Wednesday, 6 December 2017

TERFs are wrong – why that’s a problem for the Left

“TERF” stands for “transgender-exclusionary radical feminist”. The term is very, very familiar to anyone who follows LGBT and feminist issues on social media, and probably quite obscure elsewhere. For what’s supposed to be a network for mutual support and protection, the online LGBT community spends an extraordinary amount of server space debating who belongs in it and who doesn’t. Nowadays it’s generally accepted that transgender people do belong; the big debate, online, is over whether asexual people do. But “generally accepted” isn’t the same as “universally accepted”, and the ones who don’t accept it can get pretty nasty sometimes.

TERFs don’t accept transgender people’s identifying gender, and in particular they don’t accept that trans women are women. Like other transphobes, TERFs read transgender women as “men pretending to be women” – a misframing which does real harm (an identity is not a pretence), but fundamentally a matter of perception rather than of fact. What distinguishes TERFs from other transphobes is the motive they ascribe to transgender women for this alleged pretence, namely “ they can rape lesbians.” That is a matter of fact, and the facts are clear. Transgender identities are not motivated by a desire to rape lesbians. TERFs are wrong. I’m not debating this point any further. I’m not going to waste space rehashing here what I’ve already written about gender identity, when trans people are far more worth listening to on the subject than I am; and the rape accusation is preposterous, but the people who need convincing of that aren’t likely to listen to me.

So why am I writing this? Because, preposterous as it is, TERF ideology is a necessary logical consequence of three propositions which the Left today holds dear. Since TERFs are wrong, one or more of the three propositions must be false. We need to find out which one and stop using it – even at the cost of having to mince words like moderate liberals instead of making bold sweeping proclamations about overthrowing oppressors and remaking society. The three propositions are

  1. Feminism. Women do not yet enjoy basic rights equal to men. This is due to men’s actions, and social structures upheld by men’s actions.
  2. Social constructionism. Most, if not all, things we perceive as enduring realities are in fact products of societal roles and institutions – gender most pertinently.
  3. Dialectical materialism. Institutions such as the state exist to allow powerful classes to exploit powerless ones. Classes are distinguished by having divergent material interests, and individuals act in their class’s interests, so the exploitation can only end if the powerless class overthrow the institutions.

See what follows when you put these together? Men, the powerful class, materially exploit women, the powerless class, by impregnating them. A woman is someone who can get pregnant and a man is someone who can make a woman pregnant; those are the material interests by which alone the two classes are meaningfully distinguished. Any other distinction is merely a gender role, socially constructed to maintain the power of men over women. If someone who can make women pregnant adopts womanly roles and calls themself a woman, it must be somehow a subterfuge to advance the interests of men, and the only way that makes anything remotely resembling sense is if they are trying to infiltrate the ranks of those women who have refused to act as brood-stock – i.e., lesbians. Hence TERF ideology. If we agree that the conclusion is preposterous (and if you don’t, please take the debate to a different post) then one or more of the premises must be false. Our remaining task is to find out which. Let’s examine them one by one.

First, briefly, the feminist premise. I’m not going to take up any space with this; I’m as certain that it’s true as I am about pretty much anything in politics. Women are disrespected, disregarded, underpaid, discriminated against, sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, held responsible for men’s sexual behaviour towards them, and refused basic healthcare on specious moral grounds. If you’re new to my blog, I promise you can while away hours reading the posts I’ve written on the subject elsewhere; again, if you disagree I’ll ask you to take the debate to one of those posts instead of this one. This can’t be the false premise we’re after. We must pursue the other two.

Next we turn to the social-constructionist premise. You might be surprised to see this among the pillars of TERFism, as it’s frequently employed to defend transgender people against gender-essentialistic transphobes. A little thought should reveal the fundamental misguidedness of this approach. Social constructionism would have it that people learn their gender identity from their upbringing: those raised as girls identify as women, those raised as boys identify as men. Well, our society tries very hard to force gender identities on trans children during their upbringing, and it doesn’t work. Trans girls forcibly raised as boys become trans women. Trans boys forcibly raised as girls become trans men. There’s something innate about gender identity that society just can’t get at, and trans people are the proof – a proof that was rejected by the psychological establishment for decades while it used social-constructionist theories to justify extreme gender enforcement practices like cutting up intersex babies’ genitals. Surgery for the body and social construction for the mind, parents were promised, and you’ll never know the difference.

Social constructionism’s appeal to the Left is manifold. For many young people who learn about it during tertiary study, it’s the first coherent alternative they encounter to the idea that things just are the way they are and imagining them otherwise is stupid – that pink for girls and short hair for boys are as permanent features of the world as cats purring and dogs barking. If that’s what you’ve always thought, of course it feels liberating when you find out how much of the world is actually just make-believe. Also, it’s a collectivistic sort of idea, and in Left parlance words like “collective” and “community” are often contrasted positively with the supposed “individualism” of the neoliberal system. This, as I’ve said before, gets our values and goals exactly backwards; fair pay, safety at work, bodily autonomy, marriage equality, disability accommodations, etc., are all individual rights. But it’s true enough that our chief weapon in the fight for those rights is organized collective action. (Neoliberals and conservatives, conversely, talk about individual responsibility a lot, but apparently an individual’s chief responsibility is to function smoothly as a unit of abstract collective entities like “the economy” or “the traditional family”.)

Less creditably, social constructionism is still occasionally used to cast doubt on scientific ideas that happen to be politically inconvenient. Of course the findings, theories, methods, practice, and philosophy of science can and should be critiqued continually; that’s the path to progress. But when someone calls the very concept of science a social construct just when someone has asked them for the evidence backing up their own claims, you can confidently bet they haven’t got any. And social-constructionist “critiques” tend to be laughable. Have you ever seen someone trying to do something technical that you were competent at, and they were about to make a beginner’s mistake with ghastly consequences? Suppose you tried as politely as possible to put them right and avert the disaster; and suppose that they turned around and shouted in your face, “Or maybe you don’t know everything! Ever think of that?” Social-constructionist criticism of science typically strikes roughly that close to the mark.

Proponents of social constructionism seem to mean two different things by it, and to switch between the meanings as convenient. We’re dealing here with a motte-and-bailey argument, or perhaps a deepity. That is, in one sense the claim that gender (or IQ, or whatever) is socially constructed is defensible but of little consequence; in the other it’s profound and far-reaching, but faultily reasoned. Let me explain.

Some things are social constructs in anyone’s book, and “weak” social constructionism starts with these: institutions such as money, property, political office, national borders, the law, the calendar, or the road code. These things matter to our lives, but they only exist because we all agree to pretend they exist. Were I teleported right now to any country that doesn’t take New Zealand currency, I would be instantly penniless. Social construction is how we persuade each other to agree to the pretence. But we build constructions around things that aren’t make-believe as well. Most of you are not (unlike me) such damn fools as to have deliberately given yourselves a shock from the mains in your youth to see whether electricity was real. You knew it was real because of warning stickers on electrical equipment, the height of the fuseboard in your house, the connotations of words like “electrifying”, TV or movie electrocution scenes with those little crawling blue lightning-bolts everywhere – in short, because of the social constructions around it.

But you can’t do much with weak social constructionism. It’s a novel insight but I’ve yet to find a problem you can solve with it. It doesn’t offer a tool to effect cultural change, nor a licence to disregard science. You could peel off the warning stickers and start calling things “electrifying” when you mean “sentimental”, but that wouldn’t make it any safer to put your fingers on the terminals of your bedside lamp and turn the switch on. And it doesn’t have any bearing on whether gender identity is make-believe. If that’s what you want, you need “strong” social constructionism.

Years ago I started writing a post on this blog about the practical applications of social constructionism, and stopped because I realized in the process that there weren’t any. At that time the Wikipedia article on the topic had a concise explanation of strong social constructionism, now edited out, which read

...all reality is thought, all thought is in a language, all language is a convention, and all convention is socially acceptable, hence, it uses language to socially programme.

“All reality is thought” is a philosophy called idealism, and the problem with idealism is it naturally reverts to another philosophy called solipsism (“All reality is my thought”). The Ruler of the Universe in Douglas Adams’ Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series is a solipsist: he doesn’t believe in any reality external to himself, physical or social. That’s no use in this discussion. Social constructionism isn’t going to work if there is no society. But non-solipsistic idealism just doesn’t make sense. Idealists have never solved what they call the Problem of Other Minds. To you I am part of your external reality, just as to me you are part of my external reality. If your external reality is a product of your mind, I must be a product of your mind. Need an analogy? Solipsism is the belief that the entire internet is stored on your own computer; idealism is the belief that the entire internet is stored on your own computer except Facebook.

One might argue for a subtler version of “All reality is thought”: there may exist a reality external to our thought, but we can never apprehend it until it enters our thought. True enough, but that by itself is weak social constructionism. To make it strong, we must also posit that the parts of reality that we do apprehend can never be affected by the parts of reality that we don’t apprehend – and we have no grounds for positing any such thing. René Descartes made an identically flawed case for separating body from soul in what we still call “Cartesian” dualism. “I think, therefore I am,” he pointed out; he could be absolutely sure his consciousness existed. His body, however, might for all he knew be an illusion. Therefore, he reasoned, his consciousness could not be an effect caused by his body. The argument does not follow unless we assume that things we are sure of cannot be caused by things we aren’t sure of, which is not evident at all.

And then we jump from “All thought is in a language” to “All language is a convention”, and thus commit the cardinal logical fallacy known as equivocation. It’s not that either statement is wrong by itself. Thoughts are neural representations of things in the world, and for one thing to be a representation of another thing there must be some systematic correspondence between them; you can call the system of correspondence a “language” if you like. But “All language is a convention” is only self-evident if it refers to languages of communication between individuals, such as spoken language. You can’t prove that schemas of neural representation are social conventions merely by using the same word for them, “language”, that you use for protocols of communication. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – the claim that everyone’s thought is confined to the vocabulary and grammar of the language(s) they have learned to speak, a mainstay of strong social constructionism – has never been substantiated.

Strong social constructionism thus fails to demonstrate either that reality is constructed or that such construction is social in nature. TERF ideology’s second premise is tottering – but, alas, not yet falling. We have had to admit that at least some things are social constructs. Is gender identity a social construct, like money, or a reality with social construction around it, like electricity? Scientific consensus points towards the latter, but TERFs will argue that the science is ideologically driven. And even if gender identity is a biological reality, there are species – I believe cuttlefish are best known for it – in which some males appear female in order to sneak past other males to the females they’re guarding, which is within shouting distance of what TERFs accuse trans women of doing. I should emphasize that there is zero evidence for this system in humans, but there’s zero evidence for most of TERFs’ other empirical claims and that hasn’t stopped them. So we can’t stop here. We need to examine the third premise of TERF ideology as well.

Dialectical materialism is the founding principle of Marxism. Observing the predatory exploitation rife in industrial capitalist Victorian England, Karl Marx sought a theory of society that would challenge rather than justify the status quo. He found half of it in G. W. F. Hegel’s concept of dialectic. Where other philosophers explained the world as a static structure, Hegel envisioned it as a dynamic clashing and resolution of opposing theses. He and Marx alike saw the French Revolution as a hopeful precursor of the final climax of history, which was to be the synthesis of the last thesis and antithesis standing. However, Marx found Hegelian dialectic airy-fairy and theological, more concerned with abstractions than with empowering the downtrodden. So the second half of dialectical materialism is the materialism: production is the engine of society. The last thesis and antithesis are the working class who produce value through their labour and the ruling class who confiscate that value and redistribute crumbs of it as wages. Since the ruling class need the working class’s labour but the working class don’t need the ruling class’s rule, the final victory will go to the workers.

For much of the Left, Karl Marx remains the highest authority in political theory. Occasionally I see Marxists disagree with him on some minor point, and for some reason feel the need to laugh it off by remarking “Well, it’s not as if we’re Christian fundamentalists and Marx is Jesus.” I hate to break it to you guys, but speaking as an ex-Evangelical it’s exactly as if you’re Christian fundamentalists and Marx is Jesus. (I exaggerate; Marxists don’t sing songs about Marx very often.) It goes far beyond the way physicists talk about Newton or evolutionary biologists talk about Darwin. Newton and Darwin are interesting chiefly for the work that has been done since their time refining and expanding on their achievements. Their theories are the starting-points, not the end-points, in their respective disciplines. By contrast, Marx and Jesus have in common that their followers think they are the final answer to the questions asked of them. Evangelicals think Jesus is the cure for every trouble, and otherwise intelligent Marxists have been known to address complex socioeconomic conundra with this GIF and nothing else:

Portrait of Karl Marx, zooming in

The mark of a scientific hypothesis is that it is laid open to refutation by empirical evidence. The twentieth century saw dozens of experiments in revolutionary Marxism, all of which followed a remarkably similar trajectory. Not one of them came near even the interim socialist state that Marx thought would precede true stateless communist society, let alone the communist society itself. All instead became brutal patriarchal dictatorships where truth was censored and dissent could get you tortured or killed. Marxists correctly assert that this wasn’t what Marx had in mind, but seldom admit even a theoretical possibility that he might have got something important wrong. When I was in student politics the excuse was always that communism had been infected with the poison of Josef Stalin; nowadays it seems to be more popular to argue that all the communist regimes were infiltrated by the CIA – which necessarily entails that Marxist revolution is fatally vulnerable either to infection by Stalinism or to infiltration by the CIA. There’s no way around it: Marxism must be either overhauled or scrapped.

So where does dialectical materialism go wrong? Well, starry-eyed socialist movements reliably become murderous communist dictatorships when they start purging the slightly better-off peasants as “class traitors”. Dialectic is reputed to challenge hard epistemic boundaries between categories of people, but here it reinforces them: you can’t have one foot in each camp. That’s because material interests are held to be the thing that distinguishes class from class, and dialectic dictates that the classes must clash. Sound familiar? As we saw, this is the core of the bizarre accusation that TERFs level at trans women. The difference is that where Marxist dialectical materialism divides society down lines of production, TERF dialectical materialism divides it down lines of reproduction. Is that what TERFs get wrong? Can we fault them for that alone and carry on with our Marxist programme unchanged?

Not if we want to retain our commitment to feminism. Men commit over 95% of all sexual assaults, most of them against women. Yet it’s women’s sexual behaviour that is most heavily policed by patriarchal society. If a woman gets pregnant in unapproved circumstances it’s her, and not the other party, that bears the penalty. And yet terminating unwanted pregnancy, or even preventing it through means other than sexual purity, is frowned upon as well. The one premise that makes sense of all these contradictions is that men seek to control women’s sexuality and reproduction for their own benefit. If there was ever such a thing as exploitation, that’s exploitation. The fault does not lie in the element where TERF ideology deviates from Marxism. It must therefore lie in one of the elements that TERF ideology shares with Marxism.

Hegelian dialectic is supposed to be the ultimate antidote to essentialism, the notion that things and people have fixed “essences” that never change. The fault in it is that it doesn’t deserve this reputation. It is a halfway-house between essentialism and the real antidote. Where essentialism posits fixed essences that never change, dialectic posits fixed essences that change only in collision with opposing essences. Thus a boss or manager who thinks they’re a comrade of the working-class is kidding themself, and a person with a penis who thinks they’re a woman is kidding themself. Managers cannot be comrades until the Revolution abolishes class, and impregnators cannot be women until the Revolution abolishes gender. Essentialism sees the world as a rigid structure staying in one place; dialectic sees it as a set of rigid structures moving around, bumping into each other and shattering.

The truly radically anti-essentialist view would be that there were never any fixed essences or rigid structures to begin with. The universe is a sea of unique entities interacting with each other; society, as a subset of the universe, is a network of unique individuals in relationships with each other. This big picture, however, is too complicated in its full detail for the human brain to grasp, so we categorize and label things and people to cut down the complexity to something our cognitive faculties can cope with. Our categories and labels often do reflect real clusters, local peaks in the distribution of things, out in the world; but those clusters are not held together by any shared “essence” beyond the fact that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. This is the grain of truth in social constructionism, the contaminating error being the idea that redrawing the category lines somehow changes the things within them. If you want a name for this philosophy, I think it’s what Buddhist philosophers refer to as śūnyatā – “emptiness”.

Now I’ve seen TERFs argue that a gender identity programmed into the brain would be a fixed essence, thus making acceptance of transgender identities an essentialistic stance. So I need to take a moment to explain why that’s wrong. Sex differentiation goes back far enough in our species’ history, and is relevant enough to our reproduction, that you’d expect us to have evolved brain circuitry dedicated to telling us where we fit into it; and evolution being the haphazard, good-enough-will-do process that it is, you’d expect the occasional mismatch between brain circuitry and genitalia. Gender essentialism asserts that a person’s genitals (or gonads or sex chromosomes) indicate their true essence more reliably than their identity does. But since there is no such thing as a true essence, this assertion is meaningless. Words mean what we choose to use them to mean. We call a person a woman if she identifies as a woman or a man if he identifies as a man not because their identity constitutes their essence, but because that’s the decent thing to do.

What would happen to Left politics if we replaced Hegelian dialectic with śūnyatā? Would we have to surrender to the corporations? Would we lose our drive for solidarity? Would the line between oppressor and oppressed become impossibly blurred? Obviously I don’t think so, as I accept śūnyatā and I still swing Left. Considering society as a network of relationships makes more sense of the world, I find, than dialectic. Marxists call it “false consciousness” when workers show more loyalty to their boss than to workers from other places. Why this happens takes some explaining, if your theory of politics is based on people acting in the interests of their class. If on the other hand you’re thinking of networks of relationships, the mystery dissolves: the workers have a relationship, albeit exploitative, with their boss, but no relationship at all with the distant workers. Far from downplaying the importance of solidarity, this perspective underscores the importance of building relationships across groups with common interests. The union movement would remain crucial to the Left cause.

But there would certainly be changes. We would stop pinning our hopes on one glorious apocalyptic coming revolution and start making concrete changes for good in the present. We would stop sabotaging our own cause by telling people voting is pointless because “if it changed anything it would be illegal” and “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. I often see leftists of various colours rejecting initiatives that are steps in the right direction, such as Fair Trade or the Universal Basic Income, on the basis that they don’t start by uprooting the system. That attitude would have to go. Anger is appropriate when people are getting hurt; not when they’re getting helped but it doesn’t look like the Revolution you were promised. The path to a better world is not going to involve you pointing an Uzi at your boss or the cops. The small (but alas non-zero) percentage of leftists for whom that’s the whole point would no longer be welcome.

As for the LGBT community, if śūnyatā became a guiding principle, all the hurtful time-wasting arguments about who The Acronym does and doesn’t stand for would fade away. People’s access to support would not be determined by whether they fit some arbitrary definition, but by what their needs were and what was the kindest thing to do. And nobody would be a TERF.


  1. I doubt most people are going to read this one, let alone follow it....

    1. Most people don't read my blog anyway. 34 people have read this post since I posted it last night, which is a big spike on my readership graph. The title is the kind of statement that starts arguments on LGBT Tumblr; unfortunately Tumblr's search function ignores posts with links from other sites. Which is a bit of a bugger since I originally joined Tumblr with a view to spreading this blog's readership a bit further.