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Friday, 2 December 2022

Where Do You Come From? Lady Hussey and That Question

I have just copied and pasted this vignette from an unpublished memoir of my three years as a student at Oxford in the 1960s: 

Over a very long lifetime - he died at the age of ninety five in 2001 - Frank Pakenham, Earl of Longford, became a figure of fun, derision and some anger. He campaigned against pornography alongside the derided Mary Whitehouse; attracted anger for his friendship with the Moors murderer, Myra Hindley; and from being a supporter of gay rights when male homosexuality was still criminalised became an outspoken Roman Catholic opponent.

But in the 1960s he was also known as a prison reformer and Leader of the House of Lords in Harold Wilson’s Labour government. As such, he was invited to speak at the Labour Club and was, as usual, offered dinner beforehand at the Oxford Union. The year was 1966.

Unusually, among those standing around in the group assembled for pre-dinner drinks, there was a black student, taller than many of those in the room and very striking; though an active member of the club I hadn’t seen her before.

Lord Longford arrived  in the company of the club  chairman (as we then styled Chairs). Longford was also taller than many in the room and shortly after strode across to this student, offered his hand, and asked, Where do you come from? 

There was a slight pause and then, with a generous smile, she replied, Buckinghamshire.

It was wonderful. If in those days we had fist-clenched Yes! I would have fist-clenched Yes!  And thanks to this early experience, I  never used Where do you come from? as an opener. Just one Buckinghamshire saved me from one kind of obtuseness, though there were no doubt others.

Sometimes, of course, there is a tale to be told and if there is, it will be told in its own good time. I never saw this student again; perhaps she decided that the Labour Club was not for her.


In retrospect. the context was one which invited other opener questions, such as What are you studying? and How do you feel  the Labour Government is  doing?

Monday, 7 November 2022

Gender Theories and Gender Critical Alternatives Which is the Progressive Cause?


When I got married in 1978 both my partner and I were under parental pressure to do so. We did it in the most minimal available form: with a special licence you could marry in a civil ceremony with just two witnesses, no guests, and no rings. The bride and the two female witnesses wore black. No photographs were taken. Had the option of a civil partnership been available, we would have taken it. Marriage was a reactionary institution to the reproduction of which neither of us really wished to contribute. We had read our Germaine Greer and much else besides.

When the campaign for the legalisation of gay marriage got under way it was not something about which I could get enthusiastic. Civil partnerships, yes. But marriage? Are you really sure? And you want it in church too? There we must part company: churches are not on the right side of history, whatever their denomination. In other words, here was a supposedly progressive cause to which any right-thinking Guardian reader was supposed to sign up but which left me cold. I will leave you to fight it out with the C of E - they’re pretty desperate anyway so you will win - and I will continue to believe that the C of E should be disestablished and its assets confiscated by the state, Henry the Eighth Mark Two. The National Secular Society makes a better progressive cause than yours but one which - partly thanks to modern identity politics - makes progress at a snail’s pace.

Transgender activists now pose me a similar problem. Their cause does not seem either particularly progressive or otherwise well-founded. Worse, in this case, the cause is clearly being advanced by bullying and intimidation. It feels more like a right-wing movement than a progressive one.

I’ve just read a 2021 statement on the official  LSE website signed by “The LSE Department of Gender Studies” taking issue with those who believe that “Sex Matters” and who have formed a Gender Critical Research Network based at the Open University. The LSE - in an official-looking statement - wants to see it disestablished. The text bears close reading; I will pick out just this:

 in framing “sex” as immutable, binary, and essentialist, the gender critical perspective runs counter to decades of scholarship…

The easy one here is “binary”. In my reading, gender critical theorists who believe that sex matters take more interest in non-binary intersex people than their opponents. Indeed, biological intersex is a problem for them and they try to marginalise its reality, as for example in Zoe Playdon’s recent book The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes (2021). The reality, recognised by the reactionary "sex matters" people, is that intersex people have life very hard because most societies and cultures have not found ways of accommodating them, starting from the insistence of the state’s birth registrars that for social purposes Sex be declared as binary. Michel Foucault’s edition of the life of Herculine Barbin fits well on a gender critical reading list precisely because it is all about a culture failing to find space for a nature, and a nature reduced to despair.

“Essentialist” is almost as easy. Second wave feminists who sharply distinguished Sex from Gender did not do so with a view to privileging Sex but at least partly as a way into exploring the complex, dynamic relationship between the two which allowed for the realities of tomboys and cissies, for active resistance to role stereotypes, but also for some biological realities hard to shift: child-bearing, breast-feeding most obviously. They were clear that though many, maybe most, sex-related roles and expectations were socially constructed a few weren’t - and that was important. In the same way, when Foucault studied the medico-legal discourses constructed around the parricide case of Pierre Riviere, he did not claim as a social construction the dead bodies numbering three. (I attended the seminars and can vouch for that).The three dead bodies were what we (and philosophers too) call “brute facts”.

Worse is to come for the LSE’s claim. The progressive test question is frequently posed, “Are transgender women women?” (what Kathleen Stock and others  call “the Witch Question”). That is an essentialist question intended to allow for only two possible answers, Yes or No. There is not even any space to reply that it depends on whether the person in question has had surgery or other treatment.  The rhetoric currently mobilised in both theory and sloganising is that people are who they say they are, a foolish claim which expresses nothing more than an overweening sense of entitlement and privilege. An undergraduate  might try to give it some grounding in “scholarship” by using the words “performativity” and “Judith Butler” but that is not the same as having read and understood anything.

“Immutability”? No one can predict what science will do next, for good or ill. But actually existing people and those billions who have preceded them have been pretty much alike, biologically, so much so that if God had really wanted to pull off an indisputable miracle, Jesus would have been born to Joseph.


The LSE statement several times stresses that it is on the side of “research” and “scholarship”, unlike the gender critical people who don’t engage in either. At the LSE they claim the mantle of academic respectability. That’s just bullshit. The treadmills of contemporary university departments of humanities and social sciences produce very little research or scholarship. Their faculties and students are mainly engaged in making claims which illustrate conclusions of a political-cum-theoretical nature which have already been reached. The so-called “academic journals” are full of such stuff and  Ph Ds are awarded for it.  No one expects to be surprised by the results of their “research” or the findings of their “scholarship”. This is true for both gender "theorists", gender critical "theorists", and many other kinds of "theorist" - though who is the most tedious I don’t really know. The big question is whether they belong in universities at all. At the moment, they are going out of their way to prove that they don’t.

There is a difference between research which has fairly obvious political implications which may be uncomfortable, the kind of research of which climate change research might be taken as exemplary, and ancillary writing designed to illustrate and defend positions (scientific/political/theoretical) already arrived at. It’s true that when the state employs thousands of people to teach gender studies to many more thousands of moderately qualified students it’s unreasonable to expect that they will come up with genuine, startling, new conclusions on a regular basis. It doesn’t happen in the physical sciences, so why expect it in the humanities and social sciences?

Early (1970s - 1990s)  exploratory writing in the fields of feminism, gender studies, and queer studies was refreshing and exciting; now it’s been routinized into conservative academic curricula of depressing uniformity, where courses are taught by people who - when it comes down to it -are principally agitated by the Pensions Question. The rhetoric of the LSE statement uses the kind of exhausted tropes which one expects in the leaflets of sectarian political groups; but it also, very obviously, seeks to be inclusive of each interest group around the sectarian table. Everyone has to have their course to teach; ‘twas ever thus and students will be told that all those courses are important because if they weren’t someone would be out of a job. 

Conclusion? I doubt the position in Gender Studies or its Critical twin is retrievable. The antagonisms and hostilities are clearly at a toxic level. I would advise students to vote with their feet. Take an interest in the issues and campaign with  a group, by all means. Read the books in your own time. But study something else. 

Thursday, 3 November 2022

A not-encrypted message to Suella Braverman who is free to Like and Share it

 Dear Ms Braverman,

The Financial Times published this letter from me on 5 October 2020 (no typo, I mean 2020). 

Never too late to reply:


Following reports about putting an immigration processing centre on Ascension Island (Report, October 1) I would like to point out that the further out of sight you house asylum seekers the greater the opportunities for abuse by camp guards. If that does not convince, then consider there is zero chance of the UK Home Office running a remote island camp at less than astronomical cost. The only outcome would be a public inquiry concluding with a very long list of “lessons to be learned” — though not by Priti Patel, the home secretary. She will have moved on to greater things.

Trevor Pateman

Brighton, UK

Wednesday, 1 June 2022

Desperate Measures: Mr Johnson and Imperial pints and pounds

 A dead cat to distract from a crisis, but offered as if a genuine subject for "discussion" by Global Britain's "who cares about exports" ageing population. So here is what I wrote on the subject in my 2016 book The Best I Can Do, freely available from the usual suspects but also from my preferred seller blackwells.

Futures like The Past

Human beings cannot be other than creatures of habit. They are obliged to create futures which are pretty much like their pasts. Habits can be changed, but only a few at a time and against a background of habits which remain intact. Changing a habit involves some kind of emotional and intellectual challenge, however minimal. You have to go outside your comfort zone and you have to learn something new. It’s raising your game, it’s stepping up to the plate, it’s work.

Most of the time, human beings prefer their comfort zones and the absence of mental challenge to the work involved in change. Some human beings prefer to be comfortable and idle all the time. Inevitably, this often means settling for second best. Or worse. So people end up for very long - sometimes lifelong - periods in bad marriages and bad jobs, living in fuel-inefficient homes, driving fuel-inefficient cars, with their money going in and out of an account with a second-rate bank, taking a break from it all on cold and wet public holidays, being fed up with politicians. They grumble. Emotionally, it’s a cheap alternative to change.

I opened my first bank account with Lloyds Bank in 1965 in order to pay in my university grant cheques. I stayed with Lloyds until the mid 1990s - let's say, thirty years. Lloyds was all right but not more than that. I found it hard to keep track of my finances and cheques did bounce. Their rates of interest on borrowing were almost certainly higher than ones I could have obtained elsewhere. A friend spent several years pointing out to me that I could change for the better. Eventually I moved to First Direct and  have never regretted it. Here was a bank where I could check the state of my account 24/7. I am never in trouble now. But there is something shocking about the way I resisted making a fairly simple change from one bank to another. And there are plenty of people who would never have done it. They would have stuck to their bank as if it was written into their marriage vows that they should do so. Mostly we live by the equivalent of marriage vows.


The UK has a pre-modern political system - a Ruritanian monarchy with the usual trappings of odd local rights and privileges (ownership of swans and such like); an unelected and completely corrupt second chamber; a first chamber designed to remind its Members of 19th century public schools. Those members have their own unbreakable habits - in the UK, the House of Commons, despite modest changes, remains submerged under fatuous rituals designed to create a backlog of real work and thus to stop as much change as possible. It is made tolerable to Members of Parliament only by the on-sitre availability of large amounts of subsidised alcohol.

But even where politicians are open to change, they have to contend with the electorate's resistance. Voters are people who stand there, fold their arms and tell you that they always have done and always will do it THIS way. Urged to change, they will stamp their feet and cry, Shan't, Can't, Won't!

As a result, for example, the United Kingdom has no coherent system of weights and measures which everyone uses. For a number of years, the European Union tried to get us to Go Metric. But teachers had no intention of going metric (they didn't understand these foreign ideas) and market traders saw the chance to become Metric Martyrs, and like the pound sterling, wasn't it part of our Tradition and Heritage to have fourteen pounds to the stone and , er, eight stones to the hundredweight (which is not one hundred but one hundred and twelve pounds ) and, your turn, how many hundredweights is it to the ton unless it’s a short ton ….and so eventually the European Union gave up in the face of irredeemable stupidity. We were granted yet another opt-out. As a result, the UK is now pre-modern, with an incoherent jumble of systems in use. 

Just visit any supermarket. Here you can find pints for some liquids, liters for others. Grams and kilos on one shelf, ounces and pounds on another. In Cornwall, maybe they still sell potatoes by the gallon. Weigh yourself on the bathroom scales, and some of us will use pounds and stones and some kilos. Medications are normally measured in milligrams and grams, mililiters and centiliters and not everyone understands what that all means so there are occasional disastrous results. Go to a fabric shop and you may find meters or you may find yards. Buy petrol and it's in liters, but distance measurement is in miles not kilometers. And, to rub it in, road signs show fractions of miles rather than decimal points of miles - as you approach the Channel Tunnel, you are counted down from two-thirds of a mile to one-third of a mile, a final flag-waving Work-That-Out-If -You-Can opt-out from new-fangled and, above all, foreign systems.

Two hundred years or more ago, as countries entered the modern era, so they unified, simplified and extended the reach of systems of weights and measures. Local and highly particular traditions disappeared as did local currencies. The decimal system and the metric system are the expression of this move to the modern era, and their near-universal adoption is one of the enduring achievements of the French Revolution. It was a political achievement but the actual work was done by mathematicians and scientists of the first rank – Condorcet, Laplace, Lavoisier. They tried to work with British and American colleagues – Thomas Jefferson notable among them – but both those countries turned up their noses at what the French were proposing. It took Britain until 1971 to decimalise its currency and 1984 until the anomaly of a ½ penny coin was removed. But we still haven’t made it into the modern era. Children learn how to use bits of different systems and none of them very well. They have no idea of how powerful a tool a unified system can be. They simply become good at bodging which is fine for a nation of bodgers. It’s obtuse to expect children to be good at maths when their culture constantly tells them to bodge anything to do with numbers.

The moral is this: dysfunctional and, more generally, sub-optimal states of institutions and practices can persist indefinitely. They don't necessarily get eliminated any more than do pandas (who are terribly ill-adapted to their environment and generally miserable in consequence). All that happens is that people are generally miserable as they see their societies and economies grumbling and stumbling along, their politicians still aspiring to nothing more than an Opt Out from the modern world. But people won’t do anything about it. They made their Vows long ago.

Thursday, 11 November 2021

On Phobias and Phobes


In the early 1960s, General Knowledge was a competitive sport - at least it was in my boys’ grammar school. Countries and capitals; tallest, longest, deepest …. In this world, phobias were things which lent themselves to alphabetical challenges: Name a phobia beginning with H! (Answer: Hydrophobia).

These phobias were, with one exception, names given to fears - very varied fears (arachnophobia, claustrophobia, nyctophobia …) but all deserving of sympathy, explanation, and - in some cases - treatment. The exception was xenophobia which hovered between a fear and a hatred, so that it was unclear whether it deserved sympathy or disapproval - none of us boys thought it could be a badge of honour. And though we probably used the word xenophobic to characterise attitudes, we were less likely to label people xenophobes; somehow we had got hold of the idea that you shouldn’t, in general, reduce a person to one of their aspects.

It's true, we did have hate figures, in the front line Henry Brooke, the UKs Conservative Home Secretary 1962-64 who the archives show to have been even worse than we believed him (see Richard Davemport-Hines, An English Affair (2012)). But we had no means of giving effect to our feelings other than by writing Letters to the Editor or taking part in demonstrations.  We had no social media.

Returning to our phobias, they  were normally characterised as “irrational” and though that is an imprecise and potentially contentious qualification it did roughly succeed in distinguishing between reasonable fears induced by the immediate presence of a highly poisonous species of spider and unreasonable fears attaching to the usual ones found in cupboards and gardens.


Things change. Modern phobias are names for alleged hatreds (homophobia, islamophobia, transphobia …) and the words are primarily used to point the finger at people, reduced  - essentialised - to one of their aspects: Homophobe! Islamophobe! Transphobe! They leave no room for sympathy, explanation, or treatment. A ‘phobe is a ‘phobe, through and through, best dealt with by denunciation and exclusion from the society of the elect. Thus the world of Twitter and university campuses.

What is most odd about this finger-pointing essentialism is that it is performed by people who are, for the most part, also committed to the idea that everything is a social construct which is to say that there are, in fact, no essences and no natures, only contingent and changeable social fabrications. If that doctrine is true, or even only partially true, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia are social constructs. I think that they are - and of very recent fabrication, too. They have been specifically designed for weaponised use as finger-pointing, denunciatory weapons which expose the dark hearts of the wicked and the witches.

Those last words are not hyperbolic. The social constructions which produce the - phobe targets of denunciation are the work of theologians - or, at least, Sunday school teachers - and fairly pitiless ones. The barbed arrows aimed so freely on Twitter and in university discourse carry within them no invitation to make amends, no offer of redemption, no suggestion that the phobias might be irrational fears or - God forbid! - even have some rational aspect. Any distinction between toxic spiders and harmless ones is unknown to the theologians. Their world is one which allows no room for uncertainty or reasonable disagreement, things which are central to the mind-set of democrats and humanists. I'll digress a bit to consider that by way of an example.


Secularists, who normally think of themselves as democrats and humanists, might be said to fear and even loathe organised religions; in consequence, they must surely be considered Islamophobic.

The secularist’s obvious first line of self-defence is to point out that they are also Christophobic so whatever their belief, it is  not discriminatory in the way that Islamophobe! supposes. Google barely recognises the term Christophobic, which is not in current Twitter use, but if they are Islamophobes secularists  must also be recognised as  Christophobes - though they would deny that they are irrationally so: the newspapers every day contain stories of clerical abuse and corruption which show that secularists have a lot of evidence on their side. It is no accident that our oh-so-liberal Christian bishops are happy to debate with and even cosy up to atheists (what’s a difference of belief between friends who dine at the same high table?), but extend no such affection to secularists who threaten their incomes and the worldly power which for centuries has allowed them to hide their crimes and avoid ordinary accountabilities.

A second line of defence for the secularist is to attempt a clear distinction between organisational religions and the religious beliefs of individuals. Unlike the atheist, the secularist has no quarrel with the latter as such and will agree that such beliefs are not in themselves a ground for any form of discrimination. They are not on their own toxic, indeed may be very far from it: the beliefs are compatible with being a very good person. But it's not always so simple: some religions are inseparable from their organisational form: there is no Roman Catholicism outside the Roman Catholic church, a position very clearly articulated in the Church’s own doctrines: Extra ecclesiam nulla salus (Outside the church there is no salvation). Well, of course, that is the most extravagant attempt at institutional self-preservation ever made and is open to a very simple objection, How do you know? But it remains true that there is no wriggle room for an individual Roman Catholic: either you are In or you are Out and if you are Out you are not a Roman Catholic. Roman Catholicism is not a personal belief; it is an attachment to an organisation. In contrast, many forms of Protestant belief do not require institutional adherence or any demand for secular power over such things as schools.


It would seem that those currently targeted as - phobes could either accept the scarlet letter and wear it proudly or seek to demonstrate that it does not apply and that the attitudes, arguments or beliefs they have articulated do not amount to proof of wickedness or witchcraft. But the latter response runs up against the problem that no one is listening. The students and faculty who recently drove Kathleeen Stock from the pleasant parkland campus of the University of Sussex (“No TERFS on our Turf” read one of the banners) have no intention of actually reading her book Material Girls (2021); she has been convicted by tweet and the sentence cannot be appealed.

This is why being accused of homophobia, islamophobia, transphobia - the list will no doubt grow longer - poses such a threat to those who may be picked out for denunciation. It is not only that the denunciations quickly replicate across a million screens - almost as if human intervention is not required - it is also that they contain within them prosecution case, verdict, and sentence. Once made, the accusations will never be withdrawn; no apologies ever made. And sentences are indeed carried out. Papal infallibility is a pale thing is comparison.








Thursday, 21 October 2021

Gender Formerly Known as Sex

 This is a chapter from my 26-chapter paperback The Best I Can Do, published in 2016 and readily available from Blackwell online or Amazon. Trevor Pateman

Gender formerly known as Sex

I went online recently to check the status of my driving convictions. I was surprised to find at the head of the page which dealt with me the words   “Gender: Male”. Well, I have to say I never told them that. I am pretty sure that when I filled in their form however many decades ago I responded to a question which asked me for my “Sex” and that I answered  “Male”, which was truthful and true. If they had asked me for my “Gender”, I am not sure I would have known what it was. The idea hadn’t yet been imported. But why was it imported anyway? I have no real idea - I just guess that lots of people were reading the excellent, imported sociology textbook by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann The Social Construction of Reality (1966) and concluded that binary essentialist categories like Sex are Bad - because they imply that things exist which are not socially constructed - but binary non-essentialist, everything-is-a-social-construct categories like Gender are Good. Upper Seconds all round.


Gender is an adjectival rather than a nominal aspect of people’s selves and it is rarely uncomplicated. Few people are as straightforwardly gendered (what is now called “cis-gendered”) as is assumed by the bureaucrats whose imagination did not rise above deleting the word “Sex” and inserting the word “Gender”. But just as few people are completely cis-gendered, few people are completely “trans-gendered”. I doubt that there are many F people in transition to becoming M people who have Jeremy Clarkson as their target role model. As they start approaching that target, I feel they might decide to hang on to a bit of their F side.


We have always been taught that gender is distributed in a bi-polar way: plot people’s gender on a statistical curve and there are big clusters of M people and F people on either side with only a few people in the middle. Over time and in different cultures, this may change. For example,  I have read lots of Op Ed pieces telling me that over recent decades in my society boys have found it harder to develop (or been under pressure not to develop) + M masculine characteristics resulting in a “Crisis of Masculinity”. Statistically, that would come out as a change in the shape of the distribution curve, reducing the M cluster on one side and creating a new bulge nearer the middle. In addition, if girls are under less pressure to stick to + F characteristics, then that would also create a bulge nearer the middle and we could then be on the way to what is called a normal curve of distribution (a Bell Curve - it looks like a church bell), with most people being bits of F and bits of M, regardless of sex, and clustering in the middle of the curve. If anything like that does happen, then people will begin to object to the gender binary boxes M and F. Some are indeed beginning to do so.


But when big companies are castigated for not having a “Gender Balance” at top executive level no one would be amused if they adopted the following strategy:


Look, we’re all men I know but, hey, some of us are less masculine than others – more feminine. Yeah? So why don’t we start by scoring people for their masculinity and their femininity? Like, you know, everyone says I am a “Good Listener” which must knock 10 points off my 100% Masculinity index. So why not credit those 10 points to the Female side of our Balance Sheet? That way, we at least make a start on changing the Gender Balance here. Yes, guys?


No, guys. The truth is that your critics are talking anatomy. They don’t like to say so, may even deny it, but anatomy is what they are talking about.  Why should anatomy be so important? One reason is that it will remain an extremely powerful profiling tool for some basic things and quite powerful for other things until such time as we move to a normal curve of distribution for gender characteristics. You never need to be screened for prostate cancer if you tick the F box and you never need to be screened for ovarian cancer if you tick the M box. Athletic abilities also can be read off from your M or F profiling, which is why we have Men’s and Women’s events for most Olympic sports and tests to ensure people aren’t cheating ( which they do but that’s another story). And so on, with the usefulness of the profiling declining as we move away from obvious ones like those I have just instanced. But until such time as most people have a significant mix of gender characteristics, it will be possible to profile for lots of things from anatomy alone: having driving convictions for speeding or annual expenditure on clothing, for example. In 2002, 83% of speeding convictions in the UK were picked up by men. In 2011, the Office of National Statistics records women spending £588 on their wardrobe and men £322.


Nothing more needs to be true for such profiling to be possible than the fact that societies set out to gender their new members – children – differentially according to their sex and that to, some considerable degree, they usually succeed. Parents and teachers (not to mention makers of children’s toys and clothes) are huge enthusiasts for making sure that their M and F children are introduced to the right gender boxes – hundreds of them - from very early in their lives. In some respects, it was less oppressively so forty years ago than it is now when everything is Pink or Blue, Girl or Boy. It wasn’t quite so then. We can wish it otherwise and we can work to make it otherwise. That thought is only intelligible if you accept the basic distinction between Sex and Gender and don’t conflate the two as has now been done on my driving licence.


Of course, the distinction between Sex and Gender has been known about for a very, very long time though sometimes I read things which tell me that someone discovered it last week. In England, the most intellectually serious daily newspaper is The Financial Times. On 28 November 2015, India Ross interviewed Jill Soloway, creator of the American TV series Transparent which has a transgender theme (I haven’t seen it – no TV). They talk about gender issues and at the end Soloway says:

People will recognise that just because somebody is masculine, it doesn’t mean they have a penis. Just because somebody’s feminine, it doesn’t mean they have a vagina. That’s going to be the revolution over the next five years

India Ross adds:

I suggest that, even today, that’s a fairly radical thing to say. She agrees …

I paused. When, if ever, has this “radical thing” not been recognised as true – and even platitudinously true?

Think, for example, of “cissy” and “tomboy”. A cissy was a boy who displayed feminine tastes and traits, deemed unacceptable. A tomboy was a girl who displayed masculine tastes and traits, though sometimes these were treated more indulgently than cissy traits. To go back just sixty years, think of To Kill a Mockingbird which – among other things – belongs to a genre of tomboy novels. Go back a bit farther and you get to Jo March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868 – 69).

Both ”cissy” and “tomboy” imply a fundamental distinction between sex and gender. Both recognise that sex and gender can be mismatched in a person. Neither supposes that cis-gendering (the neat matching of sex and gender) is inevitable, though as judgemental terms, they assume that cis-gendering is desirable. So maybe the revolution is simply to remove the judgemental aspect. No one will get called out as a cissy or laughed at as a tomboy. They will just be accepted. But didn’t that also happen in the past?

Caring has been marked + Feminine in my culture and for a very long time. Let’s go back a hundred years.  In wars, like the unbelievably stupid and destructive First World War, there were male officers who distinguished themselves by caring for their men in terrible circumstances. This was regarded as admirable, not cissy.

Bravery has been marked + Masculine in my culture, also for a very long time. But go back to 1838 and read the story of Grace Darling, a lighthouse keeper’s daughter who assisted her father in the rescue of nine survivors from a shipwrecked steamer. This 23 year-old woman got marked + for Bravery (in fact, + + +). But no one dismissed her as a tomboy and several men who had never met her wrote seeking her hand in marriage. No one called her out for rowing the boat.

It is simply not true that the sex / gender distinction has ever been unclear to anyone, except perhaps to those who have been made to read Judith Butler’s obscurantist Gender Trouble (1990). It is also - perhaps surprisingly - untrue that society has been consistently and remorselessly unwilling to recognise, accept, and even occasionally applaud, transgender characteristics as in the two examples instanced above.

Of course, its tolerance has never been whole-hearted and probably never consistent. But a flicker of tolerance can often be found. If we can nurture that flicker into something stronger, that will be a very good thing. But to do so it is both historically incorrect and politically unproductive to claim that we have just this last week invented something which will take us out of the Dark Ages once and for all. Lots of people like to be pioneers (maybe it’s a + M thing); but most of the time, someone else got there already.

Curiously, the only situation in which Jill Soloway’s claim makes sense is one where most people remain strongly cis-gendered, bunched at either end of the statistical curve but where a few (special?) people are allowed to jump over the binary divide and join the other camp. That doesn’t sound to me much like the social progress envisioned by mainstream feminists back in the 1970s who thought it was the fact of binary bunching itself which should be challenged. Feminists back then wanted  most women to be more assertive and most men more caring, so that gendering became less Either – Or, more bunched in the middle, less a war between the Pinks and the Blues.

Thursday, 14 October 2021

They/Them? A Very Critical Look at Self-Identifications


I’ve never liked being called by positional names or displaying symbols of such positions. So though married for a long time, I never wore a wedding ring. Nor did my wife who never changed her name, used “Ms”, and was irritated (as I was) by Christmas cards addressed to Mr and Mrs T. Pateman.  Our generation? Born in the 1940s. Outside of university settings, I never used my academic title.

I encouraged our children to use my first name and now do the same for my grandchildren. But the encouragement was never a demand and is now generally ignored, except by one grandchild. As a result, I now sign emails as Dad x but persist in signing birthday cards to grandchildren with a cartoon which has so far allowed me to completely avoid Grandad x

So I was not immediately unsympathetic to those who want to be called They/Them;  for many years in my writing I have used they as a generic, having tried the clumsy he or she and the stylistically disastrous App. which mechanically alternates he and she.

But something doesn’t seem quite right in what’s happening now. I accept that my own past preferences could be considered to some degree prissy or attention seeking or narcissistic. But what is happening now strikes me as massively - and not much more than - prissy, attention seeking, and narcissistic, with added readiness to affect offence or worse if not properly noticed. And it does seem all very much more about having a one-up Twitter identity rather than about relations with intimates.

To me it looks like this: middle-class young people,  burdened with names and expectations which they cannot always live up to, mostly at university or recently graduated, are making themselves appear special by turning themselves into They/Them on grounds that they are non-binary. The threshold for entry into this special class of people has not, to my knowledge, been disclosed unlike the titles which Debrett’s regulates. Is it enough to paint your finger nails in non-matching colours? No, but only because no more than self-identification is required, is that not so?

So it is irrelevant for me to muse whether in the past I was, unwittingly, non-binary because I changed nappies. Or because I entered my home-made jams into village horticultural shows. Or because even on the most charitable interpretation my sexual encounters never (sometimes to a partner’s disappointment) achieved the expected binary climax of Wham, Bam, Thank You, Ma’m? No, it’s not feminine or effeminate traits, nor the desire to avoid toxic forms of masculinity, which make you non-binary. It’s brass neck or, to put it in more modern terms, a sense of entitlement.

I look at the images on Google and think to myself, This is just fashion and will mostly be abandoned within a few years just as most of us gave up fairly rapidly on Carnaby Street and Flower Power. But while it lasts there is a big difference: current self-identifications are moralised and essentialised to the hilt. Hence, the offence if you don’t take them seriously enough. Rather like bearded young men in theological seminaries, our They/Them people are utterly convinced of their own self-righteousness - that their choice has real existential depth and the fires of Salem await those who can’t see it.

To be honest, I simply don’t believe many of the self-presentations, partly because the choice so obviously opens career opportunities in the crowded field of desirable, non-manual jobs - well, not just non-manual; preferably media-related. But non-manual is a good start; people on building sites tend to get on with the job; They/Them is not a priority which clearly rules out building sites as workplaces. But university seminars can grind to a halt over naming protocols. After all, seminars are not that important: if you pay your money, you’re going to get a two one anyway unless you make the mistake of studying a STEM subject.

I suspect too that They/Them is attractive to boys more than girls; the girls can always build online Presences by taking their clothes off and for some that earns daily mega-bucks; the boys remain in less overall demand with clothes off - girls remain obstinately more  interested in brains and personality - and so the boys have to find other ways of building a path to alienated Twitter success.

There is another dimension, that of the private and the public. At universities in the 1960s, people were lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, kinky (sometimes quite imaginatively so, given the absence of accessible porn and sex toys). They might let you know this or they might not. But it was not the primary way in which they defined themselves: like everyone else, they were studying Maths or History; they were Conservative or Labour or Revolutionary Socialist. That has now changed; it is “gender identity” (especially if you are white) or, more seriously and convincingly, ethnic identity or religious identity which trumps everything else. And “trumps” is not a bad word here because very little of it seems to have anything to do with progressive politics in its usual sense; some of it seems to me frankly far to the right, in the hunting grounds of those who bully and intimidate TERFS, people who to me are simply the feminists - or descendants thereof - from whom I learnt my feminism back in the 1970s. They had and have a coherent set of critiques of patriarchal societies; our modern gender theorists - if "theorists" is the right word - have so far done no more than replace argument with intolerant, incoherent mystifications. There is no coherent argument or theory which supports the (bourgeois? neo-fascist? entitled?) ideology of self-identification. Hence the immediate recourse to outrage and witch-hunting.

Donald Trump self-identifies as the true  President of the United States and about forty million American adults accept the self-identification, based on no evidence at all. It must be something in the drinking water.