An open letter to Jan Thomas, Vice-chancellor of Massey University.
Massey University in Wellington is the venue for an event on 13 November called Feminism 2020, organised by Speak Up For Women (SU4W). The university has come under pressure from rightist forces masquerading under the banner of transgender rights to break its contract with the meeting organisers and cancel the booking. At the time of writing, the university has resisted the pressure to cancel the venue booking. However, on 27 September it released a statement which can only be read as paving the way for cancelling the meeting. This open letter was written response to that statement.
To Jan Thomas,
Dear Ms Thomas,
I commend Massey University’s stated commitment to free speech, and in particular, its decision to host the event Feminism 2020 in face of criticism and pressure to shut the meeting down.
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Here is a welcome piece from the New Zealand Marxist website Redline, discussing the left’s capitulation to gender ideology. It points out that this is effectively a collapse into the subjectivist element of postmodernism, and abandons a materialist understanding of the world. And, again very welcome, the article reminds us that progressives used to support women-only spaces until the onset of gender ideology.
There is a contradiction at the heart of the trans phenomenon. On one hand it challenges traditional sexism, the centuries-old idea that sexual biology destines women and men to particular roles, competencies and attitudes – an idea that still dominates much of the world and ordinary people’s thinking. In making this challenge, individual trans people face discrimination and sometimes violence, and attacks from social conservatives who also attack same-sex attracted people and abortion rights. Looked at this way it seems obvious to most leftists and liberal feminists that they should simply embrace and defend trans people, and, as part of this, accept ideas of “gender identity” used to define them.
On the other hand, gender identity theory, the core of gender ideology, redefines women in sexist terms, and, like traditional sexism, naturalises the traits traditionally foisted on women, this time under a “progressive” banner. Discontent with sex stereotypes is now framed as a minority issue, to be solved individually not collectively. These ideas have made gender identity theory very appealing to the ruling capitalist class, which has used its corporate media, conservative as well as liberal, to mainstream it.
The ideology has been applied in many practical ways, such as the intrusion of male-bodied people into women-only spaces, organisations and sporting contests; “educational” programs for children that encourage mind-body dissociation and track kids into drug dependency and surgery; the censorship and sacking of dissident academics and physicians; and the no-platforming and harassment of women’s liberationists. These practical applications of the ideology are only possible thanks to the backing it has received from the ruling class. But in themselves these applications are of less interest to the bosses, and indeed sometimes irritate them, and this has created space for opposition to transgender demands to strengthen and grow among sections of the right. This in turn reinforces support for gender ideology among leftists.
How should gender critical leftists deal with this mess?
Separate trans people from sexist gender ideology
One answer is to separate trans people from sexist gender ideology, defending the first and attacking the second. Stripped of gender ideology’s packaging, trans people are simply people who choose to adopt the conventional appearance, and some of the conventional roles and habits, of the other sex. Such people have existed since confining sex roles first emerged in the remote past. It is true that these people rely on the trappings of oppressive sex roles to make this swap, but this can be used to highlight the artificiality of these roles, and they certainly challenge the traditional biology-is-destiny form of sexism. Seen in these terms, there is nothing in principle to stop such people making common cause with women’s liberationists.
Two factors blur the neat division between defending trans people and attacking gender ideology. One is terminology. The term “transgender” became popularised through the rise of gender ideology, so using the term automatically implies acceptance of the gender sexism. Secondly, the corporate media’s evangelism for gender ideology has massively increased the number of people identifying as trans, fluid or queer: many of these recruits might otherwise have identified as lesbian or gay, or else adopted woman-friendly ways to challenge sex stereotyping.
Neither of these factors, however, changes the underlying need to distinguish between an oppressed group and the conservative, sexist ideas used to defend that group. When a trans person is bashed, sacked or ostracised it is because they have defied the traditional form of sexism, not because they have embraced a new one.
Using victims to maintain oppression
There is a long history of the capitalist class using victimised or endangered peoples for their own benefit. World War One, a grotesque mass slaughter to defend western imperialism from upstart Germany, was often portrayed as the defence of little Belgium against the Hun; the first Gulf War against Iraq, a monstrous mass killing to maintain western imperialism’s hold over the Middle East, was described as the defense of Kuwait. More recently, crocodile tears are wept for the plight of women and gays in North Africa and the Middle East whenever western rulers want to blow them up and burn their cities.
But one of the most important examples today concerns Jews and Zionism. Jews were subject to the worst act of racism in human history. That racism never disappeared and is currently on the rise once more. Zionism, however, is a racist ideology which declares that Jews are inherently different to other people and for this reason can never live at peace alongside gentiles; it gives Israelis the right to dispossess Palestinians of their land and lock them up in Gaza and the West Bank. Strenuous efforts are made to link Jewishness and Zionism by Israel and its supporters: denunciations of Zionism, we’re told, are just dogwhistle code for hatred of Jews, you don’t “really” support Jews unless you also support concentration camps for the Palestinians. This lie is perpetuated because Israel polices the Middle East for Western powers. The point, however, is not to compare the actual ground-level persecution of Palestinians with the oppression of women, but to see how victims are sometimes used to disguise oppression, and how gender ideology fits into this pattern.
Unconditional but critical support
How do you support the struggle of an oppressed group when you disagree with – or even loathe – the ideology that prevails within its ranks? In these situations Marxists employ the formula of “unconditional but critical support”. The unconditional part means that your support is not conditional on the oppressed group adopting the ideology that you think will advance their cause. But (presuming you are correct) you can and should criticise that ideology, even while you back the oppressed people who currently endorse it. (The formula of unconditional but critical support can also be used when you oppose an oppressed group’s current leaders, and/or the current tactics or strategy that they follow. For further illustrations of the concept see here, here and here.)
So for example if a business sacks a trans person due to their management’s “Christian conscience” we would be right to join a trans activist picket against the firm. Or if a trans person is bashed outside a pub we might rally outside that pub alongside trans activists, even the most rabid gender ideologists, demanding that the management take a stand against violent bigots: rally with them, and defend them physically if need be. But at the same time we could have our own slogans, banners and leaflets which explain our differences to the gender ideologists. Joining that fight is right because a principle is involved: the struggle against oppression. But tactically it is also right, because it would put us alongside other people at the rally who are not hardened gender ideologists and could potentially be influenced by our arguments. They are much more likely to listen or read our pamphlets when they see us pitching into the struggle against bigotry.
At a later date, if trans activists had a second rally demanding the pub give transwomen access to women’s toilets, or install unisex ones, we could be counter-demonstrating against the trans activists, because the issue would be different. In that case the people who had fought alongside us the first time might be less quick to accept the vitriol we now received from the hardened TRAs.
Issues where the right and gender critical progressives seem to align
In most cases, though, right and left wing critics of gender ideology call for the same things: for transwomen to be excluded from women-only spaces, organisations and sports competitions, freedom for academics, psychologists and physicians to challenge gender ideology, and so on.
It happens now and then that some leftists and right wingers do share immediate concrete demands – eg an end to Russia’s bombing of Syria and support for Brexit. This creates problems. Your position can be used to discredit you by left wing opponents, who say you are lining up with the USA/Brexiteer racists. There is also a danger of leftists being pulled to the right by their new “allies”.
So it is vital from the start to articulate the distinctive reasons for your positions, and denounce your “friends” as well as your enemies. While the immediate demands are the same, the premises are entirely different, and these underlying assumptions lead off in different directions until they are diametrically opposed. For example, the left can defend women’s spaces as a partial defense against women’s oppression, and a way of highlighting it. But right wingers’ defense of women’s spaces is different: it ultimately falls back on notions that women are inherently frail and in need of protection, and/or have timeless, sacrosanct feminine rituals to enshroud; that biology is destiny. Social conservatives will then call for a return to traditional values, and opposition to gay rights and abortion. Right-of-centre liberals will want to use the women’s-spaces issue to discredit socialists and indeed any resistance to neoliberalism (the very thing that spawned gender ideology).
The centrality of class
Most of the struggle waged by gender critical progressives seems to be directed against transactivists. In my opinion this disguises the fundamental battle taking place and sets up a roadblock to further progress.
Continuing support from the capitalist class is absolutely essential to the gender ideologists. It is the corporate media, mainstream politicians, and high level institutions of neoliberalism that allow the emperor to wear no clothes – to conceal the emptiness of “gender identity”, the unscientific absurdity of denying the sexual binary, and above all, the attack on women that underlies them. If the bosses pulled their support for gender ideology, then its right wing liberal critics such as Helen Joyce, Janice Turner and Andrew Gilligan would quickly move to centre stage and they would be joined by a host of other mainstream commentators. Trans activists would cease to be celebrated in the media. But that is far from happening because gender ideology is the gift that keeps giving for the bosses.
The reasons for the bosses’ support, and the reasons why most of the left has capitulated to gender sexism, have been extensively discussed on this blog and elsewhere. The point to make here is that bosses support for gender ideology is part of its attack on working women and that in turn is part of its ongoing attack on the whole working class. The way forward is not overheated harangues with entitled, sexist trans activists but sober and steady argument with all those leftists and other working class people fighting neoliberalism.
Trans, fluid, queer people are oppressed under capitalism, so they need to be defended; any if buts or maybes is a concession to bigotry. That in essence is the position of most socialists. But it does in fact need to be qualified, because the ideas used to defend trans people are saturated in sexism. This has made the trans cause very attractive to the bosses, and it is for this reason that the corporate media have mainstreamed the trans phenomenon.
This does not mean trans individuals have it easy. Centuries of tradition have defined women and men by their sex and then attached stereotypical demands and expectations to both sexes. These traditions remain unchallenged in many parts of the world and continue to shape the views of most people in the west. Trans people suffer violence, abuse or discrimination because they transgress these old rules. They are oppressed. But the gender ideology used to define them is nonetheless applied by the bosses to help maintain the oppression of women.
The position of the capitalist class
The notion that the elite have driven the trans trend would be surprising and probably offensive to most leftists and liberals; any elite support is usually passed off as the result of changing social values in society as a whole, or due to pressure from below, or else people see the elite itself as divided along liberal-conservative lines, part of the so-called culture wars.
So it is important to look at the actual coverage of trans issues in the conservative sections of the corporate media. Take the Herald Sun, the Murdoch newspaper in the Australian state of Victoria, with the largest circulation paper of any daily in the country. On 29 May 2015 it ran an article called The transgender conversation we had to have (paywall, title slightly changed online). Transwoman Marco Fink, it tells us, “used to envy the girls at primary school, their freedom to wear dresses and express their femininity”. It approvingly cited Roz Ward, at that time a co-ordinator of Safe Schools Victoria, who “says transgender adults recall childhood experiences of being forced to wear a dress or of having all their sister’s dolls removed from the house to stop them playing with them. ‘Now if you ask any specialist in the transgender field they would say that is really damaging to a child’s health and wellbeing,’ she says.” So as well as handcuffing femaleness to femininity, the article positions trans specialists as the definitive or only people with something to say on the issue of discontent with sex stereotypes.
This political line is reflected on www.news.com.au, Murdoch’s free-access Australian website, which provides articles that also appear in the News, Lifestyle etc sections of Murdoch papers in different Australian states. I did a quick scan of its trans coverage in 2016 and came up with articles like these:
- Warren Beatty: ‘My transgender son Stephen Ira is my hero’
WARREN Beatty has given his first in-depth interview in 25 years to praise his transgender son…
- The mums pushing for change for their transgender children
(Led by photo of the mothers with Federal Labor Opposition Leader Bill Shorten)
RIGHT now, in homes all over Australia suburban mums are waging an almighty street fight. One day, someone will probably make a feature film about it. But for now, they are fighting in schools, courts, medical clinics, sporting clubs and even in the corridors of power in Canberra. These are the mothers of transgender children.
- $700 million basketball stadium’s bold new feature
A $700 million sports stadium’s fitout has ensured the Sacramento Kings basketball team’s arena toilets are open for use to all fans: kings, queens and anything in between…
- Transparent: The most important TV show you should be watching
JEFFREY Tambor has earned deep respect for being one of the most versatile and accomplished character actors in film and television. On Sunday night, he stood on the Emmys stage and made an impassioned plea to Hollywood…. “Please give transgender talent a chance…”
So the truth is that, like the liberal mass media, these conservative News Corporation papers have normalised trans ideology and even evangelised for it. They educate their readers that anatomy is no longer destiny – while sustaining the crucial idea of an inherent femininity and masculinity, so important to preserving the notions of female inferiority and natural servitude.
More rigorous research from Transgender Trend has demonstrated that the print media in Britain consistently popularised the idea that children could be born into the wrong body and used this to explain their discontent with sex stereotypes:
It is the media which has facilitated the speedy public “acceptance and recognition” of not just “transgender and gender diverse people” but the completely new belief that children are “transgender,” together with the idea that invasive medical intervention is a necessity. The press has a big influence on people’s views, including parents, teachers and all adults in a child’s life, and it plays a pivotal role in normalising and creating acceptance of ideas within society as a whole. Whether individual people believe that some children are “transgender” and that “physical treatments for younger adolescents” is a good idea is largely dependent on a societal consensus created in large part by the way the media reports it.
In other words the capitalist class as a whole has used its media, liberal and conservative, not to respond to pressure but to intervene in public thinking: to educate its readers to accept gender ideology.
Why the bosses drive support for gender identity theory
Gender ideology helps the capitalist class address a key dilemma concerning the place of women. The bosses want women as wage workers, but women’s mass entry into the paid workforce has given them greater confidence and a day-to-way awareness that they are very similar to men and in no way inferior. This is a major headache because the capitalist class needs women to retain a sense of their otherness and inferiority so that they will keep slaving away free of charge in the home, raising and maintaining today’s, tomorrow’s and yesterday’s wage slaves for the employer class. The bosses have no complete answer to this contradiction but address it as best they can, piecemeal, through selective endorsement of the least threatening elements of feminism: high-merit women should be able to rise into the elite, we love kick-ass females as long as they’re in heels, etc. Gender ideology provides a much-needed additional prop to this flimsy structure: it declares that the vast majority of natal females have a feminine gender identity, so it is natural that they love dressing up, gossiping, caring and nurturing. This is the message now being pumped into working class women and girls via the media, “progressive” school programs and other propaganda.
The limits of bosses’ support
Supercharged by this elite support, trans activists have naturally campaigned to put these ideas into practice. Transwomen, the say, are women because gender identity trumps sex, so they have the right to access woman-only spaces, and represent women in sports and other areas. Children’s resistance to the stereotypes they were born to shows the need to track them into trans identity. Opponents, critics or questioners in academia and the medical profession are simply bigots who should lose their jobs. Oppositional feminists are also bigots who should be censored and no-platformed.
The capitalist class does not have a strong interest in supporting these practical applications of gender identity theory, except insofar as they buttress the sexist belief-system underlying them. In fact, these practical issues sometimes create irritants for the bosses. These have been previously discussed on this blog, but in sum, they align the movement with the much-despised political left; they generate calls to subsidise costly surgery; they cause fights, where the bosses want order and stability; and above all, the attacks that the trans movement makes on women risk arousing widespread opposition from women themselves, defeating the whole point of it from an elite perspective.
The result is that the corporate media has, on the practical issues, divided along liberal-conservative lines, with the more conservative outlets criticizing aspects of trans demands, all the while maintaining support for the core concept of innate gender identity. (One Australian Murdoch paper has made half-hearted attempts to separate gender ideology from identity politics, highlighting the attack on queer theory by a prominent conservative transwoman, Catherine McGregor.)
The middle class and commentariat
Following the lead of the conservative media barons, many right wing commentators and right-of-centre liberals are now also opposing or questioning trans demands. In doing so they draw on traditional ideas of conservativism and classical liberalism. Women need separate spaces due to their inherent natural frailties, not because they are oppressed by the social system. Children’s asexual innocence should be protected. Freedom of speech is sacrosanct, and so on. These right wingers occupy a range of political positions, from a form of liberal feminism through to redneck intolerance. What unites them is a delight in using gender ideology to hammer the left and extend the hand of friendship to formerly left-leaning gender-critics. In Britain this has been used as one element in the campaign against Jeremy Corbyn, to try to crush the message of hope he brought to working people.
The response from gender critical feminists
Gender critical feminists are of course aware that the elite has championed gender ideology, but their primary concern is usually to defend women, children, principled professionals and feminists themselves from this ideology’s practical effects. This focus is reinforced by their support for patriarchy theory, which leads them to see trans activists rather than capitalism as the central enemy: trans activists being defenders of male privilege and a kind of advance guard for the oppressive male “sex class” as a whole.
The response from the left
The left has largely ignored the attack on women launched by gender ideologists, massively amplified though it is through the corporate media. They focus entirely on the fact that trans identity challenges traditional, biology-is-destiny forms of sexism, and buy into the idea that women and men are defined instead by the stereotypes they have internalised as inner feelings about themselves, as though this is somehow less sexist. The mystical notion of gender identity has been equated to the material realities of being gay, black, or disabled.
This seems to have hit the Trotskyist sections of the left harder than those in the Stalinist tradition. I think there are two connected reasons for this. One relates to the state of the western workers’ movement. The Trotskyists, particularly those in the International Socialist Tendency, take seriously the notion of workers’ self-emancipation: to liberate the world they look to the actual working class, rather than to left wing MPs, union bureaucrats or “radical” dictators. So they have been particularly hard hit by the sustained quiescence of the working class during the neoliberal era. Strikes are the key driver of workers’ radicalisation, but strike figures have been not only extraordinarily low by historical standards, these incredibly low figures have been sustained for an extraordinarily long time. While the Stalinists were immensely damaged by the collapse of the Eastern bloc, the period since then has probably done even more harm to the Trotskyists. They are demoralised and weakened.
This has led to the second reason for the capitulation to gender sexism: the Trotskyists’ greater dependency on the identity politics milieu, with its while-hot support for gender ideology, for influence, recruitment, and cadre.
The current mess
The result is a disastrous polarisation dominated by right wing ideas on both sides of the debate. On one side, a slimy neoliberal attack on women, using fake progressivism to keep women harnessed to unpaid work, and on the other, a resistance dominated by conservative and classical liberal ideas but shading through to the bigotry of the populist right – a coalition that is diverse in its attitudes to feminism but united by hostility to the working class and therefore to the interests of working women as a whole.
The next post will make a case for how socialists should respond to this mess.