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Thursday, 26 January 2023

Transwomen and Real Women


“Transwomen are Real Women”

That was one of the formulations inscribed on a home-made placard at a recent demonstration in Scotland, carried by someone who looked the part of a student - though whether a real student or not I don’t know. Maybe they were just performing being a student and maybe that’s all there is to being a real student.

I guess that anyone with a positive IQ encountering that placard might be tempted to ask, “And, Pray, What is a Real Woman?” and I’ll briefly ask it later.

But first I want to ask something else. In an ideal world, would transwomen be indistinguishable from other women? Well, undoubtedly and for a long time now there have been Dr Frankenstein doctors who like to experiment on men and see how far they can make them indistinguishable from real women. In the 1930s the soon-to-become-an-enthusiastic-Nazi Dr Warnekros experimented on Lili Elbe/Elvenes (“The Danish Girl”) and carried on experimenting until he killed him or her.

This may be one reason why trans activists now reckon that saying you are a woman  is enough to make you one (cue undergraduate buzzword essays with “Judith Butler” and “performativity” cut and pasted). There aren’t actually that many people who want to submit to the surgeon’s knife and it’s very helpful that theorists have come along to tell you, don’t worry, there is an easier alternative:  feeling or thinking it so makes it so. Except in cases like feeling happy or thinking about the past that was once reckoned a kind of delusion which required urgent attention. Even thinking it’s time to get up does not ensure that you get up.

Unfortunately, the criterion that thinking it so makes it so does have the consequence that those half-hearted transwomen who try to cash it in are easily distinguishable from real women. They have the wrong anatomy and, often enough, along with that the wrong attitudes and demeanour as if they were men with a rather large sense of entitlement to go with the rather large penis which in Scottish law courts is standardly - and once again only yesterday - referred to as “her penis” in the course of rape cases.

A 24 January 2023 Glasgow case delivered Guilty verdicts on two separate charges brought against someone calling themself  "Isla Bryson" who committed the offences when claiming to be a man but who now is rather conveniently claiming to be a transwoman - dressed in pink, nail extensions, blonde wig - and having been sentenced was indeed sent off to the Nirvana of a women’s prison accompanied by the pink suitcase brought to court in expectation of just that custodial sentence.

[Since I wrote the first draft of this Ms Sturgeon has intervened to get Bryson transferred to a men's prison; clearly, she saw that otherwise the publicity fallout would just be too awful to contemplate. The best comment has come from the rapist’s former wife who “fell out of bed laughing” when she saw her ex-husband’s get up and dismissed it as a “scam” at the same time expressing  sympathy for real transgender people]. 

But perhaps the premiss of my thinking so far is wrong. Maybe transwomen don’t want to be indistinguishable from real women. After all, how could you then continue to demonstrate privilege and entitlement or at least draw attention to yourself? Maybe the message on the placard missed something.

Transactivists lost my support a few years ago when I looked at a photograph of Rachel McKinnon beaming on the podium as the winner of a women’s cycle race. The photograph was everywhere because the transwoman had won and the other women had come in second and third. I looked again and mentally labelled the photograph Me Tarzan, You Jane. McKinnon was smiling, having put women in their place. Had she been indistinguishable from real women there would have been no cause for the photograph which taken alone without knowledge of any backstory is enough to show that she is very much distinguishable. Take a look.

So “Transwomen are Real Women” might not be quite what it seems. Maybe it unpacks as “I am a transwoman and you will kindly treat me as I demand to be treated or else”.  At the same demonstration, another placard featured a careful drawing of a guillotine and the accompanying message that this was the way to deal with TERFS - women who for some reason (only very strange people do reasons nowadays; everyone else does rights) don’t buy into trans ideology. The word “decapitate” appeared on the placard. You can easily find a photograph on the internet and with any luck you will be able to see the person holding it.

That takes me to another point. At some early stage, I was foolish enough to feel - until Rachel MacKinnon came along - that maybe transactivists were the articulate voice of some kind of progressive movement which I should support. I was a bit doubtful, especially about the idea of self-identification written about in a longer piece  on this blog posted 24 January 2023 but dating from 2016. But transactivists don’t head a progressive movement; they lead something much more like an Alt Right movement in the delusional American mode. It’s blindingly clear that there are no coherent arguments to support their maximalist self-identification demands and so they have fairly consistently fallen back on bullying and intimidation of which the guillotine placard is just someone’s (some man’s?) fantasy version. (OK, there is always some nutter at any demonstration. But then it’s a bad idea to take a beaming selfie in front of their placard because it tends to make you look, er, complicit).

More significant than the guillotine placard are the cases like that of Professor Kathleen Stock, hounded from her post at the University of Sussex by middle-class NIMBY students [I just loved the  placard reading  “No TERFS on Our Turf”] supported by an intellectually compromised faculty and colluded in by a weak and muddled administration. The publicity alone means that Sussex will become a magnet for those who think universities should be more like theological seminaries upholding Truth, Donald Trump-style.

In all of this, women who transition to men are absent. Maybe they aren’t into asserting their privilege. Much of the time, transgender women themselves appear to be absent from all the publicity-seeking. For all I know - and I am only guessing - many of them may not be at all preoccupied with gaining access to women’s sports, rape crisis centres, not to mention the harem of women’s prisons. And even if they would like some of those things - toilets most obviously - they do see that there are problems which may or may not be easily solved. (The Toilet Question is really quite easy to solve and should be). But with friends like transgender activists, who needs enemies?

“What is a Real Woman?” Can transgender activists answer that without going round in circles? They can’t give an anatomical answer and have to give a social construct/performative answer. But that can only turn into a list of gender stereotypes associated with anatomical females who identify/perform themselves as women by wearing pink and nail extensions and so on indefinitely. Are we really meant to be convinced that to be a real woman you just have to buy a pair of high heels like, er, anatomical women often do?

What might make a performance the performance of a real woman as opposed to an unreal or delusional one? “Real” only has purchase if it contrasts with something else which is fake or pretend. as it was with those English con men who once toured the French Riviera claiming to be English aristocrats.  At one time, the transgender activist case was based on a psychiatric category called gender dysphoria. That has been abandoned for various reasons including the consequential thought that if it’s some kind of mental disorder then it needs to be taken seriously, not indulged  or accommodated at the expense of women's safety.

The anxiety which fuels feminist opposition to self-identification is very much grounded in the sense that some who claim to be transgender women just aren’t; they are faking it or pretending or have read that it’s trending and thus liable to change their minds very quickly and go back to being what they were before when it no longer produces Likes online. 

And transgender activists need quite separate explanations; why are they in such thrall  (like Oath Keepers and Proud Boys) to half-baked and  delusional ideas trickled down, I suspect, from the writings  of obscurantist professors?  Their  ideas  don't come from transgender people, do they? 



Wednesday, 25 January 2023

The Statues in Trafalgar Square




Just under a hundred years ago, charting Mrs Dalloway’s progress through the streets of London, Virginia Woolf casually mentions “Havelock” in Trafalgar Square. There was no need to expand on that single word and remind us that “Havelock” is a prosaic statue of a bulky male figure, best foot forward on a plinth, the ensemble erected to remind us of Major General Sir Henry Havelock whose permanent legacy is a Narrative of the War in Afghanistan.  Today, no one - office worker or tourist - sees “Havelock” in Trafalgar Square; the monument triggers no memories and elicits no interest beyond the occasional cursory glance at the inscription on the plinth. “Havelock” has subsided to the level of the Narrative; both are now simply documents of the past, of interest to professional historians and those in Afghanistan who kept alive the oral memory of invading armies and treated the return of the British to Helmand in 2006 as just a new chapter in an old story, a spare princeling enhancing the sense of narrative continuity.


Had Virginia Woolf casually mentioned “Nelson” in Trafalgar Square there would (still) be many passers-by and tourists who would know a bit about Nelson even if no more than might be encompassed by a gloss or footnote. In that sense, “Nelson” still works as a monument which can activate a memory in a way that “Havelock” and “Napier” - also on a Trafalgar Square plinth - can’t. “Nelson” has a place in popular memory though that will eventually fade.


In 2000, as is well-known, the Mayor of London Ken Livingstone suggested that Havelock and Napier (but not Nelson) should be removed from the square. It didn’t happen and the subsequent consolidation of a notion of “Heritage” now makes it likely that the two uninspiring lumps of metal will stay put in their prime location, indefinitely.


“Heritage” is a bric-à-brac shop idea; it does not discriminate. As long as it’s over a hundred years old it’s an antique and therefore valuable - though in the case of “Heritage” it is so valuable that it is not for sale, not to be moved, and not to be improved (as owners of Grade II* listed homes will know, draughts being part of our Heritage too).


In the past, when we were busy creating “Heritage”, things were different. The Victorians always felt free to change their minds.  They erected and shortly after removed from Trafalgar Square someone called Edward Jenner - do you need a gloss? smallpox vaccine? - who went up in 1858 with Prince Albert present but was promptly moved out in 1862. I don’t know why. General Gordon - Siege of Khartoum - lasted longer. He was put up in 1888 and removed in 1943, re-surfacing ten years later. In 1948, Churchill - no gloss needed - had asked for Gordon to be put back in the Square but though he was Prime Minister in 1953, the statue did not re-appear there but on the Victoria Embankment where it remains.




In a well-known essay dating to 1940, the art historian Erwin Panofsky drew a distinction between documents and monuments since deployed in a variety of modified forms, most recently in John Guillory’s Professing Criticism (University of Chicago Press 2022). Every fragment of our cultural past which survives becomes a document (not necessarily on paper - a potsherd is a document in this sense) which can be archived and studied as we try to understand how we got to here from there. A document becomes a monument when it strikes us as having intrinsic value, worthy of some form of appreciation in which it is treated as something other than evidence for something else. From one point of view, any Renaissance painting is a document of its times; from another it may be something valued because it’s a remarkable work of art.


Statues confuse matters and are meant to. They seek to impose themselves as monuments when they often are, or become, no more than documents. Statues of Stalin or the Kims are informative and provide evidence about the character of entire regimes; that we readily understand.  Our own education, even if quite limited, will allow us to see that those statues are aesthetically and artistically not terribly interesting. Let’s be that polite.  


But the nearer we get to home, the more clouded our understanding becomes. Havelock and Napier belong in a museum or its warehouse - all museums house very much more than they ever display. Even then, they will be of limited interest - they certainly break no new ground in the history of art. If we started seriously to remove all the dead monuments we would soon run out of storage - at which point, the sensible thing is to photograph and send the thing in itself to the scrapyard, as if dealing with tombstones from defunct cemeteries.


Putting up statues which add “diversity” does not solve the intrinsic problem that statues seek to impose narratives which alone they are incapable of sustaining. Proponents of “Diversity” also seek to impose their own valuations which may well not be widely shared, in which case the new statues become just like the rest, street clutter to which only dogs and pigeons are attracted. For their purposes, lumps of stone and metal are all they need. Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square is already learning that lesson.


Another lesson is simply this: a monument is something which has to be discovered; it may require some excavation before it turns into a great novel or a great painting but there comes a point when it begins to impose itself. That is something which Nelson’s Column may have achieved. But a monument is not something you can simply erect.

Trevor Pateman, 25 January 2023

Tuesday, 24 January 2023

Passing for Female


Passing for Female?

This essay appeared as a chapter in my collection of essays, The Best I Can Do published in 2016 by degree zero and available in paperback at Amazon and


To my knowledge, no single or unified account of the limits and limitations of self-identification exists. Different practices prevail in different domains and reflect both fairly constant and sometimes rapidly changing perceptions of what is legitimate, what is safe, what is fair, and so on. The practices vary from one society to another, of course. The issue those practices address might be put like this: When can and should we accept someone’s own word that they are who they say they are? When can and should we accept that they are what they say they are?

I began to think about identity and self-identification partly because of a well-publicised spat at Cardiff University. In 2015, Germaine Greer, writer and celebrity, author of The Female Eunuch and other works, was invited to lecture at Cardiff.  It nearly didn’t happen because the women’s officer of the Student Union there, Rachael Melhuish, got up a petition to No Platform her:

Greer has demonstrated time and time again her misogynistic views towards trans women, including continually misgendering transwomen and denying the existence of transphobia altogether. Trans-exclusionary views should have no place in feminism or society.


As an example of her “transphobia”, Greer was notably called out for the use of the expression “ghastly parodies” to describe those whose birth sex was Male but who subsequently choose to present in society as women, either with or without surgery. Greer refuses to accept the self- presentation or, at least, some of those presentations. In contrast, Melhuish aligns herself with those who think that people should be allowed to self-identify their gender and be treated accordingly. That is in line with the policy of the National Union of Students.  How plausible is that position? It seems to me that it helps if we consider the argument in the context of other cases where identity questions arise.

Banks no longer accept that you are who you say you are or that you live where you say you live. You have to provide proof in both cases – and the banks spell out to you what kind of proof they will accept (your passport, a recent utility bill, and so on).  This is justified as an anti-fraud / anti-money laundering / anti-tax evasion measure. We are not supposed to get indignant when asked to prove that we are who we say we are, though I imagine that there was a time when people (especially those in higher social classes) would indeed have become indignant: “How dare you!”

Compare situations in which you are simply asked to declare something and that’s it. When you go into hospital you are asked to declare your religion and they just write down what you say. This will affect how your body will be handled if you die there and who will seek to visit you if you are dying. And so on. You declare and no one queries it. Thus it is that in the United Kingdom there are very many more self-declared Christians than enter Christian churches. The self-ascription “Christian” on a hospital form is for all practical purposes a negative characterisation: Well, I’m certainly not a Jew or a Muslim and I don’t want to answer “None” just in case …

But in other contexts, this casual attitude to religious self-ascription would not be tolerated. In England, school admissions provide a good example. Since the 1990s, successive governments have encouraged a greater degree of social segregation through the mechanism of “Faith Schools” which are allowed to select their pupils by the religious affiliation of their parents. However, realising that parents are only too willing to perjure themselves to get their kids into nice middle class schools, our more popular faith schools now look for proof that you are indeed of the religious persuasion that you claim. They impose religious tests. Indignation?  Not at all. Our modern parents (sociologists tell us) are more than happy to present themselves in the pews of the local Church of England or Roman Catholic church where for as long as it takes they sit smugly, ghastly parodies of religious belief.

In the UK, there are few contexts in which self-identification by race or ethnicity is asked for other than for statistical purposes – the Census, notably. We don’t have Quotas and we don’t have Exclusions. In some contexts, notably medical, the accuracy of self-identification is important: there are some genetic disorders and diseases which discriminate by race and it can be important for a doctor to know whether or not you are in a high risk group. In this case, people have self-interested reasons for making accurate self-identifications.

But in other societies, self-identification by race or ethnicity or their official ascription have long and complex histories and important consequences. Everyone is familiar with the idea of “Passing for White” which in the United States was – and maybe still is – a rational strategy for improving your life chances. If your skin is pale enough, then that opens up the possibility of passing for white and, if you decide to do that even in the knowledge that your ancestry is at least partly non-white, then you acquire immediate social advantages - but at the same time usually have to live with inner conflict and the anxiety that you may be found out. On the other side from "Passing for White", when forms of positive discrimination are introduced designed to favour disadvantaged groups then there are also possibilities of abuse and once again Tests have to be introduced to verify that you are who you say you are or what you say you are. It is not unknown for people to choose to “Pass for Black”.

But most of the time in daily life, people don't encounter many occasions when their self-identifications are challenged. Being asked for your age ID when trying to enter a club or pub is as bad as it gets and that problem, unfortunately, goes away naturally.


Now let’s go back to the Melhuish – Greer conflict. I have always understood that a man who dresses as a woman is correctly described as a transvestite and that a man who in addition has undergone hormonal treatment or surgery is usually described as a transsexual. More or less the same categorisation can be made in relation to women who present themselves as men. Neither category tells us anything about a trans person’s sexual orientation. Nor does it actually tell us much about their gender since it is not spelled out what it is to present oneself as a woman (or when the transition is made in the other direction, a man). The National Union of Students wants us to treat the presentation of self as unproblematic (“My Identity Is Not Your Business”, Resolution 106, December 2015) whereas I thought that a great deal of social theory and most feminisms from Simone de Beauvoir (at the latest) onwards were about it being extremely problematic.

Does it mean in the M to F case presenting oneself according to the local gender stereotypes of what it is to be a woman? Does it mean presenting oneself as a woman in one’s dress and the public toilets you enter? Does it mean signalling to men that they should treat you (according to the conventions in place) as a woman? And likewise, signalling the same to women – so that, for example, you can claim admission to “Women Only” meetings? Does it mean signalling to others that you feel more comfortable presenting yourself and being treated as a woman (whatever that happens to mean), pretty much regardless of how you dress, what toilets you use, what personality traits you display, and so on?

The basis of a 2015 film, David Ebershoff’s novel The Danish Girl, originally published in 2000, offers - perhaps unwittingly - answers to some of these questions. It does not stay close to the true story which inspired it, but nonetheless it allows us to see what some of the real-world issues are. A large part of the narrative is about a man, Einar, passing as a woman, Lili, in various ways, some of them morally dubious: for example, when through your dress, you misrepresent your sexual identity to someone you want to seduce or be seduced by. Whereas feminism since the 1960s has most often been about challenging conventional gendering, urging women to be more assertive and men less macho, women to be less obsessed with their appearance and men less demanding in that regard, Eberhsoff’s transgender character embraces wholly conventional gendering but simply switches sides. That appears to be the case for some contemporary real-life switchers: they accept the existing conventions on both sides, but switch allegiances.

Passing as a woman normally involves more than asking to be labelled a certain way. The exceptions are provided, notably, by cases – largely in the past - where birth-sex women cross-dressed as men in order to gain admission to armies, medical schools, and so on, but who did not in any way feel that they were something other than women. There were also cases where men cross-dressed as women, usually for nefarious purposes like escaping military service or gaining access to places where young females could be found who might be available for heterosexual sex.

But the most obvious cases of cross-dressing occurred (and still occur) on stage where the Pantomime Dame or the burlesque Drag Queen have for a very long time (centuries?) presented a comedy of “ghastly parodies” . Sometimes these parodies appear off stage and may have been in Germaine Greer’s mind. Would the defenders of trans people’s rights welcome a Pantomime Dame to a Women Only meeting?

That sort of question may be a way into thinking about the whole issue. If you would not admit a Pantomime Dame, my guess is that is because you think they are simply a man pretending to be a woman. Fine, it’s not really in dispute. Next question: How about an old-fashioned male - to-female transvestite who cuts a very striking figure in high heels and booming voice? Is that person more than a Pantomime Dame, but just off-stage? If so, what makes the difference?   What has to happen to qualify that person for a "Women Only" meeting? Do they just have to Pass in the way that the Dame and the old fashioned transvestite Fail, namely, the ability to Pass? And who is to make up the rules and judge who Passes?

Germaine Greer has said that "just because you lop off your dick it doesn't make you a woman". This is obviously true: men have their dicks lopped off in car crashes, industrial accidents and - most frequently - misadventures with military high explosives. Few of them breathe a sigh of relief or think "Now I can be the woman I always wanted to be". Greer is saying that even if you lose your dick as part of a self-mutilation or voluntarily undergone medical procedure, that in itself is not
 sufficient to make you a woman, not enough to get you into the "Women Only" meeting. That seems correct: you need a supporting story which explains why you did it and how it forms part of the "woman" identity you are claiming.

Rachael Melhuish is right in this: people who are gratuitously offensive to others generally deserve a put-down of some kind if we can be reasonably clear what we mean by “gratuitously offensive”. Greer has always been foul-mouthed and blunt and that is one reason she achieved iconic status as a feminist. If she thinks an argument is ridiculous, she will say so and that does not always go down well. It’s not obviously the same thing as being gratuitously offensive. It is not offensive to shred a bad argument; it is one of the things students are supposed to do.


Freudian psychoanalysis is hated only and always by those who insist that we are always who we say we are and what we say we are. I am a kind and loving person, always – and if you dispute those Facts, I will cast you into outer darkness.

But most aspects of our selves are not things we can will, and those who believe that the will can always triumph are doomed to failure. My will won't triumph over my toothache and I can’t will away primary sexual characteristics or even many of the secondary gender characteristics I have acquired. Several critics of the NUS’s recent positions use the word “fascist” or allude to it (as I have done in referencing Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film Triumph of the Will ) in describing its politics. I think this is because of a suspicion that there is a background belief here that all of life is about resolutions, decisions and will-power. Take away the reference to Fascism and an alternative might be to call such beliefs The Anorexic Mistake. They are beliefs which cluster around the idea that we can subject our bodies and our selves entirely to control by our will power.

I realise that earlier I used examples – the Pantomine Dame, the Drag Queen - which may seem trivial, though that’s a familiar device to clarify complex issues and it sometimes works.  But in reality, from what I read, trans people have much more difficult lives than the Pantomime Dame, as do Intersex persons - who start from a different anatomical situation.

It is hard and often enough anguishing to realise that you are only going to feel more authentic, more comfortable, more desirable if you shift into a mode of self-presentation which asks other people to reclassify your gender, more or less regardless of the state of your sexual organs. But just because it’s hard does not mean that a Narrative of Suffering or a Hard Luck story on its own should open the doors to the Women Only meeting. The narrative needs to be convincing and the story true. In the UK, a 2004 Act of Parliament attempted to deal with the matter by creating a Gender Recognition Panel. It may be that the legislation will need to be modified but it seems to me unlikely we will conclude that so little is at stake that anyone can self-declare who and what they are for all purposes. Those who appear to want simple self-declaration to suffice are arguing for something which can place others at risk of harm – it has occasionally happened already that males with heterosexual interests and a tendency to violence declare themselves women to gain access to Women Only spaces.

So the stories we tell cannot always let us off the hook of other forms of accountability. Likewise, just because you may encounter hostile or dismissive reactions does not mean that you are automatically to be reckoned morally superior to those around you. You will still have your own weaknesses and unkindnesses – things which make everyone uncomfortable with themselves at one time or another, things which we would like to wish away with a “No, that’s not me”. We can never be entirely who we say we are or what we say we are. That's just one of life's unfairnesses. But at least it applies to everyone.


At the back of my mind I have this thought. The history of medicine is littered with histories of doctors doing terrible things to people, supposedly to "cure" them of this or that. Some of the medical techniques employed to re-configure sexual characteristics have been around a long time: sheikhs had eunuchs in their harems; the Vatican had castrati in its choirs (until 1913 or 1959, sources differ on the dates); German sex clinics began offering operations in the 1920s; chemical castration was around in the 1950s to punish homosexuals like Alan Turing; the major industry which services the desire for larger breasts is very well established. The range of surgeries and chemistries available continues to grow. But there is a possibility that a hundred years from now, those who by then believe themselves to be progressive and humane may regard at least some of those techniques as barbaric - even when self-chosen - and as falsely offering cures for catastrophic dilemmas which require other modes of approach.

Even now, when I read up on the history of Lili Elbe [Lili Elvenes] (1882 -1931), the so-called Danish Girl, I find myself uneasy when I discover that her fourth and final surgery, submitted to when she was 49 years old, killed her. It was carried out in Dresden and involved the unprecedented transplant of either ovaries or a uterus. It reads just too much like an irresponsible medical experiment conducted on a vulnerable person who was past normal child bearing age. Worse, it occured in a political context where medical irresponsibility was soon to achieve political sanction and encouragement. Dr Warnekros who operated on Lili in 1931 joined the Nazi party in 1933. Put into that kind of context, sex change operations at that time belong to the same world as medical experimentation on those who had not consented, to forced sterilisation and other eugenic policies which culminated in the mass killing of the mentally feeble and physically handicapped.


Saturday, 24 December 2022

Should parents post photographs of their children on social media?


This morning, 25 December 2022, two main photographs on the BBC News website show children of William and Kate ; yesterday another photograph of them appeared on my Yahoo newsfeed. I don’t watch television or follow anyone on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter but my guess is that if I did I would find many more images of these children. I could also easily find images of the children of Harry  and Meghan. I get the impression that these images have recently proliferated.

I don’t follow celebrity gossip either, but it is impossible not to know that the two sets of parents are in conflict. And it looks to me as if the children, as often happens, are being  weaponised. 

Many - maybe most - parents are wary of posting images of their children publicly, online. Many celebrities and politicians are also careful about putting their children in the public eye. They have many reasons: partly it is about their children’s safety; maybe it is to make their lives easier at school; maybe also they think children have some right to privacy until they are old enough to make their own decisions.

The publicity machines which manage the lives of Britain’s Royal-Family-in-Conflict should take note.Leave the children out of it.

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. 

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.