Troubling with Butler

I hadn’t read any Judith Butler until a couple of days ago – partly I think on the back of an unexamined assumption that I wasn’t clever enough.

But then a friend with whom I was trying to pick an amiable fight about women’s rights and trans rights told me that Butler’s interview in last Tuesday’s New Statesman encapsulated their views, and sent me a link. So I took a deep breath and read it.  This blog post is a slightly edited version of the comments I sent in response. (Sam Leith has done a more erudite job over at Unherd.) 

 __________________________________________

I’m going to quote bits from the interview, followed in each case by my comments, and focusing on the passages that I find most questionable.  To some extent I’m cherry-picking, but I think I quote enough of the article to give a fair representation of what she is saying.

I want to first question whether trans-exclusionary feminists are really the same as mainstream feminists. If you are right to identify the one with the other, then a feminist position opposing transphobia is a marginal position.

She sets up an opposition here between “trans-exclusionary feminists” and “a feminist position opposing transphobia.” But that assumes – without troubling to prove – a proposition that neither I nor any other GC feminist I’ve ever spoken to would accept: that not accepting that trans women are literally women is necessarily transphobic.  All the GC feminists I know oppose transphobia.

I think this may be wrong. My wager is that most feminists support trans rights…

Yes – including me and all the GC feminists I know (which is quite a lot).

… and oppose all forms of transphobia. 

Yes to this too, so long as you give “transphobia” its common sense meaning of fear of and/or hostility to trans people. But I detect an expanded meaning in her “all forms” to take any factual disagreement about the nature or best treatment of gender dysphoria, or the variety of phenomena that fall under the ‘trans umbrella.’ If it’s transphobic not to believe that trans women are literally women, then yes – guilty as charged. I don’t believe that.

So I find it worrisome that suddenly the trans-exclusionary radical feminist position is understood as commonly accepted or even mainstream. I think it is actually a fringe movement that is seeking to speak in the name of the mainstream, and that our responsibility is to refuse to let that happen. 

What is this ‘trans exclusionary radical feminist position’? She seems to have added transphobia into the mix without defining it. This is a straw man. I’m sure there are some  feminists who are properly transphobic, but they are indeed fringe. I don’t know one.

…[W]e can see that a domain of fantasy is at work, one which reflects more about the feminist who has such a fear than any actually existing situation in trans life. The feminist who holds such a view presumes that the penis does define the person, and that anyone with a penis would identify as a woman for the purposes of entering such changing rooms and posing a threat to the women inside. It assumes that the penis is the threat, or that any person who has a penis who identifies as a woman is engaging in a base, deceitful, and harmful form of disguise. This is a rich fantasy, and one that comes from powerful fears, but it does not describe a social reality…

In other words, anyone who thinks that it is dangerous to let male-bodied people self-identify into women-only spaces is guilty of a transphobic assumption that all trans women are sex-offending ‘cis’ males in disguise, and their only purpose in entering women’s spaces is to offend. This is a familiar move in the debate: “If you won’t let me into the ladies’ it means you think that because I’m trans I must be a perv! Transphobe!”

But that misses the point.   Sorry, I’m going to rant a bit here.

The point is male violence, especially but not exclusively male sexual violence. We don’t want to exclude trans women from the spaces where we are undressed and vulnerable because they are trans, but because they are biologically male. They are members of the half of humanity that poses a far greater threat to women than the other half.

We want to exclude males because we are afraid of them. And we are right to be afraid of them. We don’t want to exclude trans women because we think they are more likely than any other male-bodied person to be violent offenders; but because there is no reason to think they are any less likely to be violent offenders. Men are unwelcome in women-only spaces not because we think all men are sex offenders, but because we know that almost all sex offenders are men.  

And remember that we are not just spontaneously afraid! We are taught from early childhood that men are a source of danger. We are told it is our responsibility to keep ourselves safe from the ever-present risk of male violence; with the barely-concealed message that it’s our fault if we fail. We learn to limit our freedoms. We try not to be out alone late at night. We learn to be alert to the possibility of being followed; not to make eye contact; to shut down drunken attempts to chat us up without provoking male rage; to walk in the middle of the road so that it’s harder to ambush us from the shadows; to conduct a lightning risk assessment of every other passenger on the night bus; to clutch our keys in one hand in case we need a weapon; to carry a pepper spray, or a personal alarm. And we learn the hard way that these fears that have been deliberately inculcated in us are justified. We are followed, leered at, flashed, groped, cat-called; and that’s those of us who get off lightly. Every woman has stories of male abuse.

We are systematically trained in fear.

And then we are told that we must lay aside, at a moment’s notice, the fears we have so obediently learned as soon as a person with a male body asserts a female identity.

Does this give you any insight into why we are so angry?

Let me make it even plainer. There is an attempt to force male bodies into female spaces where they are not welcome; and when we say “no,” that is met with rage, entitlement, abuse and threats of violence  – attempts to overbear our consent by force. There are unmistakable echoes of rape. When it comes to attempts to force women who have asked for a female health care provider to accept a trans woman to undertake an intimate procedure, the echoes become deafening. 

I am not aware that terf is used as a slur.

I find it difficult to forgive this. Is JB really unaware of the prevalence of abuse like “die in a fire, TERF scum,” “punch a TERF,” and (much) worse?    

I wonder what name self-declared feminists who wish to exclude trans women from women’s spaces would be called? If they do favour exclusion, why not call them exclusionary? If they understand themselves as belonging to that strain of radical feminism that opposes gender reassignment, why not call them radical feminists? 

That strain of radical feminism that does what? Caution about the ‘only affirm’ approach, especially in relation to children, for sure; and, speaking for myself, vehement and anguished opposition to treating unhappy children with puberty blockers. But opposition to gender reassignment per se? I’m not aware that that’s a thing at all.

My only regret is that there was a movement of radical sexual freedom that once travelled under the name of radical feminism, but it has sadly morphed into a campaign to pathologise trans and gender non-conforming peoples. My sense is that we have to renew the feminist commitment to gender equality and gender freedom in order to affirm the complexity of gendered lives as they are currently being lived.

Sweeping up “trans and gender non-conforming people” together like this is odd. I was gender non-conforming as a child, and in many ways I still am (as are many GC feminists). I don’t do cosmetics, or heels; I don’t own a hair-dryer; I’ve barely worn a skirt this millennium; I’ve always worn my hair short. I think femininity is a tedious time-consuming performance, and honestly I can’t be bothered.

And where anyway is the campaign to pathologise trans people? Every GC feminist I know wants trans people to live lives free of discrimination.

But I’d go further. Isn’t this projection? Who is really doing the “pathologising” here? Those of us who say “Dress how you like, follow your interests, you don’t have to fit into any set of stereotypes that are uncomfortable for you”? Or the people who want to treat gender non-conformity in children with powerful cancer drugs? The clinicians who would try to understand and ease the psychological distress of gender dysphoria and help the sufferer to live at peace in the body they have – or those who proceed direct to the conclusion that the body is wrong and must be fixed (“converted,” you might reasonably say) with surgery and hormone treatment?  

… Feminism has always been committed to the proposition that the social meanings of what it is to be a man or a woman are not yet settled.  

Well – in the sense that we don’t accept that being female (or male) should be allowed to limit anyone’s choices of career, interests, dress etc.  We tend not to think that sex should have much in the way of “social meanings” (i.e. gender) at all.

… It would be a disaster for feminism to return either to a strictly biological understanding of gender or to reduce social conduct to a body part ….

This is very confused. Gender, as I understand the word – and as I thought most educated people understood it – is the social performance. So no, I don’t have a biological understanding of gender; that would be a contradiction in terms. And who wants to reduce social conduct to a body part? No feminist I know. We don’t advocate a strictly biological understanding of gender. We want to abolish gender! We think it’s a set of regressive stereotypes.

… or to impose fearful fantasies, their own anxieties, on trans women…   

I’ve already ranted about this. “Fearful fantasies” is infuriating, though: those very fears that have been drummed into us all our lives.   

Their abiding and very real sense of gender ought to be recognised socially and publicly as a relatively simple matter of according another human dignity.

Well, up to a point: we can acknowledge and respect trans people’s desire to be treated for most purposes as if they were the sex they identify into. But there are limits to that, rightly enshrined in existing law, which are necessary for the privacy, dignity and safety of women and girls. 

The trans-exclusionary radical feminist position attacks the dignity of trans people. 

I can’t help noticing that she doesn’t explain how. Is it an attack on the dignity of a trans woman not to believe that she is literally a woman? If so, then I must plead guilty – because I do not believe that.  But do I need to share people’s beliefs in order to treat them with respect?  Is it an attack on the dignity of Catholics that I don’t believe that the consecrated host is literally the body of Christ? If not, why is this different?

As I remember the argument in Gender Trouble (written more than 30 years ago), the point was rather different. First, one does not have to be a woman to be a feminist…

I agree, though I accept that not all feminists do.

… and we should not confuse the categories.

I can get behind this. Let’s not confuse the categories.

Men who are feminists, non-binary and trans people who are feminists, are part of the movement if they hold to the basic propositions of freedom and equality that are part of any feminist political struggle. When laws and social policies represent women, they make tacit decisions about who counts as a woman, and very often make presuppositions about what a woman is. We have seen this in the domain of reproductive rights. So the question I was asking then is: do we need to have a settled idea of women, or of any gender, in order to advance feminist goals?  

Do we have to have a settled idea of what a fish is to set up a fish and chip shop? I would say yes. If a fish and chip shop sells nothing but Hello Kitty pencil cases, its customers will be confused, and disappointed.

Q: What do you have to say about violent or abusive language used online against people like JK Rowling?

I am against online abuse of all kinds. I confess to being perplexed by the fact that you point out the abuse levelled against JK Rowling, but you do not cite the abuse against trans people and their allies that happens online and in person. 

I’m not aware of any significant level of abuse against trans people and their allies by feminists – certainly nothing remotely approaching the abuse that was directed at JKR. Are you? Or is she talking about abuse of trans women by men? Because if so, to suggest by that means there is “abuse on both sides” in this way is fancy footwork, to put it mildly.

I disagree with JK Rowling’s view on trans people, but I do not think she should suffer harassment and threats. Let us also remember, though, the threats against trans people in places like Brazil, the harassment of trans people in the streets and on the job in places like Poland and Romania – or indeed right here in the US. 

She does indeed seem to be speaking of harassment of trans women by violent men!

So if we are going to object to harassment and threats, as we surely should, we should also make sure we have a large picture of where that is happening, who is most profoundly affected, and whether it is tolerated by those who should be opposing it. It won’t do to say that threats against some people are tolerable but against others are intolerable.

I don’t think anyone has said that. Have they? No, scratch that – plenty of people have said threats (and violence) against ‘TERFs’ are tolerable, because TERFs are as bad as Nazis (etc.) I can provide examples if need be, but I’m sure you know this is true. Can you think of any examples of GC feminists saying that threats against trans people are ok?

JB: … If trans-exclusionary radical feminists understood themselves as sharing a world with trans people, in a common struggle for equality, freedom from violence, and for social recognition, there would be no more trans-exclusionary radical feminists. But feminism would surely survive as a coalitional practice and vision of solidarity. 

If Hello Kitty exclusionary fish and chip shops understood themselves to be sharing a world with Hello Kitty enthusiasts, in a common struggle for equality, freedom from violence, and for social recognition, there would be no more Hello Kitty exclusionary fish and chip shops. But this would be awkward, because if you actually wanted fish and chips, all you’d be able to get would be Hello Kitty pencil cases. Back in the real world, fish and chip shops sell fish and chips, and feminists campaign for the rights of women.

It is painful to see that Trump’s position that gender should be defined by biological sex, and that the evangelical and right-wing Catholic effort to purge “gender” from education and public policy accords with the trans-exclusionary radical feminists’ return to biological essentialism. It is a sad day when some feminists promote the anti-gender ideology position of the most reactionary forces in our society.

This is just “nasty people agree with you so you must be wrong.” I don’t think it merits a reply, do you?

JB: I suppose a debate, were it possible, would have to reconsider the ways in which the medical determination of sex functions in relation to the lived and historical reality of gender

Eh? The “medical determination of sex”?

Biological sex is a binary like life/death is a binary. There are very, very rare cases (of both) that may on some measures be said to be borderline, and where you might actually need a medical determination – and even where medics might disagree. But in the vast majority of cases, the biological sex of a human being is very readily determined.Try this thought-experiment: imagine you took a ward of newborn babies, and gave the task of sexing them to a doctor and a five year old child.  In how many cases do you think their conclusions would differ? (Geese, in my experience, are more difficult: I can’t tell with certainty until they either start laying eggs or shagging their sisters, but to be honest at that point it’s pretty clear even with geese.)

I had gathered a daunting impression of Judith Butler as an intellectual heavyweight. That was before I read this interview; I won’t trouble with her again.

9 thoughts on “Troubling with Butler”

  1. I’m glad that you and Sam Leith on Unherd have deconstructed Judith Butler’s interview, because I had no idea of what she was saying. Now, I know I’m not an academic or professional person, however, I’m reasonably intelligent, but the best description I could give to what she was saying was ‘waffle’. I realise that should she ever get to hear of my opinion, she would just scoff at my lack of higher education and understanding, but what’s the point of saying anything for public consumption if a good portion of the public – I’d put money on it that I wouldn’t be alone in this – don’t understand it? I know that it may well be a strategy to waffle on in a manner that sounds like elevated thinking to keep the plebs confused, but it’s worth remembering that “you can fool some of the people some of the time, you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time”.

  2. Absolutely brilliant. Articulates my thoughts and those of every other GC feminist I know. The feted interview was madly incoherent. I can’t imagine what a casual bystander would have made of it. If JB is the best they have I now understand why they resort so often to slurs and insults.

  3. Great article, thanks! It was way past time to call out Judith Butler on her misogyny, her obscurantism and her arrogance. I obtained my liberal education before academic grifters like her seized control of the academy (thank heavens!) and I have been watching in disbelief the garbled nonsense that now passes for philosophy and literary criticism. Some say all of western philosophy is mere footnotes to Plato. In Butler’s case, it is more like a toddler got hold of The Republic and scribbled all over it with a crayon.

  4. What is wrong with biologic essentialism anyway? (Doesn’t mean we can challenge inherent male propensity for violence due to testosterone, for instance – but should we deny that it’s there?) It’s not like your theories, built up in some head that seems to be in the clouds, are not evidence-based at all. At least biology offers some clear-cut explanation.

  5. Very good, and very helpful!

    However, when Butler says Trump’s position (and the right’s) is a return to biological essentialism, I think by this she means particularly the idea that women should not have the right to abortion, free contraception, maternity leave. This is a million miles from any gender critical feminist position. The GC feminist position is that patriarchy uses our female biology to oppress and exclude, historically and currently. I don’t think there is any link with Trump etc at all.

    She adds ‘It is a sad day when some feminists promote the anti-gender ideology position of the most reactionary forces in our society.’ Well, while I can only guess that ‘anti-gender ideology’ means this ‘biological essentialism’, and agree that it would be, I suppose, if this is what was happening. But it isn’t.

  6. I began reading the interview and gave up with the appearance of the first straw man. That an academic can argue in such a way is bewildering unless the actual aim is to confuse (Trump/Johnson playbook). But I’m so grateful for this breakdown of Butler’s nonsense: by not reading her interview I was left with the feeling that she had somehow won: instead of creating an intellectual masterpiece that I couldn’t penetrate, she had created an adolescent attempt at coherent argument – but with the same effect. So once again, thank you.

  7. I am a survivor of gender based violence including r*pe by a cis man in a female loo. As a survivor I understand transwomen to be vulnerable to the patriarchal violence I face as well as the biological essentialism and transphobia exhibited in this piece. They are welcome in any space with me. I do not fear them. I do however fear the gender critical brigade, their narrow definition of womanhood and their unchecked transphobia. Feminism should free us, open horizons not shutter them.

  8. Much about Judith Butler’s writing becomes clearer once you realise that she’s not particularly clever, but really rather dim. Her sesquipedalian prose disguises the poverty and incoherence of her thought – note for example the straw men and whataboutery in the NS article. It really is ridiculous that she has been taken so seriously by so many and for so long.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.