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.

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.

Some More Reading Suggestions

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:

“I agree with you, but you shouldn’t say these things”

Sensible people who read through the FaceBook thread can form their own judgment about this tangle of misunderstandings. Fortunately, such people are still around, just.., they are increasingly keeping their mouths shut. I received several statements of support by Personal Message, from readers who said, “Brave that you are doing this. But I wouldn’t dare do it myself.” Or, “I agree with you, but maybe it’s better not to say it.” Or: “Doesn’t the thread make clear that the conversation is hopeless?” Or: “I’m staying out of it, for I do not enjoy being called a rotten fish.” Or: “It is always ‘Heads I win, tails you lose’ with these guys”. Or: “You’d better wait to speak out about this until the tide has turned.” Hmm, I understand those reactions by now. But if nobody dares to speak out, the tide will never turn.

The new gender law 2022 is coming, but by declaring “trans women are women” and “trans men are men” to be dogmas, modern gender thinking has maneuvered us into a situation where meaningful conversation on this important topic has become virtually impossible. This is fatal for public debate and a disaster for society. But I do not have a solution. In 2030 or thereabouts we can expect a parliamentary inquiry into the awful consequences of the widespread prescription of puberty inhibitors to children with gender dysphoria.