The Spectator is a right wing current affairs magazine in Britain. Recent articles on its blog include The #MeToo movement reveals feminism’s obsession with victimhood, written by one Joanna Williams, “author of the newly released Women vs Feminism“.
Other pieces on the blog have derided elements of transgender politics. Questioning gender fluidity is the new blasphemy, writes Brendan O’Neill (14 Nov 2017. See the Wikipedia entry on O’Neill for a summary of his political trajectory from left to right). He says that “the establishment”, including the Tory Government, the Anglican Church, and “the armed wing of the state”, has embraced the trans trend.
The capitulation of the establishment to the politics of transgenderism has been astonishing… An elite, eccentric idea that has its origins in the rarefied land of Gender Studies department, whose language — cis, ze, gender fluidity — is the language of academic cliques rather than of pubs or bus-stops or barbershops, is being foisted on the land by religious and political institutions now more keen to cosy up to tiny groups of influential campaigners than to connect with the concerns of ordinary people…
Anyone who claims that trans politics is edgy is kidding themselves: it is one of the most established, protected ways of thinking of our time….
His underlying explanation for the power of the trans trend, and its hold over the powers-that-be, seems to be one of moral decay, which he articulates in relation to Anglican education. The Church of England’s guidelines
instruct teachers to let kids explore gender identity ‘without…comment’… Teachers who want to keep their jobs have little choice but to accept this advice… the importing of trans thinking into schools… shows how far down the rabbit hole of relativism our society has gone.
I fear for the future if we will not even tell boys they are boys and girls they are girls. If teachers lack the authority even to say, ‘You’re a boy and should wear a boy’s uniform’. We are cultivating a new generation that will expect its every instinct to be instantly respected, and worse that the social infrastructure, from bathrooms to uniform policies, should mould themselves around their instincts.
In another article, The word ‘woman’ is being erased from public life (23 Oct 2017) O’Neill says:
Frontpage headlines [in the mass circulation gutter rag The Sun] declare, ‘MAN HAS BABY’ and ‘Baby joy of first British man to give birth’. Media outlets [in the Murdoch stable] inform us that ‘Statistics reveal men have given birth to 54 babies in Australia’ and ‘Pregnant British man gives birth to daughter’…
The British Medical Association says doctors should stop saying ‘mothers-to-be’ and instead say ‘pregnant people’…
We are living through a collapse of the most basic moral and biological categories of speech and understanding….
At first glance some of this material feels welcome. Finally someone is admitting that trans trend is mainly imposed from above, nourished by the establishment! But it is wrapped within a toxic package. It positions ordinary people as lowbrow traditionalists, confronted by degenerate elites and uppity kids. It demands a return to traditional roles and morals in a world going mad. The references to female erasure suggest that the writer has rummaged around in radical feminism in a search for theoretical depth. But he offers women nothing but a return to the past.
The establishment does indeed support the trans trend. But the elite is not a place where Gender Studies academics rub shoulders with Tory grandees, nor is it composed of cowards who cringe before trans lobby groups. (It is the other way around: these groups only become “influential” thanks to the support they have received from the mass-circulation media and other neoliberal institutions.)
The establishment is based around the capitalist class which finds the trans trend very useful to its own agenda. Female participation in the workforce and higher education tends to erode sexist ideology. But the capitalist class needs to shore up sexism, and women’s oppression more generally, because the bosses are addicted to women’s unpaid labour – housework, child care, aged care – and want to transfer ever more of the burden of social care from government onto “the family” ie women. For them the new cool sexism of transgender is heaven-sent. To oppose this sexism is also to oppose capitalist interests. That is something that social conservatives will never say.
Transgender is not the only issue that disrupts traditional left-right divisions.
The Brexiteers are led by Tory nationalists who fantasise about a return to Britain’s former “greatness”. They also want to win votes via racism and the Leave side certainly includes out and out racists and fascists. But there are also leftist Lexiteers who (like me) support Britain breaking with the EU because it is a key organising body of neoliberalism and western imperialism. Many Leave voters were motivated by hostility to the effects of EU-imposed austerity, not by racism. On the Remain side are big business, which understands that the needs of British capitalism are best served by staying in the EU, but also most left-wingers and millions of working people who support the free movement of labour across European borders.
Russia’s bestial bombing campaign in Syria was denounced by many left wingers, not just for its sheer barbarity, but because it was an attack on the Syrian revolution and the right of the Syrian people to decide their own destiny. But supporters of US imperialism also wept crocodile tears over the Russian bombing – neocons eager for the USA itself to unleash new campaigns of mass murder in the Middle East to advance its strategic interests. And then there are many liberal and humanitarian-minded people sincerely horrified by the bombings, and who would also be horrified at the USA supporting Saudi Arabia’s monstrous bombing campaign in Yemen, but who still see the USA as a force for civilisation, democracy and women’s rights.
Leftist and right wing opponents of Russia’s role in Syria might both applaud a piece of investigative journalism that uncovered the realities of Assad’s chemical attacks, or the targeting of Russian bombs on civilian areas. The different agendas of the Left and Right only become evident when an author generalises from the immediate facts and gives them a wider political interpretation.
Differentiating from the Right
In my opinion, progressive trans-critics need to differentiate themselves from the Right, not just in the occasional throw-away line but by explicitly attacking the anti-woman and generally reactionary politics of social conservatives (not least when they try to draw on the work of trans-critical feminists).
One example of this is the issue of sex, biology and gender. Trans-critical progressives and conservatives can agree that chromosomes establish people as female or male, and that gender should not be replacing sex as a legal category. They may both point out that female biology is the basis of distinctive and rather significant experiences such as child birth and menstruation. But after that they part ways. For trans-critical progressives, biological sex is only the starting point for a lifetime of sexual discrimination and oppressive socialisation. They point out that replacing “sex” with “gender” obscures this process, and reinforces sexism, by conflating female and feminine. Conservative writers, on the other hand, generally allow their readers to ascribe a more traditional sexist meaning to the male-female division, one in which chromosomes naturally produce feminine and masculine personalities. These conservatives need to be challenged by trans-critical progressives.
As previously stated on this blog, any victories scored by social conservatives against the transgender lobby will predominantly reinforce a their own, anti-woman agenda. The anti-trans position of the Right also reinforces the storyline accepted by the great majority of leftists and liberals, which frames all opposition to transgender demands as bigotry.