To whatever extent I have been making an argument on the political side of things—either in truncated questions with my dead friend, or in these notes—it has been towards what I would call a moderate pro-trans side: a pro-trans side which loses a few edges, which is more open to argument and debate, which takes some truths from the gender critical feminists while still aiming to protect the rights of trans people to live full lives without fear or hindrance. So I certainly don't think that a wholesale victory for the pro-trans side would be a defeat for me, not for the most part. The moderate patriot John Dickinson certainly did not lose when the Revolution won.
But it wouldn't be a total victory for me. First, I remain concerned (in a way I am only partially addressing in these essays) that the woke left is badly overreaching in a way that will prompt destructive blowback, on issues far more vital than the ones it is concerned about (what profiteth a movement if it wins rights but loses the ecological basis for a civilization?). Second, I think it would be a harm, a wrong, if people are bullied into believing something—even the right thing—rather than being persuaded by it. And, thirdly, I think that certain of the more extreme demands of trans rights activists are not right, even as I agree with them on most of what they want.
I think, however, that the trans right activists are almost certain to win. Oh, they might win in a horrific pyrrhic victory, i.e. win in the midst of a blowback which could include the death-knell for a habitable planet. They could win in a way which would be terribly unjust, with people canceled not convinced. But they're going to win.
I think this is true because of demographics: the youngsters are on their side. People the generation of my kid genuinely don't see this as a problem. And as the Zionist writer Ahad Ha'am so astutely said, "History bears witness that in a war of parents and children it is always the children who win in the end; the future is theirs.”1”
So why do I do it? Why not just join the wining side? Why stand like a John Dickinson, who refused to vote for independence, even though he bore arms for it and signed the constitution that resulted?
For a number of reasons.
First and foremost, because I think what I am defending is right—both factually and morally. I don’t think that Caitlyn Jenner was a woman when she won her Olympic Gold Metals; I don’t think that I could become a woman simply by identifying as one.2 And I don’t think that the cruelty that many trans activists have shown towards their opponents is moral or right, even if I agree far more with them than with the opponents to whom they are cruel (and, of course, acknowledging that there has been plenty of cruelty running in the opposite direction as well). My favorite atheist blogger (from back when the New Atheists were a Thing), Greta Christina—who I suspect, for what it’s worth, would disagree entirely with me and might well put me in cherem for questioning the party line to this extent—once wrote an essay titled Do you care whether the things you believe are true?, making the point that, startlingly, some people do not care, and seem perfectly happy to believe things that on some level they must know to be false. Well, I myself really do care that what I believe is true. If the full-on radical trans rights activist view is right, then I want to believe it. But I want to be convinced, not be bullied. And at the moment there is a lot more bullying than convincing going on. So for the moment, I am arguing what I am arguing because I am trying to figure out what I can say that is true. That it must include rights and concern for all—trans women and gender critical feminists alike—seems to me morally clear. But I, at least, also want to get the ontology straight.3 This is partly because it’s interesting, partly because it’s an important issue, and partly because this issue is personally important to me. So to that extent, I am willing to take a losing side, because I believe that “defeat is no refutation”.4
The second reason is because while I think the fact of trans rights’ victory is assured, the details are very much up for grabs. Will it, for instance, triumph in the U.S. and Europe, while the rest of the world writes trans rights off as a piece of western decadence, or will it be slowly, unevenly, insufficiently, but genuinely adopted, bit by bit, by the rest of the world? Will it triumph in the U.S. in such a fashion as to cause enormous blowback which will damn the left on other issues, or will it (as I think, gloriously, the gay and lesbian rights movement largely has) end up persuading a large majority? Will it succeed in all its most extreme demands, or simply in the bulk of them (which are, I think, moral and right), with other ideas being remembered as the temporary excess of cultural politics? — All these things are, I think, up for grabs. Trans rights could win well, and it could win very, very badly. I’d like to see it win well (since I think it is certain to win).
A related reason is that no victory is forever. I think trans rights will win… when Gen Z and whatever comes after Z are the adults who are running the various organs of culture. But what about thirty years later? Will it persist as a cultural victory, or be remembered as a temporary civilizational madness?
Ultimately, I think, political movements are best if they rest upon conceptually solid foundations — and I don’t think the “gender means nothing but self identity and sex is meaningless” foundation that some trans rights activists are adopting (and if that sounds like a straw man: yes, it does, which is why it bothers me that people are taking that position!) is a conceptually solid foundation. I think other ideas—adoption as a metaphor, conversion as a metaphor, my own notion that trans women become women, and a number of others, all of which are gestures in the same direction—would secure trans rights on a much more solid basis. And, as such, would then be a much better basis for convincing people that trans rights are moral rather than simply bullying them into shutting up.
And, of course, arguing out those areas where things are difficult—children’s care, sports, prisons, things like that—and where gender critical feminists make their strongest case, will do more than simply persuade others: it will make our position actually better, and therefore more liable to be adopted. If we reach a compromise, we may find ourselves liking the ground where we stand, over time.
I am not saying that this moderate pro-trans position is going to win. It may well not. Then again, civilization may fall to fire and flood, heat and collapse, too. It’s worth trying even if we lose. Defeat is no refutation.
(Recurring) Notes on practical matters
This newsletter is a part of Confessions of an Autogynephile, an ongoing memoir in the form of a Stack of Sub essays (with occasional bonus politics thrown in, as there is this week), posting once a week, on Wednesdays. If you are interested in reading more, I would be very grateful for comments, responses, and subscriptions. I would be equally or more grateful if you would share it—publicly, on social media, or with friends—since, at the moment, I am known to no-one, having been just (re)born as poor Yorick: so there is no one to promote this newsletter to. (For what I rather hope are obvious reasons, I will not send a link out to my friends and family!) So please: like, subscribe, comment, share.
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Next week: Umwelt and the Trans Debate.
From the 1902 essay "Spiritual Revival", published in Selected Essays by Ahad Ha-Am, trans. Leon Simon, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1912, p. 301; available online here.
Is this something one can do by an act of will? I think it’s usually portrayed that way in trans activism, but it’s not entirely clear to me that’s correct. It might also be thought of as measuring an internal state, such that a person looks inward and sees whether or not they identify as a man or a woman, and then reports what they find. An argument for this latter reading is the fact that trans people, by and large, don’t speak as if they are deciding to identify with their opposite-to-birth gender; they speak as if it is something that is true about them apart from their will. In this case, even on the trans activist reading I couldn’t become a woman by willing it, but I could claim to be in a way that no one could contradict me. I’m not sure, however; there are also memes like “if you want to be a girl, you can just decide to be a girl” which seem to speak on the other side. Is there a philosopher in the house?
I’ve said in the past that people should be willing to agree to disagree about ontology, and that if we can put that aside we might find we had fairly small policy divides. And I think that’s true! But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about the ontology. It just means we shouldn’t let it divide us, discussing it amicably and being fine with it if, in the end, we don’t agree. There is a difference between trying to push people to believe a particular solution, and between trying to work it out for oneself. The latter is what I am interested in. (And I don’t think it can happen without a genuinely free discussion in which people genuinely explore the range of different options.)
The phrase is from W. P. Kerr, but I know it from J. R. R. Tolkien’s essay “The Monster and the Critics” (which revolutionized the study of Beowulf). Tolkien writes: “[T]he theory of courage… is the great contribution of early Northern literature. This is not a military judgement.… I refer rather to the central position the creed of unyielding will holds in the North.… 'The Northern Gods', Ker said, 'have an exultant extravagance in their warfare which makes them more like Titans than Olympians; only they are on the right side, though it is not the side that wins. The winning side is Chaos and Unreason'—mythologically, the monsters—'but the gods, who are defeated, think that defeat no refutation.'“