September 24, 2020

Yesterday, Judith Butler was trending on Twitter, after she gave an email interview to the New Statesman focusing on her views on the ongoing controversy over trans rights and self-ID. Well, good. You’d hope that someone who has thought as carefully about these issues as Judith Butler would have something cool and enlightening to say on the subject, wouldn’t you?

Social media praise for the article seemed to suggest she had. “Rigorous critique and affirmative feminism,” said one tweet. “Magisterial,” said another. “Thoughtful, reflective, theoretically and historically rich,” said another. “If you’re confused about trans people and trans rights, I can’t recommend this interview with Judith Butler enough,” said Owen Jones.

I think Prof Butler deserves our attention. I don’t share the reflex sniggering at the opacity of some of her prose — sometimes complex ideas need a complex expression — and in this interview she was for the most part perfectly clear and conversational. But “magisterial”? “Theoretically and historically rich?” Not on the strength of this interview. What she had to offer was intellectually threadbare. Rather than bringing some analytical clarity, she did no more than cloak crude rhetorical strategies in academic grandiloquence.

By way of a disclaimer, I don’t say this because I’m a member of some terf-cult, and I don’t mean it as a motivated intervention in the trans wars. It seems to me that this is an area that admits of good faith disagreement, that there’s a noticeable lack of that in the public discourse, and that — even from so revered a figure as Judith Butler — we should call that lack out when we see it.

The interview began with her being asked about “how the trans rights debate has moved into mainstream culture and politics”. She responded:

“I want to first question whether trans-exclusionary feminists are really the same as mainstream feminists. If you are right to identify the one with the other, then a feminist position opposing transphobia is a marginal position. I think this may be wrong. My wager is that most feminists support trans rights and oppose all forms of transphobia. So I find it worrisome that suddenly the trans-exclusionary radical feminist position is understood as commonly accepted or even mainstream. I think it is actually a fringe movement that is seeking to speak in the name of the mainstream, and that our responsibility is to refuse to let that happen.”

This preoccupation with what’s mainstream and what’s marginal is just eccentric — especially coming from a theorist who has spent a lot of time, quite rightly, considering the stifling effects of normativity. Leaving aside the uninterrogated and question-begging use of loaded terms such as “transphobia” and “trans rights”, the arguments at issue should stand or fall on their merits, not on their relation to the mainstream. Liberation movements of the type Prof Butler might approve have, after all, been founded on “marginal” positions. To appeal to the mainstream is to fall into the fallacy called “argumentum ad populum”, and it’s something philosophers usually try not to do.

She’s then asked about JK Rowling’s stated concern that Self-ID could “throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman’, potentially putting women at risk of violence”:

“If we look closely at the example that you characterise as ‘mainstream’ we can see that a domain of fantasy is at work, one which reflects more about the feminist who has such a fear than any actually existing situation in trans life. The feminist who holds such a view presumes that the penis does define the person, and that anyone with a penis would identify as a woman for the purposes of entering such changing rooms and posing a threat to the women inside. It assumes that the penis is the threat, or that any person who has a penis who identifies as a woman is engaging in a base, deceitful, and harmful form of disguise. This is a rich fantasy, and one that comes from powerful fears, but it does not describe a social reality. Trans women are often discriminated against in men’s bathrooms, and their modes of self-identification are ways of describing a lived reality, one that cannot be captured or regulated by the fantasies brought to bear upon them. The fact that such fantasies pass as public argument is itself cause for worry.”

Prof Butler might legitimately argue that these concerns are theoretical and/or exaggerated, as many advocates for self-ID do. One writer I respect recently tweeted: “Honestly the best ‘argument’ I have in this is nothing to do with theoretical stances on the definition of gender (which we’re never going to all agree on anyway), it’s: ‘Ireland brought in gender self-ID in 2015 and the things you are afraid of have not happened’”.

But instead there are two things going on here rhetorically, neither of which redound to Prof Butler’s credit. She is pathologising or gaslighting those on the other side of the argument (using “fantasy” or its cognates four times in a paragraph). And she is straw-manning their position.

A fairer representation of the case would have been to say: “The feminist who holds such a view presumes […] that someone with a penis could identify as a woman for the purposes of entering such changing rooms and posing a threat to the women inside.”

This would be a good-faith representation of the gender-critical position on single-sex spaces. But it would require the hard work of arguing against it on material evidence, rather than dismissing it as hysteria or fantasy.

When challenged on the idea that “terf” might be understood as a slur, she responds with a high-handed run of rhetorical questions, or what sometimes gets called epiplexis.

“I am not aware that terf is used as a slur. I wonder what name self-declared feminists who wish to exclude trans women from women’s spaces would be called? If they do favour exclusion, why not call them exclusionary? If they understand themselves as belonging to that strain of radical feminism that opposes gender reassignment, why not call them radical feminists?”

Here is something close to the etymological fallacy. As Prof Butler will surely know, given her famously subtle engagement with the eddies and currents of power in discourse, you can’t reliably nail the connotations of a term by appeal to its literal meaning. Here is an argument not much more grown-up than the person who tells you that you misuse antisemitism because “Arabs are semites too, actually”, or rejoice in having noticed that the Nazis claimed to be socialists, or who might think that because something is derived from the Latin word for black it’s no more than a neutral descriptor.

If Prof Butler is interested in attending to what we now like to call “lived experience”, she might attend to the lived experience of those who — being on the receiving end of it — very much consider “terf” to be a slur. To say words to the effect of “well, they’re trying to exclude trans women from their toilets so why not call them exclusionary? If the cap fits, wear it” will not do. If she wonders what they’d prefer to be called, why not ask them? Most, as I understand it, are happy with the term “gender-critical feminists”.

When encouraged to comment on the online trolling that the novelist JK Rowling has faced in response to her public remarks on the issue, Prof Butler responded:

“I am against online abuse of all kinds. I confess to being perplexed by the fact that you point out the abuse levelled against JK Rowling, but you do not cite the abuse against trans people and their allies that happens online and in person. I disagree with JK Rowling’s view on trans people, but I do not think she should suffer harassment and threats. Let us also remember, though, the threats against trans people in places like Brazil, the harassment of trans people in the streets and on the job in places like Poland and Romania – or indeed right here in the US. So if we are going to object to harassment and threats, as we surely should, we should also make sure we have a large picture of where that is happening, who is most profoundly affected, and whether it is tolerated by those who should be opposing it. It won’t do to say that threats against some people are tolerable but against others are intolerable.”

This seems to me to be nothing more sophisticated than garden-variety whataboutery. It’s practically a snowclone of the formulation Jeremy Corbyn used to use when asked to make a full-throated condemnation of antisemitism: namely that he condemns all kinds of racism. Immediately Prof Butler pivots from the question asked to bring up the street harassment of trans people in Poland or Romania. This is an irrelevant false equivalence. Telling JK Rowling to choke on a dick doesn’t stop trans people being harassed in Romania; and finding the former objectionable doesn’t green light the latter.

Gaslighting ad-hominems, wilful obtuseness, straw-manning, deflection and whataboutery: this is quite the catalogue of intellectual shabbiness coming from a philosopher of Prof Butler’s standing. If the supposed grown-ups in the room are debating like this, no wonder the discussion is in such a state.

“I think we are living in anti-intellectual times,” Butler remarks later in the interview. You said it, sister.

Join the discussion


  • October 1, 2020
    Whats the issue? People not taught to understand terms and their thematic use usually won’t understand the meaning of a snippet of philosophy published in an academic journal. And? I doubt I could understand many passages in a biochemical paper but I wouldn’t dismiss it as useless either. Read more

  • September 30, 2020
    As it happens what is now done in New York City is to have a series of individual rest rooms or 'water closets', where the user can be any sex she, he, it, or they want, instead of large common rooms, a development I very much appreciate as the phenomena attending people's excretory functions does... Read more

  • September 30, 2020
    Then maybe the problem is government, not socialism. We can observe authoritarian governments pretending every sort of ideology, but 'the ownership and control of the means of production by the workers' does not appear to be very repressive. Read more

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