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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.