The Hunt for Gender Armistice
April 05, 2022
Can there ever be an end to the vicious cultural war over gender...? It is a question that troubles me greatly, and not only because I find the breakdown of the rainbow alliance inexpressibly heart-breaking. The political capital being squandered on this terrible and destructive in-fighting has meant that the most serious problems facing humanity today - whether poverty, environmental degradation, or anything else you might care to mention - have become impossible to address. Violence against trans people or anyone else is deplorable, but we will not prevent harm by refusing to discuss our disagreements about what liberty means. On the contrary, whenever new cultures encounter one another we must learn how to live together peacefully, which requires that we talk to one another.
It is now half a century since the last successful civil rights movements, and those liberation movements that were pursued beyond the 60s and 70s have devolved into the uncivil wars of identity. Perhaps the most merciless of these battlegrounds is that of gender, especially in the political conflict between trans activists and what might be called 'classical lesbians'. A lesbian in the classical sense of the word is a human female who is sexually attracted to human females or, if you prefer, a cis woman who is sexually attracted to cis women, or even (to complete this set of equivalent and yet politically opposed definitions) a natal woman who is sexually attracted to natal women. The wider gender warzone, of course, now involves far more than just trans people and classical lesbians, but the hostilities escalated from this initial battlefront and it was only later that other kinds of women became embroiled. Over that time, it has become increasingly acceptable to accuse classical lesbians of transphobia (hatred of trans people) for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, those accusations might well be justified. All too often, however, it seems as if 'transphobia' is being evoked simply to shut down discussion.
I'm going to say something that is forbidden. Transphobia may be something we dislike, but as with every other kind of prejudice it is not something we have any reasonable means to prevent. Any attempt to do so risks encouraging an equal an opposite form of hatred - transphobiaphobia. This phenomena, bigotry against those who are perceived as transphobic bigots, is a special case of what I called in Chaos Ethics 'intolerant tolerance', an essential problem of our time that we are absolutely failing to deal with. The trouble is that we know that those who believe in bigotry are evil... as such, we can act towards them in a manner appropriate to those who are evil. But this problematic line of reasoning allows us to become evil in order to fight evil, and this is not the way to effectively campaign for civil rights, but rather a terrifying way to recapitulate the wars of religion that beset humanity for millennia.
What bankrolls transphobiaphobia is the intense belief that those who can be accused of transphobia pose an existential threat to trans people - that they seek to nullify their existence, or even wish to kill trans people. Yet transphobia is an accusation levelled against a wide variety of situations, many of which do not entail threats of violence as such, and if an existential threat is indeed entailed to some degree, we should consider to what degree such an existential threat poses a genuine threat to life. I am open to the idea that those who insist on calling a trans woman a man, or a trans man a woman, do indeed pose an existential threat to the trans community. But the question remains: what kind of existential threats are we actually dealing with? And who is subjected to these existential threats? Just the trans community? Or the classical lesbian community as well...?
There are several degrees of existential threat worth considering here. At what might be called the first degree, the most extreme and horrific end of this grisly spectrum, there are existential threats of actual extermination against an entire class of beings. As a reasonable approximation of a politically neutral example, consider a major asteroid impact that could bring extinction to the entire human race: that would be an existential threat of the first degree to everyone. Then there are the horrific campaigns of extermination we humans have waged against each other: the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s was a first degree existential threat to Cambodian Viets, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda was a first degree existential threat to the Tutsis, the Holocaust was a first degree existential threat to European Jews. Mercifully, no such existential threat faces either the trans community or the classical lesbian community.
At the second degree, there are situations where death occurs, but as single incidents within a certain class, rather than against an entire class of being. These awful second degree existential threats apply to a vast variety of people - over gender, sexuality, culture, race, or religion - and if we wish to build an authentically inclusive society all such threats ought to be our concern. The trans community certainly does face these kinds of second degree existential threats and sometimes in unique ways. Consider the tragic death of Jennifer Gale in 2008, a trans woman who needed access to a homeless shelter in Austin, Texas, but was told she would have to shelter with the men. This incident was, in many ways, a call to action in the current trans activist movement. As such, we could judge this movement's success by its potential to prevent such a tragic event recurring. Yet based upon the significant rise in anti-trans violence since it began, I rather fear that this particular wave of activism has had the opposite effect.
At the third degree are political existential threats. In such cases, no actual threat of violence is involved, but rather a conceptual threat to existence occurs. An odd example of this that I mentioned back in 2018 happened when prominent 'New Atheist' Richard Dawkins suggested it was "consciousness raising" for parents to bring up their children with no religious tradition, so they could then choose their own religion at adulthood. Some people thought this was a wonderful suggestion; most practitioners of religious traditions saw this (quite logically) as an existential threat in the third degree. Dawkins was permitted to make these claims even though they posed an existential threat to religious people because they did not rise to incitement to violence (i.e. encouraging a second degree existential threat or worse), and this is where we have always drawn the line in free speech.
Accepting that we were right to let Dawkins voice these views no matter how offensive they may have been to religious people, we can use this example as a test case. If we approach the gender battlefield with the idea that there is one correct way of viewing sex and gender, it is not very hard to believe that gender-critical feminists, including classical lesbians, might indeed risk presenting an equivalent third degree existential threat to the trans community. So too with that subset of Christians and other religiously-motivated people who do not accept the trans community's various understandings of gender. But we must not fool ourselves here. Current trans activism imposes the same kind of third degree existential threat to classical lesbians, and arguably to certain other classes of women as well. It seeks to deny them their freedom of thought on issues of gender metaphysics that go to the very core of their being in the world. This situation, as I claimed back in 2018, is directly parallel to the example of Dawkins seeking to abolish every religious tradition rooted in the family (i.e. nearly all of them). Therefore, on parallel grounds, no nation should be making political commitments to third degree existential threats as policy, regardless of kind, since to do so is to further betray our human rights agreements and to mandate bigotry against some class of its citizenry as law.
I abhor third degree existential threats, I detest political opposition to other ways of being... but I accept that they are inevitably going to happen, and that you cannot attempt to stamp out such ideas without instigating an opposing third degree existential threat (or worse...) against those who make them. On such a path, there is no democracy, no freedom of thought. On such a path we are marching backwards towards tyranny and imperial monoculture, not forwards towards a more inclusive democracy and the beautiful chaos of individual freedom. The path to trans liberty cannot lie on such a path, for the path to no-one's liberty can lie on such a path.
And this is the problem with transphobiaphobia: it blocks the path to trans liberty. It is no help, for instance, denouncing the Salvation Army for its transphobia if our goal is to prevent anyone else dying in the tragic and avoidable circumstances that led to Jennifer Gale's death in 2008. She died primarily because of poverty, because she was rendered homeless - and the Salvation Army is one of very few organisations trying to help people who have become homeless due to poverty. They did not refuse to shelter her because she was trans, they offered to shelter her with the men and did not understand why she could not do this. This failure to understand her different way of being in the world was pivotal to the terrible circumstances of that tragedy. But it is not tragic that the Salvation Army tries to help homeless people, it is tragic that in this instance they failed to do so because they did not understand how to help this particular person. Yet transphobiaphobia will not help the Salvation Army understand trans people either. The Salvation Army is not so much 'transphobic' as they are completely ignorant of the many trans ways of being in the world, in part because we would rather accuse them of hate than try to talk to them in love.
Neither will transphobiaphobia resolve the culture war between trans activists and their allies on the one hand, and gender-critical lesbian feminists and their allies on the other. Last year, philosopher Kathleen Stock at the University of Sussex was subjected to a campaign of abuse, up to and including death threats (i.e. second degree existential threats), that forced her to resign in October 2021. These actions were initiated by a group calling itself Anti Terf Sussex, who claimed Stock presented a danger to the trans community, stating: "We're not up for debate. We cannot be reasoned out of existence". Unlike those who opposed her, Stock was up for debate... as a university academic, she was obligated to be so. Fulfilling her duty in this regard paradoxically resulted in her losing her job - and I am surely not alone in being shocked to discover that a classical lesbian can be forced out of a job she is good at merely for the thoughtcrime of holding the metaphysical beliefs of a classical lesbian. Yet I find it quite hard to see this incident in any other way, except perhaps that she was a victim of transphobiaphobia.
I have argued with Stock on various matters in and around this issue; I don't share her views on gender, but neither do I have answers to all the relevant political questions she has raised in this regard. Frankly, I don't believe anyone does, how can they? We aren't allowed to have the conversation ("We're not up for debate", announced Stock's persecutors, as they ceded democratic values in favour of vigilantism). But Stock has always argued with me and others with civility and an openness to fresh arguments, and I have always defended her academic freedom and the liberty to speak her mind, even when she has said things I disagree with. I would defend everyone's right to speak in this way, regardless of who they were, and would draw the line solely at whenever someone crosses over into second degree existential threats, that is, calls for actual violence, such as those levelled against Stock by her transphobiaphobic opponents.
Actively preventing debate on the kinds of disagreements Stock has honourably participated in cannot possibly improve anyone's understanding of the problems of trans existence. Indeed, in her willingness to argue against various trans philosophical positions, Stock paradoxically did more to advance the cause of trans liberty than most people in recent years precisely because she was willing to have the debate. Indeed, it was because she did engage in debate with trans philosophers that she came to my attention in the first place. I was excited at the possibility that we might clear away some of the barriers preventing acceptance of trans life experiences. The trans community still does not seem to appreciate that the deplorable prejudice against their many ways of being cannot be resolved by refusing to engage in discussions around the relevant political issues. On the contrary, every time this necessary discourse is curtailed, prejudice against the trans community festers and grows, and further hate and violence on all sides becomes depressingly more likely. As such, Stock's forced resignation is not a victory for trans liberty, it is merely another brick in the wall blocking the path to it.
Everyone says they want a more inclusive society, but nobody seems to truly appreciate what is required to achieve it. That might be because one of the things we need to make that new world happen is an ability to accept that some third degree existential threats will still be voiced. But fortunately, the vast majority of these kinds of threats are not advanced with the intent of provoking actual violence. Dawkins didn't call for actual violence against religious people; he is just irrevocably prejudiced against their numerous ways of being. He's hardly alone; the same prejudice is painfully common among classical lesbians and trans people too. Anti-religious bigotry, especially bigotry against Christians, is a very fashionable kind of hatred right now. Everyone has prejudices, nobody is pure, and the line between love and hate is wearing very thin indeed.
Classical lesbians are not to my knowledge calling for actual violence against the trans community, although many do speak very disrespectfully about trans people, an animosity that is all too frequently reciprocated. Regardless, almost all classical lesbians (and Stock is definitely included in this), celebrate those protections under the law that trans people now possess in the UK and elsewhere. But the classical lesbian's way of being in the world regrettably does seem to be perceived as a kind of third degree existential threat to trans people, just as the transphobiaphobia of trans activists presents a third degree existential threat against classical lesbians, and indeed a second degree existential threat whenever this uncontrolled hatred of haters paradoxically impels people into committing hateful crimes such as death threats.
In the world I want to live in, both classical lesbians and trans people are welcome, not to mention people of every religious tradition and those of none. I have no idea how to resolve all the conflicts inevitably entailed in building such a world. But then, it's abundantly clear that nobody knows how to build such a world, and as long as transphobiaphobia blocks the path to trans liberty such a world cannot be built at all. Of course, this is only one of the myriad barriers to our collective liberty... yet we ought not to be afraid to say this aloud if we are indeed striving for our freedoms, rather than merely marshalling hate against those we judge as our enemies.
I have focussed here upon the original fault line in this metaphysical battle over gender, the skirmish between trans women and classical lesbians... but this issue now extends far beyond these two camps. The trans community is supported by all those who hold the metaphysical view that our internal mental and emotional state is the ultimate truth of who we are. This is a strange collision between the freedom to make ourselves offered by existentialism and the appeal to certain truth entailed in essentialism. The opposing political camp is resolutely essentialist - "sex is immutable" - and represents a highly unusual alliance given that it is the first time that classical lesbians have found themselves aligned with politically conservative women over just about anything. It is a mistake to keep characterising this camp in terms of its 'radical feminist' roots, as the insult 'TERF' does: this is now a broad coalition rallying against what it can only see as blatant misogyny. It is naïve to expect the accusation of transphobia to hold sway here.
This culture war is all too often presented as if it were a bizarre choice between misogyny and transphobia, as if we are obligated to express hatred and our only choice is whom we turn upon. It is an intractable conflict unless either side shifts its metaphysical beliefs, which nobody should ever expect. As long as both sides uphold rival forms of essentialism a peaceful resolution might remain forever out of reach, a lamentable situation we have already suffered for half a century with the metaphysics of abortion. Yet while we cannot expect people to change their untestable views of the world, our metaphysical views will adapt when we encounter new circumstances, and debate - when it is attainable - carries the possibility, however remote, of forging new understandings. But in this terrible new battle over gender, the animosity is now so great that both sides are resolutely closed to new meanings, and indeed many of the voices with something to say are either banned from being heard or too afraid to speak up.
What we need now more than anything is an armistice, a ceasefire that allows us to attempt to open discussions. Since nobody is in charge on the gender battlefield, we cannot ask for generals to call a truce, but fortunately that means anyone and everyone is free to lay down their ideological weapons and come to the negotiating table. There are things we all want out of this, and we will get none of them without first trying to talk about it. I therefore encourage everyone to give up fighting in culture wars that pit identity against identity and to begin to practice the challenging skill of cultural disarmament. The civil rights movements that preceded this endless strife and hatred understood clearly what we have forgotten: that the end point of every political struggle is the necessity of building the beloved community together.
There is a world for everyone that we can make together. But to learn how to make it, we first of all must learn how to talk about that world together. We must be open to debate, open to hearing from others who are not like us, open to disagreements. We cannot always get everything we want, but rediscovering the lost art of compromise might help us all to get everything that we need. The path to trans liberty lies beyond a gender armistice we currently cannot even imagine, but that we can still seek. You cannot end hatred by hating haters, but perhaps we can hold our anger in check just long enough that the hunt for gender armistice might begin.
The opening image is a detail from Male Image, a 1966 painting by Grace Hartigan. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.