The Authoritarian Implications of the ‘What Is A Woman’ Wars

A response to New Discourses

Image from Pexels

Let’s start with this. I’m really tired of all the ‘What Is A Woman’ culture war stuff, since much of it doesn’t come with an honest intellectual discussion about the objective facts. But once again, given the ongoing discourse in this area, and the very real effects it might have on the real world, I feel that I have no choice but to keep responding. Today, I want to respond to the short video simply titled ‘What Is A Woman’, by James Lindsay from New Discourses. I have a certain level of respect for Lindsay, because he at least takes time to go through academic texts to analyze them, even if I don’t always agree with his conclusions. So today, I am going to respond to his video with the intellectual rigor I think it deserves.

Part 1: Why the ‘What Is A Woman’ Culture Warriors are Actually Radical

The example of ‘what is a woman’ illustrates the problem with reactionary culture war politics, and why it can never be a truly conservative thing. In a tribalist, whatever it takes culture war, even those who claim to ‘defend’ the status quo will contribute to its destruction in the process. This is because taking a politics driven, ‘us vs them’ culture war approach inevitably distorts and damages important parts of our cultural inheritance, and such damages could be difficult to repair even long after the culture war is over.

Lindsay claims that attempts to include trans women in the category of ‘women’ serve to complicate the category of ‘women’, and hence serves the purposes of queer theory to ‘complicate’ categories. I agree that queer theory activists are needlessly complicating our understanding of gender, and that is not a good thing. However, what Lindsay fails to acknowledge is that, queer theory activists often have a difficult relationship with ‘binary’ trans women like myself, because we don’t serve to ‘complicate’ and deconstruct the categories of gender. They often smear those of us campaigning for mainstream trans acceptance with the ‘respectability politics’ label, because of our supposed conformity with existing norms. This shows that the mainstream form of trans acceptance (e.g. treating a trans woman as a woman for most social purposes, where it is reasonable to do so) does not actually help the queer theory agenda.

On the other hand, the recent culture war approach to the ‘what is a woman’ question actually complicates the matter, and hence could even ultimately benefit the queer theory agenda. On the surface, the culture war activists are claiming to ‘defend’ the traditional dictionary definition of woman as ‘adult human female’. However, using this definition as a weapon in an ongoing culture war is certainly not in line with traditional practice at all, and certainly ‘complicates’ the category of woman. While there has always been broad agreement with the understanding of woman to mean ‘adult human female’, it has not generally been used to draw a rigid line to strictly define who is in the category or not, especially in a heated, culture war context. Doing so effectively makes the formerly universally accepted definition controversial, and makes it a point of constant argument in the face of ‘borderline’ cases that naturally exist. The attempt at rigid classification also provides plenty of room for postmodernist activists to attack the inconsistencies in its application to various ‘borderline’ cases, thus justifying their argument that the category is ultimately unstable or invalid. In return, those trying to ‘defend’ the category will likely come up with increasingly rigid and twisted definitions that defy both science and common sense. This cycle goes on and on, until it all becomes a meaningless war of language. In the name of ‘defending’ the status quo, the culture war activists are actually radically changing the status quo. They are effectively starting a revolution by stealth.

From a more practical perspective, the reason why this new application of ‘adult human female’ is radical, is because it actually has the effect of making the common understanding of sex and gender much more rigid, and much less nuanced, with flow on effects to many areas of life. One of the things I’m most concerned about is that this new rigidity has flow on effects on the understanding of intersex people. The new, culture war version of ‘adult human female’ often comes with additional details like chromosomes or gametes, that serve to justify the rigid exclusion of trans women, and in doing so at least partially erases and makes taboo the reality of intersex people. There is already inadequate understanding of intersex conditions as it stands, which means intersex people often do not get the health care they need. I have a friend who is certain that she is intersex, and I agree with her based on an objective assessment from the knowledge of my formal training in the biological sciences. Yet she has not been able to find a doctor to formally recognize her condition, because it is not one of the intersex conditions listed in medical texts at the moment. I know that there are many people like her out there. Intersex people can experience a range of medical complications throughout life, which is why the current underdiagnosis of intersex conditions is a major problem. Intersex issues are already surrounded by taboo and mystery as it stands. A culture war around ‘what is a woman’, with one side defending unnaturally rigid definitions, and downplaying the reality of intersex issues, would only make the problem worse. It is not something I think a good person can be OK with in good conscience.

Part 2: Objectively Assessing the Motivations of Queer Theory etc.

In the video, Lindsay explains that the ‘woke’ consider a woman to be ‘anyone who identifies that way, so long as that identification is deemed authentic’. He then points out that the problem with this definition is in who gets to determine if the way a certain individual identifies is authentic or not. He uses the example of a male weightlifter, who identified as a woman for a few minutes and broke the weightlifting record, but was unrecognized by the ‘woke’. Hence, Lindsay concludes that the authority to decide which identities are ‘authentic’ must reside in approved experts. Which ultimately means that one can’t answer ‘what is a woman’ without consulting an approved expert. Lindsay then explains that queer theory, which ‘woke’ thinking on gender and sexuality is often based on, likes to ‘queer’ categories by complicating them, so that nobody can adjudicate the facts of life for themselves. As he puts it, “they want to destroy normal people’s ability to see and ascertain and discuss and express reality on their own in commonly shared terms”. A truly scarily authoritarian implication, if true.

Lindsay’s line of reasoning is consistent with a growing narrative that ‘woke’ ideas are all about taking freedom away from everyday individuals and putting more and more power into the hands of approved experts. As someone who has put some time in to study critical theory and postmodernism, I actually don’t agree. Lindsay is correct that queer theory wants to complicate categories where there is no objective need to, and this is one of the reasons I am strongly opposed to queer theory. As I often say, queer theory is bad for trans people because it makes society confused about what being trans is. Therefore, I consider the insertion of queer theory into the trans discourse to be parasitic, i.e. harming ‘the host’ (the trans community) so that the parasite (queer theory ideology) can grow and reproduce. However, as much as I dislike queer theory, I can still see that it is not about grabbing power for the experts. Instead, its aim is to deconstruct almost everything we know about the world, out of a misguided belief that it is all social constructs that serve the oppressors by holding down the oppressed. I believe that postmodernism and critical theory are harmful because they don’t respect objective reality. Assigning motives to the supporters of these ideas that don’t objectively exist would be similarly harmful. Two wrongs certainly don’t make one right!

Part 3: Destroying Normal People’s Ability to Ascertain Reality

The culture warriors’ application of ‘adult human female’ actually leads to what people like Lindsay fear most: the destruction of normal people’s ability to ascertain, discuss and express reality on their own, in commonly shared terms. To put it bluntly, normal people don’t think of chromosomes or gametes when they interact with others. These things are in the realm of expert knowledge, not everyday life. Most people take a ‘if it looks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck’ approach to determine gender, which is undeniably the common sense position. Under the ‘if it looks like a duck’ approach, many people already accept at least some trans women as belonging in the category of ‘women’, at least in everyday social situations where people are fully clothed. That trans women are genetically male is not even relevant in this most simplistic and most old-school of approaches (which falsifies Lindsay’s assertion that including trans women in the category of women necessarily complicates it). On the other hand, the culture war activists are relentlessly attempting to supplant the ‘if it looks like a duck’ approach, forcibly complicating things by making people consider chromosomes and gametes where they are not even relevant. In doing so, it is destroying normal people’s ability to ascertain, discuss and express reality on their own, using commonly shared terms like ‘woman’ as they see fit.

In applying the ‘duck’ test, I generally end up seeing trans women as women, in the context of everyday social situations. This is because trans women who have made an effort to present as a woman generally ‘look like’ women to me, as long as they are fully clothed, even if I can tell that they are trans. Generally speaking, trans women are also clearly more feminine than men, and most trans women behave in a way that would not be out of place compared to biological women. Some trans women are so feminine that it would be weird to think of them as men. Overall, for me at least, it is easier to think of most trans women as women than as men, due to the ‘duck’ test. Not everyone will apply the ‘duck’ test the way I do. When observing the world around us, different people might assess things differently, and assessing the gender of others is a natural, subconscious process too. There is no way to change this except through authoritarian enforcement of a ‘common standard’. Which, I fear, is what many people on both sides of the trans debate want to do, including the ‘what is a woman’ culture warriors.

Conclusions

In conclusion, in politicizing the ‘What Is A Woman’ question, and using it as a culture war weapon, certain anti-trans culture war activists are radically changing the status quo, with harmful effects to science and medicine, especially in regards to intersex issues. I believe this is just as ideological as, and no less misguided than, queer theory’s attempt to deconstruct all categories about sex and gender. Moreover, it is relentlessly trying to get people to abandon the most simplistic and old-school way to determine gender, i.e. the ‘if it looks like a duck’ method. In doing so, it is destroying normal people’s ability to ascertain, discuss and express reality on their own, and to use the commonly shared term ‘woman’ as they see fit. This is nothing short of authoritarian.

Originally published at The TaraElla Project on Substack where I reply to interesting and controversial points of view in the trans discourse.

TaraElla is a singer-songwriter and author, who recently published her autobiography The TaraElla Story, in which she described the events that inspired her writing.

She is also the author of The Trans Case Against Queer Theory.

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TaraElla

TaraElla

Author & musician. Moral Libertarian. Disrupting the woke vs anti-woke echo chambers and making the West truly liberal again. https://www.taraella.com