The following is the second installment of a two-part series. The first can be found here.
Privilege Production of Impasse – The case of the Deadlock Between Radical Feminists and Trans Activists
In February 2015, a letter titled “We cannot allow censorship and silencing of individuals” was published in The Guardian, signed by several academics and feminist and LGBT activists; it identifies:
a worrying pattern of intimidation and silencing of individuals whose views are deemed “transphobic” or “whorephobic.” Most of the people so labelled are feminists or pro-feminist men, some have experience in the sex industry, some are transgender. […] “No platforming” used to be a tactic used against self-proclaimed fascists and Holocaust-deniers. But today it is being used to prevent the expression of feminist arguments critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists. The feminists who hold these views have never advocated or engaged in violence against any group of people. Yet it is argued that the mere presence of anyone said to hold these views is a threat to a protected minority group’s safety. You do not have to agree with the views that are being silenced to find these tactics illiberal and undemocratic. Universities have a particular responsibility to resist this kind of bullying.
As important background to this letter, two high-profile public confrontations are worth noting. The first relates to the radical feminist Julie Bindel. In 2012, the National Union of Students’ LGBTQ Campaign passed a motion of no platform against Bindel for her alleged transphobia. Bindel had made offensive comments in relation to transsexual people in a 2004 piece for The Guardian, which she later apologized for as “misplaced and insensitive”. The NUS motion included the sentence: “Conference believes that Julie Bindel is vile”. The history of NUS’s no platform policy relates specifically to fascism, and debate on no platform has tended to centre on the question: while fascists (given the direct physical threat they pose) must be no platformed, should one, and indeed can one, no platform racists?
In this context, the no platforming of Julie Bindel is extraordinary, as she joined a list that includes Al-Muhajiroun, the British National Party, the English Defence League, and Hizb-ut-Tahrir – fascistic political forces that incite violence. In autumn 2014, Bindel was due to speak at the University of Sheffield Students’ Union on her book Straight Expectations, but a week before she was due, the student management banned her .
A year later, in autumn 2015, Bindel was invited by the Free Speech and Secular Society, at the University of Manchester Students’ Union, to partake in a debate titled “From liberation to censorship: does modern feminism have a problem with free speech?” Once again, she was banned by the student management. The students’ union women’s officer stated in defense of the decision that this “is not about shutting down conversations or denying free speech; this is about keeping our students safe” (cited in Palmer, 2015).
The second high profile public confrontation was the backlash generated from an article titled “Seeing red” in the New Statesman in 2013, written by the journalist and feminist Suzanne Moore. In the article, Moore argues against austerity and for those who are hardest hit by austerity – women – to be angry and to resist:
It’s not just the double shift of work and domestic duties that women do. There is now a third shift – we must keep ourselves sexually attractive forever. […] The cliché is that female anger is always turned inwards rather than outwards into despair. We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual. We are angry that men do not do enough. We are angry at work where we are underpaid and overlooked. This anger can be neatly channelled and outsourced to make someone a fat profit. Are your hormones okay? Do you need a nice bath?
A significant reaction followed this publication against Moore’s alleged transphobic reference to “a Brazilian transsexual” (an implicit reference to the model Lea T). This was a vitriolic row between, in the main, radical feminists and trans activists, which was played out on social media and in the press, and included Moore herself temporarily resigning from Twitter, apologising for a “throwaway” comment, and stating “I am not your enemy”.
Cultural theory academic Sara Ahmed, in retort to The Guardian letter entitled “We cannot allow censorship and silencing of individuals,” contends in a blog post titled “You are oppressing us!”:
politics is rarely about one good and one bad side, nor about innocence on one side and guilt on the other. But politics is also messy because power is assymetrical. […] transphobia and anti-trans statements should not be treated as just another viewpoint that we should be free to express at a happy diversity table. There cannot be a dialogue when some at the table are in effect or intent arguing for the elimination of others at the table. […] The presentation of trans activists as a lobby and as bullies rather than as minorities who are constantly being called upon to defend their right to exist is a mechanism of power. Sadly this letter is evidence that the mechanism is working. […] Racists present themselves as injured/under attack/a minority fighting against a powerful anti-racist lobby that is “busy” suppressing their voices. We can hear resonance without assuming analogy.
Contrary I think to Ahmed here, Wendy Brown stresses that while we must recognise that “[s]ocial injury such as that conveyed through derogatory speech becomes that which is ‘unacceptable’ and ‘individually culpable’,” it actually “symptomizes deep political distress in a culture” (my emphasis). One day after the The Guardian letter was published, signatory and English classics academic Mary Beard reported:
Last night I went to bed wanting to weep… It was the relentless pummelling of attack on the basis of extraordinary loaded, sometimes quite wrong, readings of the letter. The complaints fall into several categories. 1) I am an appalling transphobe. 2) I am a bit past it, a poor old lady who hasn’t quite got the issues straight, bless her. 3) I have been duped by the transphobes, because I am a nice person really. I was NOT signing up to an attack on the trans community.
Another signatory, human rights activist Peter Tatchell stated:
I’ve received about 5,000 messages attacking me. The volume and vitriol of the attack has been almost unprecedented in 48 years of human rights campaigning. I’m shocked. I have supported the transgender freedom struggle for 40 years. But I have been accused of trying to silence trans people and called ‘an advocate for oppressors’. The letter was about freedom of speech, and includes no attack on trans rights. When I signed the letter I didn’t know who else was going to sign it. Now I am being condemned by the McCarthyite tactic of guilt by association.
Here we see in action the aforementioned triple feat of ressentiment: the production of an affect (a rage and a righteousness) that overwhelms a hurt, a culprit who is responsible for the hurt, and a site of revenge to displace the hurt; all of which temporarily anaesthetize and externalize the hurt but demolish any potential for political coalition.
The radical feminist and trans activist deadlock is the privilege production of impasse, and a symptom of acute political distress in which freedom has been abandoned for ressentiment. On the one hand, we have a camp of people insisting that those born into biologically male bodies carry privilege regardless of their identification as women – privilege over women who have an entire lived experience of being women and of its related oppression.
On the other hand, we have a camp of people arguing that there are those who are cisgendered (whose gender aligns with their sex at birth) and who carry cis power and privilege – privilege over those who have a lived experience of being transgendered (whose gender doesn’t align with their sex at birth) and of its related oppression. In a neoliberal wave of identity politics, the politicized identification of personal bodily experiences, and the struggle to trump or negate such bodily experiences in a battle over power asymmetry, effectively lets power off the hook.
Privilege theory activist Mia McKenzie (2014) prescribes four ways to push back against one’s privilege: one, relinquish power; two, don’t go (she uses as an example woman-only events that exclude trans women); three, shut up; and four, be careful what identities you claim (“consider,” she says, “how your privilege […] gives you access to claim identities even when your lived experience does not support it”).
The irony that McKenzie advocates a “no turning up” protest against the radical feminist exclusion of trans women from women-only spaces is that radical feminists are employing their own argument against claiming identities when lived experience does not correspond. Crucially, McKenzie’s prescription encapsulates how a politics that promises to allow a plethora of voices to be heard is in actuality the opposite, a ressentiment-seethed silencing: I speak, you shut up; you cannot know my pain; your experience is incomparable to my suffering. The impasse between radical feminists and trans activists is just this, a silencing, either of trans activists or of radical feminists or of a wider layer of sympathizers on either side, on both sides, or on neither side.
Instructively, in an effort to bring peace to the so-called “border wars” between butch lesbians and female-to-male transsexuals, gender and queer theorist Halberstam notes that “many subjects, not only transsexual subjects, do not feel at home in their bodies,”(148) and insists on taking into account the wider neoliberal, political economic context. “Because body flexibility”, Halberstam argues, “has become both a commodity (in the case of cosmetic surgeries for example) and a form of commodification, it is not enough in this “age of flexibility” to celebrate gender flexibility as simply another sign of progress and liberation. (18)
Halberstam remarks further: “In mainstream gay, lesbian, and trans communities in the United States, battles rage about what group occupies the more transgressive or aggrieved position, and only rarely are such debates framed in terms of larger discussions about capitalism, class, or economics.” (20).
“[T]ransgressive exceptionalism,” “a by-product of local translations of neo- liberalism,” has become “the practice of taking the moral high ground by claiming to be more oppressed and more extraordinary than others” (19- 20). Halberstam’s notion of transgressive exceptionalism chimes with the work of Brown on wound culture as a contemporary form of Nietzschean ressentiment, in which, as Cadman puts it, “current forms of ‘identity politics’ become ‘attached’ to destructive modes of their own subjection” (140). The political challenge we are left with is: how do we support the struggle for political emancipation by and for trans activist movements worldwide, while demanding open space to critically understand and debate the construction of gender, and to forge alliances for future human emancipation?
Finding Our Way Back to Freedom
The chasm Marx identifies between human beings as, on the one hand, citizens of a universal political community and, on the other hand, private, alienated, egoistic individuals of a civil society, is reflected in the contradiction of a neoliberal wave of identity politics. Halberstam is correct in seeing the identity politics problematic as, in part, a failure of the academy itself:
The rehearsal of identity-bound debates outside the academy speaks not simply to a lack of sophistication in such debates, but suggests that academics have failed to take their ideas beyond the university and have not made necessary interventions in public intellectual venues.(20)
Brown, going further still, recognizes academic developments in philosophy and in feminist, postcolonial, and cultural theory as foreclosing any kind of socialist project for human emancipation on the basis of the failure of Stalinism, which is crudely subsumed into Marxism in general. Our journey back to the dream of freedom requires us as academics making a case for supplanting a politics of “I am” – which closes down identity, and fixes it within a social and moral hierarchy – with a politics of “I want this for us” (75 [my emphasis]). If we fail to help make this happen, we will remain locked in a history that has “weight but no trajectory, mass but no coherence, force but no direction,” thus stagnated in a “war without ends or end” (71).
I end with ten tactics for challenging the academic
repression of identity politics:
- To positively engage in the aspects of intersectionality and privilege theory that strengthen and enrich more traditional forms of class politics, for example, by taking into account and reflecting upon the specific experiences and intersectionalities of oppressions;
- To challenge the aspects of intersectionality and privilege theory that effectively fix human identity and detach human identity from evolving material conditions of existence.
- To expose and explore the elephant in the room of intersectionality and privilege theory, i.e., Marxism, in order to critically assess its insight into the relationship between political emancipation and human emancipation.
- To call upon academics to engage with the politics on their university campuses and in student activist circles.
- To organize teach-ins and reading groups between academics and their students on political theory and issues.
- To forge alliances between labour movement struggles and individuals and groups striving for social justice via identity politics.
- To learn the history of past alliances between labour movement struggles and individuals and groups striving for social justice through identity politics in order to understand the potential of an intersectional class politics. For example, by examining the case of the 1984-1985 Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners group, as documented by the film Pride.
- To identify and develop collective campaigns on pressing political issues, such as for the full and decent provision of social housing, including the safeguarding of those most vulnerable to abuse by landlords in the private rental sector, transgender and transsexual people.
- To foster dialogue and debate on the nature of oppressions and exploitation, and the means to resistance and social change.
- To forge a politics that is attuned to both specificities and their connections to universal struggles for democracy, freedom, and social change.
Camila Bassi is Senior Lecturer in Geography at Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom. She is the author of numerous articles on geographies of “race”, ethnicity and sexuality, critical geographies, and Marxist geographies.Original citation: Bassi, C (2017) “On Identity Politics, Ressentiment, and the Evacuation of Human Emancipation.” In Nocella, A J and Juergensmeyer, E (eds.) Fighting Academic Repression and Neoliberal Education, Peter Lang Publishing.