A common form of classroom cruelty when I was at school involved a game we called “Contagion”. The instigator would touch the person next to them, having chosen a low-status scapegoat — usually “Holly”, who wore thick glasses and was universally shunned — and tell them they had “Holly disease”. The only way to be cured was to touch someone else and say “Holly disease”, then cross yourself to ward off re-infection.
Surely moral progress has stamped out such vicious, childish status games? Alas, no. “Contagion” provides the best explanation for why Italy’s new Prime Minister, a figure generally described by her own country’s press as “centre-Right”, has been widely described as “far-Right”. Never mind reporting accuracy, the aim is disciplinary: entire moral territories can be designated as low-status or unclean. If you touch them, you will incur Contagion.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
The same dynamic also underpinned a rash of disputes last week, over the moral hygiene status of women who assert that humans can’t change sex. Such women were denied a stall at the Labour Party conference, prompting a furious salvo on Monday from Labour-supporting writer Joan Smith. Elsewhere, Arianne Shahvisi imputed recently in the London Review of Books that even otherwise impeccable Left-wingers are “in league with the far-Right” if they cling to the notion that humans are born either male or female.
And Shahvisi’s response to a letter protesting this framing recounts how a teacher shamed her by comparing her views to those of Margaret Thatcher. Shahvisi approvingly describes internalising the following lesson in political groupthink: “if you don’t like the fact that you share a view with someone objectionable, consider revising that view”.
Contagion, you see, is a radically movable feast. There is no person, principle or — as evidenced by the expulsion of basic biology from acceptable Labour Party discourse — objective fact that can’t be rendered beyond the pale, if someone with enough social clout makes it the butt of a Contagion game. And those (such as, by her own account, Arianne Shahvisi) who are both socially attuned and morally ductile will fall uncomplainingly into line.
This poses a conundrum for those women who find themselves unable to follow Shahvisi across the line of principle-free tribalism into fairy-tales about the total malleability of our sexed bodies. These “gender critical” feminists are often otherwise fiercely, passionately Left-wing — or at least were, until the Contagion game abruptly re-designated them as fash.
Some bridle at having been thus infected, and seek to clear their own names — not least by launching drives to expel any taint of “the far-Right” from among their own ranks. The latest such skirmish, in a long-running battle, concerns a recent Brighton rally for women concerned about trans activism, organised by “Posie Parker”. Real name Kellie-Jay Keen, Posie is a punchy and highly recognisable activist, whose approach to campaigning against gender ideology has had considerable viral impact. The difficulty arises in her — for some — inexcusable willingness to share airtime with the Right.
But despite all the furious debate Posie Parker’s approach has occasioned over the years, efforts to insulate gender-critical activism from accusations of being anti-progressive may be futile. For a step back from the accusation and counter-accusation reveals that for those who still know biology exists, the enemy really is progress.
Of course when adults play Contagion, its impact goes far beyond classroom jockeying for status at the expense of a low-status scapegoat. Real, material decisions, alliances and consequences arise depending on who is considered part of the in-group, and who can be scapegoated and excluded. In terms of how it’s played by the now-dominant progressive class that controls access to so many of those resources, defending yourself from contagion means accepting the implicit premise that there exists a substantive positive set of values, towards which Progress is, well, progressing. Aligning yourself with these purported positive values makes you one of the Good People.
What, then, does this look like where women are concerned? The women’s movement is of course rich and fractious, but when we look at the big-picture changes generally trotted out as the story of feminist progress — from gaining the vote, through leaving domesticity for the workplace to controlling fertility — it’s difficult to infer any governing theme except “freedom”.
Is this just a story about values, though? You can trace much the same narrative in terms of economic transitions and technological advances: changing work patterns, labour-saving devices and — crucially — control over reproduction. All of these, too, constitute “progress”, more convincingly from some perspectives than others: on closer inspection, most of the tech-driven changes that powered women’s march toward freedom are not unambiguously beneficial, but rather produce their own winners and losers. And often, the only party for whom “more freedom” has no trade-offs turns out to be commerce: the sexual revolution, for example, delivered pros and cons for both sexes, but only benefits for the sex industry.
“Progress”, then, is the name we give a replacement of natural limits by technological control, to the benefit chiefly of commerce. And for some time now it’s been plausible (at least for a bourgeois woman in the developed world) to act as though feminism, freedom and technology are in perpetual lockstep, as facets of “progress”. But cracks are beginning to appear.
For having freed women from a number of biophysical limits, science has rolled right on. Now, following the same broad trajectory of freedom and progress, many believe we should apply the same liberatory logic to all sexed limits. And why, indeed, should only women have the right to tinker with our endocrine systems, and only in the context of fertility? If we have the technological means, and you accept the basic premises that we’re entitled to free ourselves from sexed physiology and that liberation is generally good, why not extend radical bodily autonomy to everyone, so we can remodel ourselves as we see fit?
But it’s increasingly obvious to anyone who is paying attention that this tech transformation will — just like previous ostensibly feminist tech transformations — also come with winners and losers. And feminists were the first to notice, not least because a great many of those casualties are female, while many beneficiaries are male. The difficulty, for feminists, lies in challenging any of this without taking aim at the wider hydra of technology and progress — the very hydra that gifted us feminism in the first place. For today that hydra has an iron grip on the terms of the progressive Contagion game.
And if you look, after all, at the growing list of things recently dubbed “far-Right”, most of them are in fact assertions that we should place some limits on the forward march of commerce and technology. When you adopt the “far-Right” argument that national identity should be protected against globalisation, you’re saying there are limits to how far we can — or should — remodel the polity in the interests of growth. When you oppose natural food and health to Big Ag and the vaccine-industrial complex (two discourses which over my lifetime have migrated from Left to “far-Right”), you’re saying there are limits to how far the junk food and pharma industries should meddle in our food chains or bodies. And when you defend sex dimorphism, you’re saying there are limits to how far we can allow the biotech industry to offer (for-profit, highly lucrative) self-customisation options for our meat avatars, and to extend those options even to our kids.
In this context, feminists find themselves in an awkward position. Because it doesn’t matter if you’re revolted by actual racism, or hardline misogyny, or radical hatred of Islam, or any of the other (actually pretty fringe) opinions held by tattooed thugs in big boots. Most people dubbed with the “far-Right” contagion don’t, in fact, hold those views. But if you’re even vestigially uncomfortable with the ongoing, tech-powered liquefaction of everything, in the name of commerce — if you show the slightest sign of questioning its self-evident moral goodness — then you’re already “aligned with the far-Right”. It’s just a question of degree.
The function of the great game of Progressive Contagion is making every possible counter-argument to the onward march of tech-enabled commerce intolerably low-status and radioactive. As such, the whole argument about whether or not gender-critical feminists are “aligned with the far-Right” is happening within a space that is already defined, by Progressive Contagion, as “the far-Right”.
No wonder, then, that Giorgia Meloni has been tarred with this brush, even if her substantive politics will, as several commentators have suggested, turn out to be quite moderate. For Meloni has positioned herself explicitly against the tech-powered liquefaction of everything in the name of commerce, thundering in her acceptance speech that “everything that defines us” — a list that for her includes faith, nationality, sex and motherhood — is now “an enemy” to “those who would like us to be perfect consumer slaves”. On a smaller scale, too, we might argue that Posie Parker’s principal crime has been refusing to disavow the possibility that there may be other limits to the liquefaction of everything, alongside sex dimorphism.
It’s of course true that people of good faith can disagree about what those other limits may be. But the other side will just call it nitpicking. No amount of protesting that you’re revolted by actual racists and the like affords any defence against this. It doesn’t matter how hygienically anyone sticks to defending sex and motherhood against Progress, or how strictly those who stray outside this narrow territory are disciplined. It’s all resistance to the juggernaut — and that, by the ever-moving goalposts of Progressive Contagion, is already “far-Right”. Those still trying to avoid infection by rushing to expel what they perceive as the real “far-Right” are, in practice, serving only to enforce a frame of reference controlled by their political enemies — and that will, in due course, be used against them.
There is no longer anywhere to stand that’s safe from Contagion. Nowhere, that is, except in accepting (like the world’s Shahvisis) that your principles, your body, and even your basic grasp of reality may be subject to dissolution and remodelling at a moment’s notice, in the name of Progress.