In the cold war of contemporary identity politics, it might seem strange that the only flash of heat has come in the battle over the rights of transgender women. Clashes between trans activists and radical feminists have been violent – metaphorically and literally. At Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park last fall, in an unprovoked attack, a trans activist jumped and beat a feminist – I know, because I was present and recorded the footage of the attack that went viral. More recently, in Channel 4’s Genderquake: The Debate aggressive feminist hecklers threw vicious insults at the trans women speakers in the panel.
The animosity and emotional investment in the debate are on a level so high that it effectively prevents any real discussion, and rather increases animosity between two groups who will inevitably at some point have to accept each other and be reconciled. The derailing of the discussion through emotional over-investment is recognised as problematic often enough, at least by the more sober participants, but a real confrontation of it is lacking. The disproportionately high sensitivity is closely connected to two other features with equally obstructive effects, which are less often recognised, namely the pseudo-character of the very content of the discussions and the distorted and unproductive victim culture that renders the emotional excess acceptable.
Hugely unproductive seems to be the unwillingness of feminist cis women to admit the real fears and anxieties that make them wary of the inclusion of trans women. The argument that further extension of trans inclusive rules entails a high and urgent risk of creating loopholes for male predators is obviously neither credible nor relevant. It is a clear example of blowing obscure matters out of proportion in an essentially manipulative attempt to gain or keep control. Of course cis women do not really fear that an abundance of male predators will exploit new gender neutral lavatory rules to commit ruthless crimes.
Still, feminist cis women are obviously facing a challenge, as they are put under pressure to include into their identity group individuals who perfectly embody an image of femininity conceived by the male gaze. The battle against this image of femininity is historically a key feminist issue and in one sense trans women with their conservative feminine aesthetics thus represent to cis women a stereotype, the suppression of which they have fought vehemently to be released from. It is quite understandable that cis women experience an immediate anxiety when being urged by society to embrace and include women who embody the image of their own trauma.
The claim of trans women that their femininity is in fact ‘natural,’ ‘healthy,’ and something with which they were born – a kind of core or inner nature – obviously further threatens feminist cis women as it contradicts their argument that femininity is a social construct invented by men to fixate women in a position the purpose of which is to please and affirm masculinity. But perhaps most significant is the highly inconvenient challenge that trans women provide to the established feminist ‘truth’ that the female position in society still to this day is undesirable and miserable and that no man would prefer to switch places were he given the choice. Cis women do not so much fear the inclusion of trans women, it seems, as they fear losing their lucrative and comfortable victim position.
The way trans activists engage in the debate is equally symptomatic of the unproductive culture of victimhood that is predominant in western society today. A hyper-awareness of the singularity of their own predicament makes them blind to the challenges of others. They demand empathy, respect, understanding, and acceptance from the surroundings, but are largely uninterested in the challenges faced by the identity group that they are joining. They demand solidarity from this group, but do not stop to think that they should show solidarity themselves. The fact that what they suffer is highly singular leads them to neglect to consider and respect that cis women – as well as men, the highest placed in the hierarchy of sexual privilege – are having traumatic experiences related to their sex and gender too. They identify as female, but do not show sympathy or solidarity with women. This behaviour is thus also symptomatic of today’s individualistic culture where solidarity has become a foreign word and where you really only join a group to better protect your individual rights and privileges and not out of idealistic reasons or with a view to creating a better society.
The culture of victimhood derails debate in other ways. It dictates that you need not respect or treat sympathetically anyone who is more privileged than yourself. It grants you the right to expect and demand unending empathy, attentiveness, and sympathy from anyone above you in the hierarchy – and obligates you to give the same to anyone who ranks lower. It releases the victim from expectations of logical coherence in their arguments, as it deems it unacceptable to question the validity, relevance, and reality of whatever a victim or less privileged person claims to be experiencing or fearing. Thereby it effectively precludes any checking of arguments and moderation of debates.
All this not only obstructs debate; it also seriously and tragically restricts the very individuals and groups it is supposed to help. It impedes the progression towards liberation and greater equality, which depends and hinges on mutual respect.