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.
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.