26 December 2020

Judith Butler: 'Calling them Terfs is right'. On conflicts in feminism

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Thirty years ago, the philosopher Judith Butlernow 64 years old, published a book that revolutionised popular perceptions on the subject of gender. "Gender Matters ("Gender trouble'.), the work for which she is best known, introduced the idea of gender as performance and raised questions about how we define the category of 'women' and for whom feminism claims to fight.

Today, 'Gender Trouble' is considered the seminal text in any bibliography of gender studies and its arguments have moved from academia to popular culture. Since 'Gender Trouble' was published, the world has changed beyond recognition. In 2014 Time declared the "transgender point of no return". Butler herself went beyond her previous work, writing extensively on culture and politics. The conflict with the "biological essentialism remains alive, as evidenced by the tensions over trans rights within the feminist movement.

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

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

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

AF: An example of mainstream public discourse on this issue in the UK is the discussion of gender self-certification, or self-id. In an open letter published in June, JK Rowling expressed concern that self-id would open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he is 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 imaginationwhich 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 threator that any person with a penis that identifies as a woman engages in a deceptive and harmful form of disguise. This is a fervid fantasy fuelled by powerful fears, but it does not describe an actual reality. Trans women are often discriminated against in men's toilets, their modes of self-identification tell what they experience and cannot be interpreted on the basis of fantasies dumped on them. The fact that such fantasies pass as a public topic is in itself a cause for concern.

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

JB: I am not aware that the term 'terf' is used as an insult.. I wonder: by what name should we call feminists who claim to want to exclude trans women from women's spaces? If they favour exclusion, why not call them excluders? If they see themselves as belonging to that strand of radical feminism that opposed gender reassignment, why not call them radical feminists? My only regret is that there used to be a radical sexual liberation movement known as radical feminism, but it has sadly turned into a campaign to pathologise trans and gender non-conforming people. My feeling 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 feminists who side with JK Rowling 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-affirmative feminists, and many trans people are also committed feminists. So a clear problem is representing the issue as if the debate is between feminists and trans people. It isn't. One of the reasons to militate against this position is that trans activism is linked 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 at a certain time and place, and 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 represent itself and we remain open to new conventions of its social meanings. It would be a disaster for feminism to revert to a strictly biological reading of gender or to relate one's behaviour in the world to a body part. Or to impose scary fantasies, their own anxieties, on trans women.... Whose sense of gender, constant and very real, should be socially and publicly recognised as a simple matter of human dignity. The radical trans feminist position attacks the dignity of trans people.

AF: In "Questione di Genere" you asked yourself if, by trying to represent a particular idea of women, feminists are not participating in the same dynamics of oppression and heteronormativity that they are trying to change. In light of the bitter debate in feminism today, does this reflection still hold true?

JB: The way I remember my position in "Question of Gender" (I wrote it more than 30 years ago), the point was quite different. Firstly, 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. One has to consider the fact 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 is a woman. We have seen this in the field of reproductive rights. So the question I was asking then was: do we need a stable idea of women or any gender if we are to advance feminist goals? I posed the question in this way in order to argue that feminists are committed to reflecting on the different, and historically changing, meanings of gender and the ideals of gender freedom. By gender freedom I do not mean that we can all choose our gender. Rather, we can make the political claim to live 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 do not fit into their terms. Feminists know that ambitious women are called 'monstrous', or that non-heterosexual women are pathologised. We fight these false statements because they are false and because they say more about the misogyny of those who make humiliating caricatures than about the complex social differences between women. Women should not get involved in the phobic caricatures with which they have traditionally been humiliated. E by 'women' I mean all those who identify themselves in 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 timesand that this is evident throughout politics. The speed of social media allows for vitriolic forms of debate that are not conducive to thoughtful debate. We must cherish the possibility of more relaxed and thoughtful discussions.

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

JB: I am against online abuse of any kind. I confess to being puzzled by the fact that you've highlighted the abuse against JK Rowling, but don't mention the abuse against trans people and their allies, which occurs online and in presence. 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 let's 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 oppose harassment and threats, as we certainly should, we also need to make sure that we have a general picture of what is happening and where, who is most deeply affected and whether all this is tolerated by those who should be opposing it. I do not accept that threats against some people are tolerable and against others intolerable.

AF: Weren't you one of 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 accept that I have made some significant mistakes in my public life. If someone were to say that I should not be read or listened to because of these mistakes, well, in my heart I would object, as I do not believe that any mistake made by any person 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 interactions that make us see things differently. On the other hand, some of these petitioners have targeted Black Lives Matter as if loud, public opposition to racism is itself uncivilised behaviour. Some of them have opposed legal rights for Palestine. Some may have committed sexual harassment. But others do not want to be challenged on their racism. Democracy requires a confrontation whose tone is not always light. So I am not in favour of neutralising strong political demands for justice from subjugated people. When one has not been heard for decades, the cry for justice is bound to be loud.

AF: This year you published "The power of nonviolence'. Does the idea of 'radical equality' that you discuss in the book have any relevance for the feminist movement?

JB: My point is the suggestion to rethink equality in terms of interdependence. We tend to say that one person should be treated equally to another and we assess whether equality has been achieved by comparing individual cases. But what if the individual - and individualism - is part of the problem? What makes the difference is to understand how to live in a world in which we are fundamentally dependent on others, on institutions, on the Earth, and to realise that this life depends on an organisation 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, i.e. equally social and ecological, and this means that we must not think of ourselves only as bounded individuals. If radical trans feminists thought of themselves as sharing the world with trans people, in a common struggle for equality, freedom from violence and social recognition, there would be no more radical trans feminists but feminism would surely survive as a practice of coalition and a vision of solidarity.

AF: You talked about the backlash against "gender ideology" and wrote an essay about it for "New Statesman" in 2019. Do you see any relationship between this backlash and contemporary debates about trans people's rights?

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

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

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

translation by I. D. Ihnatiuc (here the text in English)

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