TERF wars

There are moments when you get that ‘then felt I like some watcher of the skies’ moment; you suddenly realise that there’s a whole world that you have never seen, and that you probably don’t understand. Sometimes it isn’t in a good way. I’m not sure of the general effect of Chapman’s Homer on Western civilisation – I’m guessing that it was pretty good, although, apparently, Western civilisation isn’t so much of a good thing as I’d thought – but I can’t say I’m convinced that the world I glimpsed is obviously an improvement on the one I thought I moderately understood.

It started by following a link that an esteemed colleague had posted about TERFs on rationalwiki yesterday. You don’t know what a TERF is? Well, here it is, in their own words.

Trans-exclusionary radical feminism (or TERF) is a subgroup of radical feminism characterized by transphobia, especially transmisogyny, and hostility to the third wave of feminism. They believe that the only real women™ are those born with a vagina and XX chromosomes.[Note 2] They wish to completely enforce the classic gender binary, supporting gender essentialism.

They are, in short, a hate group that by no means represents mainstream feminism.

So if you think ‘woman’ should refer only to those whose biological phenotype (ie ‘body’) features a vagina and cells containing XX chromosomes, and not to people who have had surgery and hormones to alter this – and I would cautiously suggest that if you do, you are in good (though possibly un-trans-aware) company – then you are ‘trans-exclusionary’. If you’re a radical feminist into the bargain (I don’t know if I am, but I rather doubt it) then you’re a TERF.

Rationalwiki is, as its name implies, a rationalist wiki, and there’s lots to like about it, but it’s not entirely clear that this particular page, nor those it links to, have been edited with quite the impartial scrutiny that could be hoped, that last line from the first section a dead giveaway.

I have written elsewhere that Germaine Greer’s much publicised position that it takes more than surgery to turn a man into a woman seems, at first blush and to the ‘uneducated’ to be plainly true. Whatever a woman is, having a vagina, and in more stringent recent years, a pair of X chromosomes instead of the single one that the male is lumbered with – ‘vagex’ as I’m suddenly going to call it – has traditionally seemed a necessary and sufficient requirement. I am certainly ready to discuss and reflect upon whether that is in fact that case, and I do accept that it presents problems for trans women (hitherto known as ‘men’), but I would be wanting to ask lots of questions and/or read a lot of stuff that appeared to address the question from first principles, and not stuff which presumed that if I didn’t agree with it, then I must be some kind of fascist. Whoever wrote the above article (and I accept that wiki articles are often effectively put together by committee) makes some big strides of logic which can’t go uncriticised.

Given that, in an [unquoted] paragraph, it is acknowledged that TERF is not a label which would be adopted by those to whom it applies, it must instead be a label applied to them against their will. It is, in that sense, a derogatory label, like wog or yuppy, designed to denigrate those to whom it applies, and to devalue their arguments and opinions by seeking to characterise them negatively.

And sure enough, TERF is ‘characterised by transphobia, especially transmisogyny’. But are these defining characteristics? Given that both of those are forms of hate speech, is it open to a putative TERF to deny that they are such by demonstrating that, though they may indeed be of the opinion that you can’t make a woman by cutting off a cock, they aren’t in fact transphobic? Or is it actually that by being trans exclusionary, they are, in the opinion of the writers of the article, by definition transphobic – that it isn’t, in fact, possible to be of that opinion without hating trans – specifically transwomen (men).

Well, this is all a little circular, is it not? But it comes as no surprise, then, that TERFs are described as ‘a hate group that by no means characterises mainstream feminism.’ Summarised, the entry says ‘TERFs hates trans’ without any assessment of what that means, nor whether what seems like hatred might in fact be a legitimate concern expressed with restraint. (See for example, this brilliant article by Elinor Burkett. Is this obviously hate speech in any meaningful sense or consequence, other than the fact that it represents the expression of a possible fly in the ointment of the doubtless tiny, but extremely vociferous trans lobby getting everything it wants – ie complete acceptance of transwomen as no less women than – well, I suppose we must call them – birth women? But Burkett is presumably already on some hit-list of TERFs and ready to be no-platformed at a moment’s notice. I’m guessing the invitations must be being prepared about now.)

It is an intriguing, and somewhat depressing hallmark of new activism deliberately to misinterpret dissent or the expression of an alternative opinion as ‘hatred’ or ‘silencing’. This is the enemy of rational debate, and the consequence is that conclusions are reached which have not been properly subjected to the scrutiny of critical thinkers, and they consequently appear bonkers. And in some cases, are.

The only part of this introductory paragraph with any apparent objective information content appears to be ‘by no means characterises mainstream feminism’ which raises far more questions than it could ever hope to answer. How is mainstream feminism to be quantified? Will it be defined to exclude TERFs (in which case the authors would fall foul of the ‘No True Scotsman’ logical fallacy to which their article links: real women™) If it is not to be so defined, then how will it be determined which members of so-called mainstream feminism actually believe that the only true women are vagex and which do not? More boldly, how can it be a plausible characteristic of mainstream feminism (which must include many who are very far from radical in any real sense – those who, for example, merely want equal access and pay in the work place) to support the rights of men effectively to barge in on their gender?

Stout Cortes might have been well advised to turn his back on the Pacific and bloody hotfoot it out of Darien.

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