Why reality should matter for the Left

08/04/2022

British analytical philosopher Kathleen Stock published her book Material Girls – Why Reality Matters for Feminism in May 2021 and it stirred up quite a controversy.

At the University of Sussex where she worked, she was exposed to such a level of harassment and bullying, that it led her to resign from her professorship in October. Not only was it radical students who called her ‘hateful’ and ‘transphobic’ but even scholars, often without having read the book, but simply for the reason that Stock opposes certain orthodoxies that are prevalent in gender activism. Yet those who have read the book know that it certainly does not spread hate and is far from any phobia. In fact, it is full of empathy and compassion towards trans people, and it challenges radical feminists too – unless we inflate these concepts to such an extent that even tempered arguments count as trans-exclusionary or right-wing. What Stock’s book sets out to challenge is gender identity theory, and its religion-like character. 

“I DIDN’T BECOME A PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHER TO GO TO CHURCH!” (P. 9)

The UK LGBT charity Stonewall defines transphobia as “the fear or dislike of someone based on the fact they are trans, including denying their gender identity or refusing to accept it” (p.30). No matter what the grounds, if you don’t accept someone’s self-interpretation, that counts as transphobia. Kathleen Stock gives a refreshing account – because it is argumentative, not moralising – of the rapid changes we have seen in recent years in the LGBT movement: the re-definition of the concepts man/woman from “adult human male/female” to “adult human with male/female gender identity”. That is, being a woman or man would be independent of your biological sex (that they think is not detected but arbitrarily assigned), and solely defined by this mysterious feeling of ‘gender identity’. And, as a political consequence, that biological sex would no longer deserve any legal protection (something for which feminists have fought for decades).

Stock gives a plethora of worrying examples of the fact that this view is not limited to activist subcultures, but has also conquered mainstream media, politics and even healthcare and education in Britain in a very short time (from 2014 onwards). And, I would add, in many other countries too. In Germany for instance, the current progressive coalition plans to implement the gender self-ID (‘Selbstbestimmungsgesetz’) – that is, everyone will be able to change his or her legal sex by a declaration at the registry office, without psychological and psychiatric attestations (in the EU this is already the law in Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Malta, and Portugal). And as I described in a recently published study with Elena Zacharenko, the European polity has in recent years seen the use of varying and contradicting approaches to the concept of ‘gender’. One of them is understanding gender as a deeply felt identity (and not, as social sciences tend to use it, as a system of societal expectations towards males and females). This polysemy, and indeed, problematic shift of meanings, we argued, provides fertile ground for right-wing antagonisation.

But not being trans, how does Stock dare to speak on this topic? She explains: “It is plausible to say […] that […] only trans people can really understand what it’s like to live as a trans person in a mostly cis world. But it’s a wild leap from there to saying that only trans people can legitimately comment on the philosophical nature and practical consequences – for everybody – of gender identity. As a lesbian and as a sex-nonconforming woman I too have skin in this game – not to mention as an academic who cares about ideas, and as a feminist who cares about other women. In any case, trans people reasonably disagree among themselves about gender identity” (p. 42).

While it is often said that only trans-identifying people can speak in this debate, their arguments (and practice) concern other people too. And in academia – despite the huge influence of standpoint epistemology – the spaces should be preserved (recreated) to speak of other than (only) positioned knowledge. 

GENDER IDENTITY AS IDENTIFICATION

Every sex-nonconforming person (ie, who doesn’t fulfil the societal expectations towards men and women), including sexual and gender minorities, deserves the same right to a life without discrimination and without fear from violence. However, the current political goals of trans and queer activism go way beyond that legitimate claim to the extent that the concepts of discrimination, violence and hatred are inflated – treating counterarguments to any activist claims or social science research on the formation of identities or proliferation of non-binary gender identities also as such. This phenomenon deserves scholarly attention. 

In the approach of gender identity theory, what makes you a man or a woman is your deeply felt identity, something only the individual can know. This is a radical, ontological claim, which denies basic facts of biology (or treats biological facts as social constructions). In her book, Stock reconstructs the intellectual origins of this theory, examines several factors that might explain their rapid political success, and considers its consequences not only for women’s rights but also for our common, shared realities. She goes through a range of arguments used by gender activists (and activist scholars) and debunks them one by one (“even biological sex is not binary”, “the sexes are socially constructed”, “using the word woman for adult human females reduces women to their biology”, “trans people exhibit higher suicide rates” etc).

Her main issue are the three models in use for gender identity theory. First, that gender identity would be something innate, a persistent stable part of the self. Second, that it would be a medical condition (as in gender dysphoria): pathologising it, but also insisting that the individual has no access and responsibility; and third, the queer theory model, which treats identities as fluid and fundamentally social, without material, pre-discursive anchors.

Stock shows the contradictions between these three accounts – all three in use to argue for trans rights – but also their fallacies. And she proposes a fourth: that gender identity is an interpretation of our reality, an identification. While identifications are not completely conscious – on the contrary, they start subconsciously – a role is allowed for personal meaning-making (p. 132). Indeed, this model provides a better-founded, less individualistic and more societal approach for gender identity than the three others. Her goal is not to ‘erase’ trans people out of existence (of which she is often accused) but to provide a more convincing account of gender identity. 

IN DEFENCE OF CATEGORIES

Stock is a philosopher. For her, concepts and categories are extremely important. Following Judith Butler and queer theory in the activism of the postmodern Left, categories are not treated as vehicles to articulate social injustices but seen as (co-)responsible for those injustices – as if the prevailing inequalities between women and men would disappear if we queer, blur or destabilise the categories themselves. In this scholarly inspired activism, the differentiation (the presumable selection of people into male and female) counts as a violent and arbitrary act (hence the formulation ‘sex assigned at birth’).

But forming concepts is not an exclusionary, hierarchical act, but a necessary cognitive activity for humans. Stock writes, “an important assumption of hers [Butler] is that any binary theory of the sexes must inevitably be ‘normative’ and therefore ‘exclusionary’ in a way that it props up power imbalances between groups. […] In fact, no such norms are built into any of the three models of the sexes described above. It is not an exclusionary norm to insist that males, as such, possess a Y chromosome or be on a small-gamete-producing pathway. Rather, it is a way of conceptually differentiating between two kinds of entity, assumed to be naturally found in the world. Simply noting that some people fulfil such facts and others don’t is not a value judgement about superiority or inferiority” (p. 61). 

Even if we start to use the concepts ‘man’ and ‘woman’ to talk about man-/woman-identifying people (of whichever biological sex), we will still need concepts for adult human males as females – as the underlying realities make it necessary to have words for that. 

“YOU SOUND LIKE THE RIGHT WING!”

The right-wing surge all over Europe and their anti-LGBT propaganda indeed poses a serious challenge to discussing these questions. We can observe the growing stigmatisation of minorities (including sexual and gender minorities) declared to be outside the national community in many countries, including my own, Hungary. This development flattens the discourse on the progressive side and simplifies everything to “good versus bad” (p. 219). But this – argues Stock – shouldn’t lead to tabooing necessary discussions and to not seeing the complexities and consequences of presumably emancipatory political claims.

Stock is not a social scientist, and indeed much research is still needed to understand ‘how we got here’ – that is, to this “ideologically driven policy-capture” (p. 215). Part of this is surely what she describes: the contribution of academic theories to this kind of activism. Another part seems also plausible, namely that the long oppression of homosexual people makes progressives wary of committing the same mistake – hence treating the equality of same-sex attraction on the same level as trans and genderqueer claims.

The currently fashionable approach of intersectionality is also used to the service of these claims: “People used to think black women weren’t women […] So trans women must be women”. But just because “a particular group has been wrongly excluded from a given category in the past”, doesn’t mean that “where a completely different group is presently being excluded from that same category, this exclusion must be wrong too […] People used to think whales weren’t mammals; this doesn’t mean mackerel are mammals now”. This focus on an inclusion/exclusion into the category of woman goes back again to the Butlerian view that any categorisation and differentiation is an act of dominance and hierarchy. But it is not, it is just a cognitive distinction.

The concepts of woman and man (meaning adult human female or male) indeed are based on cognitive distinctions, but, as Stock argues, without meaning a normative hierarchisation or a biological determinism. However (and these are the political stakes), if this differentiation is framed as exclusion in a normative sense, as hate, and sometimes even compared to fascism (as by Judith Butler herself), then every instrument is justified to stop it. Then everyone who feels oppressed by this view can feel legitimised to use any available means – bullying, deplatforming, trying to get someone fired – because it is then just self-defence, a fight against an unjust system.

Many on the Left argue that ‘cancel culture’ is a concept that has been made up by the Right. What is clear is that freedom of speech doesn’t mean that your view cannot be criticised. However, precisely how Stock has been treated in past years, and particularly since the publication of her book, indicates that this phenomenon exists on the Left, and needs to be taken seriously. The situation is indeed delicate as no one on the Left wants to be labelled ‘right-wing’, and even less to be a useful idiot to the Right. But we should carve out a space where we can carry out these badly needed debates, before all space is monopolised by the Right. Stock’s Material Girls – Why Reality Matters for Feminism is a calm and sensible invitation precisely to this aim. It shows that it is possible to be empathetic towards minorities while debunking unfounded arguments and harmful practices.

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