You Keep Using This Phrase, “Adult Human Females”
A response conspicuously assuming the good faith of Kathleen Stock et. al.
|Grace Lavery 🐬||May 24, 2019|| 23||5|
A group of UK-based philosophers have published another collectively-authored essay on Medium attempting to undermine the trans civil rights movement there. In the original post of this essay, I didn’t link it - but I’ve had a chance to reflect on that since this post was first published, and I will do so now - it’s here. I’m a literature guy, so I find the way philosophers talk about cultural questions generally baffling. While I was an MA student at Sussex University I heard a philosophy professor there, I forget her name, give a paper that I expected, from the flyer, to be about desire in Jane Eyre - a hoary but still interesting topic. The title was, I think, simply “Desire in Jane Eyre.” There’s so much to say on the topic - about Jane’s desire for various characters and what they offer (Rochester, Rivers, Helen, Jesus) as well as the desire implied by the narrative voice’s rhetorical constructions and modes of relating. I love talking about Jane Eyre.
In fact, the speaker - whose name, as I say, I can’t remember - presented arguments in defense of the proposition “the desire that readers feel that Jane not marry Rochester is a real desire.” So, she stated that formulation of the proposition, then listed arguments and entailments at a terrifying breakneck. “ONE a-real-desire-is-one-that-is-grounded-in-the-authentic-embodied-experience-of-a-desiring-subject // TWO a-desiring-subject-is-a-being-who-possesses-language-and-the-capacity-to-establish-first-and-second-order-goals-THREE-readers-of-Jane-Eyre-establish-goals-in-relation-to-narrative-outcome-that-assume-that-events-in-the-plot-will-correspond-to-sensations-that-they-anticipate-experiencing // FOUR...” I cringed through the entire bizarre charade, hoping that those qualified to intervene in it would do so kindly but firmly when it came to the q&a. But when the talk was over and the q&a started, the vibe shifted from seminar room to locker room. It became immediately clear that this talk had quite pleased the philosophers, faculty and grad students, and they saw their role more as helping their quarterback tighten his plays. They chimed in, one after the other, offering tips on how to “strengthen” and “boost” the argument; and “crush” its “loser” opponents. It was all quite too much for this milquetoast poetaster. I scurried back to my apartment to write down some earnestly vague ideas about Proust.
Anyway, when a group of philosophers come out for a rumble, it is difficult to know exactly where to begin engaging. Somewhere like, this doesn’t actually need to be such a huge fight? How might we have handled this better, as feminists, if we had started from a position of curiosity at an emerging cultural phenomenon and a willingness to let questions stand, to let ambiguities continue to exist? The whole antagonism is predicated on the idea that what really matters here is defeating a single proposition - “trans women are women” - that, while I certainly think it’s true (and I’ll explain why) is hardly exhaustive, and is hardly the most interesting thing one could say about us. I’m always staggered by lack of basic interest that trans antagonists display in a group of people who call ourselves women and claim the intellectual and political mantles of feminism. Germaine Greer goes around saying that nobody would transition if they had to carry children. Why? It’s not true, of course. Plenty of us would love to carry children. Why not ask us about it? Greer is smart, and is somebody who has written compellingly about desire and identity. So why make this stuff up? Where did it all come from? Who on earth is telling you not to care so much about Jane Eyre?
My sisters! It is good to love women. It is good to love Jane Eyre. You absolutely must date those whom you most want to date, and not a single person that you don’t.
* * *
Kathleen Stock (who teaches philosophy at the University of Sussex, but probably did not deliver the Jane Eyre paper… right?) is one of six authors of this new paper, published on Medium today, entitled “Doing better in arguments about sex, gender, and trans rights.” (I’ll probably slip and refer to Stock as the sole author, because it went up on her Medium page. Apologies to the other five.) Does the title sound apologetic? Fear not, our gender critical feminists have brought the fight. As were those of the Jane Eyre paper, the virtues of this paper are plain: it is methodical, brisk, and clear. It is also extremely long and tiresome, and it is written in the most authoritarian form a professor has in her repertoire: the in-class exam. The first section details thirteen “fallacious arguments,” which in my head I spell “phallacious” because I have a male brain; the second comprises five “bad analogies, which in my head I spell “manalogies” for the same reason; and then the final section comprises eight exam questions for the reader to answer. Is this latter part data collection? Market research? Are they going to grade us? Who knows. In any case, I thought I would answer the questions to the best of my ability, which I do below.
Their document has been written, however, to make a full engagement impossible except by a strange kind of mental practice that, if one is not familiar with the philosophy seminar room vibe, is maddening even to try. The first part, as I say, contests particular ideas that it thinks are bad by enumerating them, then writing out a rebuttal, and then moving onto the next without any sense of continuity or argumentative development. The rhetorical effect is a piece both elegantly subdivided and deliberately disjunctive. By which I mean, some parts of it are very silly, but then the next part will be relatively sensible, which produces the effect of making one think that perhaps the previous part made sense after all.
Take this out of context, for example, and you would think its authors were advocating fascism:
Equally: the fact that person shares a conclusion with a far right-wing person could never show, on its own, that the conclusion was false. It is likely that every single person on the planet shares several hundred (true) beliefs with any given far right-wing person.
This is literally the first point that Stock et all want to make, and it took me a good few minutes to realize what they mean by this paragraph, which certainly looks like an alarming alignment of their own thought with that of the far right. I take it they mean that plenty of fash believe, for example, that Paris is the capital of France and that Mike Pence is the Vice Prez, and a bunch of other facts that we all also believe. But, I think most people (probably also them, on a better day) would agree that they don’t believe those things so much as know them, and that the status of a proposition like “Paris is the capital of France” is different to that of a proposition like “trans women are men.” Moreover, when the fash hold the former type of proposition to be true, their doing so does not define them as fash. Whereas the set of ideologies that defines contemporary fascism - white supremacy, misogyny, Islamophobia - certainly includes Stock’s own started positions on trans people. So it’s not so much that her position is one of a number of uncontroversial opinions that we all happen to share with some bad dudes. It’s that her position has helped to shape and define the contemporary far right as such. Turns out it’s not advocating fascism, it’s just making a bad argument.
Anyway, whatever. To fight The Transsexual Empire is to become infected by its derangement, and I’m not going to go through this set of bad arguments point-by-point. Someone in analytical philosophy probably already has, and somebody else should do so next time. We gotta take it in turns. If anyone in that discipline wants to collaborate with a transsexual who still really likes Descartes and cares more about rhetoric than propositional content, hmu. For now, though, what about if we tried to find other terms in which to talk to each other about these questions? Like, perhaps we acknowledge that the ways in which we understand categories like “lesbian,” “woman,” “space,” and “state,” change over time, and that appeals to non-historical essences is an unnecessary and usually unhelpful mystification? It is a truth at the edge of the Stock essay, which genuinely wants its readers to know that its authors are not biological essentialists, that they believe that there are many different kinds of women (just not that kind). Readers may be interested to know, for example, that the authors do not believe that chromosomes or genitals alone maketh a woman. Rather, a woman is defined by:
some vague number of a certain set of endogenously-produced primary sex characteristics — including vagina, ovaries, womb, fallopian tubes, and XX chromosomes
Which is notable not just because of its endorsement of vagueness as a characteristic of definition (a move which I, vagueness-lover, applaud) but because it concedes more than the authors believe it does. It entails, for example, that nobody could be accredited as a woman on this basis solely on their becoming pregnant. One would need to hear how the person became pregnant, how they are going to give birth, whether the womb in which they were carrying were connected to fallopian tubes, etc. And one would need to keep gathering information inductively until one had acquired an appropriate “vague number” of details. One imagines these six scholars sitting in a row behind a long table, reassuring each potential candidate for womanhood - “listen, there’s no single defining characteristic; we’re just looking for some vague number.” The fudgy word “cluster” doesn’t solve the problem, though. You either think the category of woman is defined culturally (which is what the rest of us tend to think), or you believe only that there is a non-cultural, material essence that defines woman (which would make you an essentialist).
Stock et al keep using this phrase “adult human female.” I do not think it means what they think it means. The phrase “trans women are women” is not really a claim about how someone “identifies” at all; it is a claim about how trans women are treated, how we came to be, what it is like to be in our bodies. These are realities grounded in the facts of social being, not phantasmatic identification. Stock et al believe that they can use “female” as a predicate to define “woman” in ways that will exclude trans women, but trans women will (I would have thought self-evidently) then simply contest their definition of “female,” on the same exact grounds as we contested the definition of “woman.” The woolliness is not a problem one can solve, when it comes to these kinds of questions. It’s part of the essential problematic that emerges when you try to deduce a cultural subject like “woman” from putatively non-cultural predicates like “contains fallopian tubes.”
This is the whole problem with chromosomes, too. It’s not that chromosomes are meaningless. On the contrary, they are immensely meaningful in a number of domains. They just can’t provide a solid ground for determining whether or not a person is a female, or a woman. One’s chromosomes are like one’s astrological sign - immensely significant within a particular abstract framework, but entirely beyond the scope of knowledge that a rational subject can deduce about itself. A thought experiment: assume you do not know what chromosomes you have in your body. How are you going to find out, without either getting a blood test, or inferring that you have a particular set of chromosomes on the basis of some other known truth about yourself. Our chromosomes have no direct effect on our consciousness, whether or not we have ever taken steps to undergo any form of sex change/gender transition. They are represented and mediated for us, and interact with other things we know about ourselves. To claim that one does not know whether one is a woman until one has learned about one’s chromosomes is as much as saying that nobody knew they were a woman before the late nineteenth century. What Stock et al have produced is a set of cultural protocols for determining womanhood disguised as a non-cultural essence. Which is good news. I think they’re closer to accepting trans women than they believe themselves to be.
* * *
So, I’ll go through the checklist. Use this information wisely, gender critical adult human females!
What, metaphysically speaking, is gender identity? What ensures that when Person 1 identifies as X and Person 2 identifies as X they are identifying as the same thing?
I don’t use the phrase “gender identity,” so I can’t describe the metaphysical properties ascribed to it by those that so. I don’t “identify as” a woman; I assert that I am a woman. I don’t do so on the basis of “gender,” which I take to be a relatively unhelpful category for describing my own decision to transition, whatever its usefulness elsewhere and for others.
Do you think that ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ gender stereotypes are bad and should be changed and/or reduced? If so, do you also think we should accept an account of ‘woman’ that ties womanhood to a feeling that the gender stereotypes typically associated with being female apply to oneself? Do you see a tension there? How does this strategy avoid conservatively reinforcing the association of womanhood with femininity?
Which stereotypes? I rather like some of them - feminist killjoy, suave butch, hot twink. I think femininity as such is generally pathologized by compulsory heterosexuality under patriarchy, and there are many aspects of it I value in myself and other people.
We think that patriarchy is, definitionally, a system which structurally oppresses females, on the basis of their sex. What do you think patriarchy is? If you think patriarchy is not as we’ve described, do you think there is any system in the world, such as we have just described, whether or not you would call it ‘patriarchy’? If yes, do you think the recognition of this system is politically important? If no, on what grounds do you deny the existence of any such system?
I accept part of the description you offer, with the caveat that I do not think that “sex” is a natural category that pre-exists patriarchy but one that is imposed upon people through patriarchy. Much as compulsory heterosexuality did not precede but followed from the historical emergence of homosexuality as a diagnostic category. Sex is neither necessarily a grounds for oppression (for example, it is possible to imagine a world in which sex exists and patriarchy does not) nor is it the only category through which patriarchy exerts power - the patriarchal oppression of gay men, for example, requires a supplementary category. I do think “gender” is a useful category of historical analysis in that case.
Do you think facts about male physical development and gendered male socialisation have any causal connection to male violence patterns? If so, do you think this connection generally ceases to operate in the case of late-transitioning trans women? If so, what is your explanation for this fact? Is this an empirical question, in your view?
This question is outrageous and offensive, and you should apologize for having phrased it this way. You can not hope to group 50% of human relations and development under the phrase “male socialisation.” For myself that phrase would have to entail having been raised by two women and being almost exclusively around women as a child, and having attended an all-boys school. But I will note that if more trans-identifying children were allowed to transition when they want to, the question you ask would come up less frequently. The case against trans kids and the case against trans adults contradict each other.
If you think that the existence of people with Differences of Sexual Development (sometimes “disorders of sexual development” or “intersex”) shows something about whether trans women are literally women, what is it? Please lay this out clearly, in stages, with no skipping.
I don’t think the existence of intersex people implies anything about the question you’re asking, except that (as I say) “literally” is usually a word that literature scholars try to avoid, and I am not going to try to get dragged into a debate about literality.
Do you consider the question of the organisation of public spaces where people get undressed, sleep, or are otherwise vulnerable to aggression: a) a moral question of desert/ rights; or b) a practical question about how best to avoid violence and harm to members of certain groups?
I’m genuinely not sure what this means. What is the question, exactly? Could it be both moral and practical? Are we sure that the two categories are distinct from each other, let alone mutually exclusive.
Do you think all spaces such as bathrooms, dormitories, hostels, showers, and prisons, should be completely mixed-sex? (i.e. that there should be no spaces from which trans women and “cis” men can be excluded, in principle?). If not, explain why “cis” men should be kept out of these spaces but not trans women*.
Architectural policy questions require architectural solutions. For questions of bathroom use in public spaces, I refer you to Joel Sanders and Susan Stryker’s Stalled project. I would not want to discuss any architectural question about prisons that did not begin and end with a demand for their immediate and complete abolition.
If you prefer to advocate for public policy which allows trans women into women-only spaces, rather than advocate for additional, third spaces — on what grounds do you think the former is a preferable option to the latter? Please try to give some consideration to religious women and women who are survivors of male violence in your answer.
Trans women are targets of domestic violence in the same way as other women. We all draw on the collective experience of our sisterhood, and we are stronger together than divided. Many of us are religious. Many of us are survivors of male violence.
* * *
I have eight questions in return.
Do you accept that, if one’s goal is to minimize the occurrence of irreversible bodily changes to trans-identifying kids, a prudent tactic is to prescribe puberty-delaying medication, which has minimal lasting effects, rather than to encourage the onset of puberty, which has many?
How, honestly, does it feel to be lined up with Donald Trump on this issue? Accepting that there is no logical necessity why this particular generation of fascists should make transphobia such a large part of their cultural platform, doesn’t the fact that they do make you a little skittish?
Is the category of “woman” always imposed upon one, or could it be possible to “choose” to be a woman? Does one “discover” that one is a woman, or does one “assume” that one is? How do you know you are one? Presumably it’s not chromosomes?
Do you agree that a woman is “some vague number” of the following: being treated like a woman, possessing some of the physical characteristics of a woman, believing oneself to be a woman, acting like a woman? Or is there, despite your euphemistic recourse to “cluster definition,” a single material essence that you all share and I don’t?
Do you consider trans women authorities on our own experiences of socialization and identification? If not, who do you consider to be an authority?
Do you have a positive vision of a feminist politics that you would be willing to share? We hear mostly from anti-trans feminists that your primary concerns are negative, focused on exclusion, separation, negation. What would you like the relationship between trans women and the rest of the world to look like? What kind of music would we all listen to?
How would you explain the presence of trans women within lesbian communities, without recourse to what you call the “no true Scotsman” fallacy?
Did you write that Jane Eyre paper? Do you ever want to talk about Charlotte Brontë? HMU.