Longterm readers of this journal (and, let's face it, I don't have many recent ones) may remember that Suzanne Moore - author of some trenchant feminist articles that I unreservedly applaud - is, nevertheless
, pretty TERFy
Her recent article
in The Guardian
deploring so-called 'cancel culture' is typical of its kind. If I had infinite time I could spend a fair bit of it dissecting Moore's article. Why does she cite the recent Rowling, row, for example, without making any reference at all to JKR's views about trans women, which is what made her essay controversial? Anyone reading Moore would think that she was called out for daring to speak about her physical abuse by a cis man, rather than for her transphobia.
Again, if she really wanted to argue against cancel culture, why didn't she mention the most topical example of that phenomenon - i.e. the sacking of David Starkey from various posts (rightly in my view) for his views on slavery and his reference to 'damn blacks'? It's easy to inveigh against cancel culture when those being cancelled are advancing views you agree with. The real test of principle comes when you are forced to do a Voltaire-face, as it were, and defend the expression of views you personally find offensive. That Moore chose not to do so is telling. (Of course, there are right-wingers who are defending Starkey on the internet
, using arguments very much like Moore's; however, they are groups with whom Moore would probably hate to recognise her affinity.)
I seem to have spent some time on those matters despite my best intentions. Oh well. What I really wanted to talk about was a certain phrase that Moore used:
I write this as someone who I know some would like cancelled because I continue to think biological sex exists.
You may be puzzled by this phrase, because - well, hardly anybody denies that biological sex exists, do they? Of course, some of us might say that sex is neither binary nor simple, and that chromosonal, hormonal and phenotypical varations make for a complex biological picture; but that's not to say that it doesn't exist - on the contrary. "Biological sex exists" is such a "Duh" statement that it passes almost unnoticed.
Nevertheless, it's become quite a catchphrase. When J. K. Rowling defended Maya Forstater, for example, she wrote incredulously: "Force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? @ istandwithmaya."
The reality was, of course, nothing so fatuous. This NBC News article
summarises the situation, as described by the judge in the case:
[Forstater's] contract expired in December and was not renewed; she sued in March and waited for a ruling — while continuing to make transphobic statements, including (but not limited to) a link to a piece comparing the use of proper pronouns to the date rape drug rohypnol and her commentary in defense of not using people's preferred pronouns, a defense of using transgender people's prior names in public settings, another series of statements misgendering another gender nonbinary person and another defense of her right to refuse to use the correct pronouns and to openly misgender people.
I think it's clear at this point that "biological sex is real" has become a kind of shorthand for "I'm a TERF." Although crude, it is quite powerful, inasmuch as anyone coming across it without much knowledge of or interest in the subject will find it commonsensical. For example, I encountered Moore's article via a Facebook post by a friend (whom I respect) who had commented, simply, "Excellent article". Anyone objecting will, unless they can persuade people to commit the time and emotional energy to following the arguments, sound pretty unreasonable and/or pettifogging.
I suppose the racists got there first, as ever. "I'm proud of my country" sounds pretty unobjectionable, shorn of the intolerance that often attends it.
Still, I wonder whether a leaf might not be usefully taken from this book? Is there some similarly "Duh" phrase that might stand for the other side of the debate?
I believe there is, and I propose: "Blue is a colour.
" From now on, I intend to insert sentences such as, "People want to silence me just because I assert that blue is a colour," into everything I write on this subject. It makes at least as much sense as "biological sex is real," after all. Nobody actually denies either statement, but beyond that, while "biological sex is real" makes an appeal to "objective fact", "blue is a colour" makes an appeal to the power of culture. Blueness is deeply cultural: one language's blue doesn't match another (the "blue" of Japanese includes much that English speakers might call "green", for example). In that sense, we might say that blueness is "nothing but a cultural construct", much as TERFs say about gender. On the other hand, blueness has a real connection to physics, and can be defined in terms of certain light frequencies. More importantly, who is going to argue seriously against the proposition that "Blue is a colour?" Anyone who did so would look at least as silly as someone accused of arguing that biological sex isn't real.
To proclaim, loud and proud, that "Blue is a colour" is to highlight the ambiguous nature of the truth-claim being advanced; it is to testify to the authenticity of lived personal experience; and it is, most importantly, to state the bleeding obvious.
"Blue is a colour." It ticks all the boxes.