This week’s New Yorker carries an instructive essay by Michelle Goldberg, ‘What is Woman?’, which addresses a matter I predicted some months ago here and here. Feminists are apparently engaged in internecine warfare over the status of transgender people. Are women who used to be men really women?
Simply working through the article is likely to be a vertiginous experience for most. If this article is an accurate gauge of today’s radical politics, the chances of even the most sensitive of us avoiding the commission of a hate crime against one or another oppressed minority are virtually non-existent. In a sense, this is nothing new: Anyone who knows anything about the history of Marxism knows that the Left is worse than Christianity when it comes to dogmatic divisions and its propensity for pronouncing various bloody anathemas amongst its sectarian divisions. The war between TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) who reject as women those men who have had gender reassignment operations, and the mainstream of transgender advocates sounds as nasty as it can be. The online death threats say it all.
Perhaps most disturbing, however, is how the article witnesses to the death of anything approaching the possibility of public discourse on such matters. It is a fine example of how “oppression” has become a psychological, rather than, say, an economic, category and how it has also therefore descended into the realm of subjectivity where it ironically becomes the property of the powerful.
In their fear of anything approaching talk of essences or nature, TERFs have deployed the nebulous concept of caste. This allows them to maintain their understanding of the world as socially constructed but in such a way as to keep the transgendered out of their meetings and their movement. Yet in doing so, they have conceded the very point which the trans activists can now use as a weapon against them. If the world is a mere construct, then so is gender. And if gender is a mere construct, how can anyone resort to matters as mundane as the presence of certain genitalia or chromosomes? Of course, why in such circumstances gender still remains a category at all is an interesting question. We eagerly await the next phase of deconstruction for an answer to that one.
The problems for the transgendered seem equally difficult. What are they to do with those who think at one time that they are transgendered and then change their minds? Are they willful traitors to the cause? Evidence that transgenderism is an illusion? Or should they not have the same right to determining their own identity (and thus to change their minds) as anybody else? It seems hard to exclude them without conceding the, ahem, essential point, for once oppression is a matter of subjective perception, then all other categories, from virtue to freedom, melt into air. At that moment, politics really does seem to come down to who has the most effective lobbying strategies and smoothest public relations machine. Given that both the New Republic and Time have identified transgenderism as the next great wave of civil rights, these are issues which may well affect all of our lives in the near future.
The final paragraph of the essay gives the game away:
Of the radical feminists’ position, [Sandy Stone] says, “It’s my personal belief, from speaking to some of these people at length, that it comes from having been subject to serious trauma at the hands of some man, or multiple men.” She adds, “You have to respect that. That’s their experience of the world.” But the pain of radical feminists, she insists, can’t trump trans rights. “If it were a perfect world, we would find ways to reach out and find ways of mutual healing,” she says. But, as it is, “I am going to have to say, It’s your place to stay out of spaces where transgender male-to-female people go. It’s not our job to avoid you.”
There you have it. Amidst all the pious talk of suffering and mutual healing, there is no agreed basis for contesting this pronouncement of moral hierarchies, simply the assertion of the rights of one group over another. One might summarize this by saying it all comes down to personal taste and a struggle for power. That might seem something of a generalization but, in a world where politics increasingly has no lingua franca, it is hard to see it any other way. And it is hard to see democracy or the rights of any minority thriving under such conditions in the long term.