Toleration, Current Events

Some thoughts on a TERF war…

A few weeks ago I ran across a few references to the acronym TERF, which stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminists. These references came from wildly divergent political sources (Slate and Breitbart, among others), which may be what made me pay attention. I’m not sure the movement itself is very important or has much staying power. What I’m more interested in is what TERF can tell us about language policing, identity politics, and the importance of the particular.

The short explanation of TERF (not their chosen acronym, by the way) or their trans counterparts, gender critical trans women, is that these folks question the identity politics dogma that trans women are actually women (a longer explanation can be found over at Slate). There’s more to it than that, of course, but I’m less concerned with their particular positions than with what this internecine conflict can tell us about gender identity in the modern world. Oddly enough, there’s some good news as we crawl to the end of the Year We Obsessed Over Identity.

The first bit of good news out of the TERF war (sorry) is that how one experiences gender is particular and uniquely personal. The recognition in recent years that people experience gender and sexuality in very different ways has allowed many people to live more authentic lives and to avoid some of (but not all of) the societal pressure and even violence that can accompany nonconformity. Such noncomformity is, of course, disruptive, and changes the way people interact with one another. But it also creates room for new ideas and ways of being. All that is good for freedom.

At the same time, as evidenced by the TERFs and other internal critics, is that this particularity will also push back against the rigid top-down demands of many in the identity politics world, whose policing of language and conflating of speech and aggression support precisely that conformity of thought that their own recognition of particularity should reject. Within this push and pull of authenticity versus conformity, it’s unlikely any one powerful group will come out on top. Gender critical transgender people will argue with transgender activists and the result will hopefully be a transgender community that is as diverse and particular and noisy as the non-transgender one. And, of course, as being transgender becomes normalized, much of the rhetoric will soften as both trans and non-trans communities find a lot of crossover in the other identities every individual inhabits. The great Venn diagram of human life wins again.

The other good news is that (hopefully) these disagreements demonstrate that it is possible to question the language of the identity police, even if just from within the left, and not be accused of advocating or supporting or facilitating true violence against anyone. And, of course, the flip side of that is just as (if not more) important: one can decry and reject violence against all peaceful nonconformists without accepting their worldview, their language, or even their understanding of their own identity.

Whatever else is going on with the TERF wars, their existence seems to suggest an increased opening for particularity, both within and between movements, that may eventually open up into a true respect for the individual, including individuals who disagree.

At the very least, there are now many many more ways of being an individual than ever before. And that’s cause for celebration.

  • David Johnson

    Identity politics has always been about shared experiences. But when your identity becomes merely a choice, what shared experience can there be? How can Caitlyn Jenner have a shared experience of womanhood? The problem here is not gender, the problem is the very idea of identity politics.

    • Lauren Hall

      The response from the transgender community would be that gender identity is not “merely a choice.” I’m also not entirely sure you can’t have a shared experience even if your identity is merely a choice. There’s always an element of choice in which parts of our identities we choose to emphasize or identify with. I don’t see the choice issue as being quite as relevant or as problematic as you do.

  • The examples in the Slate article you linked to indicate very strong public condemnations against those who express publicly their disagreement with the orthodox view (or whatever one calls it) on the matter, so I’m not sure there is cause for optimism. Maybe the exchanges will become less hostile in the future, but I’m a bit skeptical, personally.

    Also, it seems to me the exchanges often do not seem to address the same issues, and people are often talking past each other. That is not an encouraging sign.

    For example, according to the Slate article, TERFs believe there is no such thing as a female brain (or a woman’s brain, in the article’s terminology), and for that reason, there are no transgender people.
    Assuming the slate article characterized the main point of disagreement correctly, it seems to me the proper way addressing the disagreement would be to address (discuss, do research on, test hypotheses, etc.) the following matters (and a few others):

    1. Are there female brains[and/or minds; I’ll say “brains” to make it short] and male brains in humans?

    One may consider our evolutionary past, similar species, psychological studies in different cultures, etc.

    2. In case the answer to 1. is “yes” (else, 2. does not apply), do all (or most, some, etc.) people born with male sexual organs who identify as women have female brains?

    One might consider psychological studies, neurological studies, prevalence of matches between brains and sexual organs in general (considering other species), as well as both self-reporting, etc.

    3. Is the meaning of the word “woman” – in its usual, colloquial meaning, if there is just one – such that if a person has a male brain/mind, then that person is not a woman?

    That’s a matter of conceptual analysis.

    4. Are there several usages of the word “woman” in common speech? If so, is miscommunication common?

    Those are also matters of conceptual analysis.

    Those seem to be the primary issues. But my impression is that usual exchanges do not address them, or do so only tangentially (I’m not even sure they’re being discussed, researched on, etc., seriously and in connection to this particular disagreement), and the level of hostility usually displayed make serious discussion less probable in my assessment.

    • Lauren Hall

      We’re not at a point of respect or even openness to alternative ideas here. There’s still a lot of hostility, obviously. A lot of that is probably due to the fragility of the transgender movement, since it’s quite new and acceptance is still not altogether guaranteed. But things will get more open, I suspect, just as feminism itself has morphed into numerous competing strands over the years.

      I also agree with your general assessment of the issues that would have to be sussed out, though I think #3 and #4 are perhaps the most important. I use the word “woman” (most of the time, anyway) in a pretty casual way, to mean a person who identifies, dresses, and behaves as a woman. Tautological, sure. But it works for the vast majority of instances I need it. There are, of course, instances where that falls down because we’re talking about, say, risk factors for ovarian cancer, which of course a trans woman would not have. That’s where I think the insistence that trans women are *simply* women gets a little trickier. I’m not sure what the answer is, but there’s clearly confusion within the movement about what it means to be a woman. All this is to say, you’re right on the questions that will need to be asked. Whether the transgender rights movement is willing to have those questions asked and willing to debate the answers, is another issue. I’m hopeful, but it certainly won’t happen immediately.

      • Lauren,

        I think #1 is important to the specific TERF objection that there is no such thing as a female brain, but with respect to gender discussions in general, I tend to agree with you that #3 and #4 and similar questions are the most important in the sense that whether #1 and #2 are important in the end depends on the answers to #3, #4, and similar ones (i.e., conceptual analysis questions).

        There is one difficulty I haven’t found a way around, though: I don’t think I understand your explanation of what you mean by “woman” most of the time:

        I use the word “woman” (most of the time, anyway) in a pretty casual way, to mean a person who identifies, dresses, and behaves as a woman.

        The problems I see are as follows:

        If “woman” in the second instance (i.e., after “behaves as a”) meant the same as “woman” in the first instance, that wouldn’t be tautological, but incoherent, due to circularity, “woman” would – in that usage – mean “a person who identifies, dresses, and behaves as a woman”, which would mean “a person who identifies, dresses, and behaves as a person who identifies, dresses, and behaves as a woman”, and so on.

        So, I reckon that “woman” in the second instance does not mean the same as “woman” in the first instance. But that raises the question of what “woman” in the second instance means.

        One possibility would be that in the second instance, you’re using the word “woman” in its most usual, colloquial sense. That would need no definition, just as we regularly do not define the words that we use colloquially in terms of other words – we just use them. If a definition is require, an ostensive one should work (though in this sort of context, I worry about that too).
        However, that possibility leads to the following problem: you would be using the word “woman” most of the time in an unusual manner, since you wouldn’t be using it to mean “woman”, but rather, to mean “a person who identifies, dresses, and behaves as a woman”. But that seems improbable: given that you learned to use the word “woman” as most people did, chances are you’re using it in the usual sense.

        Another possibility is that there are several colloquial usages of the word “woman”, and the second instance is one of them (let’s call that “woman2”). But even then, it’s not clear that the way in which you use the word “woman” most of the time matches a common usage, since for that to happen, it would have to be the case that there is a second common usage (let’s call that “woman1”) such that “woman1” means “a person who identifies, dresses and behaves as a woman2”. I don’t know that there are two common usages related in such manner, and if there are, I still don’t know what the second (i.e., “woman2”) is.

        So far, the best I can come up with is this: what you meant perhaps is to suggest an ostensive definition – namely, that you point to paradigmatic examples of people regularly called “women”, and then you use the word “woman” in the sense given by that ostensive definition. But in that case, the contentious point would be whether the trans cases are paradigmatic examples. Given the context in which most people learned to use the word “woman” (or words in other languages usually translated as “woman”), it seems very likely that trans examples are not among the paradigmatic examples on the basis of which people learned to use the word “woman”, so the point of contention would be whether they’re relevantly similar and can for that reason also be properly added as paradigmatic examples. But that seems to require some argumentation.

        • Lauren Hall

          Sure. I wasn’t making a terribly deep philosophic statement there. When it comes to the word “woman” I think there are a range of acceptable definitions. Mine is a colloquial one. I don’t have any skin in the game on whether someone calls herself a woman. But I’m also not a gender studies theorist.

          The TERF discussion, and the transgender discussion in general, gets caught up on the generality of the word “woman” and how it is used more or less specifically by various groups. To some radical feminists, the term “woman” has a very precise meaning. It doesn’t to me, at least not in my daily life. What we mean by “woman” might be as loose as feminine (which most would acknowledge is far too loose) or as restrictive as genetically female (in which case it may actually be too restrictive).

          I don’t want to worry about whether people are paradigmatic examples of anything, personally. A woman born without a uterus is not paradigmatic and neither is a genetic male with androgyn insensitivity. But both people, if you met them on the street, would be considered women.

          My definition, such as it was, was really meant to be a common sense rejection of the need to define these things in precise terms, partially because sex is both biologically and culturally determined and is, therefore, definitionally slippery.

          • I don’t have any skin in that game, either, nor am I a gender studies theorist, but for the reasons I mentioned, I don’t understand the definition you provided.
            With regard to the paradigmatic examples, I wasn’t saying that non-paradigmatic examples would be excluded, but I mentioned it in the context of ostensive definitions, because when it comes to questions like: “Why do you think they are women?”, if the example is paradigmatic in that sense, an answer might be “because it’s one of the paradigmatic examples based on which we learn the meaning of the word ‘woman’, so given that I see no specific reason for excluding them, I reckon they’re women”. But that’s not so if it’s not.

            That aside, I agree that usually one doesn’t need to define words precisely. Even in the case of “woman”, I would say that answering questions like #3 or #4 doesn’t require a precise definition, even though it requires conceptual analysis – conceptual analysis doesn’t need to go as far as providing a precise definition in terms of other terms, but it can be used to approximate the matter by considering at least a few necessary conditions for someone to be (or not to be) a woman, or a few sufficient conditions.

            In any case, with regard to the discussion of the matters at hand, I haven’t seen any venue in which the claims made by TERF (or similar claims) are discussed seriously and in a civil manner, but hopefully that will change.

      • TracyW

        to mean a person who identifies, dresses, and behaves as a woman.

        So when I was doing my machine workshop, wearing overalls and steel cap boots, and driving a lathe, was I dressing and behaving as a woman?

        How about when I was giving birth, wearing a corporate men’s T-shirt (because I would be totally happy to chuck it in a bin afterwards), swearing like a Smithfield’s porter? Was that dressing and behaving like a woman?

        How about the second time I gave birth when I had far better painkillers and a far shorter labour and was politely chatting with the various medical staff and have no idea what I wore?

        Dressing and behaving like a woman is an incredibly broad category, I don’t see how it is useful as an identifier. I’m a woman regardless of how I dress or behave.

        • Lauren Hall

          You missed the crucial first part of that, which was “identifies.” You weren’t identifying as a man in those instances.

          More to the point, I didn’t intend that comment as some deep philosophic point. I merely meant that when I’m out and about in daily life, my definition of “woman” is just that: someone who identifies, dresses, and behaves like a woman. In academic research, I would have to come up with a different definition, and I talk about those issues with my students. Androgen insensitivity, for example, can make a person with XY chromosomes look and act female. Is she actually a woman? I would say yes, but she might not be female, if the definition we’re using requires a particular genetic makeup.

          Again, my main point was that on a daily basis, my definition of a woman for the purposes of buying groceries and waving to people on the street is pretty basic. I never intended it, nor did I claim it to be, a rigorous definition that works in other areas.

          • TracyW

            If the key thing is identity, why add in dress and behaviour to the definition?

          • Lauren Hall

            I didn’t say the only thing or even the key part was identity, just that you ignored the identity issue in your above response. You focus on dressing and behaving like a woman, while all three together seem important. But again, this wasn’t supposed to be a rigorous definition. I was simply pointing out that when I think of what a “woman” is to me, my mental shorthand is someone who dresses, behaves, and identifies as a woman. I don’t want to pretend there was more in that comment than there actually was.

          • TracyW

            I’m sorry I didn’t explicitly mention the identity issue. I agree with you that if someone identifies as a woman they are a woman. My dispute is entirely with your claim that one’s dress or behaviour is relevant to whether you define someone as a woman.

            I am puzzled by your claim that in your mental shorthand, dress and behaviour counts as whether someone is a woman. Does your assessment of whether people are woman or not really fluctuate depending on how they dress or behave? If you met me in the street when I was wearing overalls and steel cap boots, swearing because my weld had broken, would you really think I was less of a woman than if I was wearing a dress and high heels and discussing my experiences with breast feeding? Both of which I have done, BTW.

          • Lauren Hall

            I think you’re reading judgments into my comments, though I admit I could have been much more clear. When I made that offhand remark, what I meant is that I view womanhood in a kind of holistic way, at least for commonplace interactions. So if someone is dressing, behaving, and identifying as a woman, I place a mental checkmark, “oh, she’s a woman.” That doesn’t mean women who are not doing one or the other of these things are automatically expelled from the group.

            Again though, I think you’re demanding more rigor than I ever intended an admittedly sloppy comment about how I generally think of the definition of women on the street. I meant it to include a wide variety of women and trans women, who all do different things but who all participate in the category of “woman” in a way that my mental shorthand would recognize when I meet someone on the street.

            More importantly, I never defined what “behaving or dressing” like a woman entails, so any stereotypical attitudes are your own additions, not mine. When I’m deadlifting 200 pounds in the gym, I see myself as behaving just as “womanly” as when I’m nursing my infant. So it’s also important not to read societal judgments into my words when I never explicitly said anything of the sort.

    • Sean II

      “I’m not sure there is cause for optimism. Maybe the exchanges will become less hostile in the future, but I’m a bit skeptical.”

      As you should be. Hall’s optimism here is pretty strained. One tiny faction – of otherwise reliable Inner Party hacks, mind you – refuses to go along with the ol’ Eurasia-Eastasia switcheroo, and this is cause for celebration?

      No, the real story is not the odd exception, but the overwhelming rule. And in our recent past the rule is: identitarians have grown powerful enough that they can take a group somewhere in the vicinity of 1/10th of 1 percent our population, turn them into a cause…and then, almost overnight, make support for that cause mandatory for respectable writers, teachers, officials, celebs, etc., such that it becomes enforceable orthodoxy to say things like: “See that dude over there? Tomorrow he’s gonna be a woman. Correction: tomorrow we will realize she has always been a woman. Call her anything else, and you’re guilty of a faux pas. Argue the point, and before too long you’ll flirting with a hate crime.”

      Let’s not bullshit ourselves. That’s depressing. Especially for anyone who attaches value to knowledge, rational inquiry, science, ideas, the meaning of words, etc. Because it means these things can be tossed aside to avoid even an infinitesimal risk of hurt feelings.

      • Lauren Hall

        But look what happened in feminism broadly. The movement radicalized, there was pushback from everyday women, and now we have a situation where most women do not identify themselves as feminists at all. I can see something very similar happening as transgender individuals become more accepted. They are, of course, a very small minority, and that minority status might allow the movement to stay more isolated and more ideologically pure. But over time there will be many transgender individuals who just don’t buy the party line. I don’t claim it will happen tomorrow. But I think it’ll happen. That’s one of the advantages of living in an open society. It’s hard for this kind of stuff to stick, at least in the long run.

        I do worry about academia’s role in perpetuating the “speech as violence” trope, which is why academics in particular need to push back on any argument that criticism is akin to discrimination.

        • Sean II

          “They are, of course, a very small minority, and that minority status might allow the movement to stay more isolated and more ideologically pure.”

          But you’re acting like the trans movement has something to do with trans people…as if trans people themselves were writing the script, running the show, shaping the narrative, sending the signals, enforcing the code, etc. What a crazy assumption!

          Can’t you see this has little to do with them? Trans are the perfect political clients. They can’t organize, because they are too few. They can’t talk back, because transsexuality clearly has many causes and thus can’t be coerced into a unified chorus. And most importantly they can’t ever win. The struggle on their behalf is guaranteed eternal.

          The Left had a go with women, but then lost by winning. Women got most of what they wanted from feminism, and thus had no further need of it.

          The Left did a little better with blacks, but they proved troublesome by virtue of having their own agenda, with occasional sharp turns against their “benefactors”. Note how the wind of Ferguson, which was meant to rattle red state windows, came raging back into the quads of Yale.

          The point being: any optimism you see based on how actual trans people may think or act in the future us mistaken. Instead, keep your eye on the bosses in the virtue signaling pits. It’s their game, and it always has been.

          • King Goat

            Jesus, do you ever get tired of constantly framing every single thought as strategic in what you see as the ever important culture war?

      • I would just add that even when risk of hurting feelings is very high, the risk that the claims from the orthodox view would hurt feelings may very well be also very high. Either way, I wish the matters could be discussed in a civil manner.

      • jdkolassa

        Completely unrelated to this post, but I don’t know how else to share this with you, as you might be interested in it: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2016/01/smiths_defense.html

        • Sean II

          Funny you should mention. I read that just this morning. I’m a huge Caplan fan so I follow econlog quite…er, religiously. Never comment though. I really dislike that system where you can’t link to the reply your addressing, but instead have to say “@JD 8:39pm” and hope everyone can somehow keep the thread together in their heads.

          Smith gets at something important, though. I’m not sure if he intended to make this point, but there it is screaming to be noticed: about 1/2 of the people in Western societies (and perhaps more than 3/4 of Western elites, including plenty of libertarians) can’t recite that paragraph. Or anything like it, really. Smacks too much of hate speech to them.

          Their “defense” of Western civilization would sound more like a plea for lenient sentencing, coupled with a promise of community service. They would lead with something like this: “We presume that any crazy behavior observed among peoples who originate below the Brandt Line is largely – indeed perhaps entirely – a side effect of bad policy made in the West, including crimes like colonialism, war, economic exploitation, insensitive halloween costumes, and not having enough black nominees at the Oscars, etc. When people in or from that part of the world do something bad, the moral obligation of Westerners is a) not to make a big deal out of it, and b) to quickly build an argument showing that the bad deed in question is ultimately just a consequence of Western racism.”

    • Kurt H

      Like the science on the causes of sexual preferences, there are a lot of observed factors and competing theories. What is agreed upon is that 1) there is evidence of measurable difference between brains based on gender that do not necessarily match one’s genitalia, and 2) that gender identity is not experienced by trans persons as a conscious choice.

      Thus, trans persons experience dysphoria due to a mismatch between their brain and their genitalia. We do not have the technology to bring a brain into synch with genitalia, and even if we did, such a procedure would almost certainly be more risky than modifying genitalia. Therefore, the only reasonable treatment for those whose dysphoria is acute would be to modify their genitalia to match their brain.

      TERFs are fighting the science out of an ideological commitment to gender neutral brains. But this is silly. The brains of men and women do not have to be exactly the same in order for us to afford both rights as full persons. We can easily conceive of an alien being whose brain is very different from humans of any gender, and yet still recognize that alien as a person with rights. Total gender neutrality of the brain is not in any way necessary for feminism. So, TERFs are picking a bizarre hill to die on.

      • Like the science on the causes of sexual preferences, there are a lot of observed factors and competing theories. What is agreed upon is that 1) there is evidence of measurable difference between brains based on gender that do not necessarily match one’s genitalia, and 2) that gender identity is not experienced by trans persons as a conscious choice.

        Regarding the differences between brains, you say that it’s based on gender but that that doesn’t necessarily match one’s genitalia.
        That gives the impression of implicitly assume that there are people whose gender doesn’t match their genitalia, which is what TERF (and other) reject, but in the context of a reply to TERF claims, I take it you mean gender by identification.
        In that case, in this context and in order to address the TERF claims or similar ones, you would seem to need evidence of two things:

        1. There are measurable brain differences between people based on gender identification, but not sexual organs. So, by looking at a brain scan (or however one measures that), by looking at those specific differences, one can predict gender identification, but not sexual organs.
        2. Either there are no measurable differences between people based on sexual organs but not gender identification, or if there are, those are not relevant for some reason.

        Point 2. isn’t necessary if the claims are only the ones TERFs make today, but if you have evidence of 1., then the issue becomes whether those differences are the ones relevant to ascertaining whether a person is a woman (assuming that the words “woman” and “man” track brains/minds, not sexual organs, chromosomes, etc.; but TERF objections aren’t on that basis, so that is not a problem in this context).

        I have to admit I’ve not seen sufficient evidence, but perhaps you are more familiar with it.
        I have seen some evidence, though.
        For example, this study shows some brain differences between chromosomically male individuals who identify as men (henceforth, CMIM) and chromosomically male individuals who identify was women (CMIW). However, it also shows that in the respects that were measured, CMIIW are more similar to CMIIM than they are similar to chromosomically female individuals (CFI).

        That is a challenge to the TERF claim that there are no female brains or male brains, even though given the greater similarity between CMIM and CMIW than between CMIW and CFI – and a number of potential objections, that would need to be addressed -, that’s insufficient to establish the conclusion.

        In any case, I would say that’s in fact part of the sort of evidence that should be provided in a debate with TERFs. That’s a lot better than issuing condemnations, shunning them, etc.

        Btw, it may well be that you have better info on the matter. I’m no expert. If so, I would be interested in links to the relevant studies, so that I can get more info as well.

        Thus, trans persons experience dysphoria due to a mismatch between their brain and their genitalia. We do not have the technology to bring a brain into synch with genitalia, and even if we did, such a procedure would almost certainly be more risky than modifying genitalia. Therefore, the only reasonable treatment for those whose dysphoria is acute would be to modify their genitalia to match their brain.

        There are two more issues that might need to be assessed:

        1. There are sexually male individuals who identify as women (SMIW) but do not want to modify their sexual organs (the same goes for sexually female individuals who identify as men, SFIM, but their cases aren’t the focus of the TERF objections).
        2. There is a question of whether modifying their sexual organs in that manner, in the long run, results in people having a better or worse quality of life.

        Still, I would be inclined to say that if someone chooses to have their sexual organs modified, that should be allowed even if there is no good evidence of improvement in a person’s quality of life, or even if there is evidence against it. But that’s not what the TERF claims are about, so I’ll leave it aside.

        TERFs are fighting the science out of an ideological commitment to gender neutral brains. But this is silly. The brains of men and women do not have to be exactly the same in order for us to afford both rights as full persons.We can easily conceive of an alien being whose brain is very different from humans of any gender, and yet still recognize that alien as a person with rights. Total gender neutrality of the brain is not in any way necessary for feminism. So, TERFs are picking a bizarre hill to die on.

        I tend to agree. Their belief that there are gender neutral brains is very probably due to a misguided ideological commitment, since even in absence of any specific evidence involving measuring the brains of anyone, one shouldn’t believe that there are no predictable differences between the brains of SMI and SFI who don’t experience gender dysphoria or any similar condition.

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