“No-Platforming” and the Cult of Bad Arguments

Last week, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper had an opinion piece published by Politics.co.uk titled, “The attack on Germaine Greer shows identity politics has become a cult”. Now, as is the case on most sites with editors, she probably didn’t write the headline, so it doesn’t get her argument quite right. She actually argues that people who recognize the gender of trans people are totalitarians trying to brainwash the rest of the world.

No, really. I’m not exaggerating. That’s her argument.

The whole thing is so transparently ridiculous that I would just point and laugh if it weren’t for two things. First, I’ve seen “reason-loving” atheists who should really know better sharing the piece. Also, yesterday’s elections here in the U.S. have given us heart-breaking example of why of one of the central prongs of Reilly-Cooper’s article is wrong.

So let’s start there:

You might not like these opinions very much. You might find them rude, obnoxious, blunt and hurtful. You might think it is disrespectful and unkind for Greer to openly proclaim that she does not share trans people’s perceptions of themselves and their identity. You might think she is mistaken, that trans women are in fact women, and do experience forms of discrimination and marginalisation that other groups do not share. But whatever your view about the truth of these opinions, it requires quite an argumentative leap to define them as hate speech, or to claim convincingly that merely holding and expressing such views is equivalent to inciting violence, hatred and discrimination against trans people. Crucially, Greer was explicit that she was making no statement at all on what treatment trans people ought to have.

Greer doesn’t have to argue directly for discrimination in order to incite it. That might be required for a legal definition of incitement, but we’re not dealing with a court of law. We’re dealing with institutions deciding who to invite and pay to speak on their stage. We’re dealing in questions of political argumentation, where the “dog-whistle” has long been understood as a tactic for deniably advocating for discrimination.

The very definition of a dog-whistle is providing reasoning that would support discrimination without calling for discrimination outright. “I’m not saying, I’m just saying.” Anyone remotely versed in politics should recognize the tactic. You don’t have to be particularly versed in the arguments over discrimination against trans people to recognize it in Greer’s words now, and they were far less coded in the past:

I should have said ‘You’re a man. The Female Eunuch has done less than nothing for you. Piss off.’ The transvestite (sic) held me in a rapist’s grip…. Knee-jerk etiquette demanded that I humour this gross parody of my sex by accepting him as female, even to the point of allowing him to come to the lavatory with me. Bureaucratic moves were afoot to give him and his kind the right to female identity, a female passport even … It is strange though that a vocal and combative body of feminists did not throw the whole idea out on its’ ear before it was quietly and sneakily implemented.

Reilly-Cooper complains:

In the petition, Melhuish suggests that this belief “contribute[s] to the high levels of stigma, hatred and violence towards trans people”, but doesn’t explain how exactly this is supposed to work. In her article, Quinn makes some oblique references to hate speech – speech which incites violence, hatred or discrimination – but stops short of actually accusing Greer of hate speech against transgender people. She also alludes to violence and harassment experienced by trans people, implying – but again refraining from explicitly stating – that by holding the beliefs she does, Greer is in some way responsible for this violence.

This is a bit odd as a complaint, as Rachael Melhuish’s petition follows the standard advice to petition writers to keep things short (though I admit I’ve never gotten that hang of it). It also elides that Payton Quinn’s post talks about Greer’s “campaign” against trans people–her speaking and writing–not her thoughts. And today more than most days, it’s very easy to see how denying that trans women are women leads to discrimination.

For their campaign to keep HERO from passing, the anti-gay groups decided to use a strategy that concentrated on the one element of the legislation that would allow transgender people to use the bathroom or lockerroom assigned to whatever sex they identify as. The anti-HERO groups unfairly stoked voter’s fears, running TV ads insisting HERO would allow pedophiles to stalk girls in public restrooms.

The success of the campaign against the HERO ordinance was based in the idea that there should be “No men in women’s bathrooms”, as one sign said. Given that the ordinance thus struck down covered “sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, genetic information and pregnancy, in addition to the two petitioners take particular issue with (sexual orientation and gender identity)”, that’s an awful lot of discrimination now legal because people believed the assertion that trans women aren’t women.

Assertions like these have consequences, particularly assertions from respected people with large platforms. This isn’t about what Greer thinks, but about what she says and what follows from what she and others like her say. If she merely thought it, if it didn’t affect her behavior–and yes, speech is a behavior, particularly speech for publication–no one would know, much less care.

Reilly-Cooper’s argument falls apart at that point, when its argument from ignorance can no longer be sustained, which makes me tempted to leave it there. However, that wasn’t where Reilly-Cooper left it. The article goes on to talk about brain-washing techniques. Yes, really. So let’s take that apart quickly as well.

If you haven’t witnessed this first hand, this might sound a touch hyperbolic and overwrought. But in the methods and reactions of those who espouse the doctrine of gender identity, we see many, if not all, of the features of thought control identified by Robert Jay Lifton in his classic study of indoctrination in Chinese re-education camps, to varying degrees:

Lifton did indeed do pioneering work in this field. Despite what you may think if you watched The Manchurian Candidate, however, he was also one of the first people to note the long-term ineffectiveness of these strategies.

  • Milieu control – seeking to establish domain over what the individual sees, hears, reads or writes. Students at Cardiff University must not be permitted to hear Greer’s views, because those views are supposedly dangerous.

Actually, that’s not what milieu control is. Milieu control uses in-group and out-group boundaries to define who is worth listening to so that people will make the decision not to listen on their own. While it can involve thoroughly separating people from the outside world, internet-enabled college campuses with well-stocked libraries would be a poor choice of isolation venue. Incidentally, since we already know Reilly-Cooper has problems with this concept, it encourages people to engage or not engage with others not based on things they’ve said in the past but based on their group affiliation.

  • Demands for purity – dividing the world sharply into pure and impure, good and evil, believer and nonbeliever. There are people who believe that trans women are women, and there are transphobic bigots who “deny trans people’s right to exist”. No intermediate position is possible.

It is possible that Reilly-Cooper doesn’t know any of these people, but there are plenty of folks who are quietly confused about gender and identity and don’t think it’s really something they should make strong statements about on television and in the papers. They haven’t thought much about why they feel they are the gender they are much less what it would feel like to have the world constantly telling them otherwise, so they don’t think it’s any of their business. Also, I have no idea why “deny trans people’s right to exist” is in quotes. The only hits Google turns up for me are to this article and on trans-exclusionary sites.

  • A cult of confession – individuals are required to reveal their sins and transgressions in order to be redeemed. As a non-trans person, the only way to secure one’s status as an ally is to confess to one’s “cis privilege” and to engage in repeated, performative privilege checking. (My own personal experience of this came when I publicly stated that I do not accept the label “cisgender”, which resulted in my being accused of the chillingly Orwellian-sounding crime of “privilege denial”).

When Lifton wrote about a “cult of confession”, he wrote of a milieu in which confession became so important that people would histrionically confess to anything in order to be confessing. Thus, Reilly-Cooper begs the question in asserting that privilege checking is performative. On top of that, such an assertion is an assertion about people’s private intents and emotions, ironically making Reilly-Cooper’s argument hinge on thoughts rather than actions. Additionally, privilege isn’t something one does, which makes it ill-suited for confession, where allying is, which makes it ill-suited for a status. And I’m not even going to bother with the silly parenthetical, as it is thoroughly parenthetical.

  • Loading the language – the use of thought-terminating clichés and complex and ever changing terminological rules. Just try to critically examine the soundbite “trans women are women” and see how fast the accusations of prejudice and bigotry come flying in. This is a phrase intended to stop you asking difficult questions.

Something becomes a cliche because it is a useful shorthand. It is the jargon of daily life. This is how Lifton describes the difference between that and thought-terminating cliches:

To be sure, this kind of language exists to some degree within any cultural or organizational group, and all systems of belief depend upon it. It is in part an expression of unity and exclusiveness: as Edward Sapir put it, “‘He talks like us’ is equivalent to saying ‘He is one of us’.” The loading is much more extreme in ideological totalism, however, since the jargon expresses the claimed certitudes of the sacred science. Also involved is an underlying assumption that language — like all other human products — can be owned and operated by the Movement. No compunctions are felt about manipulating or loading it in any fashion; the only consideration is its usefulness to the cause.

In this case, “sacred science” is the group’s dogma. That’s not what happens with “trans women are women”, however. No one is saying, “‘Women’ means what we say it means. Nothing more and nothing less.” The argument is continually being made that the definitions of “women” that exclude trans women are insufficient to even include all cis women. They exclude women who aren’t fertile, women of color, disabled women, intersex women, women with unusual genetics, and other women depending on the definition used. If making arguments to support our points but occasionally referring to them in shorthand is totalitarian mind control, we’re all in very deep trouble.

When arguing that trans women aren’t women, there are essentially three options left. One can make a bald assertion, which is definitionally a prejudgment. One can continue to make the same arguments without addressing the criticism, which garners some reasonable concerns particularly when it comes from people who are usually good at arguing. (Whether it’s worth voicing those concerns in an argument depends largely on your goal.) Or one can come up with better arguments. I have yet to see the third option employed.

So, no, “Trans women are women” is not a thought-terminating cliche. Accusations of prejudice and bigotry lead from the kind of arguments happening over the statement. Calling them merely motivated by group identity is arguing for overdetermination. That point, like this entire article, is nonsense.

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“No-Platforming” and the Cult of Bad Arguments
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18 thoughts on ““No-Platforming” and the Cult of Bad Arguments

  1. 1

    From the linked article:

    As a non-trans person, the only way to secure one’s status as an ally is to confess to one’s “cis privilege” and to engage in repeated, performative privilege checking.

    Uh, no. I don’t think the goal should be to secure one’s status as an all [of trans people]. I think the goal should be to advocate for eliminating the discrimination and bigotry faced by trans people because it causes them to suffer and that’s not a good thing. People suffering is not good. Aiming for ally-status seems far too centered on the self, rather than pn helping dismantle the structures that oppress trans people (IOW, it’s not about “you”).

  2. 2

    Hopefully more people realise Zinnia was right when she said.

    If you’re oblivious enough to be on friendly terms with gendercrits, @boodleoops, and that whole ideological cluster, you are not an ally

    Unfortunately many are that oblivious!

    I found the “purity pledge” stuff funny, when on the “gender critical” page that Becca RC is a member of they have a pledge for trans women to be “good allies” (CN transphobia, here). Basically boils down to admit you are not a “real woman” and defer to terfs in all things, then we probably will allow you to express a few opinions online and not misgender you that often. Although even there I’ve seen terfs bullying their trans women “allies” by demanding they stop using female pronouns as they are “appropriating” womanhood.

  3. 3

    @Tony, good point. I’ve been called a “trans activist” or “MRA” as they like to call it, by @boodleoops (Becca-RC) and pals. I don’t think I’ve ever formally “confessed” to my cis-privilege, not even sure what that would look like, or what penance the trolly “SJWs” who follow me on Twitter would impose on me 😉

  4. 4

    That point, the entire article, the ENTIRE TERF position is complete nonsense. Maybe it is just that I an a fairly direct person, so I don’t bury my thoughts the way some “philosophers” do. Maybe that’s the reason why I see the contradictions, and assume that the huge volume of words is a way to hide fundamentally bad ideas. Maybe that’s why I feel that my assumption is justified by their desperation to make false claims about “free speech” and “silencing” to avoid outright stating their irrational bigotry.

    That’s definitely why I usually just call them “lying bigots harming others for fun and profit”. Saves on typing too.

  5. 5

    When Lifton wrote about a “cult of confession”, he wrote of a milieu in which confession became so important that people would histrionically confess to anything in order to be confessing. Thus, Reilly-Cooper begs the question in asserting that privilege checking is performative.

    I don’t understand this. Reilly-Cooper accuses “those who espouse the doctrine of gender identity” of ‘requiring’ a “a non-trans person” to repeatedly make confessions to secure their status. That claim is dubious, but I don’t see how its premises assumes its conclusion. The claim doesn’t substantially change if one removes the word performative.

  6. 6

    A group that acts out performative confession is the definition of a cult of confession. So Reilly-Cooper is arguing that it is a cult of confession because it is a cult of confession. It is a group in which confession is performative because it is a group in which confession is performative.

    The failure to back up even the circular argument is a bit distracting, thought, I admit.

  7. 7

    It important to point out that RRC believes she’d never harm trans* women.

    37. Transsexual people are a marginalised group who need and deserve support, empathy and compassion. They are human beings trying their best to live and to flourish under the constraints that gender imposes upon them, just as everyone is. They should be provided with whatever support and treatment they need to live happy, healthy, flourishing lives, and be treated with the same respect and kindness as anyone else. They have the same right to privacy as anyone else, and therefore there can be no justification for doxxing trans women or publicising their past identities, or bullying, abusing or harassing them, either in person or on social media. They have a right to physical integrity, safety from violence and protection from harassment, access to medical care, and protection from discrimination in education, employment and housing.

    And yet by denying to say trans* women are women, RRC is causing the very harm she believes she’d never do.

  8. 9

    Quantifiably does harm @HJ, given that study that showed the less transphobia trans people were exposed to the better their mental health and lower their likelihood for suicidal ideation. They prioritise their fucked up “gender critical” theory over trans lives.

  9. 10

    A group that acts out performative confession is the definition of a cult of confession.

    I’m trying too hard to parse a bad argument so feel to disregard this, but I’d call that a syllogism rather than circular reasoning . I parse the argument as:

    Major premise: Any groups that requires performative confession are cults of confession.

    Minor premise: Trans-friendly groups require performative confession.

    Conclusion: [unidentified groups] are therefore cults of confession.

    Reilly-Cooper does a very poor job of proving the minor premise. Her assertion that securing one’s status as an ally requires privilege checking and the anecdote about being accused of privilege denial probably won’t change anyone’s mind about its truth. Just doesn’t seem like a circular argument to me. An example of the same style that makes sense:

    Major premise: Any warm-blooded animal with feathers is a bird.
    Minor premise: This creature is a warm-blooded animal with feathers.
    Conclusion: This creature is a bird.

  10. 11

    By now pretty much everyond recognises that it’s unfashionable to be “politically incorrect,” and for those with no interest in social justice, the oft-cited tactic is “I’m not racist but.”

    Here, where the writers ARE vested in the concept of social justice, we see the fallacy take a new, more disguised form: parrot a list of demands you know a minority makes, then proceed to do sweet fuck all about examining one’s prejudices.

    But hey, she knows our demands by heart. She can’t be trans antagonistic! /end sarcasm

  11. 12

    Greer also has a habit of screening out trans women looking to hold her accountable for the things she’s said and published. Either the host will ask the trans woman to sit down or they’ll tell the audience they aren’t allowed to bring up questions about Greer’s transphobic views. Frankly if Greer isn’t interested in defending her own nonsense than why should anyone have to hear to it? If she’s actively trying to keep trans people from criticizing her than by what right can she claim to be silenced?

  12. 13

    I also reject that an ally is identified by explicitly “checking” their privilege. Not that it’s fucking relevant. Whether or not someone considers themselves an ally is completely unrelated to whether or not they have produced a cogent thought about gender variance. Hell, if someone considers themselves to be gender variant, it’s not even a guarantee their argument will be coherent.

    @#12

    Frankly if Greer isn’t interested in defending her own nonsense than why should anyone have to hear to it?

    $$$

  13. 14

    qwints @5:

    Reilly-Cooper accuses “those who espouse the doctrine of gender identity” of ‘requiring’ a “a non-trans person” to repeatedly make confessions to secure their status.

    Would you be shocked to hear there’s more than a little projection from RRC? Here’s what it takes for a trans* woman to be accepted as a TERF ally.

    Trans women can be allies to Lesbians and not Pretendbians! Trans women allies:

    1. Recognize that sex matters.

    2. Respect that females will want to organize as females, and will not derail.

    3. Support female-only spaces.

    4. Support issues that impact females uniquely (e.g., reproductive choice) without derailing (a la Julia Serano).

    5. Don’t personalize feminist objections to gender identity theory.

    6. Speak out against violent threats made by trans activists against females.

    7. Recognize that sometimes we will disagree – and that’s ok.

    8. Do not view female sexuality as a political obligation (e.g., lesbians need to “overcome” their aversion to penis to “affirm trans women’s realness”).

    It falls well short of being cult-like, but it’s still a touch more than agreeing that gender identity is legit.

  14. 15

    qwints:

    I’m trying too hard to parse a bad argument so feel to disregard this, but I’d call that a syllogism rather than circular reasoning .

    You know, I tried to disregard this. I really did. But the sheer pedantry of the comment on an issue like this pisses me off. Could you maybe try caring just a little bit about the subject matter of the post and the vote that prompted it instead of feeling like you have to share your deep concerns about the line between restating your conclusion in different words to support that conclusion and including a definition as an unstated premise? Just maybe? Because I certainly have better things to worry about than whether you think my grasp of formal logic is entirely rigorous enough at the micro level. Which is why I wrote the post to begin with.

  15. 17

    @HJ Hornbeck

    I’d call it cognitive dissonance but they aren’t at all bothered by this hypocrisy. I think only Helen Lewis has admitted she’s changed her views on inviting misogynistic speakers to hold lectures (she’d previously defended students’ right to protest them) and every other UK feminist has just I guess forgotten this argument carries implications outside trans issues? It’s a bit bewildering honestly.

  16. 18

    I have so many problems with Rebecca Reilly-Cooper’s piece. It brushes Greer’s transphobia under the carpet, and serves as weak apologia for it. Some of the things that stood out to me:

    Believing that trans women are men is neither an incitement to violence, nor is it dehumanising, unless you also happen to think that men deserve violence and are not human.

    Only about a week ago Greer compared being trans to wanting to be a cocker spaniel. If that isn’t dehumanizing, what is?

    Also, about a month ago, a young trans woman named Ashley left behind a suicide note containing the following before throwing herself into traffic (http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/transgender-woman-advocates-change-suicide-note-article-1.2405462):

    These are going to be my final words. I can’t stand to live another day, so I’m committing suicide. The reason why I’ve decided to do this is because I’m transgender. For those of you that unsure of what that means, it means that even though I was born in a male body, I am and have always been female. I’ve known I was female for as far back as I can remember. This caused me to become severely depressed from a very young age. From a very young age I was told that people like me are freaks and abominations, that we are sick in the head and society hates us. This made me hate who I was. I tried so hard to be just like everyone else but this isn’t something you can change.

    Greer doesn’t advocate violence against transgender women. However, her vitriol and contempt when she calls trans women “ghastly parodies of women” sure as hell contributes to a society that sees young women like Ashley as “freaks and abominations.”

    one must believe that trans people are subject to forms of prejudice and discrimination that others are not

    It’s not a “belief.” It’s a well-documented fact that there is a whole host of discrimination directed specifically at transgender people precisely because they are trans. One might as well call climate change a “belief” (hey, that never stops right-wingers).

    So Greer said nothing about what rights trans people ought to have or how they ought to be treated,

    She campaigned to have a transgender woman booted from a staff position at her college (Newnham college for women). I’d say that’s an action that says quite a bit about how she feels trans people ought to be treated.

    She also said that when speaking to trans women, she would “use female speech forms, as a courtesy”.

    That doesn’t mesh at all with what she actually says in reality.

    Greer and her alleged transphobia

    “Alleged” transphobia? Really?

    I’ve been sympathetic to the line of reasoning that it’s best to battle transphobia like Greer’s by critically challenging and arguing against it in a university learning environment. Unfortunately, Greer herself doesn’t have the slightest bit of interest in having her transphobia challenged, and quickly shuts people down with insults when they try:

    http://www.out.com/news-opinion/2015/11/04/op-ed-germaine-greer-censorship-red-herring

    In May of 2014, my friend Casey went to see Germaine Greer give a lecture in Winnipeg, Canada. Casey Plett wrote a Lambda Literary award-winning collection of short stories called A Safe Girl to Love, which Chelsea Manning was recently punished for reading in prison. Casey is trans, and Winnipeg is her most beloved city. I think it must have been a public silence that drove Casey to protest Greer’s talk—silence on the topic of Greer’s transphobia, silence from everyone but trans activists. Casey helped to organize a protest outside the talk. People asked why she wouldn’t go in, to debate Greer. She told them the event was sold out. But when a guy from Canada’s national TV station put a ticket in her hand, she figured—what the hell.

    Why not ask Greer a question, woman to woman? And so Casey did. She got up during the Q&A and cited a piece Greer had written for The Guardian in 2009. That’s where she called trans women “ghastly parodies.” Greer claimed not to remember writing the piece. Casey brought up Greer’s book The Whole Woman, in which she writes that trans women “do as rapists have always done.” Greer didn’t acknowledge that. Then she called Casey a misogynist. The crowd applauded.

    Another trans woman, Trish Salah, author of Wanting in Arabic and likewise a Lambda Literary Award winner, rose to ask another question. Greer took one look at Trish Salah and said, “All the trans people I know are such exhibitionists! It’s all about exhibitionism!” The moderator asked the two trans women to sit down. “Can we please have a different question?” the moderator asked. “On a different subject?”

    Greer is far from silenced. She is by far one of the most well-known feminists in the world – she has a mouthpiece via radio interviews, TV, online articles, books and on stage in conferences. That gives her voice an incredible reach. Her point of view isn’t exactly a “hush hush” Thought Crime – it’s a very widely held prejudice, and is basically the status quo.

    It’s disgusting to me, the amount of transphobia that I’ve seen pouring forth over the past week or so in defence of Greer. Still, I’m also heartened by the slowly increasing number of people who are aware of what trans people go through, and can see bigotry for what it is.

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