Judith Butler: “Calling them Terf is right.” On conflicts in feminism

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Thirty years ago the philosopher Judith Butler, now sixty-four, published a book that revolutionized popular perception on the topic of gender. “Gender issue” (“Gender trouble”), the work for which she is best known, introduced the idea of genre as performance and posed questions about how we define the category of “women” and who feminism claims to fight for.

Today “Gender Trouble” is considered the fundamental text in every gender studies bibliography and its arguments have passed from academia to popular culture. Since “Gender Question” was published, the world has changed beyond all expectations. In 2014 Time declared the “transgender point of no return”. Butler herself went beyond her previous work, writing extensively about culture and politics. The conflict with the “biological essentialism” however, he remains alive, as evidenced by the tensions over trans rights within the feminist movement.

What is Butler's point of view - who now teaches Comparative Literature at Maxine Elliot in Berkeley - on this debate? Do you see a way to break the impasse? “The New Statesman” published an email exchange on these topics with Judith Butler.

Alona Ferber: In “A Question of Gender” you wrote that “contemporary feminist debates about the meanings of gender exhibit a certain sense of difficulty, as if gender indeterminacy could ultimately culminate in the failure of feminism.” How can the ideas from that book written 30 years ago help us understand how the debate about trans rights has evolved in culture and politics?

Judith Butler: I would first like to ask whether trans-exclusionary feminists coincide with historical feminists. If you are right to identify one with the other, then a feminist position that opposes transphobia is a marginal position. But I don't think that's how things are. My bet is that most feminists support trans rights and oppose all forms of transphobia. I therefore find it worrying that suddenly the trans-exclusionary radical feminist position is understood as commonly accepted or even mainstream. I think it's actually a fringe movement trying to speak for the mainstream - it's our responsibility to stop that from happening.

AF: An example of mainstream public discourse on this issue in the UK is the discussion on the topic of gender self-certification, or self-id. In an open letter published in June, JK Rowling expressed concern that self-id would open bathroom and locker room doors to any man who believes or feels like a woman, potentially putting women at risk of violence.

JB: If we look closely at the example you give as “mainstream,” we can see that you are working on your imagination, which tells us more about the feminist who has such a fear than about any situation that actually exists in trans life. The feminist who holds such a view assumes that the penis defines the person, and that anyone with a penis could identify as a woman for the purpose of entering locker rooms and threatening the women who frequent them. That is, it is assumed that the penis is the threat, or that any person with a penis who identifies as a woman engages in a deceptive and harmful form of cross-dressing. This is a wild fantasy fueled by powerful fears, but it does not describe an actual reality. Trans women are often discriminated against in men's bathrooms, their ways of self-identification tell what they experience and cannot be interpreted based on the fantasies dumped on them. The fact that such fantasies pass as a public topic is itself cause for concern.

AF: I want to challenge you on the term “terf,” or trans-exclusionary radical feminist, which some people see as an insult.

JB: I am not aware of the term “terf” being used as an insult. I wonder: what name should we call feminists who declare that they want to exclude trans women from women's spaces? If they favor exclusion, why not call them exclusionary? If they consider themselves to belong to that strand of radical feminism that opposed gender reassignment, why not call them radical feminists? My only regret is that there once existed a radical sexual liberation movement known as radical feminism, but it has sadly devolved into a campaign to pathologize trans and gender non-conforming people. My sense is that we need to renew the feminist commitment to gender equality and gender freedom in order to affirm the complexity of (gender-based) lives as they are currently lived.

AF: There seems to be a consensus among progressives that the feminists who are on JK Rowling's side are on the wrong side of history. Is this fair, or is there some merit to their arguments?

JB: Let's be clear that the debate here is not between feminists and trans activists. There are trans-affirming feminists, and many trans people are also committed feminists. So a clear problem is to represent the issue as if the debate is between feminists and trans. It is not so. One reason to militate against this position is that trans activism is tied to queer activism and feminist legacies that remain very much alive today. Feminism has always been committed to asserting that the social meanings of what it means to be a man or a woman are not yet established. We tell stories about what it means to be a woman in a certain time and place, and we trace the transformation of these categories over time. We depend on a historical idea of gender: this means that we do not yet know all the ways in which it can be represented and we remain open to new conventions of its social meanings. It would be a disaster for feminism to return to a strictly biological reading of gender or to trace one's behavior in the world to a part of the body. Or impose frightening fantasies, one's anxieties, on trans women… Whose sense of gender, constant and very real, should be recognized socially and publicly as a simple matter of human dignity. The trans-exclusionary radical feminist position attacks the dignity of trans people.

AF: In “Question of Gender” you asked yourself if, by trying to represent a particular idea of women, feminists do not participate in the same dynamics of oppression and heteronormativity that they are trying to change. In light of the bitter debate in today's feminism, is this reflection still valid?

JB: As I remember my position on “Gender Question” (I wrote it over 30 years ago), the point was quite different. First, you don't have to be a woman to be a feminist, and we shouldn't confuse the categories. Feminist, non-binary and trans men who are feminists are part of the movement. It must be considered that the fundamental demands of freedom and equality are part of any feminist political struggle. When laws and social policies represent women, tacit decisions are made about who counts as a woman, and very often assumptions are made about who a woman is. We have seen this in the field of reproductive rights. So the question I was asking myself then was: do we need a stable idea of women or any gender if we want to advance feminist goals? I asked the question in this way to argue that feminists are committed to reflecting on the diverse, and historically changing, meanings of gender and the ideals of gender freedom. By gender freedom I don't mean that we can all choose our gender. Rather, we can advance the political claim of living freely and without fear of discrimination and violence against the genders to which we belong. Many people assigned “female” at birth have never felt comfortable in those shoes, and those people (myself included) tell us something important about the constraints of traditional gender norms for those many who don't fit their terms. Feminists know that ambitious women are called “monstrous,” or that non-heterosexual women are pathologized. We fight these misrepresentations because they are false and because they say more about the misogyny of those who make demeaning caricatures than about the complex social differences between women. Women should not get caught up in the phobic caricatures with which they have traditionally been humiliated. AND by “women” I mean everyone who identifies that way.

AF: How much of the “toxicity” in this debate can be traced back to the culture wars being fought online?

JB: I think we live in anti-intellectual times, and that this is evident in all politics. The speed of social media allows for vitriolic forms of debate that are not conducive to thoughtful debate. We must preserve the possibility of more relaxed and thoughtful discussions.

AF: Threats of violence and abuse represent the extreme form of these “anti-intellectual times” at one extreme. What do you have to say about violent or offensive language used online against people like JK Rowling?

JB: I am against online abuse of any kind. I confess to being perplexed that you highlighted the abuse against JK Rowling, but failed to mention the abuse against trans people and their allies, which occurs online and in person. I don't agree with JK Rowling's views on trans people, but I don't think she should be subjected to harassment and threats. But we also remember the threats against trans people in places like Brazil, the harassment of trans people on the streets and at work in places like Poland and Romania, or even here in the United States. So if we want to stand up to harassment and threats, as we certainly should, we also need to make sure we have a big picture of what is happening where, who is most deeply affected, and whether all of this is tolerated by those who are supposed to stand up to it. I do not accept that threats against some people are tolerable and against others intolerable.

AF: You were not among the signatories of the open letter on “cancel culture” in Harper's this summer: do you share those arguments?

JB: I have mixed feelings about that letter. On the one hand, I am an educator and a writer and I believe in slow, thoughtful debate. I learn from being confronted and challenged, and I accept that I have made some significant mistakes in my public life. If someone said I shouldn't be read or listened to because of these mistakes, well, I would internally object, since I don't believe that any one mistake a person makes can or should sum up that person. We live in time; we make mistakes, sometimes seriously; and if we are lucky, we change precisely because of the interactions that make us see things differently. On the other hand, some of these signatories have targeted Black Lives Matter as if strong and public opposition to racism was itself uncivil behavior. Some of them opposed legal rights for Palestine. Some may have committed sexual harassment. But others don't want to be questioned about their racism. Democracy requires a discussion whose tones are not always light. So I am not in favor of neutralizing strong political demands for justice from subjugated people. When you have not been heard for decades, the cry for justice is bound to be loud.

AF: You published this year “The strength of nonviolence”. Does the idea of “radical equality” that you discuss in the book have any relevance to the feminist movement?

JB: My point is the suggestion that we rethink equality in terms of interdependence. We tend to say that one person should be treated the same as another and evaluate whether equality has been achieved by comparing individual cases. But what if the individual – and individualism – are part of the problem? What makes the difference is understanding how to live in a world where we are fundamentally dependent on others, on institutions, on the Earth, and realizing that this life depends on an organization that supports the various forms of life. If no one escapes this interdependence, then we are equal in a different sense. We are equally dependent, that is, equally social and ecological, and this means that we must not think of ourselves only as bounded individuals. If trans-exclusionary radical feminists saw themselves as sharing the world with trans people, in a common struggle for equality, freedom from violence and for social recognition, there would no longer be trans-exclusionary radical feminists but feminism it would certainly survive as a coalition practice and a vision of solidarity.

AF: You have spoken about the backlash against “gender ideology” and wrote an essay about this for the New Statesman in 2019. Do you see any relationship between this backlash and contemporary debates on trans rights?

JB: It's painful to see that Trump's position (that gender should be defined by biological sex), and that the right-wing evangelical and Catholic effort to eliminate "gender" from education and public policy coincide with a return to biological existentialism of trans-exclusionary radical feminists. It is sad that some feminists promote the anti-gender ideological position of the most reactionary forces in our society.

AF: What do you think would break this impasse in trans rights feminism? What would lead to a more constructive debate?

JB: I suppose a debate, if it is possible, should reconsider how sexual function is medically determined in relation to the lived and historical reality of gender.

translation by ID Ihnatiuc (here the text in English)


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