# How to Make Misunderstandings Around Gender Insoluble

Posted on July 14, 2022

### Bette Midler’s Tweet is Making Some Waves

A Facebook link on my page to a tweet from Bette Midler caused quite a stir: it resulted in a thread (in Dutch) with about three hunderd comments. When the conversation threatened to get completely out of hand, I felt obliged to turn off the comment function.

Here is Midler’s text:

WOMEN OF THE WORLD! We are being stripped of our rights over our bodies, our lives and even our name! They don’t call us “women” anymore: they call us “birthing people” or “menstruators”, and even “people with vaginas”.

Midler’s tweet was an answer to an article by Pamela Paul in the New York Times of July 3rd, 2022, The Far Right and Far left Agree on One Thing: Women Don’t Count. The following is a telling quote from that paper:

Those on the right who are threatened by women’s equality have always fought fiercely to put women back in their place. What has been disheartening is that some on the fringe left have been equally dismissive, resorting to bullying, threats of violence, public shaming and other scare tactics when women try to reassert that right. The effect is to curtail discussion of women’s issues in the public sphere.

But women are not the enemy here. Consider that in the real world, most violence against trans men and women is committed by men but, in the online world and in the academy, most of the ire at those who balk at this new gender ideology seems to be directed at women. It’s heartbreaking. And it’s counterproductive.

Tolerance for one group need not mean intolerance for another. We can respect transgender women without castigating females who point out that biological women still constitute a category of their own — with their own specific needs and prerogatives.

Funnily enough, the thread that unfolded offered a perfect illustration of the point that Pamela Paul and Bette Midler were trying to make.

I have no reason to disagree with what Paul and Midler write, but it is not a problem for me if others disagree. But I do object if people who are critical of the modern gender ideology are accused of hate speech.

Pamela Paul is of the opinion that adherents of the new gender ideology are frustrating the public debate by women about women affairs, because they attempt to shame anyone into silence who dares to use the word ‘woman’ in the old-fashioned biological sense. Serious criticism of gender ideology indeed, but there is nothing morally reprehensible about this view. And therefore, the public support of this viewpoint by Bette Midler is also not morally reprehensible.

Of course, one might hold that the refusal to accept “trans women are women” and “trans men are men” as literal truths is, in itself, already a form of hate speech. What then? Fortunately, this view has been assessed and dismissed in a British court (verdict in July 2022 in Maya Forstater versus Centre for Global Development). Gendercritical views deserve respect in a democratic society, because according to the judge they are not aimed at undermining the rights of transgender people. The dismissal of Forstater in 2019 on the grouds that she had referred to trans women as ‘men’ had been unlawful. This was the verdict after appeal. Earlier, a judge had ruled in favour of the employer.

### Strategies to Sabotage Fruitful Conversation

Here is an anthology of strategies that are being used in the thread to sabotage fruitful exchange on this topic.

• Willfully misunderstand what the other party is trying to say. For instance: Pretend that Midler suggests to withhold abortion rights from trans men. Next, throw a tantrum. But of course, Midler uses the word ‘women’ in the biological sense when she states that abortion rights are a women’s issue. Women’ in her sense includes trans men and excludes trans women. In the context of abortion rights, this is eminently reasonable.

• Pretend to not understand the issue. Flatly deny the fact that the use of ‘woman’ for ‘human of the female sex’ has become problematic. If someone lists examples: downplay or deny them.

• Disqualify the whole topic as a fit topic of conversation. For example: Whoever wants to debate gender is a reactionary, for the phrase gender ideology is a dog whistle of the extreme right. This is called guilt by association.

• Willfully misunderstand the way your opponents express themselves. Next, take offense. In Dutch, this is called spijkers zoeken op laag water (looking for nails at low tide). In English, an appropriate description is offense mining. One can take offense at ‘misgendering’, if someone uses the word ‘women’ without including you (because of your penis). One can take offense at wrong pronouns. Indeed, one can always take offense. One can even reply to “I prefer apples to oranges” with: “Basically, you are saying that oranges are no good! And shame on you for failing to mention other fruit!”

• Downplay or denial of issues. Transgenders in competetive sports: can never be a problem. Violence of trans women in women’s prisons: does not exist. Side effects of administering puberty blockers to children with gender dysphoria: are completely absent. Information materials on abortion that avoid the word ‘women’: do not exist.

• If a statement you made gets refuted by facts: never admit that you were wrong but change the topic instead. Someone points to an example of violence by a trans woman in a women’s prison: ignore, or suggest that this was an insignificant incident.

• Throwing around of empty accusations, using epithets such as ‘rude’, ‘uninformed’, ‘authoritarian’, ‘reactionary’, ‘(extreme) right’, ‘dog whistler’, ‘gender essentialist’, ‘xenophobe’, and of course ‘transphobe’.

• Attribute views that the other doesn’t hold, followed by condemnation. For example: You are reducing people to their genes, and that an abomination. Or: You are denying transgender their right to exist, and that is a crime against humanity.

• Bring in things that make absolutely no sense. For example: compare Midler’s tweet to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (no, I am not making this up).

• Throw doubts at the good will of your opponent. For example: Take as your first assumption that Midler is malicious with her post. Or: The fact that you are posting this makes it evident that you are an evil person.

• Disqualify an opponent on the basis of privilege. For example: Midler is a rich and privileged heterosexual cis woman, and this is about the oppression of trans people, so why doesn’t she shut up?

• Assert your privilege on moral grounds. If you defend the rights of oppressed people - the marginal and vulnerable group of transgenders - then what you say simply cannot be false, so nobody has the right to contradict you. If people still disagree with your views, you can claim they are morally in the wrong.

• Stave off all attempts at terminological clarification. Refuse to consider distinctions such as that between ‘woman1’ for ‘person of the female biological sex’ and ‘woman2’ for ‘person who self-identifies as female’. Throw a fit if someone asks whether you mean ‘trans women are women1’ or ‘trans women are women2’. This is a great pity, for linguistic clarification is useful here. The statement ‘trans women are women1’ is false on empirical grounds (the statement does not agree with the biological facts), while the statement ‘trans women are women2’ is an analytical truth (its truth follows from the definitions of ‘trans woman’ and of ‘woman2’).

• Pretend that you have changed reality by means of a change of language. Try to make this palatable, for yourself and others, by acting like you did not change the language. Never admit that you are using the word ‘woman’ in a new sense.

• Needlessly complicate elementary matters. Assignment of biological sex in humans usually is completely routine, but one can always suggest that this is a very complicated matter, by throwing smoke screens. For example like this: It is not for nothing that gender studies is an academic discipline; it is because the distinction between ‘male’ and ‘female’ in humans is very complex. Or like this: Modern developments in the biological field of gender are taking place at breakneck speed, so very few people are aware of what is really going on in the biology of ‘male’ and ‘female’; and clearly, you are not au courant.

• Post a link to a YouTube video, and suggest that everyone who watches this will draw the same conclusion (the quod erat demonstrandum link). Throw a fit if people still disagree: “You have watched that video, and you are still not convinced that JK Rowling had malicious intentions! Shame on you!”.

• The Big Turn Around: vilify and intimidate anyone who refuses to accept the dogmas “trans women are women” and “trans men are men” as literal truths. At the same time, pretend that these people are the true aggressors.

• And finally, administer the standard treatment (both within and outside of the thread): hate declarations, abuse, shrill expressions of moral indignation, raw unfiltered emotional discharge. Meanwhile, keep acting as if the butt of all this aggression is the true aggressor.

I still don’t get all that hate. I just don’t grok it.

### A Few Misunderstandings Clarified

Here is my attempt to clarify at least some of the misunderstandings in the exchange.

Of course, society should be inclusive towards trans men. And in that context it makes sense, sometimes, to use ‘people with a womb’ instead of ‘women’, because trans men do not appreciate being called ‘women’. Indeed, who would disagree with this? Bette Midler would strongly agree, I imagine.

It is fine that trans women call themselves women, and I am completely willing to address and treat them as they want to be addressed and treated. It is fine that trans men call themselves men, and I am completely willing to address and treat them as they want to be addressed and treated.

But I do hope that the word ‘woman’ can still be used in its biological sense, for humans with the biological characteristics of women, if the context calls for it. In a generic information brochure about abortion one has to be able to address human females as ‘women’. In conversation with a trans man one may have to shift to ‘people with wombs’. But only in those contexts. Stripping the word ‘woman’ from information material about abortion is not a good idea, for these brochures are aimed at women (in the biological sense) who have not all pursued advanced gender studies in academia.

It is also not a good idea, it seems to me, to get rid of the male/female distinction (in the biological sense) in the law. To quote Dutch feminist Kaouthar Darmoni: “If you insist on looking at everything in a genderneutral way, then you are throwing all women’s rights and women quota that we have battled for so hard in the waste bin.”

Would it be possible to resolve these misunderstandings by ruling that the word ‘woman’ should be used henceforth for everyone who feels they are women, as the gender theoreticians insist? But what is the meaning of the word then? ‘A woman is a person who considers herself a woman’ is not a proper definition, for to consider oneself a woman one has to already understand what a woman is.

Indeed, can we find a generally acceptable definition of the word ‘woman’? If the old biological definition is rejected, what is the new one? One might say: In the Netherlands everyone is a woman who has the letter V (for vrouwelijk = female) in their passports (while sometimes there was an M first). But this would make me a woman at the very instant I change the gender indication in my passport. Hmm, this does not quite feel right.

In conversations with adherents of modern gender philosophy I cannot get this resolved. My question ‘Is your proposal to replace the definition based on biological characteristics by self identification?’ never gets a clear answer. Sometimes the gender philosophers muddy the waters by insisting that gender self identification is also rooted in biology. But that cannot be right, for if that were the case someone’s self identification migth be in error, and the modern gender theoreticians insist that that is impossible. What the gender thinkers strive for is self identification without test. Well, if it cannot be tested, then by definition it cannot be biology. Suppose, for instance, that I decide to have the M in my passport replaced by a V. Who can tell me then: “Jan, you cannot do this, for you are not a proper trans woman.” Answer: nobody, because there is no biological test for being a proper trans woman. There is no psychological test either, for that matter. Unfortunately, I never manage to get this point across.

### The question ‘What is a woman?’ has become taboo

When Ketanji Brown Jackson, during her confirmation hearings for the American Supreme Court, was challenged by Republican senator Marsha Blackburn with “Can you define ‘woman’?”, the candidate supreme judge dodged the question: “I cannot, not in this context, I am not a biologist.” Blackburn threw scorn on this: “The fact that you can’t give me a straight answer about something as fundamental as what a woman is underscores the dangers of the kind of progressive education that we are hearing about.” Jackson avoided being lured into a gender debate. The Supreme Court will no doubt have to rule about transgender rights, and Jackson is going to side with the progressive minority on these.

Jackson clarified her answer, as follows: “As a judge, what I do is I address disputes. If there’s a dispute about a definition, people make arguments, and I look at the law, and I decide…” This seems eminently reasonable to me.

Disputes around definitions are also the province of philosophy, by the way. There is work to do here, one might think. Unfortunately, the philosophical clarification of the question ‘What is a woman?’ has been declared off limits. This is a taboo question. When the philosopher Kathleen Stock made attempts to address it - read her book Material Girls - she was bullied out of her university. Stock’s attempts to explain her views were thwarted. If she announced a lecture, her philosophical colleagues organized a counter-lecture at the same date and hour, and staff and students were pressurised to boycott her. Publishers were put under pressure to turn down her book manuscript. When it was finally in print, booksellers were afraid to put it on display. Some university libraries in Great Britain do not purchase it, for fear of getting in trouble with the gender activists. Online it is a bestseller, of course.

People who have the openness of mind to read this book will discover that it is a wellwritten critique of gender identity thinking, but also a book that contains nothing improper, and certainly not an incitement to transgender hatred. But to arrive at that conclusion one has to first read the book. I thoroughly recommend Material Girls, for I am a great fan of reading books that biased and shortsighted people want to prevent us from reading.

Here is the blurb of the book:

Material Girls is a timely and trenchant critique of the influential theory that we all have an inner feeling known as a gender identity, and that this feeling is more socially significant than our biological sex.

Professor Kathleen Stock surveys the philosophical ideas that led to this point, and closely interrogates each one, from De Beauvoir’s statement that, ‘One is not born, but rather becomes a woman’ (an assertion she contends has been misinterpreted and repurposed), to Judith Butler’s claim that language creates biological reality, rather than describing it. She looks at biological sex in a range of important contexts, including women-only spaces and resources, healthcare, epidemiology, political organization and data collection.

Material Girls makes a clear, humane and feminist case for our retaining the ability to discuss reality, and concludes with a positive vision for the future, in which trans rights activists and feminists can collaborate to achieve some of their political aims.

Kathleen Stock is not a professor anymore, for she was harassed away from the University of Sussex. The trans activists celebrated this as a “huge win” for their community. My opinion differs: this was scandalous and outrageous treatment, and the activists should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. Here we have again an instance of the Great Turn Around, for the activists kept insisting that Stock was the true aggressor.

Those who do not have time to read Material Girls from cover to cover may instead wish to have a look at this review by the philosopher Julian Baggini. The review gives a useful summary of the contents, with the conclusion that Kathleen Stock is most certainly not transphobe. Various transgender people, by the way, are in complete agreement with Stock’s thesis that “trans men are men” and “trans women are women” are not literal truths.

The most convincing evidence that there is nothing hateful in Stock’s position is that she cites several trans people who agree with it. “I am a trans woman, I am a man, I can’t be one without the other,” said the trans woman Fionne Orlander. Similarly, the trans man Buck Angel said “I had a legal sex change and now live as a male. All male pronouns. I am a transexual and will never be biologically male. But I do live as a male”. Such testimonies rather deflate the idea that the only thing decent people need to do is to listen to and believe trans people, as they say and believe different things. And if many trans people can happily accept that there is a difference between their self-assigned gender and their biological sex, the distinction cannot be bigoted, unless, Stock says, you dismiss such witnesses as “self-hating” or in a state of “false consciousness.”

The Philosopher’s Magazine is a good source for balanced and well informed opinion on philosophical matters. If you want to better understand what is going on in the gender wars, you might want to read this paper by Judith Suissa and Alice Sullivan as well.

### A Catalogue of Accusations

Let me finally give an overview of the rather long catalogue of accusations that were thrown at me:

• Am I just as evil as someone who defends the Protocols of the Elders of Zion? No, I am not. I am not an antisemite. On the other hand, Judith Butler is not ashamed to compare criticism of gender identity theory with fascism. And Nancy Keller, head of Stonewall, has made statements that group “gendercritical” feminism with antisemitism. Unfortunately, such completely ludicrous and shameful comparisons are quite routine among the believers in gender identity theory.

• Am I facilitating hate speech on my FaceBook page? No, I am not. I make sincere attempts not to hate others, and I encourage everyone to not hate others. On my page, people are allowed to say that a transition from man to woman does not change one’s biological sex, for this is a belief that deserves respect in a democratic society. If someone considers the belief that one can change one’s biological sex as a form of psychosis, then nobody needs to agree. But it is not hate speech.

• Am I insensitive to the emotional lifestyles of transgender people, by allowing content on my FaceBook page that could be traumatizing for transgenders? No, I don’t think so. For what is one to do? Only allow people to join the conversation who have stated beforehand that they accept “trans women are women” as a literal truth? One could do that, but then there is no conversation anymore. People who are making a sincere attempt to respectfully communicate should be able to talk about these matters.

• Do I knowingly hurt transgender people through boorish and unsubtle language? No, I do not. Of course it can never be ruled out that I hurt someone with my views or by expressing myself in a clumsy way, but the hurt is certainly not deliberate. I am open to suggestions for how to be more subtle. I am always willing to learn to express myself more carefully. Trans women have every right to see themselves as women and to choose the company of people who see them as women. But one simply cannot force everyone to use the word woman’ in the new way. And we cannot change reality by changing language.

• Do I impose a completely outdated definition of ‘woman’ on others, in an authoritarian way? No, I do not. I am not imposing anything on anyone. Everyone is welcome to add as much or as little biology as they want. But no matter how you look at it: the biological distinction between man and woman exists, although of course there are exceptions and variations.

• Have I made a claim that only the chromosome pairs XX and XY exist? No, I have not. It is well known to me that there are all kinds of exceptions and variations on this. Yes, there are intersex people. But that fact does not diminish in any way the importance of the distinction between XX persons and XY persons, or between persons with large gametes (egg cells) and persons with small gametes (sperm cells). That biological distinction is simply there.

• Do I base my silly opinions on outdated high school biology? I don’t think so. A cow is not a bull, even though very occasionally calves are born that are difficult to classify. A mare is not a stallion, a chicken is not a rooster, a goat is not a buck. Some animals behave gender-stereotypically, others do not. We have a female cat who displays very macho behaviour. As long as it is about animals there is nothing controversial about this, so why would things be all that different with humans? And no, Frans de Waal does not claim that the biological distinction between male and female apes does not exist.