Hello! Welcome to my substack. If you’re reading this, you’re presumably wondering what this newsletter is all about. Bear with me - first I want to take a moment to tell you what, emphatically, it will not be about.
For the past few years, as some of you probably know, I’ve been a vocal participant in what is, quite frankly, one of the stupidest public discussions out there. The matter at issue is whether inner feelings of gender identity - that is, whether you feel “inside” like a man, woman, or neither, irrespective of the actual facts of the matter - should be an official determinant of how you are treated in every social context: from sport, to public services, to education, to the bedroom, and beyond.
No, I still can’t believe it either.
My antagonists in this dispute are nearly all on the so-called progressive Left, a tribe to which I used to assume I too belonged. They include prominent activists, politicians, psychologists, medics, journalists, lawyers, teachers, feminist organisations, and human rights NGOs. They also include the students and colleagues who eventually harassed me out of my job as a Philosophy Professor at a British University in October last year.
These people decree that feelings of identity, no matter how fleeting, are inevitably the most important thing to acknowledge and “affirm”. So: as soon as a male says his gender identity is female, he should be treated as if he had changed his sex. In fact, some opponents would go further - by discovering his female gender identity, he has changed his sex - or if not that exactly, then in some other mysterious way has become a woman, quite literally, and ensured that it’s fundamentally immoral to refer to him being male from now on. He now has the right to be wherever (“other”) women are: in the changing room, prison, hall of residence, hospital ward, rape crisis service, domestic violence shelter, girls’ school, political candidate shortlist, or sports team. After all, he’s a woman now, isn’t he? (Of course, my critics would say “she” not “he”, since pronouns are supposed to follow identities too - but I deliberately leave the original sex-associated pronouns in this hypothetical case, to make crystal clear the situation I’m talking about).
The new identity-based status of this male does not, it’s insisted, depend on his having surgery or taking hormones to feminise his primary or secondary sex characteristics; nor even upon his dressing in a particularly female-associated way. His inner identity is all that matters. And we are also told that the moral imperative upon others to treat him as a woman remains identical throughout a range of possible background contexts: whether he’s a young gay lad profoundly distressed by his sexed body; a middle-aged heterosexual bloke with a sexual fetish that makes him aroused at the thought of himself as a woman; or even someone who is just completely confused about what sex and gender identity are supposed to be. The details don’t matter. The important thing is to affirm this newly expressed identity, and never to confront him uncomfortably with the facts of his sex by, say, insisting that some woman-only spaces and resources are foreclosed for him.
We should also stop collecting data in terms of sex, because asking a subject such as him to disclose his sex in the context of data collection might be traumatising and invalidating. (Indeed, the Scottish Court of Session has just confirmed this point with respect to the upcoming census there). In similar vein, if he is ever charged with the sexual assault of a female, we should record his crime as that of a woman. In general, we should dismantle the whole feminist project as originally conceived, and reconstruct it in a way that refers only accidentally to the female sex at all, for fear he might feel excluded. And if applicable, we should also redefine the category of lesbians to include him - because if he’s heterosexual, the best way of massaging this fact, rendered awkward in conjunction with his womanly identity, is to call him a lesbian. And if he is a lesbian, then we should also insist that existing lesbians - you know, the boring kind without penises - consider him potential dating material, or else reveal themselves as antediluvians in need of moral reeducation.
Meanwhile, as applied to children and teens, the supposed primacy of gender identity over biology means that as soon as a female child announces she has a male or nonbinary identity, her actual sex should cease to be named, for as long as that identity persists. Ditto for male children, although - irrelevantly as far as my opponents are concerned - for some reason there are far fewer of those to whom the case applies. In the case of younger people, in contrast to the case of adults, irreversible medical interventions are thought to be Very Important, As Soon As Possible, on the grounds of Human Rights. And here again, it’s imperative not to look into background context: never mind that the child in question might be autistic, or same sex-attracted, or have a history of trauma, or all three. The main and only thing is to affirm the identity. Negative experiences reported by those who later detransition, expressing great regret at past medical choices made on their behalf, are to be discounted or otherwise downplayed.
Goodbye to the stupid story
Let’s call the story I’ve just rehearsed “the stupid story”. With its its failure to respond to intransigent causal patterns in the world, its reckless enabling of wrongdoing and medical harm, and its myopic focus on only those individuals (mostly white, mostly university educated) who have enough cultural power to get their cries of victimhood to stick, I’m sure you can see why it’s worthy of the name. I have rehearsed many versions of this story in talk and in print. I even wrote a book about it, in which I worked through some of the philosophical feints and slights-of-hands which superficially might seem to justify some of it.
To date, I have mostly have treated the stupid story in terms of reasons not causes: thinking about whether it makes sense philosophically and empirically (spoiler: it doesn’t), rather than in terms of why exactly people have tended to believe the daft nonsense. As perhaps you can tell, however, my patience for reasoning neutrally about the stupid story is now paper-thin. As Karl Popper almost once said: ‘‘No rational argument will have a rational effect on a nonbinary person who does not want to adopt a rational attitude.”
So what this new substack will not be, I’m exhilarated to report, is yet another rehearsal of exactly why this story makes little sense. Many readers will have seen the stupidity instantly, and don’t need me to point it out. For those that didn’t see it, there’s my book, Helen Joyce’s book, and a wealth of other resources and voices out there, explaining what is incoherent and damaging about the story from a variety of angles. I’ve officially shot my bolt.
What I do find interesting, though, is how things went so badly wrong: the causes, not the reasons. I’ve had a lot of time to think about this. One big question for this newsletter will be: how did mainstream feminism come to embrace what I’m calling the stupid story, so that many feminists ended up cancelling themselves out of politically effective existence? Effectively, the stupid story functions, for mainstream feminism, as a reductio ad absurdum: it reduces most of contemporary feminism to risible absurdity, necessitating urgent reflection on the tenability of prior commitments to explain how the absurdity ever got such a firm grip.
In future posts, I’ll be arguing that the seeds for this fiasco were sown in relatively unremarked aspects of feminism from the second wave on; and that standard feminist talking points, apparently distant from the gender wars, continue to exacerbate the situation. In particular, I’ll suggest, academic and other middle-class versions of feminism have severe problems (and as a middle-class former academic, I should know).
So far, so much grist to a radical feminist mill. But though some of my best friends are radical feminists, I am not. While radical feminists have tended to place blame for the origins of the stupid story partly at the door of liberal feminists, presenting their own stance as a solution to all female ills, I’m sceptical. While I don’t disagree that liberal feminism is disastrous in several ways, I’m also going to argue that radical feminism is not immune to many of the very same problems that beset the former. In fact, I will be arguing, radical feminism as presented is often simply an extreme variety of liberal feminism, and all the worse for it. Generally speaking, feminism understood as a female-focused political movement needs a reboot, with many of its core commitments reconsidered. In future posts, I’ll be arguing for a “post-liberal” version of feminism, though what that means exactly will take careful spelling out.
The rise of the stupid story isn’t just a red flag for feminism though. I’m also interested in how our public institutions have failed to combat it, when its faults should be instantly visible. How did Universities - not to mention the judiciary, media organisations, and political parties - get so weak that they capitulated, even where their prior principles and processes would suggest they should have rejected the stupid story out of hand? How did formerly solid academic methodologies fail? How did supposedly neutral public bodies become so nakedly biased? How did media reporting standards lapse? How did lesbian and gay charities and campaigning groups get so corrupted that they redefined gay men to include heterosexual females, and lesbians to include heterosexual males? These are fascinating questions. Even if you don’t particularly care about saving women’s spaces or sports from the incursions of males with female identities, or protecting minors from irrevocable and incapacitating bodily changes they may later regret, you should at least care about how your public institutions were soundlessly infiltrated by special interest groups - and then manipulated, not just into doing those groups’ utterly mad bidding without proper forethought or scrutiny, but also into trying to prohibit open discussion of the entire process. If it happened once - and boy, did it happen, and still is happening - it can happen again.
This stuff, then, will be some of the core business of this newsletter, though there will be occasional forays into less febrile territory. As to frequency: after an initial flurry, and once I get into a groove, I intend to publish once a fortnight - which I freely admit, isn’t enough to sustain a paid membership in a busy marketplace full of great writers. So: all of my content will be free for the first year, and nothing will be behind a paywall. After that, I’m honestly not sure what will happen - let’s see how this goes.
In the meantime, if you like what you read, please consider a paid subscription anyway. This will allow you to leave comments, and allow me to interact with you in the comments. It will also allow me to devote more time to writing here, which I’d love to do.
See you again soon, I hope.