des Clercs (The Treason of the Intellectuals), which castigated the scholars and writers who, out of cowardice, lust for power, or simply “to be with it,” abdicated their duty, betrayed their values, and joined the new barbarians of the left or the right. This, Benda warned, could only destroy the intellectuals themselves and any respect for them. The book was a bestseller when translated into English, especially in American academia. But not many heeded its warnings when political correctness came to the American campus ten years later.

Underneath this comment lies a deeper reality today forgotten by all but scholars of Soviet communism.  Political correctness is a discrete artifact of Leninist-Stalinist ideology, not the entirely meaningless thing it becomes in contemporary culture wars.

Lenin was an enthusiastic ‘politicizer’ of engineering and science methods, paradoxically along the lines of the American doctrine of industrial efficiency often referred to as Taylorism.  Lenin sought to fuse that technical rationality with politics to inject into his party’s ideology the same kind of deterministic ‘correctness’ he saw as underpinning engineering and scientific principles.

To accomplish this fusion Lenin began to talk and write about ‘partiinost’, meaning party spirit, and then ‘politicheskaya pravil’nost’, meaning political correctness.  He pursued this aim with talk about correct and incorrect positions, as in the following:

  • trends that ‘threaten to divert the movement from the correct path’ with correctly defined tasks and arguments comprising ‘the correctness of our position’ (from What Is To Be Done, 1902);
  • opposition to ‘individual elements and trends not fully consistent, not completely Marxist and not altogether correct’ that require ‘periodical “cleansings” of its ranks’ (from ‘Party Organisation and Party Literature’, 1905);
  • ‘the correctness of our resolution’, implies that ‘“Treachery” is not “an abusive term” … it is the only scientifically and politically correct term with which to express the actual facts about, and the actual aspirations of, the bourgeoisie’ (from ‘How Comrade Plekhanov Argues About Social-Democratic Tactics’, 1906); and
  • persistent mentions of ‘correct historical evaluation of economic development’ (in ‘A Revision of the Party Programme’, 1917, and subsequent works).

Lenin’s was the assertion that only the party represented the correct interpretation of Marx, and the correct manifesto of action and thought.  Implicit in this formula, too, was the idea that no non-Marxist basis for politics was valid at all.  This might be seen historically as the beginning of the secular theocratic turn by which communism assumed a supreme, tyrannical authority, dealing in unquestioning faith, and pursuing the persecution of dissent as heresy.

Lenin was quite open about justifying the terror of mass murder as a necessary adjunct of the revolution, and as a ‘correct’ implementation of Marxism.  Stalin enthusiastically embraced this approach, calling it Marxism-Leninism, and setting himself up as the sole international authority on the ‘correct’ interpretation, implementation, and methods of Soviet communism.[30]  Methods Drucker says American academics had absorbed in the 1940s, and that were thrown back at them via McCarthyism in the 1950s.

It is in the original Bolshevik form of political correctness that it reappears in identity politics, with any self-nominated identity group being the self-appointed, Stalinist arbiter of the ‘correct’ interpretation of its own ethics, political truthfulness, and the manifest righteousness of its cause.

And here we have the absurdity of social media witch-hunting based on identity politics: every identity group can lay claim to this supreme authority.  It’s a ratio of insanity, because the lowest common denominator in identity is the self: I can claim to be an identity group in my own right, perhaps as the logical consequence of American notions about individual liberty.  The consequence is that no opportunity for peaceful social existence exists at all anymore.  Therefore, no legitimacy can exist for any identity group, including me as an individual.

Is that really something we all want to strive for?

Where does all this leave us?

Going right back to the beginning, I am now less amused and more saddened that the people I was talking to are quite so willfully ignorant about an issue on which they profess such absolute opinions.

I am not really surprised by the media bias I encountered in the Vox Media pieces; I’ve long known about editorial bias, and I must suppose the Murdoch propaganda organs more than counterbalanced the Vox bias with their predictable demonization of all that is ‘other’.  It’s just regrettable there appears to be no ground in between, with less motivation to savage one side or another.

Nor is the Google-media-Wikipedia disinformation network any great news to me, though it is useful to be reminded of that reality occasionally.

Witchhunting illustration

The most powerful impression I am left with is just how sick Western liberal democracies really are when so many people prefer blood sports to reasoned debate, and there is such a marked absence of empathy, critical thinking, and willingness to investigate politically charged claims.

It’s not enough to point to financially motivated disinformation as a cause.  It’s a lack of humanity in the people being thus manipulated that’s the real problem.

That includes especially all those who latched onto the Rowling debate (and many others like it) solely for narcissist purposes; to be seen to be virtue signalling at no cost in actual effort or risk to themselves.

Is Rowling a saint?  Of course not.  Is she wrong?  Of course not.  Is she right?  Of course not.  Did she deserve crude insults and death threats, with your collaboration?  You tell me.  I don’t think so.

I’m not an adherent of, or even a knowledgeable critic of Judith Butler, but I think she was absolutely right in the following two observations:

My own political view is that identity ought not to be the foundation for politics. Alliance, coalition and solidarity are the key terms for an expanding left. And we need to know what we are fighting against and for, and keep that focus. [The Guardian, 2021]

And:

I think we are living in anti-intellectual times, and that this is evident across the political spectrum. The quickness of social media allows for forms of vitriol that do not exactly support thoughtful debate. We need to cherish the longer forms. [The New Statesman, 2021]

Who benefits from internecine squabbles on the notionally progressive side of politics?  It certainly isn’t either side in the squabble.  But it’s always exactly those people who actually wield real power, and use it to maintain and increase inequalities and bigotry.  People like Rupert Murdoch, Sundar Pichai, Parag Agrawal, Mark Zuckerberg, the CEOs of military-industrial corporations, banking conglomerates, resources and pharmaceutical companies, and law firms.  Of course, politicians play their rôle, but only at the behest of the former kind of powerbrokers.

I can’t begin to express my contempt for people who willingly play along in social media witch-hunting without first tackling the real targets of all the ills they say they seek to oppose, and who fail to do that for the laziness of not thinking or investigating for themselves.

I’ve been told it’s impossible to impugn the really powerful.  That’s twaddle, though it does take some effort and intellect beyond thumb-typed, juvenile snark.  And it is entirely possible to target a second rank of the genuinely nasty misogynist, transphobic, and otherwise bigoted political players, who enjoy a holiday from being scrutinized every time the progressive side of politics launches itself into another internecine civil war.

Is this what we have become?  Is this who we are now?

I’d like the last words in my essay to belong to an artist I have greatly admired for a long time.  Asked ‘what do you think of cancel culture?’, Nick Cave responded, in part:

As far as I can see, cancel culture is mercy’s antithesis. Political correctness has grown to become the unhappiest religion in the world. Its once honourable attempt to reimagine our society in a more equitable way now embodies all the worst aspects that religion has to offer (and none of the beauty) — moral certainty and self-righteousness shorn even of the capacity for redemption. It has become quite literally, bad religion run amuck.

Cancel culture’s refusal to engage with uncomfortable ideas has an asphyxiating effect on the creative soul of a society. Compassion is the primary experience — the heart event — out of which emerges the genius and generosity of the imagination. Creativity is an act of love that can knock up against our most foundational beliefs, and in doing so brings forth fresh ways of seeing the world. This is both the function and glory of art and ideas. A force that finds its meaning in the cancellation of these difficult ideas hampers the creative spirit of a society and strikes at the complex and diverse nature of its culture.

Endnotes


[1] My definition of neo-fascism is based quite closely on definitions offered in Umberto Eco’s 1995 essay ‘Ur-Fascism’, originally published in The New York Review of Books on 22 June 1995.  Mentioning fascism at all becomes strangely topical when I consider the views of gender theorist Judith Butler later in the essay.

[2] It turns out this is an incorrect expansion of the acronym, which I will deal with in the section on the vocabulary of the undisclosed.

[3] More terminology I consider in the vocabulary section.

[4] The term is not proprietary, but has acquired a new meaning since the publication of the ‘Harper’s letter’, which I consider in passing in the section on identity politics as the new Stalinism.

[5] My definition of new media may be a bit old fashioned, but includes all online-only variations on traditional media, such as non-print publications, podcasts, and non-broadcast videos.

[6] I arrogate to myself the judgement calls made on that matter on the basis of my own background in journalism.  The important factor is making a judgement based on critical analysis at all, rather than uncritically accepting what I’m told.

[7] Vox, says this about itself:

Vox explains the news.

We live in a world of too much information and too little context. Too much noise and too little insight. And so Vox’s journalists candidly shepherd audiences through politics and policy, business and pop culture, food, science, and everything else that matters. You can find our work wherever you live on the internet — Facebook, YouTube, email, iTunes, Instagram, and more.

[8] The word ‘betrayal’ is not actually used in that manner, but reading the article makes it impossible not to understand it as the implicit conclusion.

[9] Vox imprint The Cut describes its demographic as follows:

Welcome to the premier destination for women with stylish minds. No matter the subject, we address our readers’ lives head on, with generous wit, honesty, and power. We are in a dynamic conversation with women about the issues that matter to them most — politics, feminism, work, money, relationships, mental health, fashion and issues relating to equality.

Our stories are organized around four categories: Style, Self, Culture, and Power — words that give us a framework for what it means to be a woman moving forward in the world today. Each one informs the other. After all, a woman with a stylish mind poses a real threat to every industry she enters.

I like to think I have a stylish mind too, even if I don’t care about how Kim Kardashian pees, or anything to do with Ali Wong and Cardi B, whom I had to look up to know they exist at all.

[10] While it seems charming to imagine fans who would like Rowling to resemble one of her Harry Potter characters, this expectation, by apparently perpetual juveniles, is hardly realistic.  Nor is Fischer’s own that Rowling failed to be some paragon of politically correct virtue.

[11] Having read what I could of Forstater’s tweets and essays, I never found the specific phrasing that trans women are men, rather than emphatic denials that biological sex can be changed.  That means her statement applies equally to trans men.  This isn’t just semantics, but philosophically important in the logical coherence of a proposition.

[12] The hysteria ignited by the point about menstruation bewildered me.  I am not willing to deny the biological science that makes it clear you must have female reproductive organs to menstruate.  Arguing that some women don’t menstruate is irrelevant (logical fallacy of citing exception to the rule as the rule).  Arguing that chosen gender identity overrules biological facts is tendentious at best, but comes down to a definition of transgender and transsexuality I look at in the vocabulary section.

[13] It may be the title of the essay was changed.  Unlikely.  When I first accessed it in relation to the Harper’s letter back in 2020, its title was not anything to do with TERFs, but ‘J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues’.  It strikes me as quite likely that Lampen relied on someone else’s commentary on the Rowling essay, or sought to give the TERF pejorative the character of being terminology accepted by Rowling.  If so, that’s a serious transgression of all I know about journalistic principles.

[14] If you follow Lampen’s own link to the evidence that the idea adolescent girls are heavily influenced by their peers in seeking to transition, there is little evidence of a ‘comprehensive’ debunking, but rather an academic spat within the same institution, and Vox’s decision to lend what I regard is undue weight to an academic who is also a transgender person, and pursuing as much of a political agenda as the study authors are accused of.  Debunking of any kind requires a fundamentally independent examination of study methods and hermeneutics.

The issues of gender dysphoria is too complex to be pursued here; it deserves a separate essay, considering intricate psychological, psychiatric, and medical expertise.  It’s not an essay I propose to write. 

The matter of bathrooms is too silly for words: just make every public facility its own self-contained unisex toilet.  Who in their right mind wants to be confronted by the smells and sounds of someone else’s ablutions anyway.

That many men are sexual predators who will stoop to any level to prey on girls and women is beyond dispute.  Whether this includes transgender women is a matter for statistical analysis that doesn’t yet exist, as far as I can tell.

[15] The description of Rowling here as a ‘liberal’ woman opposing equal rights for trans persons is a distortion of what was actually said: trans women are not women.  Rowling’s argument does not say trans persons should not have equal legal rights, as they apply to men and women.

[16] The https protocol requires an expensive digital certificate and/or technically complex, repetitive web server manipulation.  The https protocol is principally used to secure transactions, like commercial ones, with a layer of encryption.  What that means in terms of Google’s demotion of http results is that commercial content is always favoured over non-commercial content in its search algorithm.  You could argue this is a bias in favour of content already skewed in favour of neoliberal political economy.

[17] As a former Wikipedia editor, I can attest to the arrogance and rudeness with which these administrators can censor even private discussions (behind the scenes of Wikipedia), and turn logic upside down to mandate the presentation of patent untruths as facts in Wikipedia pages.

[18] It cannot be an accident that the very first Google results for the search ‘why wikipedia can’t be trusted’ returns Wikipedia’s own treatment of the topic.

[19] A discursive process can mean switching from subject to subject, or to change the nature of a discourse.  In this context it seems obvious that social conceptions of gender will change over time (because they have in the past).  However, talking liberation from patriarchy (the word explicitly referring to domination by men) through an alignment of feminism with anti ‘heterosexism’ is unlikely to ever succeed, given the predominance of heterosexuals in any society.  Offering that viewpoint as somehow more pure and truthful than any other, even if only by implication, strikes me as radically sexist in itself.

[20] The argument that liberation from fixed conceptions of gender becomes also liberation from stiflingly inequitable neoliberal political economy has appeal, but it doesn’t address why this liberated conception of gender should trump the one found in gender critical feminism, unless you also argue that the latter is just part of the whole white, patriarchal, neoliberal edifice.  That is hardly a given, and I am not prepared to agree without considerably more persuasive argument.

[21] This interpretation directly contradicts the previous one by Rustin.  If this is not an argument within feminism (as well as in other contexts), is Butler really saying that women pursuing the argument are not feminists or transgender people?  Butler’s logic here strikes me as contradictory, elitist, and unnecessarily convoluted.

[22] This is another contradictory position: how can you grant human dignity if you insist on granting it solely on terms acceptable to a subcategory of the human–transgender people–and by taking it away from women who argue that gender critical analysis is vital to their own dignity?  This is a zero sum equation that proposes to us only one side in the argument can be right and just, with the other side being condemned to being only wrong and unjust.  If Butler was serious in this proposition, she is very radical indeed.  But it looks to me like a deliberately provocative statement designed more to lift her media profile than to make a serious contribution to the debate.

[23] Fair points all.  Did Rowling ever describe herself as a radical feminist?  I think not, but I could be wrong.

[24] Another fair point, making it critically important to consider context in each and every instance of the term’s usage.

[25] That whole series of assertions about UK feminism needs a range of absent proofs to not be laughed at as just jingoist vitriol.

[26] If Rowling is that brand of feminist, the assertion is just wrong.  Equal rights talks about equality at law, not the ‘right’ to be recognized as women, which is withheld from all men who are not transgender women.  If we are talking rights here, the right to be regarded as a woman after being born a biological man is a niche privilege, not an equal right.  Privilege because it is withheld from substantial numbers of others.  In my opinion, rightly thus withheld.

[27] In a comment cited earlier on in my essay Butler proposed that the entire TERF argument is not one between feminism and transgender activists.  In this comment that tune has changed to disparage not just self-identified gender-critical feminism, but also radical feminism.  Butler doesn’t seem all that credible to me as the arbiter of what feminism is and is not.

[28] Stephen Thomas Whittle, OBE, PhD, DLaws FAcSS.  British legal scholar and co-founder for the transgender activist group Press for Change. Professor of Equalities Law in the School of Law at Manchester Metropolitan University. Whittle transitioned from female to male in 1975.

[29] Predictably, Wikipedia disagrees, possibly for the monomania of maintaining American origins for all contemporary innovations.  But a careful reading of its claims on ‘transgenderism’ reveals a meaning tied to transvestite practices, which is a context entirely different from contemporary meanings of transgenderism.

[30] It should be remembered that Stalin had moved away from the notion of a universal socialism, to defend a solely Soviet model.

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