Don’t throw out the Feminist baby with the Burchill bathwater

The controversy over Julie Burchill’s unpleasant headline-grabbing article on some ‘trans’-activists’ attacks on her mate Suzanne Moore rumbles on in the blogosphere, as the Observer promise to look into whether or not to have Burchill write future columns for them: http://liberalconspiracy.org/2013/01/13/libdem-mp-lynne-featherstone-says-julie-burchill-should-be-sacked/
I aim here to essay some philosophical and political reflections on this matter. My take on the controversy includes this: Burchill is Burchill. She is (and arguably always has been) a controversialist who lives off creating outrage. Her column was deliberately unpleasant; the Observer should have reined it in, or spiked it. But, leaving Burchill’s agent provocateur-ism to one side now: I have some sympathy with Suzanne Moore, Bea Campbell (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jan/31/julie-bindel-transgender-nus ), Julie Bindel and even Germaine Greer over this issue: The way they have at times been targeted and criticised is unpleasant. There IS a Feminist case against some of the discourse of the trans lobby. I hope that point doesn’t get lost in the anti-Burchill clamour.
Readers of this site will be aware that I am by no means an uncritical admirer of Julie Bindel: http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=2962 . And, as a Feminist-identified man, my own taste in Feminism is different in some important respects to that of the above-named group: I generally favour a Radical Feminism attuned closely to the critiques of ‘essentialism’ that Jane Flax, Nancy Fraser and others pioneered.
BUT to be a critic of gender essentialism is one thing; to seek to dissolve the category of ‘woman’ altogether, in favour of a sort of ‘opt-in’ version of what it is to be a woman, quite another. As Richard Rorty used to argue: ‘woman’ is an experiential category and a political category. It has, I would submit (and here I am simply echoing mainstream Feminist ideas) a material basis in lived experience including bodily experience, and it has a political reality and a political point. As both Rorty and Carol Gilligan rightly hold: so long as there is patriarchy, so long as there is oppression of women, then there is likely to be a ‘different voice’, there is certainly a need for Feminism: and Feminism starts with women being allowed to define themselves and to carve out spaces for themselves.
Trans women will say that they are exactly that: women being allowed to define themselves. But you can see the impasse here: If women find themselves being told by some with male genitalia etc. that they are obliged to accept the latter as women, because they ‘define’ themselves as so, that is hardly a knock-down argument. Take an analogy: Imagine that some people regard themselves within themselves as disabled, as missing a limb. Are disabled people obliged to regard those people as already part of the disabled community? I would suggest: obviously not. (And note: this is NOT even a philosopher’s made-up example. Tragically, there are people who want to have one or more limbs amputated, who want to become disabled: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/neurophilosophy/2012/may/30/1 )
The identity of the group of women starts from clear cases. The existence of grey areas does nothing to challenge this. (For detailed argument to this conclusion, through a broadly-Wittgensteinian discussion of the sorites and vagueness, see Chapter 6 of my new book, discussed here: http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=6272 ). It is not reasonable, it is not feasible, for those wanting entry to any group to act as if they have already magically gained such entry just by virtue of wanting entry. I will discuss this point in more detail, below.
So: Burchill has almost certainly done Moore et al a disservice. But the questions that Bindel, Moore et al have raised about the relationship of trans-sexualism to Feminism / to women remain genuine questions – they shouldn’t be tarred with Burchill’s brush. The point of MY intervention is just to seek to help ensure that we don’t miss the nuances of this difficult debate between Bindel & Moore & some other Feminists on the one hand and some trans-activists on the other, in the hurly-burly of this ‘political panic’ of attacks on Burchill for her attacks on transgender people.
So, two important points:
1) That there is a genuine, complicated question within Feminism about whether trans-women can or should in every or all respects be regarded straightforwardly as women (They don’t have periods, they don’t experience menopause; they chose to be (to become) women rather than having been brought up gendered female; etc. etc). It is complicated. Does feeling psychologically as if you are a woman and making certain changes to your body as a consequence make you a woman? Or first, a more basic question: Is it enough, in order to BE a woman, to psychically identify as one? To this second question, we must surely answer: no. (It it were, then it would presumably be enough to be disabled to psychically identify as disabled; it would be enough to be black to psychically identify as black; etc.)
At this point, it may be helpful to introduce another element to the discussion. To use the term that has in the course of this spat made the journey from academia to the blogosphere, identities are intersectional: many aspects make up our identities and this is what intersectionality as an approach tries to emphasise. One’s social class, one’s gender, one’s sexuality, one’s ethnicity, one’s political and moral commitments all intersect in such a way as to create one’s identity. Talking of intersectionality, as some already have, should alert us to the different intersecting identities that a trans-woman and non-trans-woman have, and therefore guard against endless arguments over real identity.
Are the trans-activists who pushed Moore off Twitter saying that women have no right to a say on who gets to be a woman?? Or again: Should non-trans-women similarly have the absolute right to define once and for all the term woman?? We should see that our identities are complexes of many different intersecting aspects, and recognise that just as these bring us close to those who share similar aspects they might also distance us from others, including the very people whose identity we might wish to share.
And this means that, as well as a symmetry, there is an asymmetry here: Women do not have an absolute once and for all right to define who they are. But they are do have more of a say than others as to who they are (and who they are not / who are not they), right now. Our individualist age would be taking a step into utter absurdity, if it were to say that any individual by virtue of feeling a certain way can magic themselves into any group-identity.
Do the mass of women who did not go through the process of sex-reassignment — ordinary women, so-called ‘cissexuals’ — have no right to point out some differences between themselves and trans-women? I think they surely do have such a right, including the right to point to a broad mass of broadly (albeit not universally) shared, overlapping experiences that they tend to share. Hopefully, they will have the heart to recognise the difficulties specific to the trans experience, and the feeling of commonality that the transsexual has with women. But hopefully too, those gendered male who wish to transition to female-hood will recognise that they are seeking to join a group with specific experiences some of which they have not shared, a historically-oppressed group, a group which has fought hard for the right to have spaces where women can organise together, clear of the male gaze, etc. .
It is not essentialist to point out the difference between being gendered female one’s who life and being gendered female as a result of a choice. It is not essentialist to point out certain material differences between men and women: the only question is what SIGNFICANCE to attribute to those differences. (Feminism of course argues that patriarchal societies tend to attach a wrong and excessive significance to those differences.) Does a man choosing to seek to become a member of an oppressed group (women) have the right to demand full unequivocal membership of that group and then speak as part of it without any possibility of objection? It is complicated, but it is at the very least not at all self-evident that one ought to answer that question with a Yes.
(2) While Burchill is an unpleasant controversialist who tries to create outrage, and while nothing that I write here should be interpreted as a defence of what SHE has said, there has also without doubt been some real and I think in part quite unwarranted unpleasantness from one very vocal section of the trans community against anyone, including some prominent Feminists, who dares to say out loud anything resembling (1).
Now, some trans-activists would say that what I have just written is in any case misleading, in that it makes being a transgender seem a ‘choice’ like any other, when the lived experience of trans people is that they have no choice about their gender-identification being opposite to the sexual identity they are assigned on the basis of their biology. Saying that there is no choice about making the trans-ition is, however, misleading: i) It suggests a new essentialism, which Foucaultians and some Queer Theorists would object to; it suggests that psyche is destiny (that if you are ‘a woman in a man’s body’ then you are really a woman) and, ironically, leaves no room for human experimentation or novel self-definition (i.e. for the flexibility of being able to resist society’s binarism, the insistence that you are either a man or a woman — trans-women insist on the latter, for themselves –, by creating genuinely new sexual identities); ii) It cannot make sense of the experience of another important minority that tends to get ignored in these debates: those who feel profoundly ill at ease in their bodies gender-wise and yet do NOT choose to seek to pass as women, do NOT undergo sex-reassignment surgery, etc.
The issue that concerns Bindel etc, is whether it is good and practical Feminist politics to completely unqualifiedly open the ranks of women to some former men. I am nervous about men or trans-women insisting that it goes without saying that it IS.
When I made some brief remarks similar to the above on Facebook recently, I was accused of bordering on gender essentialism. I would point out in this connection that it is ironic to be accused of borderline gender essentialism, when what the Trans activists in question are in some cases arguing for is the right to be taken for a woman with no questions asked ONCE SEX RE-ASSIGNMENT SURGERY ETC HAS HAPPENED. For surely no-one seriously claims that simply feeling like a woman is enough to make one one, for the reasons I gave above; but it appears that the hardline Trans position is that having the surgery etc certainly IS. But: that amounts to believing that anatomy is identity / destiny – but that you can change your anatomy, and so change your identity / destiny. This is pretty clearly a neo-essentialism, it seems to me.
Notice furthermore that there is something deeply and viciously paradoxical about the idea that simply feeling like a woman is enough to make one one. For what is it that one feels like, if one feels like a woman? It can’t be that the feeling of feeling like a woman is in and of itself a complete, self-validating, ‘private’ experience, of an individual (to see why not, Wittgenstein’s anti-private-language considerations are helpful); the experience must have some content. Obviously, what the content of the experience is, and necessarily so, is: feeling like one of ‘those’. Like one of those humans who has a body of a certain kind/shape, who perhaps dresses in certain ways, etc. (Thus some Feminists are understandably nervous that some trans-women may identify women by reference to an ideal of femininity that Feminism itself, rightly, puts into question). In other words, feeling like a woman / feeling like one is a woman is necessarily defined by reference to the pre-existing class of women. This point makes it clear that trans-women are dependent on the pre-existing category of women – on (ordinary) women, in other words. In simple terms: Being a trans-woman is necessarily in part based on the idea of being someone who in some sense on at present is not. This already guarantees that the feeling that one is one of them – a woman – is not sufficient. Because such an identity-claim is precisely a claim that goes beyond / differs from what one currently is. (It is, as we might put it, a desire-claim concerning oneself, as much as an identity-claim.) And such a claim is logically dependent on the pre-existence of the group that one identifies with. It is that pre-existence that underlies the asymmetry I pointed up, above.
Now, what I am saying might be countered by saying this: Surely the ideal of feminism would be that gender identity is irrelevant when it comes to the rights, opportunities and roles available to a person? In that case, denying trans women ‘full’ womanhood is illogical, as doing so uses gender as a basis for discrimination. This may not be an ideal world but the only way to move towards one, it might be argued, is to remain true to such ideals.
In reply, I would say this: Yes, that certainly is the ideal of much feminism – but it remains an UNREALIZED ideal. Until it is realised, it is premature to criticise Feminists for retaining the category of ‘woman’. If women want all/only-women spaces, etc., then, in a still-patriarchal society, they should certainly be allowed to create them. It is not true that to move toward an ideal world we have to pretend that we are already in one.
The picture is of course in reality even more complex, however, than I have so far allowed. Trans-women typically cannot actually get the surgery they want until they have been living as a woman for years. The most common process is for a trans woman to “come out” as trans and start to live as a woman long before they have surgery, if they even have surgery at all. Many don’t ever have the surgery for various reasons, including because it comes with a great many complications and the results are not always satisfactory. While there are of course different positions the general trans position is that surgery is just one part of a greater process, and, some would say, not necessarily even an essential or the most important part.
Recognising this complexity however creates only additional difficulties for the simplistic case made by some trans-activists. It creates, to be precise, a dilemma for them. Either one says that only post-op trans-sexuals should have a right to be treated as women without question: in which case, as implied earlier, it appears to be the trans-activist who is being essentialist, by attributing gender identity to anatomy (plus hormones etc), and merely adding that anatomy is malleable. Such a position puts a stark dividing line within the trans-community between pre-op (or non-op) on the one hand and post-op on the other. Or one says that all self-identifying women (i.e. pre-op trans-sexuals too) should have a right to be treated as women without question: in which case, it really must be asked, do you really not see ANY good argument for women to exclude from women-only spaces people who have male genitalia, etc? Can you really not see how some women might find it problematic to be told that they simply must let such people in on equal terms?
To move towards conclusion: A key problem for both sides in this debate is not having truly taken on board the point that identity is not a simple but a complex; hence they both end up arguing over something which is merely one aspect of the complex and by extension they commit themselves to the very essentialism they all argue they are against.

I think the real culprit here may then be a profound – a hyper- — individualism in our society, a kind of psychical consumerism of identity-politics that makes it seem as though any claim to identity is self-validating and must be accepted, and a wearing of victimhood as a badge such that one’s victimhood is supposed to prevent any criticism of one’s psychologically-based claims to identity. In tandem with this, ironically, lies a deep-set and enduring power of essentialist gender stereotypes and of biologism; a deep-set cultural assumption that one’s body ought to reflect gender stereotypes and ought to take on one of two supposedly-biologically-pre-set formations.

I will never rest until all oppression is ended. But the oppressed (and of course that is virtually all of us, in one way or another) must also seek to step out of the victim-role; to boldly fight for themselves, and to work in coalition to make this world a place where all of us can and will flourish; rather than to seek to vie as to who is more oppressed.

In this context, is it too much to hope, to hope that a little reflective philosophy such as I have essayed here may shed a little light on the matter? That tempers might calm enough to think things through as I have sought to do here? I hope not…

For, unlike Julie Burchill, I have the greatest of sympathy for trans-sexuals, a small minority who remain deeply misunderstood today, and who are probably in very many cases worse oppressed than many (non-trans) women. I hope that our society grows in its acceptance of such complicated sexual identities. I reject transphobia completely and out of hand.

But: I think that Feminists have a right to point out that there can in some cases be a prima facie tension between the desire to become a woman and the full recognition of the still-often-stark oppression of women, much of the time, in much of the world. And, more important (because more pressing): it is just plain wrong for any victim-group to use its victim-status as a tool with which to beat other victims of oppression. Whenever a trans-activist bullies a Feminist (or of course, equally, vice versa), Feminism dies a little – and trans-women need Feminism badly. Because, if they don’t know all there is to know about the oppression of women before they become one, I am reliably informed (by a transsexual acquaintance) that they often get to know a lot more about it afterward…

[Thanks to those who gave me comments on an earlier version of this piece. Please note that, in this piece, I am, obviously, discussing only male-to-female transsexualism. That’s complicated enough, without also addressing the reverse case, let alone hermaphroditism, etc.]

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120 Comments.

  1. Rupert:

    This is a fascinating issue and I find your post to be very illuminating.

    In fact, someone could write a book on this whole Burchill incident, a book which could analyze all the pathologies and virtues of the left as well as of what you call “the psychical consumerism of identity politics”.

    Life was a lot simpler back in the days when being on the left meant you were for the Spanish Republic or against apartheid in South Africa.

    There seems to be much much more than meets the reader’s eye in this whole affair, but I for one have not assimilated the signficance of it all yet and perhaps never will.

  2. Rupert,

    You hit on an important point in bringing individualism into the discussion. The fact of the matter is the only category to which we really all belong is “ME”. All of us are existential isolates (even accepting the inherent humor of that statement).

    We choose to seek identification with seemingly pre-existent groups out of a belief that the membership will grant us some social leverage, access to a pool of societal capital, if you will. To assume from that that the name we seek will uncritically be accepted by all the other “ME”s who already either occupy those groups or who, from the outside, observe and bear witness to clear membership is asking too much. Desiring to be a bear and obtaining the outward appearance of bear-ness does not obligate all other observers, bear or human, to accept my self-definition.

    A truly clear headed analysis of assertions of trans-gender access to gender identification will break past the politics of the discussion. Politics inherently assumes class and group distinctions are inviolate, that they should not themselves be examined critically, and that our discussions should be about how power (political capital) is apportioned to groups and membership of groups controlled. Philosophical examinations must not be trapped by this narrow view.

    Group identification is an extension of the regimentation inherent in language. Your invocation of a “broadly-Wittgensteinian discussion” is a deeply insightful recognition of this fact. We tend to view Wittgenstein in the light of a general societal dismissiveness of the import of language. “It’s only words.” But, as my very Wittgensteinian mother contantly reminded me, the values we attach to words have power over our minds. People seek attachments to groups because they are the “words” of culture. They have value. People seek to tap that value for their own purposes.

  3. Yes, the Observer has now taken down Burchill’s piece.
    Something seemed somehow to go wrong in my link to the LibCon piece: sorry about that. It’s here:
    http://liberalconspiracy.org/2013/01/13/libdem-mp-lynne-featherstone-says-julie-burchill-should-be-sacked/

  4. Lee; I am interested in and like quite a bit of what you say. I don’t agree at all with the first bit though; my argument is in part that rampant ‘individualism’ is the CAUSE of this problem. i say that groups and classes etc have real meaning, even though of course they have grey edges. I think in fact that the existence of language itself proves this…

  5. I’ll give it a try.

    There is a tremendous amount of discrimination and violence against transgender people.

    Transgender people need allies and the most likely ally is the woman’s movement, aka the feminist movement.

    To solidify this politically convenient alliance the myth that transgender people are women is created or creates itself: that is, there may be no mastermind behind the myth, merely the need to justify a bond.

    If transgender people are now women, their struggle is now the struggle of all women or something like that.

    We all live on myths. There is nothing wrong with them.

    However, myths cannot stand up to philosophical scrutiny.

    Philosophy is about critical reasoning, while myths are convenient fictions which can bind people together.

  6. Rupert,

    Burchill is a troll. She is a long burned out hack with nothing left to say – her tired old tricks just get more jaded with each predictable outing.

    And I know the trans position with Bindel and Greer – both have repeatedly said very nasty things about trans people. The same flavour as you’d expect from thoughtless homophobes in relation to gay people. Peculiar. Bindel and Greer have both dismissed trans people as freaks – if the trans activists are more aggressive, what can you say. Fighting talk, you know.

    I’ll give you the crisis in feminism in a nutshell. It’s the same crisis that turns nationalism ugly, and makes other ostensibly egalitarian projects centered around identity dysfunctional. It’s in the way many people internalise their identity. It’s not simply ideology, It goes much deeper – it’s experienced by the person as their existential substance – they feel it more than think it.

    In the creation of that identity, what they may have done is imagine a subject (a big Other) that they actually create but they derive their identity from. The subject that a white British man from Eltham may identify with is British and white. Then when brown, or even gay, British people want to identify themselves as British, this causes Eltham man a crisis – by accommodating the others he will have to change the subject he derives his sense of self from – he’s like someone in a science fiction film, watching parts of himself vanishing. His other option is not to accommodated – to preserve his self/”identity”/existence by expelling them – the Bindel/Greer option.

    Maybe Bindel and Greer are just past it – they want to return to a world where all vaginas were God made. Like the imagined past old racists want to return to.

  7. swallerstein,

    I’ve known a few transgender people. Everyone can spot the ones that look like a 55 year-old plumber in a frock, but some are so naturally like women, even other women can’t tell they’re trans. I knew one, and it took two years for her boyfriend to discover she was trans. (let’s not get into the details – but he was completely convinced she was a naturally born biologically correct woman.)

  8. JMRC:

    Maybe some of the transgender people could be considered women.

    Anyway, there are lots of people who don’t see themselves in binary gender identity terms.

    I certainly don’t get up each morning, saying to myself: “I’m a man”. What’s more, every other biological male with whom I’ve seriously conversed about the subject of gender identity, most probably not a representative
    sample of biological males to be sure, has indicated that he does not feel 100% male in the sense of popular culture and Hollywood.

    I go to the male bathroom, use male clothing and am relatively hetereosexual in my behavior, but basically because that makes life easier for me and gives me more time to worry about where I put my socks and about metaphysics. Lots of people are that way too.

    So if some transgender people want to be considered women, fine. On the other hand, it seems that if we want to carve the universe at the joints (I believe that that is Plato’s expression), most, although not all transgender people, cannot be considered women.

    However, as Rupert points out, carving the world at the joints might not work when it comes to gender.

    Basically, as I said above, calling transgender people “women” is a political act, not a philosophical one and it lacks the precision that philosophical discourse aims at.

  9. First, can I say this is a really, really interesting thoughtful post that raises some important and profound questions.

    Should also declare for clarity that I’m male, cis and don’t identify as feminist, so I am very much an observer here. But also a very interested observer. I don’t have a stake in this, but some people close to me do.

    I think the most interesting question here is why it matters. In all the words I’ve read on this, you’re the first person to remind us of an actual practical dilemma, which is whether trans women should be permitted into women-only spaces. I agree that this is not an easily-answered question. By “women” do we mean those born with a female body, those retaining female physiology or those identifying and presenting as women?

    You’ll recall, this was the topic of a furious debate last spring/summer when a radfem conference in London had to be cancelled after protests both from trans activists but (I think more significantly) from intersectional feminists and queer theorists. That was another angry debate, again marked with some ugly verbal attacks on both sides, but at least in that case there was a real, practical issue to be resolved.

    With the Moore/Burchill thing, what is telling, I think, is that the debate was purely hypothetical and verbal. What were they actually arguing about?

    I followed the saga fairly closely from the beginning, and it seemed to me the argument wasn’t about freedom to occupy women-only spaces. It wasn’t about whether trans women were being allowed to identify as women. It certainly wasn’t about whether they were allowed to identify as feminists.

    It seems to me the only real argument was about the assumed right of Moore and Burchill to use words and language that was considered offensive by trans people and their allies. Literally, that was the only thing up for debate.

    Moore believed/believes she has the right to choose whichever terms and words she likes to refer to transgendered people and to place them in a broader narrative as a stereotype or a punchline. She was told, initially politely and then less so, that her language was considered offensive and oppressive by trans people. Her response to that was to up the ante, to become MORE offensive and oppressive in her choice of words to make her point.

    Burchill picked it up from there and went nuclear, we might say.

    So it seems to me that while your whole essay is fascinating and important, it doesn’t really address the issues at stake.

    The impression I got was that Moore and Burchill, by virtue of being Cissexual women and feminists, considered that they have control over the narrative used to talk about trans people. Trans people basically told them to eff off.

    This is where the points about privilege and intersectionality become crucial to the debate. Irrespective of everything you right above, there is a separate question of who gets to control the language?

    My own belief is that yes, women have the right to discuss, debate and decide who is a woman. Women have the right to discuss and debate whether trans women should be included within that debate (and of course there is an obvious paradox there.)

    But I do think trans people have the right to assert what is acceptable or offensive language about their experience and existence.

    I think women are perfectly entitled to say, for example, “we don’t want to be called ladies, girls or bitches.”

    Similarly, trans people are perfectly entitled to say, for example “we don’t want to be called transsexuals, trannies or dicks in chicks clothes”

    Someone who ignores that and expects to get away with it without challenge or criticism is, I think, abusing their privilege and power.

    Blimey, is that the time? Sorry for rambling, and thanks for the brainfood.

  10. Rupert,

    “Rampant” individualism appears to me to be a political classification. What I am talking about is not individualism as a reaction to socialization, but simply what I can know and test without trusting to a form of external messaging (such as nervous input from senses). In my own thought this has developed into a kind of exploration of where interfaces exist between what is “me” and what is the “other”. My statement was meant to indicate no more than that no persons exist in which this separation of self and other is not the case- however socialized we may be. How we define ourselves in terms of the abstraction of a connection with groups beyond the self is another matter and that is the subject of your text.

  11. Thanks for this thoughtful piece Rupert. I was delighted to read it as it echoed in a much more sophisticated way the arguments I was trying to formulate when describing this whole episode to a friend today – and absolutely I think you hit the nail on the head with the individualism/consumerism idea. I’m not sure that I agree with you that “Women do not have an absolute once and for all right to define who they are. But they are do have more of a say than others as to who they are (and who they are not / who are not they), right now.” For me a crucial part of feminism was the idea that I might be able to reject definitions imposed on me as a woman as to what a woman is….but I know it is subtle and complex. Even though I was born one and remain one, I find it almost impossible to define what a ‘woman’ is, every attempt brings it’s own limitations and problems. Like you, I hope everyone can come to this with generosity and a willingness to think carefully and as clearly as we can, given the mists that continually surround us.

  12. A very interesting and thoughtful piece – such a contrast from most of the chatter and ranting about this. It’s also good to see AllyF on here – one of the real stars of the Guardian website.

    It’s actually one of Ally’s comments that I’d like to pick up on, though Rupert raised a similar issue. Ally, you say that ‘My own belief is that yes, women have the right to discuss, debate and decide who is a woman.’ It’s the last verb there that has me wondering. If your claim is that they have a right to decide who they will consider to be a woman, that’s one thing. If it’s that they can decide who should be treated as a women for all purposes, that’s something different. My own intuition would be that whether a trans person should be treated as being of their chosen gender will very much depend on the particular circumstances. I don’t think either the trans person in question, trans people more generally, or woman as a ‘group’ (if it even makes sense to think of them as such, which I doubt) have any automatic privilege in determining this across the board.

    To take an example: Rupert asks ‘do you really not see ANY good argument for women to exclude from women-only spaces people who have male genitalia, etc?’ My answer would be: it really depends on what the women-only space in question is supposed to be accomplishing. The women’s changing room at my gym serves a different function from the women’s branch of my local Labour Party. And the arguments for or against admitting a MtF trans person – either pre or post surgery – to either will depend to a large extent on what those functions are.

    Another determining factor may be whose rights and interests will be most affected in a particular instance. There have been legal cases concerning whether a trans person should serve their sentence in a male or female prison. Clearly, a MtF trans prisoner will face a pretty grim time in a male prison. In such circumstances, it seems likely that the interests of that person in being safe from harassment or worse probably takes priority over women’s possible rights to determine who is admitted into their ‘ranks.’ In other circumstances, though, the balance of rights and interests may be closer, or different. (Ally, you may remember a heated debate on CiF a few years back about trans people and women’s toilets!)

    Anyway, this has given me a lot to think about.

  13. Having now found and read Burchill’s angry response to the transgender community’s (which she clearly perceives as a unified group) actions against a friend my response is- She’s not wrong. She may not be right in the nature of her response, either, but she clearly is not wrong. Just because a person has taken actions that mean he has forsworn one sexual identity, discarding even the physical characteristics of that gender, does not mean he (or she) has a de facto right to acceptance from the other dominant natural gender.

    Were I female and a feminist, steeped in the knowledge that males have treated women as possessions for tens of thousands of years, the idea that men could now simply reject maleness and demand women accept them into the club- and women have no right to object- would strike me as a grotesquely brutal sort of joke. That seems to be exactly what Burchill is saying.

    Going back to the discussion of language, there are categories, which are conceptual artifices utilized in language to designate phenomena. These usually are attached to things recognizable from “real” life. We have categories for objects which are animate and for objects which are inanimate, for different kinds of life, and for varieties of celestial objects. Generally speaking, the more specialized the categories are and the smaller the population of people who use their names the more accurately their names will be invoked. Few astronomers, in discussions of type Ia supernovae, must reckon with emotional and political baggage attendant to the designation. This is not true of things like race and gender.

    Because, as I noted above, the concept of gender has become so entangled with emotional, cultural, and political baggage “woman” does not mean “female”. As a child in the third grade in the middle 1960s my teacher asked how many boys wanted to be girls and I raised my hand. I was the only one. I distinctly remember what I was thinking at the time. I liked the role my mother played- teacher, nurturer, artist, philosopher- far more than the one I saw my father playing- earnest performer of office drudgery. I also know that, at age 8, I could not put that into a coherent verbalization in the face of social pressure to conform to imposed norms. It is easy for me to see people associating the crush of this cultural pressure with outward appearance “forced” on them by biology, and choosing to rebel against biology to gain permission to reject norms.

    That some reptiles and mammals returned to the waters did not place them in the category of fish. Nor did doing so remove them from the category of reptile or mammal. Every one of a trillion cells in the body of a transgender “female” is male. What trans-women really seek by demanding recognition of membership in the club of womankind is that language and its conceptual foundations concerning gender become detached from unambiguous natural considerations and become solely subject to the will of the individual. Then they will have access, so they hope, to the roles and gender capital of the population whose acceptance they demand. This demand seems odd, even dishonest, to many common folk.

    Can you blame them?

  14. JMRC, you say: “I’ll give you the crisis in feminism in a nutshell. It’s the same crisis that turns nationalism ugly, and makes other ostensibly egalitarian projects centered around identity dysfunctional. It’s in the way many people internalise their identity. It’s not simply ideology, It goes much deeper – it’s experienced by the person as their existential substance – they feel it more than think it.” I am sympathetic to that thought – though I don’t think it so much a crisis of feminism, as of society (I think you might well not disagree with this).
    This is not far from the remarks I make toward the end of my piece, about what I call the ‘real culprit’.

  15. While I agree with some of what you’re saying, I find the general implications problematic. For instance, those arising from: “Women do not have an absolute once and for all right to define who they are. But they are do have more of a say than others as to who they are (and who they are not / who are not they), right now.” The clear implication here is that cis women and feminists are lined up on one side, with trans women on the other. Whereas, in fact, a lot of cis women and feminists are on the other side of this debate. (Indeed, a lot of trans women are feminists too.)

    I think “There IS a Feminist case against some of the discourse of the trans lobby” is valid, but that these cases mostly arise from what trans people sometimes say in their need to “prove” who they are, in the absence of a definitive aetiology. (This is where cis privilege arises; i.e. cis people’s sex is never called into question.) But for me the aetiology of trans is irrelevant (or about as relevant as the search for a “gay gene”). If you accept that trans exists as a phenomenon – and empirical evidence across all cultures and histories suggests that it does – then a definitive proof is not required. We can accept people as they declare themselves to be (mostly anyway; your BIID analogy highlights where exceptions might arise). And, contrary to your implications, very many feminists have no problem with this at all. Here’s a piece by just one of them:

    http://www.penny-red.com/post/40595682748/on-feminism-transphobia-and-free-speech

  16. I am in AWE at this post. WOW. So much right, spot on, head-nail hitting.

    I’d also like to say that if any female feminist where to argue some of the points you made, she would be ostracised and called a transphobe.

    So thank you, Rupert, for saying this for them.

  17. I disagree with the author on more than one issue, but I’ll limit myself to just one: he speaks as if being a gendered female isn’t a choice: why? Insofar as children have choices they choose to identify with one sex or the other: pink for girls, blue for boys. One could easily imagine a gendered female deciding to identify as a man. Or what about if you’ve chosen to identify as a female but because of your build you’re treated as a male instead?

    The truth is that what’s between your legs often comes last as a means of identifying your sex. Most encounters become gendered by the clothes worn and the pitch of the voice. You’re a woman when you’re being treated as such, not because of what’s between your legs. If that were true we’d have to check our interlocutors’ crotches before we engaged in attaching pronouns to them.

  18. I made a point on Rupert’s facebook page indicating that I felt this item was offbeam. I argue that we ought to be more aware of the scale of hate that is directed at the transgender community by both women and men. Feminists ought to recognise and resist this hate, identifying with and supporting any person who wants the right to self determination. We all ought to understand why those who have been subjected to years of harassment and physical violence, as transgender people are, will speak out in forthright terms. I understand this in just the same way that I understand why feminists will speak out in dynamic terms against rape and black people will speak out vehementy against police discrimination, etc. I argue that it falls to all progressive commentators to at least acknowledge that victims of violence and intimidation have a right to speak out and to do so in powerful terms.
    If Rupert or any other male wants to find out exactly what the scale of the problem is then try dressing (a seriously attempt) as a woman and go out and about the town. For me, we should all be speaking up for the transsexual movement in the same way as we ought to speak up for the gay and lesbian communities. The questions we should be asking of feminists/ourselves are whether we believe people ought to have the right to self determination, whether people who are subjected to violence ought to be supported or criticised and what are our attitudes towards women who do not feel female and decide to become men? Transgender can work both ways and we must not ignore female to male.
    The Burchill article, and the fallout from that, provides all with an opportunity to speak out against hate and we should do that in dynamic terms.

  19. Somebody on this thread should think seriously about what should be a fundamental question. Humans are social mammals. Some kinds of behaviors are hardwired into social mammals. Among these are some revulsion responses to peers who seem to be camouflaging vital information.

    Is it immoral to have this instinctive response?

  20. A very interesting article Rupert especially as you didn’t start it with the kind of hyperbole that has characterised this issue, such as – “I think it is the most vile, hate-filled, bigoted rant I have ever read in either Guardian or Observer.” (about Julie Burchill’s article by the way, not Tony Blair defending the second Iraq War)

    Even the most brief examination of the comments left by men on feminist web sites will demonstrate the relative mildness of the insults in Julie Burchill’s article:-

    “You always remember the first time someone calls you ugly on the internet. I imagine — although it hasn’t happened to me — you always remember the first time someone threatens to rape you, or kill you, or urinate on you.”

    “The sheer volume of sexist abuse thrown at female bloggers is the internet’s festering sore: if you talk to any woman who writes online, the chances are she will instantly be able to reel off a greatest hits of insults.”

    http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/helen-lewis-hasteley/2011/11/comments-rape-abuse-women

    You say:

    “That there is a genuine, complicated question within Feminism about whether trans-women can or should in every or all respects be regarded straightforwardly as women (They don’t have periods, they don’t experience menopause; they chose to be (to become) women rather than having been brought up gendered female; etc. etc). It is complicated.”

    And maybe it would be rather less complicated if you’d included in your “don’t haves”, – the joy and pain of pregnancy and the nourishing and nurturing of their and at times other people’s children.

  21. Rupert Read,

    I completely agree. It’s not a crisis specific to feminism – it’s something you see repeated again and again throughout society. That’s why I draw the parallel with nationalism.

    Where the problem occurs is the intuitive, non-thinking elements of self-definition. It’s something more gut wrenching when those elements are destabilised – whether it’s a brown person calling themselves British or a trans person calling themselves a woman.

    I’m not pessimistic. I think it’s a matter of a long enough conversation.

  22. swallerstein: Exactly: the horrid metaphor of “carving nature at its joints” doesn’t apply here.

  23. Thanks JMRC: Given your latest comment, I think we are basically in full agreement.

  24. Bitethehand: Thanks for that very useful comment. I entirely agree that one should factor in the incredible experience of pregnancy that I will certainly never have, and the maternal in general. I am working in some of my philosophical research at present on the importance of maternal thinking in moving us beyond a failed liberal paradigm of justice / political philosophy. For a taster, see my piece published here: http://www.greenhousethinktank.org/files/greenhouse/admin/How_ought_we_to_think_of_our_relationship_to_future_generations_________________________.doc

  25. jan: I made clear in part of the piece that being gendered female is largely something that society does to one. Children have little choice about the gender they are assigned to!

  26. Thanks Ally for your thoughtful points. I think you are right about people having a pretty strong right to a veto over what they are called. So I suppose I should probably stop altogether using the term “transsexual”, which it seems trans people are no longer wanting to use.

  27. Whilst we’re on that subject Rupert, I don’t know that “hermaphroditism” is a term welcomed by those in the ‘intersex’ community or that it is current amongst the professionals that deal with their needs or care (being inaccurate as well as unwelcome).

  28. Having just said that of course I’ve now been informed that many now prefer talking of ‘disorders of sex development’ (DSD) given that that is more accurate and less stigmatizing than ‘intersex’.

    Difficult waters to traverse even with the best of intentions … thanks for a thoughtful post.

  29. “Clearly, a MtF trans prisoner will face a pretty grim time in a male prison. In such circumstances, it seems likely that the interests of that person in being safe from harassment or worse probably takes priority over women’s possible rights to determine who is admitted into their ‘ranks.’”

    Why do you think one MtF’s safety override an entire prison’s worth of women’s safety?

    Do you think FtM prisoners should be put in men’s prison’s, or would the realistic threat of men to that person mean EVERYONE who doesn’t conform to an aggressive, visually-obvious masculinity should get to be intrude on women’s spaces?

    Heck, men aren’t safe in men’s prisons but no one suggests that housing scared, feminine-leaning men with women is a good idea because women are less preemptively violent against men than other men are.

  30. ‘Why do you think one MtF’s safety override an entire prison’s worth of women’s safety?’

    We pretty much know what MtF trans prisoners encounter in male prisons. Unless you are aware of similar evidence of female prisoners being imperilled by MtF trans inmates – or can think of any reason why they would be – then talk of overriding an entire prison’s worth of women’s safety sounds a bit odd.

    ‘Do you think FtM prisoners should be put in men’s prison’s’

    That depends on considerations of safety, order, and – rather importantly – what they would want. Clearly, forcing someone into an environment where the evidence suggests they would be at particular risk is problematic, if there is an obvious alternative that would allow them to serve their sentence without such risks.

    Your talk of ‘intruding on women’s spaces’ makes it sound as though they are asking to gatecrash a feminist reading group, rather than being detained – against their will – in a prison. Where, incidentally, people ‘intrude’ on your ‘space’ all the time.

  31. There is no presumption of privacy or personal space in a prison, at least not in Texas. It is, however, highly likely MtF prisoners would be placed, for their own protection, in administrative segregation where they would be one to a cell and would not have direct contact with other offenders.

  32. Indeed, Lee. Different jurisdictions have different solutions to this; here in new Zealand, post-operative trans prisoners are kept among the population of their ‘new’ gender, but those who haven’t been through gender re-assignment surgery will not. Is that the right place to draw the line? I’m not sure, but I am sure that there are factors to be considered – particularly safety and dignity – that matter more than whether they are ‘really’ female.

  33. Safety is a factor here in Texas. Dignity… not so much.

  34. Safety may be a factor, but it looks as though it’s not necessarily a major priority.

    These prisons sound pretty hellish for anyone, but it’s still worth noting that ‘transgender adult inmates are sexually abused 13 times more often than other inmates’.

  35. There is much evidence of female prisoners being in danger off the males around them from prison cops, prison guards, prison doctors, etc. MtF are biologically male, and a Google search will confirm some MtF have raped women.

    “people ‘intrude’ on your ‘space’ all the time.”

    Male authorities intrude in women’s prisons and not infrequently sexually abuse the women in them, but male authorities don’t live in the general population of the prison with the women 24-hours a day.

  36. ‘MtF are biologically male’

    What do you mean? They have a male chromosome pattern, certainly, but post-operative trans people will not possess the primary, or many secondary, sexual characteristics of their original gender.

    ‘Google search will confirm some MtF have raped women.’

    It will also confirm that they are far, far more likely to be the victims of rape and sexual abuse. Especially in prison.

    Men and women both are sexually abused within the prison system, but trans prisoners are at a far greater risk than most others. I know of no evidence, and no rational reason, to fear that a post-op trans prisoner in a female prison would pose a heightened risk of committing sexual assault. It’s not impossible, but neither is it impossible that other ‘cis’ women will commit sexual assault. Neither, as far as I can tell, is remotely as likely as rape/sexual assault of a trans prisoner in a male prison. Which is why that is the ‘evil’ I would be most eager to guard against.

  37. The problem isn’t MtF male chromosomes patterns, it’s MtF male behavior patterns.

    I don’t believe men who take on the outer appearance of femininity are more raped than women. I believe they are more raped in prison because men are 99% of rapists, but not everywhere else.

    Men are dangerous to women and I don’t care how mentally ill or at danger himself an individual man is, that fact wins out for me. The solution to male violence in prisons is to stop that violence, or separate MtF from other male prisoners, but it’s not sensible or fair to force any kind of male onto a population of very vulnerable, trapped women.

  38. I agree with a lot of what you say and think that this is probably one of the best responses I’ve seen. In response I’d raise the following:

    You dissect what and who defines ‘women’ but I think that a lot of the disagreement also centres on how ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ are defined (and people talking at odds because they’re not in agreement on definitions without realising). Many feminists would reject the idea of gender as an ‘identity’ seeing it rather as a hierarchy that needs to be abolished, which means that they don’t ‘commit themselves to the very essentialism they all argue they are against’.

    “Now, what I am saying might be countered by saying this: Surely the ideal of feminism would be that gender identity is irrelevant when it comes to the rights, opportunities and roles available to a person? In that case, denying trans women ‘full’ womanhood is illogical, as doing so uses gender as a basis for discrimination. This may not be an ideal world but the only way to move towards one, it might be argued, is to remain true to such ideals. In reply, I would say this: Yes, that certainly is the ideal of much feminism – but it remains an UNREALIZED ideal. Until it is realised, it is premature to criticise Feminists for retaining the category of ‘woman’.”

    I find this a bit confusing. I also disagree with the assertion that feminism is not being true to ideals in order to achieve a goal.

    I can’t think of anything that a feminist would say should limit “the rights, opportunities and roles available to a person”! But I’m not sure how this relates to defining ‘woman’? I would define ‘woman’ in relation to being a member of the sex class ‘female’ e.g. experiences based upon the perception of herself and by others that she is impregnatable rather than impregnator and how she is gendered as a result of this. This may exclude transwomen from the category of ‘woman’ but it also highlights the fact that they are subject to the same form of oppression (gendering) and that they often share the experience of how the oppression is lived i.e. those experiences that result from being perceived as part of the sex class ‘impregnatable’.

    Most feminists would say that the ideal of feminism is to end women’s oppression rather than ‘gender identity’ being irrelevant. Because we share the same mode of oppression it seems that transwomen and women born women have a lot to gain from working together to oppose it. But some would say that transwomen’s liberation is not feminism’s fight, as the latter needs to focus on women born women. Also transwomen must be given their own space to articulate their distinct experiences and develop their own discourse.

    Also in response to Ally Fogg that “I think the most interesting question here is why it matters. In all the words I’ve read on this, you’re the first person to remind us of an actual practical dilemma”. I think the whole reason the argument is so impassioned is because those involved are focused on the ‘practical dilemmas’. That reason the response has been so angry on both sides is because it brought up issues that were violently bubbling away online already, they’ve just been brought to the surface. The bottom line is that some feminists believe that accepting the prevailing trans politics makes real women’s lives less safe and some trans activists believe that the beliefs of some feminists makes their lives less safe.

  39. Fluffyhel,
    All of that would be wonderful if it weren’t so obvious that people are clearly fighting over rights to something perceived as though it were a territory (being a woman). Ideally, the two major domains of sexuality would not appear to have their separate and unequal pools of political capital over which people contended. Then it would be acceptable to be “none of the above” without fear of adverse discrimination.

    Entrepreneurial gender identification could be kind of interesting, come to think of it.

  40. Western feminists doing what western feminists do best; erase other women, co opt the identities of others and insist they’re the most rational out there.

    I don’t believe men who take on the outer appearance of femininity are more raped than women. I believe they are more raped in prison because men are 99% of rapists, but not everywhere else.

    You’re free to actually look this up. Every report on sexual violence that looks at how often gender queer and transwomen are assaulted has found them to be among the most at risk. Definitive numbers are difficult to pin down (what with trans mostly being a Western concept. The gender breakdown is a lot less binary elsewhere) but everything points to those “men” being more at an incredibly high risk of rape and murder

  41. ‘I don’t believe men who take on the outer appearance of femininity are more raped than women.’

    I didn’t actually mean that they were. I just meant that they were more likely to be raped than to be rapists.

  42. This is so bad, I don’t know even where to begin. Actually, I do: Please go learn something about the experiences of queer individuals before writing queer-phobic nonsense.

    In your words, the crux of the issue for you is, “Does a man choosing to seek to become a member of an oppressed group (women) have the right to demand full unequivocal membership of that group and then speak as part of it without any possibility of objection? It is complicated, but it is at the very least not at all self-evident that one ought to answer that question with a Yes.”

    Let’s count the number of ways you are wrong: (1) Anyone who is looking to undergo (and is approved to receive) male-to-female sex-reassignment surgery is quite obviously not a man simpliciter, and I think that there are some quite obviously relevant differences viz. these individuals’ relation to the patriarchy; (2) I hope it’s not news to you that there are two oppressed groups at stake here, that trans-individuals face oppression too; (3) I didn’t realise that the concept of woman denoted a club with certain membership requirements–I get solidarity in the face of oppression, but this isn’t it; (4) So, I guess, on your view, any cis-woman can speak as part of women everywhere without ‘the possibility of objection’… OK then.

    I wondered out loud the other day why more philosophers don’t engage in queer theory–now I know why: We’re probably just really bad at it. Or, at least you are.

    Also, nice to know that you have a trans-friend. Maybe they and my black friend can get together sometime?

  43. Good thing this wise philosopher bro is around to tell us what it means to be a woman!

    FYI, Rupert, if you,’re a cisman and feel comfortable speaking to these issues in a public forum, then you aren’t as much of a radical feminist as you think you are. Or is it just the transphobia of the second wave that appeals to you…?

  44. Deleting critical comments is TPM policy?

  45. Erm, I’ve no idea what you are talking about, Kevin. As far as I am aware, the ONLY comment that has been deleted, on this thread, is a spam ‘comment’ advertising the services of a firm of plumbers.

  46. Kevin, if you were referring to my comment, it says that it’s now awaiting moderation, if that helps.

  47. JT; thanks for your (unpleasant) comment.
    Briefly, in response:
    1) I never said that those wanting sex-reassignment surgery etc. were men SIMPLICITER. The question is this: Do you deny that they are in any way men? Do you think it is 100% inappropriate to say that someone apparently gendered and sexed male could be referred to as a man?
    2) No, it’s not news to me. And if you have actually read my post – if you have read for instance my complete rejection of transphobia, and my absolutely explicit, repeated recognition of the dreadful oppression that trans people face, and my rejection of Burchill’s profoundly unpleasant language – then you will of course already be aware of this. (So why did you write the silly thing you wrote?)
    3) Let me then ask you once more how you deal with the questions I raise in my piece: Are you seriously saying that it is enough to BE a woman to feel as if you are one?
    4) That is of course an utterly ludicrous inference from what I wrote. I explicitly state in my piece my opposition to gender essentialism, and my recognition of intersectionality, etc.

    So, you haven’t laid a glove on my arguments.

  48. E.S.: thanks for your silly and (literally) ad hominem remarks. You make my points for me.

    Let me relate to you an interesting ‘anecdote’. I have had virtually no criticism whatsoever for what I have written here, from women. I have had a tiny bit of criticism from trans people – and some criticism, such as it is, has come from men.
    Meanwhile, I have had lots and lots of supportive emails, tweets, words etc. from women, Feminists. (Quite a lot in private, because they are afraid to speak up.)
    Do you think that all of these people are transphobic?
    These women don’t seem to regard my gender as exclusive of the possibility that my words and thinking could be of use in this debate.
    So WHY DO YOU?
    Presumably, because, ironically enough, YOU are some kind of extreme essentialist…
    Let’s look at the words you used: “Rupert, if you,’re a cisman and feel comfortable speaking to these issues in a public forum, then you aren’t as much of a radical feminist as you think you are.” So, essentially (and I use that word advisedly!) what you are saying to me is this: ‘Shut up. You are a man: you have NO right to contribute to these debates.’ I find that profoundly sad, and, frankly, pathetic. A logical, moral and political failure on your part.
    And once again, I point out to you: that there are many Feminist women who disagree completely with you.

  49. http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=4010

    This is an excellent post on the subject of the epistemic privilege of members of oppressed groups.

    I think that it is worth rereading in the context of this discussion.

  50. Just for full disclosure, both ES and JTs posts had been removed at the time of my comment. I presume they went into moderation until a response was written.

  51. Kevin

    Talking Philosophy has a strong requirement that people are civil. This includes the related requirement that people who comment here proceed on the basis of a strict principle of charity.

    If comments violate that policy, then yes, I will delete them.

    Moreover, moderation policies are not open for discussion. The internet is a big place. If you don’t like how this blog is run, then go elsewhere.

    Please don’t engage in any further meta-discussion. Thanks.

  52. Kevin. It turns out that Jeremy (the overall editor of TP) moderated the comments, because of their unpleasantness. JT for example dumbly accused me of ‘queer phobic nonsense’ when it is explicit in the piece that I am among other things drawing on the Queer Theory point that switching sex in itself does nothing at all to resist sexual binarism. This point is connected with – is of the same general order as – why Foucault thought it regrettable that some gay activists were insisting that sexual preference is a wholly biological matter.
    JT ignorantly says that I should “go learn something about the experience of queer individuals” – ignorantly, because the facts of the matter are that I already have.
    I decided as author, once I became clear about what was going on, this afternoon, that it was nevertheless better to allow the comments to appear. So that they could be responded to, and their inefficacy exposed to public view.
    So: it is false to suggest that they were held back until I was ready to respond to them. Rather, I allowed them to go through once I was aware of them, and then composed the responses you see above.
    ..OK. As Jeremy says: enough meta.

  53. I think most will agree that however you divide up society male, female, rich, poor, trans gender, non-transgender, black, white, there is always in such groups some pretty nasty horrible people. This seems to be the case here. Threats and insults flying back and forth from one group to the other it really is a sickening state of affairs. One hopes that such people would just go away and some how mutually silence each other. Human beings can be monsters at times. Any person I meet I take on face value and any judgements I might make in respect of them is so far as I know and hope not initially influenced by their colour, race, creed, or financial worth. Coming to the matter of transgenic male to female were I on friendly easy terms with such a person comfortable in their company, and they in mine, I might find myself enquiring of them what exactly it is they think makes them Female. Do they have problems with lack of internal organs, lack of menstrual flow, chromosomal antagonism, a feeling of artificiality? At a guess I would expect a negative to all those questions I have seen programmes on TV concerning this problem with sexuality and it seems that there is an overwhelming feeling in the person that they are essentially one of the opposite sex. In fact before any surgery, they were most happy living acting dressing and behaving as a member of the opposite sex. None of this was an act it felt the most natural thing to do. So is sex and gender all in the mind?

  54. Hello there

    Thank you for a series of insightful and provocative comments. I have been following this across various online media, and have contributed to the debate. Before making a reply, could I ask you to email me the text ( I find reading the Talking Philosophy format difficult to read: not sure whether it’ diabetes or tiredness).
    I want to do your article more justice than a late-night persusal wojld permit

    best wishes

    Ron Moule

  55. please send copy by emaikl as your format is difficult to read. Have tried to post but merely elicit a warning about my posting speed.

    Ron Moule

  56. I’m glad my comment was unpleasant for you. It’s always uncomfortable when one’s contribution to the oppression of others, however accidental, is pointed out, and I think this is especially so when one takes oneself to be generally against oppression. Though your defensiveness is somewhat disappointing, since I’m sure that you know as well as I do the harms that can be inflicted when one uses one’s privilege to silence and marginalize. The uncharitable view says that you don’t, since vaguely gesturing at the oppression that queer individuals face, and off-handily mentioning an discussion you had with a ‘transsexual acquaintance’ are not only generally uninformative and irrelevant, these moves are also typically attempts to disguise one’s privileged attempts to silence the voices of the oppressed by making it appear that you’re only relaying the views of the oppressed and are otherwise sympathetic to their plight. Though we wouldn’t want to be uncharitable, now, would we? And I guess I should apologise for being snarky. My general policy for dealing with clearly harmful and prejudiced views is probably not the best policy, all things considered.

    I’ll take your replies in turn:
    (1) I’m not sure how one can be gendered male, since ‘male’ refers, to put it crudely, to a sexual category, however you want to define sex (and distinguish it from gender). You are male if you have male bits and female if you have female bits. ‘Man’ and ‘masculine’ (like ‘woman’ and ‘feminine’) refer sometimes to the broader cultural conception of one gender, and sometimes to identities (that can sometimes present a much needed challenge to oppressive gender conceptions). This does not seem to me to be very controversial. The key distinction that you’ve run roughshod over is this: Identity involves, inter alia, both self-identification and the recognition of one’s self-identity. In the case of cis-men, the self-identification is recognised by others for the reason that it is congruent with the broader cultural conceptions of the masculine gender, which is importantly associated with being male. However, the queer individuals in question are recognised as men without regard for their self-identification. Moreover, in addition to the alienation caused by the denial of their self-identification, such individuals face ridicule, insult, and degradation because they dared to identify with a gender that is not associated with their sex. Despite being male and being regarded as men, they too are oppressed by the patriarchy because they do not identify as men, even though they are male and males should be men.

    I hope it’s obvious from the above why the question you pose perpetuates the oppression of the queer community. They are not men simply because of the fact that they are male; and the only sense that they are men is the one in which the patriarchy imposes upon them the label ‘men’. Rhetorically wondering whether it is not appropriate to say that they are ‘men’ without regard for their self-identification is just to claim that it is appropriate to impose gender categories on people, albeit in a clever guise. So my response to your despicable and trans-phobic question is: It is 100% inappropriate to say that someone is of a certain gender in spite of (and in full knowledge of) their genuine self-identification otherwise.

    (2) Kevin pretty much nailed it on the head on this one. You gesture dramatically at knowledge of the oppression that the queer community faces, and sympathy for trans-individuals, but your claims betray your ignorance. I urge you to check yourself before you wreck yourself.

    (3) This is exactly the kind of thing I was referring to in (2). Not only does it fail to address the salient issues, it trivialises queerness by equating it with mere desires—as if it is just like one’s desire for ice cream. I’ll keep it short since my response here will be a variation of (1): It should be enough for us to recognise an individual as a woman, if we have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the individual’s claim to identify as a woman. I should add that there are few cases, if any, where we can be justified in doubting such claims, given our epistemic disadvantage.

    (4) I guess that merely stating that one is opposed to a certain position is now enough to ward off the possibility that one’s account implies that position. Thanks for the tip; this’ll certainly make writing papers much easier. Also, I wasn’t accusing you of essentialism. I was pointing out that, as stated, your position was that “unequivocal membership in an oppressed group” grants the right to “speak as part of it without any possibility of objection”, which obviously implies that a cis-woman has the right to speak as part of all women _without any possibility of objection_ since she has unequivocal membership in an oppressed group, i.e. women. Your view is either incoherent or poorly stated.

    * * *

    Your argument basically boils down to this: They want to be recognised as women, but “They don’t have periods, they don’t experience menopause,” and they are “people who have male genitalia”; Since they don’t have periods or experience menopause, and some of them even have male genitalia (egad!), they are not-women; The women reserve the right to tell the not-women that they are not women. And you wonder why some trans-individuals feel as if they can never fully transition, be recognised as a woman or man without sexual reassignment surgery. Perhaps it is you, not the trans-activist, who has a dilemma with essentialism.

    You’re right that the theoretical issues surrounding identity and gender are complex and far from settled. However, there are some non-controversial conclusions. And even if the theoretical issues are far from determinate, the practical answer surely cannot be to reproduce the ways in which trans-individuals have been oppressed. They are oppressed because they openly challenge the norm of associating males with masculinity and females with femininity, and their oppression involves, inter alia, the denial of their identities, the imposition of the normative gender associations, and the harassment they receive for not living up to or exhibiting the imposed gender norms. This post may not contribute to the often violent harassment that trans-individuals receive, but it certainly does deny their self-identities for on the basis of the norm of associating female with woman. And that is unacceptable, vile, and inexcusable. This is especially so coming from someone who supposedly knows better.

  57. ‘Moreover, moderation policies are not open for discussion. The internet is a big place. If you don’t like how this blog is run, then go elsewhere.’

    Good grief. That sort of comment really inclines me to to just that, Jeremy.

  58. JT – thanks for your long irrelevant incomprehending and plain-nasty diatribe.
    It deserves a short response:
    You make my points for me. You accuse me of being vile – the only thing that is vile is your silly arrogance and your utter lack of charity (For: You make some intelligent points in the course of your diatribe. But _those_ points were already present in my piece).
    Goodbye.

  59. “(literally) ad hominem remarks”

    ‘Hominem’ is gender-neutral so ‘literally’ seems out of place. :razz:

  60. Thanks Jim. What I was thinking was: “hominem” is and isn’t gender-neutral. Some Feminists would point out that it tends to encourage one to assume that the standard human is a man: because it often gets translated as “against the man”. So, ironically, an argument that is directed against one because one is a man risks in _this_ sense being ad hominem.

  61. @ColinGavahan said “That sort of comment really inclines me to to just that, Jeremy.”

    Most of the internet is a hostile say-what-you-like jungle; this is a small haven of relative courtesy and calm. If you don’t appreciate it, there really is a big wide web out there just waiting for you. Offence is not offered or taken. Fare well.

    [I speak for myself; I don't pretend to speak for the community who spend time here. But I hope none of them are offended by what I have said.]

  62. Thanks Rupert,

    Yes, I realised you had the traditional translation in mind and, of course, I didn’t think you’d actually misunderstood what that’s supposed to mean.

    I wonder if we need a new coinage to properly correlate to ‘ad feminam’ ?

    -

    Steve, there’s no offence taken here and I don’t imagine you’ve offended anybody else either.

  63. I didn’t get very far into this, because I don’t want to be drawn into internet spats, because who cares. I want to make two remarks:

    1. As a group, climatologists are experts about what counts as climate science. In a similar sense, as a group, women are experts about what counts as being a woman. By contrast, cis-males are not experts about what it is to be a woman. So whatever philosophical confusions we might have about the nature of what it is to be a woman, these objections cannot rise up to the level of principled objections or affirmations without straining credulity.

    Is it enough, in order to BE a woman, to psychically identify as one? To this second question, we must surely answer: no.

    2. From what I understand, one person can count as being part of a certain category just in case they meet a non-trivial number of the somatic, psychological, and/or social requirements for being part of that group (as identified by experts). So if a person thinks of themselves as a woman, but displays no feminine characteristics, then I cannot be reasonably expected to either think of or treat that person as a woman.

    But the thing is, I expect the experts to point out that none of the cases you’re referring to have to do with mere “psychic identification” alone — they also have to do with social presentation. So by focusing exclusively on ‘psychic identification’, you’re attacking a straw-person. From what I understand, gender means something more than that.

  64. BLS: I dont think that yr point 2 is fair to what I wrote. I explicitly acknowledged the vital social aspect of gender and of self-presentation. The point is that even when one combines self-presentation with psychical identification, one still cant presume on acceptation by members of a group with a different bodily present and a different social past.
    Anyway, thanks for yr thoughtful remarks. They are much much more pleasant and interesting to reply to than Kevin’s deliberately incomprehending bilge, which I cant be bothered to address here.

  65. Jim. Thanx. I think I agree.

  66. Tone argument much, Rupert? Besides crying “ad hom”, is that all you plan on doing here?

    Sorry we’ve been such unpleasant interlocutors. Frankly, I find it unpleasant when men speak from authority about how bodies like mine are gendered and sexed.

    Calling you out on your position within the patriarchy is not ad hominem, by the way, because your remarks have a real social and political context. At the very least, you are normalizing the presence of men at the front and centre of these debates.

    Just for the sake of demonstration, it would be ad hominem for me to say that I’m not at all surprised you’ve run for public office, or for me to point out that you’re the same person who presumed to write a previous article for this blog called “What Lesbians Don’t Understand About Heterosexual Men”. Calling you out on your gender identity in a piece about my body? Not ad hominem.

  67. Yes, E.S., those would be- by definition- ad hominem. If you really want to deal effectively with Rupert’s reasoning you will understand that the response is to address the reasoning itself, and leave all the reasons your biases conflict with what you perceive as his biases on the table.

    Because I still can’t help but see a territorial conflict here, and a bunch of people, for whatever reasons, contesting over access to the assets of that territory, I have to ask if there is as much vitriol over transgender maleness. I don’t see it if there is.

  68. This whole problem of who is a woman goes nowhere.

    Let’s say that it is decided that only women can decide who is a woman.

    But first we have to decide who is a woman so that they (women) can decide who is a woman.

    We can say that biologically sexed woman can decide who else is a woman, but after all, Burchill is a biologically sexed woman and if we hold a vote among biologically sexed women, they may well vote for Burchill’s position.

    Now we can say that no true woman holds Burchill’s position, but isn’t that the fallacy of no true Scotsman (or Scotsperson)?

    So instead of going around in circles, it might be better to decide to work to end discrimination and violence against transgender people and against everyone else, be they women or not.

  69. Thanks Lee. Exactly

    If you had bothered to read my ‘lesbians’ piece, ES, and my coments below it, you would have found that the title is simply a humorous inversion of the title of the Bindel piece I was replying to. My claim in the piece is that, phenomenonologically, hetero male lust for lesbians is a disguised ENVY OF lesbians. There is no epistemological privilege whatsoever claimed in the piece – the claim was intended as defeasible.
    So YOUR claim, ES, fails again.

  70. Is there something deeply humorous in men who want to be women accusing men who may or may not want to be women of being “patriarchal” to suggest people who are unambiguously women ought to decide what it is to be a woman?

  71. Swallerstein: that is the supposed paradox of democracy (more specifically, of enfranchisement. It fails. For one starts, conservatively, with a group whose defn is simply taken for granted. And proceeds from there.
    If that weren’t so, democracy would be in principle impossible. But it exists (to some extent at least) . By modus tollens, your argument fails.

  72. Lee: Well, perhaps so, in that your remark certainly made me smile! ;-)

    Though care is needed here, as I have stressed throughout: It always risks being prejudicial and unfair to would-be transsexuals to describe them simply as ‘men who want to be women’. Often, a fairer description would be, for example, something like ‘people who have the anatomy of men and have been gendered male but who self-identify as women’, or something like that.

    The real connection between my ‘lesbians’ piece and my post-Burchill piece above is this: Subversively, I implicitly suggest that there is a similarity between men who get off on lesbianism and trans-women. It is this: In both cases, there is a desire to BE a woman. The difference is this: Such ‘straight’ men are in more or less complete denial about this desire. Whereas trans-women, typically, are utterly serious and open and in good faith about this desire.

  73. [p.s. I used the term 'transsexual' in the previous comment, despite my earlier concession to Jim H, because I have been discovering these last few days that there is in fact a significant constituency of trans-women who don't object to the term at all. And this is probably a good thing, since the term does seem prima facie accurate, in that 'trans-gender' more naturally refers to passing etc that is short of full sex reassignment surgery etc.]

  74. I admit to prejudicial wording from a human perspective. The question is intended to imply the possibility of an alien, possibly sexless, independent observer looking in on the conversation.

  75. Hi Rupert, sorry if I misunderstood what you meant by ‘psychic’ in that context. The meaning, on face value, appears to refer to psychological stuff, not necessarily social stuff.

    Still, that only makes exacerbates my underlying worry.

    I was motivated to make point 2 for the following reason. I am having some trouble with understanding how it is that anyone who accepts that gender is about psychological and presentational markers, is thereby forced to accept the absurd conclusion that physical disability is about those markers. For physical disability explicitly refers to somatic features, like (say) a missing limb, so the somatic features seem to be a genuine requirement. In contrast, with words like ‘gender’, experts agree that there is no necessary connection to physical features (e.g., genitals, chromosomes, etc.). The categories of gender and physical disability are apples and oranges in this respect.

  76. But BLS, one can’t have it both ways. If being transgender is all about social presentation, then why bother with hormonal ingestion and sex-reassignment surgery?
    It seems that some trans activists are in reality in favour of a kind of biological determinism; they simply believe that biology can be altered ‘at will’ to fit felt psychical identity. Fine – but then don’t assume that you have to be welcomed with open arms by another oppressed group (women) many of whom (Feminists) are not in favour of any kind of biological determinism.

  77. Rupert:

    It may be that democracy starts with a definition that is taken for granted or with a Constitution which defines basic terms.

    However, in this case, the problem is precisely that there is no definition of who is a woman which all parties take for granted.

    Democracies work, insofar as they work, because there is a certain consensus about basic definitions.

    Here we obviously do not have a consensus and it does not seem that we are likely to get one in the near future.

  78. From what I understand, some trans-women would like to be sexually female in addition to being gendered women, and so they go through the reassignment process. Others are satisfied with just being respected as gendered women. This makes sense to me, so I don’t understand the source of your complaint.

    In contrast, I suppose there might be some kind of discussion over what counts as being part of one *sex* or another. And as you suggest, that discussion may involve attributions of biological determinism to one of the parties.

    There are at least two theses on the biological determination of sex. (1) That the sex of a person is based upon unalterable micro features (like chromosomes). (2) That the sex of a person is based upon macro features (like hormones and genitalia). To my mind, it seems to me that one ought not strive for an essentialist analysis of sex at the level of small-scale biology. e.g., it is clearly not the case that sex is determined entirely in terms of the 23rd pair of chromosomes, since that would mean that patients with Down’s Syndrome do not have sexes; and that is an absurd conclusion. And I do not know what other micro-features you might tie sex to that would be free from counterexamples of that sort. Hence, from what I can tell, when people seem to be getting at, when they talk about sex, are somatic features like hormones and genitalia.

    Proposition (2) can then be broken down into two camps:
    (2′) Sex is determined by your present somatic macro-features. (Presumably, argued by trans-advocates.)
    (2”) Sex is determined by the somatic macro-features that you had at birth. (Presumably, advocated by their detractors.)

    From what I understand, you would like to make a case on behalf of those who endorse (2”). (And I won’t quarrel with your decision to quarrel with others about that, because I don’t care at the moment, and because it is far afield from the comments you made in the OP which I thought were implausible.) But even so, notice, that both (2′) and (2”) involve a kind of biological determinism, in some weak sense. And if that’s so, then this would seem like an episode where the 19th century pot called the kettle black!

  79. “But BLS, one can’t have it both ways. If being transgender is all about social presentation, then why bother with hormonal ingestion and sex-reassignment surgery?”

    Why not? What’s wrong with regarding biological transitions as a means to certain social presentation goals? In fact, it seems pretty self-evident that hormone therapy is something which greatly facilitates social presentation . This isn’t biological determinism, and it’s eminently plausible that social practices and criteria are influenced by presumed and perceived biological features.

    Passing isn’t easy, and it may require bodily changes. So what? That doesn’t imply biological determinism.

    Or you know, reasons that for some, bodily dysphoria is a painful experience, and bringing about a biological transition actually eases that pain — or merely that they prefer to have a certain set of biological features. You know, things you could find out by reading accounts from trans activists and individuals; instead of pure puzzlement as part of an argument between a bunch of white male philosophers.

    Similarly, the thesis you describe when discussing the views of “some trans activists” does not amount to biological determinism (the belief that biological changes can be brought about to fit psychical identity); and even on stronger readings, doesn’t really amount to it, given the pervasive intersection of social reality and bodies.

  80. Hi again Kevin… You make some persuasive points here! I don’t disagree with them as much as you think. Yep; physical conduces to social.
    But does not completely REDUCE to it. Note carefully what I wrote: That some trans activists are “in favour of a kind of biological determinism; they simply believe that biology can be altered ‘at will’ to fit felt psychical identity”. A KIND of biological determinism. What I mean by that is: they believe that one’s biology will to some extent determine one’s destiny; and they use modern technology to make that biology malleable.
    The point one can’t escape from here is that sex-reassignment surgery etc. is not _just_ about gender; it is also about sex. This is an obvious point. It’s one reason why the term ‘transsexual’ seems at least as appropriate as ‘transgender’.

  81. BLS; I don’t have a complaint about the exact point you make at the start of your latest comment. Recall that I used the very point you reference, in my piece, to cause trouble for the idea, sometimes put forward by some trans activists (The point has been made against me in earlier discussions I have had on this), that those wanting to transition have ‘no choice’.
    Btw, I would also if needs be make a broadly Existentialist argument against this ‘no choice’ claim…

  82. swallerstein: I think you are pressing the point beyond plausibility in what you say here. The key – broadly Wittgensteinian – points, made in my piece, are these:
    1) A lack of exact hard edges to a concept does not undermine the concept. (This also causes some trouble for the body of BLS’s latest comment.)
    2) When an oppressed group self-defines, that new status quo is prima facie secure against against attacks on that definition, even if made by other oppressed groups. (‘Prima facie’, because their self-definition is of course revisable, negotiable, even defeasible; but it IS a starting-point.)

  83. Rupert, so then you’ve had your rhetorical question (“Why bother?”) answered. For now you must agree that you can have it both ways, in the relevant sense: since social presentation is a necessary condition for gender, and sex assignment potentially helps with presentation, then that is a reason to pursue sex reassignment if you want to change genders. It is not an overriding reason which applies to all cases, but it is a reason, and maybe even a reason that is necessary in order to handle the contingencies of some cases. That’s why they bother.

    Also, if you now accept that gender is only necessarily about presentation and psychology, then you surely must agree that any comparison with physical disability is comparing apples and oranges, because physical disability is necessarily about somatic features. So your parenthetical comments in the OP are off base.

  84. BLS Nelson,

    Your two remarks are wrong headed – but the wrong headedness illustrates where the confusion and conflict is.

    “1. As a group, climatologists are experts about what counts as climate science. In a similar sense, as a group, women are experts about what counts as being a woman.”

    First, the climatologists. I believe there is a specific reason you selected climatologists over other scientific disciplines – or why not academics working in philosophy. Peculiar to climate science, through constant campaigning and relentless repetition, the public have come to believe scientific facts are decide by consensus – consensus science – the scientific consensus. The vast majority of scientists are well aware that consensus science is very dodgy territory. Before any major scientific breakthrough and even for years after, the consensus is wrong. The consensus was against Einstein and Darwin for years – until they were finally accepted. My point is not that climate theories are right or wrong, it’s that the consensus is not the authority that validates them.

    There isn’t a consensus among philosophers. Can philosophy be decided by consensus. If there was something considered to be the philosophical consensus (a handful of academics from the most prestigious universities all in agreement) – would the declaration of authority be a little fishy.

    Is an absolute authority possible?

    And now to the women. Can women as a group be the experts as what counts about being a woman?

    You are not a woman, and I believe you have made this statement on the basis of how you perceive women. Because we can turn the whole statement on its’ head and bring it all back home. As a group, are men experts about what counts as being a man?

    How do you constitute this group? Let’s just say we get a group of boorish homophobic men together and let them discuss the subject. They may come to an easy consensus; that men should walk a certain way, should talk a certain way, should like having sex with women, and be revolted by the idea of homosexual sex – they should be blokes. These people always find it very easy to define what a “real” man is. But of course, these consensus are always complete illusions. Throw some homosexuals, and other men into this group, and maybe the agreement will collapse down as far as being only able to agree that men generally have a penis and there is no other shared universal experience.

    You could get a group of women together, and ask each to define what it is to be a woman. As long as no one says something disagreeable to the group, the group may have the illusion that each subject is talking about the same universal subject (that there is an absolute universal experience). If they’re all agreeable women, with each telling of a definition, the illusion of a universal subject becomes more and more concrete. But each woman could be holding a radically different universal subject in their minds.

    As the subjective experience cannot be absolutely shared, the absolute universal subject becomes impossible.

    Is “consensus” feminism possible?

    “By contrast, cis-males are not experts about what it is to be a woman. So whatever philosophical confusions we might have about the nature of what it is to be a woman, these objections cannot rise up to the level of principled objections or affirmations without straining credulity.”

    Everyone at some point in their life has heard a woman use the phrase or a formulation of “men have no idea what it is to be a woman”. And then a woman who defines herself as a feminist, will adamantly state that men have no possibility of ever understanding either women or the experience of women. And then she will go on with authority to define men, their actions, and their minds – as if she has a magical insight, that of course is impossible for men to have in reverse. Of course all feminists do not have this form of idiocy but some do. Even when radical feminists are defining men in deeply unfavourable terms I am in complete agreement, right up to one crucial point – that the subject they are defining is not an absolute. Many men are horrendously sexist, misogynistic and indefensible in their attitudes and treatment of women. But many men are not. They have witnessed the oppressive treatment of women – and they are in agreement with the feminists (up to the point I have already stated) – (but there is no universal feminist either to either agree or disagree with)

    It’s a warped idea that the cismale has no insight and should be excluded for defining women, just as it would be absurd to exclude a cisfemale feminists from any discussion or definition of men.

    Simply for cultural reasons men never direct the term “you have no idea what it’s like to be a man” at women. The statement just sounds so risible and absurd from a man’s mouth. Due to a kind of cultural acceptance of how gender is defined, the equivalent statement from a woman is not automatically deemed absurd.

    There are women who would like to completely exclude men from the discussion of feminism – or believe that the statement of any woman in relation to feminism has an absolute primacy to the statement of any man. Since feminism, and women, are largely defined in terms of men the exclusion is an absurdity.

    “2. From what I understand, one person can count as being part of a certain category just in case they meet a non-trivial number of the somatic, psychological, and/or social requirements for being part of that group (as identified by experts).”

    Again, once the “experts” return with their consensus we’re all to accept the result. If the experts are salaried up social scientists – we must accept their scientific consensus.

    “So if a person thinks of themselves as a woman, but displays no feminine characteristics, then I cannot be reasonably expected to either think of or treat that person as a woman.”

    In terms of how you intended to treat or think of the person, what were your intentions? If it’s a woman had you intended to speak affectionately but condescendingly towards her – a man, you would be more blokey with, on the same level.

    There is a cultural illusion of what is femininity – especially held by men (women can also unconsciously internalise this). And that when it is shattered for them, the woman who shatters it seen as alien to femininity – unfeminine. Beyonce Knowles said in a recent interview that men largely define femininity – the reality is the femininity many men experience is an act, a performance for their benefit. And when women drop this performance it can be a shock – they seem masculine (or even monstrous).

  85. JM, I can see part of what motivates your points, and I can see why you would make them. But they miss the mark. (I’m happy to talk about these things, but please try to shorten your comments a bit, or else I’ll get completely sucked in and stop doing work.)

    1. I do not say that consensus makes authority, full stop. In fact, I did not use the word “consensus” anywhere on this page. SWallerstein did, and then you did. I said nothing of that sort.

    What I did say is that non-experts should defer to those who self-identify as experts and hold some credible claim to the title. Hence, the upshot was: “cis-males are not experts about what it is to be a woman”.

    Of course, this is a defeasible procedure. Sometimes experts disagree, and the naif might defer to false consensus. So it might be the case that history will show that one bloc amongst the experts ought to have been deferred to instead of to the common group. But as a naif I don’t know anything about how any of that is going to unfold, so all the same, I must provisionally defer to the group as a whole.

    2. Men are indeed experts about what it is to be men. Each and every man has the authority to try to contribute to the ongoing performance of what it is to be a man. So just as it is entirely pretentious for a naif to lecture a climatologist about climate science, and just as it is silly for a self-identified men pretend that they are in any position to define what it is to be a woman, it is equally silly for a self-identified woman to pretend they are in a position to define what it is to be a man. They’re not invested in the identity. It’s not up to them. In a relevant sense, they are not experts.

    It seems like you’re not contesting this point. Instead, it seems like you’re contesting the idea that one group of experts (e.g., the ‘boorish man group’) gets to define for themselves what it is to be a man. And yes they do — so long as they pay attention to and consider what other men are doing and what they are like. And that would require paying attention to and being considerate of all kinds of men. If they aren’t trying to make sense of the male gender, trying to fit their beliefs about things with the way things appear, then in a trivial sense they have no credible claim to expertise.

    3. Consider your proposal, that “It’s a warped idea that the cismale has no insight and should be excluded for defining women”. I agree that it is warped for any human being to be accused of being entirely unable to understand another human being on some weirdo apriori grounds. To make any assertion of that kind is essentially to put your cards on the table, and say: “There is no way we can ever trust each other.” That trivialization of empathy is what makes it risible in most contexts. When it is not risible, it is because it is true: that non-trivial subset of men who are unreasonable assholes really won’t ever have any empathetic insight, and so long as they are the vanguard of our gender, there really won’t be much room for mutual trust anywhere down the line. So it goes. But this is known aposteriori, it doesn’t have to be this way.

    I do not agree, however, that this has any connection whatsoever to the issue of whether or not people are in a place to define what counts as what. Anyone can have an opinion about anything; non-experts can have opinions about things beyond their expertise. So I can empathize to my heart’s content. But empathy does not give me authority to define anybody besides myself. If you believe in human dignity, then you need to recognize that people have a proprietary claim over how they themselves are defined. Although your proposal seems to be coming from a genuine place, it seems that it whitewashes away that dignity which I think is important to social life.

    It is precisely that respect for dignity which causes me to observe how silly and unnecessary it is for men to define women. That quote from Knowles strikes me as quite insightful. If women are defined by men, the results are absurd. So maybe we should take a principled stand on behalf of human dignity and let people define themselves.

  86. Let people define themselves?

    Everybody?

    The Aryan Brotherhood?

    Al Qaeda?

    What if a group is set up to exclude, discriminate against and oppress other human beings and they decide to call themselves “the Noble Association for Human Betterment, Economic Growth and Cultural Advancement”?

    Would you accept their self-definition or do we only accept the self-definition of groups which we approve of and feel solidarity for?

  87. On the BLS vs JM discussion: There is an important distinction between men and women in this connection. It is this: women are an oppressed group in a way that men are not. This gives women a stronger right to self-define than it does men.

  88. BLS: thanks for this astute comment:
    “Rupert, so then you’ve had your rhetorical question (“Why bother?”) answered. For now you must agree that you can have it both ways, in the relevant sense: since social presentation is a necessary condition for gender, and sex assignment potentially helps with presentation, then that is a reason to pursue sex reassignment if you want to change genders. It is not an overriding reason which applies to all cases, but it is a reason, and maybe even a reason that is necessary in order to handle the contingencies of some cases. That’s why they bother.”
    I accept that I over-stated my point (for effect), which is regrettable. I shouldn’t have said “Why bother..?” But you have over-stated your point in return. It is implausible that “That’s why they bother”. It is entirely implausible that the matter is ENTIRELY to do with social presentation. How do I know this? Because what trans-people and their allies sometimes say – and THIS is what I was explicitly contesting in my piece, THIS was my critical target – is that truly being a woman is simply a matter of how one feels ‘inside’ oneself. (One then changes one’s body to reflect this. This is what I mean by the paradoxical idea of biological/anatomical determinism vis a vis a biology / a body that is considered malleable/transformable.)
    It is just not remotely plausible that the wish to pass, to transform one’s body etc, can be understood exclusively or in many cases even primarily as being about the eyes of actual others. It is about how one sees oneself (e.g. in a mirror; in one’s mind’s eye); it is about how one feels oneself. Or at least: that is what we are explicitly told, by those who say that how they feel should be determinative in whether women accept them as women. (If you like, simply see my piece as a reductio of this stance; recall, my piece is NOT any kind of criticism of transgender people – it is a criticism of certain arguments used by some transgender activists against feminists.)
    A ‘thought-experiment’ to test what I am saying is this: If a perfect make-up job / wig etc were enough to enable a man to pass with 100% effectiveness as a woman, would it be enough to satisfy those wishing to undergo sex-reassignment surgery etc.? Given what I have read and heard trans-women saying, I think the answer to this question is fairly clear: It is yes for some, no for others, and everything in between. But according to you, it should be yes for all. That is just not remotely plausible.
    So, re. the 2nd part of your comment:
    “Also, if you now accept that gender is only necessarily about presentation and psychology, then you surely must agree that any comparison with physical disability is comparing apples and oranges, because physical disability is necessarily about somatic features. So your parenthetical comments in the OP are off base.”
    It can now be seen that this doesn’t follow. Transsexualism is at least in part NECESSARILY about somatic features. (It is also, as you rightly stress, and as I explicitly allowed in my piece, about social presentation. It is also – and this is the part that tends to be overly-laboured by some trans-activists and their allies – about the person’s own psychology, and what they ‘identify’ as.)

  89. What I very much like about BLS’s approach is his emphasis of the social aspect of the question.

  90. But we have to take that social aspect SERIOUSLY. This is really the nub of my piece. It isn’t enough to talk about an individual’s ‘self-presentation’ or ‘social presentation (of self)’. [It isn't enough, obviously, to talk about their self-concept or 'identifications', either.] When I spoke above of how a person sees themselves in their mind’s eye, etc, we need to be clear that such self-seeing is not a truly individualist process. What we need to take seriously is how the self is constituted in part by others, how one’s self-regard includes the regard of others, and how one’s self-identity is thus not self-validating – because it already includes the presence of and a dialogue with others. THIS is where the would-be self-defining status of trans-people needs to be understood as a defeasible claim, _insofar_ as it involves other groups. In particular, there can be nothing self-validating about an INDIVIDUAL’S claim to be a member of a group from the point of view of which it is not self-evident that that individual IS wholly and simply a member of that group. This is so especially if the group in question is an oppressed group. (I.e., in this case, women.)
    So, if, with BLS, we intend to take the social dimension of self seriously, then we cannot rest content, as BLS appears to me to do, with thinking of the social presentation to others of self from that point of view solely of that self. We have to take seriously the social constitution of self, and the limits that that imposes to voluntaristic self-redefinition. Any re-constitution of self needs also to be genuinely social, and anyone who is _directly_ affected by such would-be re-constitutions is constitutively entitled to a say (i.e. if they are part of the very group that someone is seeking to re-define themselves as belonging to – and especially if that group is an oppressed group, and especially if the group that the someone in question is seeking to leave is not (such) an oppressed group).
    That is the nub of my argument.

    As I have clearly enunciated, repeatedly: of COURSE trans people are themselves an oppressed group. But: two oppressions don’t make a right. Trans women need to acknowledge that, while women should make every effort to accommodate them, reach out to them, ally with them, they cannot expect to simply walk into being women. For the reasons and in the sense that I have given.

  91. Rupert Read,

    “There is an important distinction between men and women in this connection. It is this: women are an oppressed group in a way that men are not. This gives women a stronger right to self-define than it does men.”

    Yes, and this is a broadly held belief. But, this stronger right may be interpreted by individuals and small groups as granting them an absolute privilege to make absolute definitions. So it goes from a stronger right to an absolute right.

    The privilege of the oppressed is another thing. In old westerns, white settlers were depicted as the oppressed, and the native Americans as the oppressors – this depiction grants the settlers the privilege of the oppressed, to kill the native Americans and take their land. The chauvinistic man who complains of political correctness and being harassed by feminists, is looking for the same mantle of oppression – if he is oppressed, his privileges and oppressions are legitimised.

  92. Rupert Read,

    “But we have to take that social aspect SERIOUSLY. This is really the nub of my piece. It isn’t enough to talk about an individual’s ‘self-presentation’ or ‘social presentation (of self)’.”

    This is where the clash is. The subjective definition, and then the definition of the social subject. The social subject is socially defined. So no single group is privileged in defining the social subject – even if they want privilege or declare privilege, it’s just not something they can, or do, have. The social definition of trans people will be decided through a general social discussion – through a social experience.

  93. BLS Nelson,

    I’ll keep it short. One thing, you do not need empathy for insight – you just need to witness an event, or events. Empathy and emotion can in fact cloud insight. And this is a reason psychopaths can have greater insight into human motivations and behaviours. They lack the empathic narrative – they see a more mechanical one – they are also detached from the empathetic experience – the empathy itself they have a complete lack of understanding, as they do not really experience it.

    Greater insight is often a cumulative understanding of the perspectives of others. It’s crucial for women to have insight into the perspectives of men to navigate their social experience.

    “If you believe in human dignity, then you need to recognize that people have a proprietary claim over how they themselves are defined.”

    But where there is a problem here is allowing individuals that proprietary claim, can be detrimental to the human dignity of others.

    Like allowing Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP, to define himself as he does. Because his self-definition is an attempt to distort the social definition, and crucially a political and material definition. He defines himself as English – seemingly uncontroversial. But then he implicitly defines Englishness as being whites only, by referring to non-white English people as black, Asian, etc. In his Twitter feed during the London riots, in his narrative (twisted of course) he refers to groups ostensibly in opposition to the rioters (post pub Eltham thugs) as the English. He doesn’t need to be explicit – he implicitly defines the rioters as not English – and although there were plenty of white rioters, he implicitly defines them as being all black, not English, alien.

    Nick Griffin is fundamentally opposed to extending human dignity, or even human life, to many other humans. Can he be allowed a proprietary claim to his self-definition as it is so toxic in material terms to others.

    Nick Griffin is English. Does this grant him expert status on Englishness if his self-definition is challenged by a non-English person. He fundamentally believes non-white English people are not English – his defense when challenged by a non-white English person could simply be “You’re not English, what would you know about Englishness”.

    “It is precisely that respect for dignity which causes me to observe how silly it is for men to define women.”

    No. Here is something that is inescapable – not necessarily inevitably problematic, but where problems arise. Men have to define women. As women have to define men. For the purpose of interacting with other social beings, the individual needs to define those beings (the definition can be informed but ultimately its’ constitution resides in the subject). This is where the problems arise. The chauvinistic man defines women as lesser beings, who they have privilege over.

    “That quote from Knowles strikes me as quite insightful.”

    It’s not shockingly insightful – she is a woman she is aware of her lived experience. In her saying the performance of femininity is something largely defined by men, is just letting the cat out of the bag. And something that has been known about in education for a long time; that young women will play dumb around young men.

    “If women are defined by men, the results are absurd.”

    No. It’s when men define women as something they are not, and then force them to perform to that definition. And punish them when they fail to perform – office trousers are generally considered completely uncontroversial for women to wear, but you will find instance where there are office dress codes that permit women from wearing them -even in this day and age. On the surface it may seem of little consequence – but underneath there is something far more consequential happening.

    Equally, when women define other women, or men other men, individuals can be put under pressure to conform to those definitions – or experience punishment. I have gay friends who are very cautious of their sexuality being known. It’s not that they are hiding in the closet through some shame, it is that they fear reprisals.

    “So maybe we should take a principled stand on behalf of human dignity and let people define themselves.”

    It seems an egalitarian proposal – sadly, the result just isn’t.

    Okay, not a short as I had originally intended. I think I needed to tease it out, because the points are not immediately clear.

  94. S.wally: many of the worst elements of those groups lie in how they define themselves — almost entirely — in contrast to how they define other groups. e.g., what is left of the Aryan Brotherhood once you bar them from having any definition of “Jewish” or “Black”? Not much, I expect. Or whatever is left, will bear little resemblance to our current conception of the Aryans.

    Mind you, acrimonious groups can still be studious in their self-definitions. Though a respect for dignity smooths out some rough edges, it is ethically impotent. You can respect dignity while being awful. But this isn’t a discussion about ethics as much as it is a discussion of the theoretical structure of social reality.

    Rupert,

    “It is entirely implausible that the matter is ENTIRELY to do with social presentation.”

    But I never said it was. I said: “I expect the experts to point out that none of the cases you’re referring to have to do with mere “psychic identification” alone — they also have to do with social presentation.” (emphasis added) As far as I can tell, gender has got to do with psychology plus social presentation. So your further paragraphs are not on point.

    “Transsexualism is at least in part NECESSARILY about somatic features…”

    I think I’m seeing part of the problem I’m having now, which is that it seems in the OP that you are flipping between trans-gender and trans-sexual. e.g., I accept that sex is necessarily about somatic features, as is physical ability. But I don’t see that this relates to the question of what it is to be a woman, which is ostensibly about gender, not sex. (From what I understand, the sexed term is usually something more clinical, like ‘female’.) And the remark I was responding to in my first post seemed to conflate them. Perhaps I was just being too sensitive to a ‘slip of the pen’.

    Anyway, I don’t see why we get to tell women what it takes to be a woman: what presentational elements matter, what psychic elements matter. They can decide whether trans-sexuals count or not without us interfering in the conversation.

  95. Late to this discussion I know, but it seems to me that much of the discourse here is rendered moot by an understanding that transsexual transition is not a case of a ‘man’ becoming a woman (or vice versa), but of a female person born with a considerable birth defect (a male body) having corrective surgery. If it is a choice of adapting the mind to the body or the body to the mind, there is only one humane choice.

    Chromosomal sex is only one metric, and not the most important. Others are psychological sex, secondary sexual characteristics and social acceptance. Chromosomal sex when used as an argument for someone being ‘male’ is also crassly both reductionist and essentialist. What right does anybody have to challenge the self-identity of another? I would say “none”.

  96. Sarah, I agree with all your points.

    If I were forced to disagree with anything you said, I’d maybe quibble a little with the last two sentences as general statements. There are many instances where people have the right to challenge the self-identities of others. So, e.g., if a student approaches me in my office and says, “I’m a doctor”, and I know they don’t have any of those credentials, then I’m under no obligation to respect their self-identity.

    So, in principle, there are cases where you have the right to challenge the self-identities of others. Moreover, I’m sure there are even cases where you have the obligation to challenge the identities of others — cases of fraud or identity theft, for example.

    That having been said, trans cases are not of that sort. e.g., Chaz Bono is a man, as far as I understand the meaning of ‘man’.

  97. Yes BLS, you’re right that my last two sentences were a bit of a generalisation. I think that I intended to refer to core identity; the fundamental internal sense of being, and that is what I believe we should respect. Other identities (such as your student thinking he or she is a doctor) are overlaid on this core identity, and as you say, may well be subject to challenge, perhaps for reasons of safety. If someone were to believe they were a bird and attempted to jump off a cliff, we may well be right to intervene.

    I looked after my mother when she had dementia, and soon realised that her sense of her identity was different from the one I perceived. I learnt not to challenge her as it caused her great upset and distress. I don’t believe that the transsexual identity is erroneous in this way, but I do think that as a core identity, it requires respect.

    Finally can I say what a civilised place this seems to be? This is the first time I have visited and I am very impressed by the quality of discussion and the regard with which even people who disagree treat each other. If only the rest of the Internet were like this.

  98. Thanks for your striking comments, Sarah. Have you reviewed the arguments I offered above for why it is pretty disastrous to give individuals an absolute right to determine their self-identity?
    It is a denial of society. It is a fantasy of libertarianism/individualism. Such a view, it seems to me, could only emerge in a culture like our’s. A culture that is crassly individualist.
    Similarly, your suggestion that a mtf transsexual person is simply a female mind born in a man’s body is a suggestion that only appears to make sense, it seems to me, because of extreme Cartesian presumptions of many in our culture, presumptions that would appear laughable to those who inhabit saner, more somatic, societies. Societies which actually ARE societies, rather than sub-Thatcherite mere aggregations of ‘individuals’.

  99. If we live in a sub-Thatcherite aggregation of individuals, our identities are formed by that.

    We are products of our society or our lack of a society, if you wish.

    Why not then recognize the fact that our identities are those of individuals in a sub-Thatcherite aggregation?

    I would prefer that we live in a Kantian community where each person is an end for all others, but it doesn’t not seem that we are headed there.

  100. Swallerstein:-
    Are you saying that our identities are formed by social pressures alone? I am also not sure within the context of this discussion and your own comments exactly what you mean by identity. This has always been a problem with me. When people speak of things like identity, equality, they rarely mean identity in all respects, or equality in all respects. I could enlarge on all this but it would go outside of the main thrust of this discussion.
    Treat people as ends not means is so far as I remember the Kantian dictate. So if I treat you as an end and you treat me as an end one of us at least, could surely loose out. Additionally the end envisaged by you for me may not be in accordance with my wishes and vice versa. Also maybe the ends that A and B envisage for C are incompatible. Maybe this has been clarified in Kant somewhere I am a but rusty on his moral philosophy these days, not too bad on his other arguments though.

  101. Don Bird:

    You caught me.

    I don’t know much about Kant and surely, someone else can answer your questions better than I can, but as far as I know, according to Kant, I must treat your humanity or your rationality as an end (not as a means).

    Since I treat your humanity, which for Kant, has to do with your rationality and your freedom,
    as an end, there is no danger of me inventing ends for you which are not in your best interests.

    Neither of us loses out in the Kantian sense if we treat each other as ends since both of us are treated as rational beings with the respect that is due to rational beings.

    That is, for Kant, we don’t invent ends for others for “their own good”; rather, we treat
    them as ends when we respect their autonomy as rational beings.

    As to what I mean by “identity”, that’s what we’ve been trying to figure out in this whole
    conversation.

    I have no philosophical conclusions and to tell you the truth, this conversation has only confused me more, although it’s a fertile confusion.

    However, I believe, as I stated at the beginning of this conversation, that for political reasons, as a political myth, so to speak, we should accept trans-gender people as women.

  102. Sarah, you can credit Jeremy Stangroom for the civility, he’s our ‘civility bouncer’!

    It’s an interesting question to figure out what counts as a ‘core identity’. (I like that term, btw.) In my view, gender identity is a function of psychological continuity and social presentation.

    In contrast, I would imagine that it would be difficult to figure out how to get a handle on the personhood of neuro-atypical cases, because some neuro-atypical thoughts and memories might not be coherent enough to count as continuous. When patients are afflicted with very severe forms of dementia, we might be more tempted to say that personhood has been disrupted. Unlike this trans business, it seems like a genuinely tough case to figure out where the identity lies.

    Rupert, you do pose an interesting challenge by accusing Sarah and I of being metaphysical dualists.

    I suppose you might be sort of right in the sense that the ‘body, mind, and persona’ are all the same thing — made up of the same stuff and inhabiting the same universe. After all, my mind is an embodied brain doing brainy things, my persona is how my mind minds other minds and is minded in turn. [So it might seem strange that I use them as separate criteria if they're all the same thing deep down.]

    The thing is, I assume personhood is pretty much anti-realist from the get-go. I’m not really interested in talking about what counts as a ‘real identity’ — there is no such thing. Personhood involves relatively stable or unstable persons, not ‘real persons’. Presumably, there is only one physical world, but when we refer to sentences containing persons, we are steeped in a (veridical) anti-realist idiom which involves a finite range of truthful ways of speaking about that world. [Personhood is not metaphysical, it is normative.]

  103. S.Wally, you’re right to point out the echoes of Kant in my formulation of dignity, but there are major differences. When I talk about dignity, I refer only to respecting the self-definitions of persons insofar as they comport with the facts. When Kant talks about it, he means to speak of treating others as being rational autonomous parties as if we all lived in a kingdom of ends. But my sense of dignity is not about ends; it is about persons. He refers to what people do; I refer to who they are.

  104. ‘Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.’

    The SEP has a short section on the Humanity formula of the Categorical Imperative (and a shorter section on the ‘autonomy formula’ immediately following) if that helps anyone:

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-moral/#HumFor

  105. Rupert Read,

    “Thanks for your striking comments, Sarah. Have you reviewed the arguments I offered above for why it is pretty disastrous to give individuals an absolute right to determine their self-identity?
    It is a denial of society.”

    Then how do you define society? Problems arise when individuals or groups attempt to define society. Especially if those groups and individuals have some underhanded material intent.

    In Thatcher’s statement “There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families.” She is not actually denying the existence of society – she is trying to redefine society. This was not Thatcher speaking her truth, but it encapsulates her ideology – it’s an injunction more than a truth. First she denies the definition of society where all members democratically have obligations to each other – a society of members where at some level their is an inalienable equality, then defines society as individuals and families. There are still obligations, she is just redefining them.

    Her individual, is double edged. The poor individual has an obligation to remain atomised – as unions are so unfair to the rich individual, but the rich individual is freed from any obligation to the poor individual.

    Her families, this is social class. Materialism, and rank in the material society as decided by clan ties. This is an obligation to accept without quarrel your place in life as decided by the fortune of your birth.

    Thatcher’s society is not a deregulated free for all, with individuals of all classes free to pursue their desires. Her society is deeply conservative – and end of history with no hope of progress – individuals are only to be free to live the lives that her conservative society prescribes them. It’s a completely joyless world, where workers must drudge without grumble, and upper classes must live lives that though more comfortable are stuffy, conformist, and equally as joyless – excessive pleasure is forbidden for all. The libertarianism of marijuana smoking and free love it is not.

    Of course Thatcher was a firm believer in the obligation of citizens to lay down their lives in wars for the benefit of fellow countrymen who are anonymous to them, and that that privilege should be reward enough in itself. dulce et decorum est pro patria mori

    Thatcher’s society is not individualistic (only in the sense that without wealth or wealthy family connections, you find yourself very much on your own.). In Thatcher’s society, the majority are put under unfair and unequal obligations to the wealthy minority, with no reciprocal obligations. She tears up the social contract.

    Thatcher’s society is only as free as the Soviet society. In the sense that everyone is free to join the communist party, and through politicking and with the help of fortunate family connections ,climb the ranks, and one day with a little luck, you’ll have the Zil and a summer dach. The Russian Federation these days is Thatcherism on steroids and cocaine. Thatcher’s son became rich by virtue of being her son – just as the children of the new Russian nomenklatura are enriched by the same clan connections.

    Thatcher’s freedom is a lie. Capitalism Soviet or western, cannot function with freedom and equality – or individualism. The worst excesses of capitalism can be mitigated against but the freedom is largely illusory. It is better than pre-capitalist societies in that their materialism was regulated by violence. If the Tesco’s shelf stacker had the same access to capital as Mark Thatcher, who would stack Tesco’s shelves.

    “It is a fantasy of libertarianism/individualism. Such a view, it seems to me, could only emerge in a culture like our’s. A culture that is crassly individualist.”

    If only it were an individualistic culture. In New York, the city that never sleeps, everyone wears conservative and conformist business suits and goes to bed early. Even the hipsters dress in identikit regulation hipster uniforms. The eccentricity is regimented and sterile. Even in gay culture – ostensibly outré, in reality the flamboyance is forced, clichéd and tiresome.

    Where are the individuals?

    “Similarly, your suggestion that a mtf transsexual person is simply a female mind born in a man’s body is a suggestion that only appears to make sense, it seems to me, because of extreme Cartesian presumptions of many in our culture, presumptions that would appear laughable to those who inhabit saner, more somatic, societies.”

    You could make the same argument for any individual who has different a subjective experience and desires from the dominant subjective experience of that society, as their experience not making sense as it isn’t the dominant experience. And this is what these conservative societies are really like – anyone who is different from the dominant is the subject of derision or even violence. You are automatically deemed a lunatic even for the most minor deviations in the practice of your existence.

    Although homosexuality has been practiced in all societies probably since the beginning of time – in many countries they have persecutory laws even up to capital punishment for homosexual activity. In Iran homosexuality can be punished by death – but curiously, gender reassignment surgery is provided by the state – and next to Thailand, Iran is the world leader. After gender reassignment surgery in Iran, a person is legally the gender they’ve been reassigned – which seems far more liberal than in our society – in fact it is far more preferable for a man to have gender reassignment than to live as a homosexual in Iranian society. Gender reassignment in Iran may be seen as option to homosexual men who have a deep need to conform to the demands of their society.

    Other societies only seem sane from a distance, on closer examination their own peculiar lunacies become apparent – often they are not lunacies, but may have been or are important elements in the material functioning of those societies. The culture of transgender or third sex, is something far older than Thatcher’s nightmarish 80s. In the conservative culture of Afghanistan, heterosexual sex outside marriage can be punishable by death. So men have sex with each other. Whether they are homosexual as we might understand homosexuality is something else – a free preference. They dress young boys as girls – and have them perform as dancing girls, and then have sex with them. They may have a sexual preference for women, but women are prohibited from having any sexual freedoms – this is probably both a means of insuring paternity to maintain clan integrity, and as a means of population control. The practice of homosexuality as a means of contraception.

    “Societies which actually ARE societies, rather than sub-Thatcherite mere aggregations of ‘individuals’.”

    Our societies are large advanced capitalist societies (advanced in terms of the functioning of capital). They are too large to function on the basis of clan or tribal ties alone. But all those ties still exist within the society. It’s in the interest of the upper-classes to atomise the working class as much as possible (for the purpose of material exploitation) but they still maintain the same cultures of marriage for the sake of maintaining property and wealth, and exclusion in access to capital, economic opportunities, and lucrative employment, based on clan, and the slightly wider tribal (social class) ties, as you will find in pre-capitalist societies. These people are savages.

    No one experiences the Cartesian Cogito in it’s solipsistic extremes. It’s just a quirky idea – that the world you experience, the social reality, is really just taking place in your imagination – without any religious explanation this is possibly true, but the reality your mind provides you, and the social reality you experience is the only possible reality. If there is a somatic reality, it is inaccessible – it can only be another illusion. This is the third pill Slavoj Zizek asks for – in relation to the two pills Neon is offered in the Matrix. Neither the red nor blue pill offers an escape from Cartesian reality……There is no escape from the Cogito.

    The solipsist is being foolish in thinking they can alter reality by choosing their perceptions instead of receiving them as the invisible omnipresent omnipotent Cartesian demon allows.

    The limits of the Cogito seem to be more of a problem for philosophers, than the lived experience. It is likely there is no solution to the Cogito, as there is no problem.

  106. Northern Free Thinker

    This entire problem could have been prevented had governments not gotten ahead of science in “accepting” the term “gender” and “sex change”. There are no spirits, no gods, no ghosts, no real-mythological-creatures, there are just bodies with ideas. I’m a bi female (and LGBs don’t place our internal feelings about love on our ID cards, no mental or physical malfunction needs to be on an ID card). In this way there is no such thing as gender, we are humans with internal and external reproductive organs and the hormonal/endocrine system that made them happen. There is no solid scientific evidence that one can somehow “feel” the opposite of their body, only quackery. I am not talking surgeried intersexed people here, only addressing straight up “transgenderism”. It just so happens that humans with female reproductive systems/organs are still suffering 3000 years of abuse in the hands of patriarchy, we do not choose our biology. Now males want to give patriarchy’s most glorious blow, and have males take over the very existence of females and feminism, and it disgusts me to no end.
    If we could backtrack on the governmental blunders or “sexual reassignment” which is a joke, we could create a third category for ID cards: tween-sexed, including the the entire range between female and male, about 1-2% of the population could end up with such ID.

    I can’t imagine being a forensics specialist trying to contact parents or kin or friends, or establishing cause of death which deals with biological dimorphism, which would be more ambiguous due to pretend sex changes. Various toxins and drugs have different effects on males and females and these toxins do not care what someone “feels” like, the biological body is the determining factor.

    Our ID cards should only designate what we were born as. It is a legal document that should reflect equally on our life from birth til death. A pseudo-vaginal-tube is not a vagina.

    With the legal quandary out of the way, trans folks could go back to fighting for their rights and females could go back to feminism or patriarchy, whichever they wish to live with.

  107. JM, somehow I missed your comment from earlier, sorry about that.

    I should say thank you for some of your probing and astute comments. Even if they do not hit the mark, they are salient and interesting.

    On the Nick Griffin problem. I haven’t been expressed my point as well as I should have. I do not think self-identified members of a group have a blanket right to define themselves. They have the right to try, in a way that members of out-groups do not — a performative entitlement. But their attempt to try also requires a minimum effort at explaining other self-identified members — an empirical duty. That’s why the Nick Griffins of the world fail. They don’t know what’s going on. Haven’t got a clue.

    Men have to define women. As women have to define men.

    Not at all in the same way, or at least not in the same way that I’m using the notion of a ‘definition’.

    To be sure, there is a sense in which a heterosexual man is invested in the meaning of ‘woman’, and vice-versa. Everybody has to know who to send their cards to on Valentine’s Day. And these descriptions can often be very deeply held. But these are still just descriptions, not definitions.

    Let (x) be any social category: man, woman, black, white, etc. A self-identified (x), in order to self-identify as a (x), must recognize that their sense of self-trust is fixed in part by an analytical need to take a certain kind of risk: namely, the risk of being able to assume that they are broadly on the same page as other (x)’s. That’s just what it means to be self-identified. While members of not-(x) may also have a need to risk trusting (x) in some deep sense, this need isn’t there automatically or by default — it isn’t an analytical need.

    The acceptance of dignity as a rule makes a lot of hay out of the distinction. It says: self-identified members have the authority to define themselves, under the above proviso. Everybody else offers descriptions. Sometimes, highly motivated descriptions; nevertheless, descriptions.

    You can contest this view in various ways. e.g., you might assert that genders are binary categories and that the definition of the one tacitly constitutes the other. Or you might assert that there is no such thing as an analytical need. That would also be an objection.

    However, your observation that non-(x)’s do define (x)’s, is not an argument against the principle of dignity. Of course people try to define others, and often succeed because nobody ever thinks about who they trust and why. But these villains succeed in defining others in part because they present these motivated descriptions as if they were definitions. Yet this definitional power is a contingent fact about the culture. I think we could get on perfectly well as a culture without doing that. The social order does not fall into incoherence if we let people figure their own stuff out.

    Here’s the important bit, though: if this view really does have anti-egalitarian consequences, you haven’t shown how.

  108. I am late commenting here although I read it and listened to your Feminist Current interview several days ago.

    I’m a transsexual woman who subscribes to radical feminism quite a bit and I’ve chosen to channel that into direct work around women’s and LGBT issues where a person’s identities/positions/etc aren’t very important. While I agree with much of what you’ve said and appreciate your denouncement of the outright cruelty directed at us by some feminists, I can’t help but feel like it’s delivered with the scope of a shotgun blast and is a little exhausting to engage with all of it thoughtfully from a trans perspective. I think it’s also clear that much of it isn’t very relevant to the Moore/Burchill drama.

    There is no excuse for bullying and abuse and I find those instances of internet trans “activists” appalling and far too common. Unfortunately I feel like this does need to be said: the majority of the hoarde does not get worse than “ugly and kind of inane.” Further, I’ve come to believe at least some of these furious reactions are not what they appear. When it comes to whether we are considered “women” and “female,” it’s not so much about identity for identity’s sake – to them and to me in the past, our identity represents the broader schemas and heuristics that we (at least, those of us who truly had no other option) are basically forced to maintain in order to protect our physical safety, access basic resources, have some semblance of self-esteem, and sleep at night as best we can while already under conditions of chronic stress.

    It’s not so important that Julie Bindel consider me entirely female in the scope of her work, or for biologists to set humans apart from all other life in how they define sex, or for women who want to focus on reproductive justice to include me in every conversation. I’m not interested in any of that. What’s really important in the present is that I not be compelled to check any other box on government forms, or to stop being de facto female in 99% of casual daily discussions without asking for it. Life is messy and the world just isn’t prepared to deal with us exactly as we are. In the meantime we need to be gender/sex-coherent on some level to family and community and the vast majority of people everywhere. The anti-intellectualism and nastiness is our insulation from being forced into conversations we viscerally feel it’s not a great time to have.

    Theoretical discussions feel cold and trans people avoid or shout them down for… not rational but humanly understandable reasons. It’s like many lesbians’ and gay men’s cognitive dissonance when “born this way” is answered with “well not precisely but that doesn’t make homophobia okay.” No matter how rational you are in your arguments and supporting data, many will still leave the conversation angry and sometimes behave like jerks and so it’s often best left alone. Even I get it when I dispute “brain sex” to other trans people. The myths of inborn sexual orientation and gender identity are for a world where we couldn’t expect “leave me alone, I should be able to live my life as I experience myself on a basic level” to work. So for example, I was frustrated by the community reaction to Cynthia Nixon declaring that she /had/ made a choice, I understand that the feelings behind it are just human and obviously don’t reflect anything particularly dysfunctional about LGBTQ people beyond what institutional oppression can do to a person.

    On the Feminist Current podcast you mentioned that some Native American societies have had “third genders” – this is a complicated issue. Western transsexuals using them as our template for future advocacy grinds up against issues of colonialism and appropriation, and does nothing to improve our situation in the present. Those gender roles also differed from tribe/nation to tribe/nation, and importantly to radical feminism, were not necessarily less restrictive because whether two genders or three, we’ve still got patriarchy. In contemporary societies with some recognition of third (or more) genders, it’s also complicated. In Thailand people in the diverse range of male-assigned femininity are accepted as part of society, but are still routinely discriminated against, and as I understand, seen as paying a karmic debt. As with many cultural differences, it seems to be not much better or worse overall, just different. A change in that direction might very possibly not help trans people or women at all because some form of patriarchy would still exist. And when it comes to imagining the post-patriarchy, I think the attitude is just that we’ve got too many more immediate things to deal with, just like the majority of non-trans people.

    So basically, trans people don’t have reason to expect a society in which we can be completely and utterly authentic any time soon without paying considerably for it. That is the real reason why we feel like we can’t do this. Shortcuts were taken for survival and I suppose these are the unintended consequences. People everywhere believe their own myths. I don’t know what the solution is, but I know backlash sucks and I hope we can avoid it.

    Finally, there’s a basic anxiety about how “they’re not precisely women in every respect” spills so quickly over to “they’re ugly delusional mutilated men in wigs.” People might be more open to civil conversation with Julie Bindel if she hadn’t used her considerable platform to bully trans people with grade school japes. Even those on the transcritical/skeptical side who I find reasonable and even compassionate seem to have an unsettling tolerance for, or at least are silent about /anyone/ on their side of the spectrum, no matter how consistently awful they are. Frankly, at least among the working class and poor trans women I know who transitioned before 30, we are having a hard enough time valuing our own lives and not hating ourselves without exposing ourselves to that. I now encourage younger trans women to stay away from all of these arguments and controversies and focus on what makes a difference in our lives and the lives of our most disfranchised (because why do more for a few trans women in Women’s Studies departments than for the many homeless teenagers?). I think I’m just very lucky to have been able to play with fire and make some peace with all of it.

    I appreciate your voice in this, sincerely.

  109. Thanks ESK.
    I think your comments are extremely well-taken.

  110. I have had the chance recently to read Naomi Scheman’s critique of ‘privileged access voluntarism’, in her paper “Queering the centre and centring the queer: reflections on transsexuals and secular Jews”. I endorse that critique completely; it anticipates my own.

    Readers can judge for themselves where I differ from Scheman, as I do at various points.

    Also colleagues, you might be interested to hear my recent radio interview vis a vis all this stuff: http://feministcurrent.com/7130/podcast-looking-at-feminism-and-trans-issues-from-a-philosophical-perspective/

  111. Here, I quoted you, only fair I show you..

    Identity politics: paper, sisters, stone and radfem2013

    http://sisterhoodispowerful.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/identity-politics-paper-sisters-stone-and-radfem2013-2/

  112. So you think that its ok to be there as a cis gendered man, claim to be able to speak for women, and trans women too. For your information trans women are women. I dont give too hoots about them not getting periods etc, not all women have periods either. I think for a man to sympathize with radical feminism in any way there has to be something wrong with him! Do you not realize that half of the reason radfems wont except trans women is due to the fact they hate men, and see trans women as men. None of the radfems have a point, and if many had anything to do with it you would be took off the face of the earth too. I am more then willing, as a lesbian and as a woman to except trans women into my spaces, i would object to any womens service or feminist meeting that excluded trans women. So dude, man up a little. Stop hiding behind the hissy feminists!

  113. I have an issue regarding the word transsexual. Transgender is fine, but to cross biological sex? Isn’t this bad science? May as well denounce evolution, global warming and mobile phone masts while you’re at it.

    I also hate the phrase ‘corrective surgery’. Who gets to define what a vulva and breasts should look like? It’s the patriarchy stupid!

    Everyone is placed with different looking genitalia, body forms and breasts (men have breasts – get over it).

    I can understand correcting facial imperfections, especially the wonderful work done in corrective facial surgery post world war 1 – not attributing this to any surgeon in particular because it was a cohort.

    What goes on between anyone’s legs is their problem. Problems arise when those with the problems want to make it everyone else’s problem, and they insist you listen.

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