Does the dispute between RadFems and the Trans-community reflect a genuine dilemma? (A reply to @cheshireb)

Whenever I try to write about something that’s potentially fraught, I dispense with my usual custom of quoting song lyrics.  Once again, we’re in the territory of discussing something that invariably results in somebody getting really upset and everybody feeling worse off for the experience.

When I wrote about the Festival of Dangerous Ideas and how the controversy market has squashed our ability to engage meaningfully with genuinely ‘dangerous’ ideas, Fatima Measham asked me what ‘dangerous idea’ would I like to see explored at FODI.

I’ve written before about a particular form of privilege: the assumed right to stay disengaged from the problems of others:

It is in this way that we can start to discuss privilege.  As a straight white guy, I can ‘win’ these discussions in two ways.  First, I can simply refuse to engage with them.  Somebody’s saying something that makes me uncomfortable?  I can ignore them.  I have the ability to pick and choose conversations which suit me in a way that marginalised people can’t.  More than that, I can instigate conversations to an increased degree than marginalised people can’t.

Second, I can further marginalise people who try to raise these conversations.  Are you saying something which confronts my intuitions about the world?  I’ll mock you and make you a figure of ridicule rather than engage with your ideas.  Checkmate, Holmes. [Source]

For me, the Dangerous Ideas are precisely these ones — the ones which the vast majority of people keep at arm’s length, passively suppress, and refuse to engage.  Unfortunately, actually confronting people with things they don’t want to hear doesn’t end up selling tickets to events.  Instead, we get this:

When it comes to Australian politics, a large number of voters are undeniably thinking: “a plague on both their houses.” Citizen distrust of government is high, and there are still many areas where voters feel that no one is presenting the policy they want.

The treatment of refugees and asylum seekers has been especially contentious this past decade. Tragedy, debate and policy u-turns line up beside an ageing UN convention and huge numbers of refugees worldwide.  Simplistic slogans make us think the “problem” has a simple solution, but our policy responses have so far been ineffective at best, and inhumane at worst. As we start to see the reality of climate change refugees in our region, it has never been more crucial to have our house in order.

Of course, it’s easy to disparage our leaders from the sidelines, but can you do better if faced with the real complexities of the situation? Join our panel of experts for this interactive session, and help devise the refugee policy that you think is best.

James O’Loghlin is an author, media personality, and former commercial and criminal lawyer. He has hosted The New Inventors on ABC TV and The Evening Show on 702 ABC Sydney, and currently hosts Sunday Evenings on 702 ABC Sydney.

Chris Berg is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs. He is the author of In Defence of Freedom of Speech: From Ancient Greece to Andrew Bolt and co-editor of 100 Great Books of Freedom: Australian Liberals, Conservatives and Libertarians on Individual Liberty and Prosperity.

Julian Burnside is a Melbourne barrister who has acted for the Ok Tedi people against BHP and the Maritime Union in the 1998 waterfront dispute. He was Senior Counsel assisting the Australian Broadcasting Authority in its Cash for Comment inquiry and represented Liberty Victoria in the Tampa litigation. Julian campaigns publicly for the interests of asylum seekers and refugees in Australia.

Supported by the Sydney Morning Herald. [Source]

Just… no.

For me and the vast majority of people I know, the trans-community is invisible.  They simply don’t exist in my social world.  And that’s what makes the issue such a Dangerous Idea.

When Bradley Manning became Chelsea Manning, one comment that stuck with me was a Tweet from somebody saying that people who didn’t realise that Manning was trans simply chose not to know.  I was one of those people who didn’t realise.  If I’m being defensive, I’d say that my conceptualisation of the Manning-Wikileaks saga didn’t actually involve Manning as a person.  Similarly, although I can’t stand Julian Assange for a wide variety of reasons and definitely believe that he should go the hell back to Sweden to face sexual assault charges and how dare so many people claim that he has nothing to answer for and how dare people be so derisive of Sweden’s sexual misconduct legislation and… and… and…, my arguments against Wikileaks have nothing to do with the person of Assange.  Manning and Assange were merely the people around whom these broader philosophical ideas were anchored.

But if I’m not being defensive, I have no option than to admit the truth: Manning’s gender identity was completely invisible to me.  For most people with whom I associate, it would have been invisible to them as well.

Because this issue is so invisible to me, I don’t even have the language with which to construct the ideas.  Being fairly widely read, I do know that the issue of how to construct the ideas is extremely contentious.  There’s the trans-community who argue that feminism should be sympathetic to the forms of discrimination that they face, and there’s the radfem community who sees the trans-community as a form of appropriation.

So my answer to Fatima was that I’d love to see a FODI have two reasonable people on a panel exploring this issue and guiding the audience through the ideas:


Being the Internet, you can’t say things like that without one side or the other getting extremely upset with you.  To an extent, it’s understandable.  If you come from a marginalised group that’s accustomed to being denigrated or whatever, then you bring that baggage with you when you see otherwise innocent comments.  Indeed, the whole ‘otherwise innocent comment’ category tends to be a hive of scum and villainy where offensively ignorant comments lurk: ‘Because I think everybody should be treated equally, I find affirmative action policies to be morally reprehensible.  I’m sorry that all the people of colour are offended by this otherwise innocent comment…’

One respondent in particular, Courteny Turing, became quite upset at my comment and read quite a lot into it which, frankly, I don’t think was there.  Specifically, she thought that such a conversation would be reduced to whether or not trans-people were human worthy of human rights and, further, how dare I suggest that bigots (by which she meant the radfems) be treated as morally equal to the trans-community.

And this is where knowing the history of the discussion is important.  There are a bunch of radfems who think the trans-community (particularly male-to-female transsexuals) are utter scum.  Utter scum.  And, historically, conversations between the more extreme ends of the groups have not resolved amicably — often with the radfems having an entire culture’s worth of derogatory comments about the trans-community at their disposal to launch in flame wars.

Even though particular ends of the communities end up at the bigoted end of the spectrum, it doesn’t hold that there was something inherent in the ideas which resulted in bigotry.  Just as religion itself has been used to coat intolerance does not mean religion is inherently intolerant, similarly the ideas espoused by radfems might not necessarily entail bigotry.

For example, one of the positions espoused by radfems in the argument has involved whether or not the trans-community adopts and tacitly approves the dominant, oppressive characterisation of ‘woman’.  So while the radfems are trying to get people to conceptualise gender beyond genitals and breasts, the trans-community reinforces this view of gender being about bodily bits.  Thus — say the adherents — the person who declares that they always ‘felt’ like they were ‘trapped’ in the ‘wrong’ body is actually responding to a socialised pressure to give expression to the feeling of discomfort rather than expressing something genuine about gender.

The radfems also give us an interesting critique of what it means for gender to be a social construct.  The person who has been socialised their entire life to be a man can’t wash themselves of that socialisation in order to become a woman.  Just as we would think it offensive if a wealthy white person suddenly decided that they felt like they were ‘really’ an African American trapped in the body of an Anglo-Australian, so too radfems feel it’s offensive for people who have had the advantage of being a man their entire life to appropriate womanhood.

And, on a related note, there’s a discussion about the ‘Born This Way’ discourse that’s becoming painfully difficult.

In listing these arguments here, I’m not condoning them.  As I said earlier, I simply don’t have the language to work out whether or not these are coherent, sensible, enlightened views.  From my indulged and privileged viewpoint as a straight, white guy, neither ‘side’ of the discussion seems prima facie stupid or outright offensive.

But what this does mean is that we appear to have a legitimate dilemma.  We don’t analyse the disjuncts by holding assumptions that are favourable to our view; instead, we adopt the language of the other and explore their ideas in terms that are favourable to them.  Indeed, this is what distinguishes it from the example of ‘Let’s get a Ku Klux Klan member in to discuss the issue of race, and balance it with a representative from the Nation of Islam.’  You can’t construct the KKK or NoI terminal positions from their assumptions without including the terminal position as one of the assumptions.  That’s what makes it self-evidently bigotry.

In writing this, I wonder if this really is the sort of idea that I’d like to see at FODI.  Although I think this would be a great vehicle through which people outside of the radfem-transcommunity debate could be shown the language and concepts needed to explore the issue as a broader society, the controversy market aspect of FODI makes me wonder if it’s an appropriate platform for the conversation.  Not that I’m saying that the topic is inappropriate — far from it.  What I am saying is that the FODI model is a bit like cock-fighting rather than exploration of an idea.  In trying to sell tickets, the framing is less ‘This is an event which will confront the way you use language to explore this issue that is usually invisible to you privileged people’ and more ‘Here is an outspoken radfem and here is a transwoman that you saw on a reality television show.  Watch them dance for your entertainment!  Are you sitting comfortably in the audience with your soft drink and popcorn?  Then let the battle commence!  LOLOLOLOLOLOLOL.’

Seriously, three white guys ‘crowd sourcing’ an asylum seeker policy?  Sponsored by one of the organisations that has a vested interest in keeping the debate contentious?  Screw that.

Before writing this post, I reread this post I’d written before about privilege.  It’s true that I’m disconnected from this debate in a way that, say, a transgendered person isn’t.  A person who’s genderqueer might look at my cold, dispassionate, abacus-based post and say: ‘You don’t get it.  The radfem construction of the gender world actively excludes me from expressing my identity.  It’s transphobic and there should be no place in civilised discussion for transphobia.’  Similarly, a person on the other ‘side’ of the discussion could read this post and say: ‘Mark, you are a man and I don’t care what you have to say.  The trans-community actively encourages an oppressive view of “female”.  Fuck civility and the way it supports various hegemonies which keep minorities oppressed.  Every oppression should be smashed rather than given an invitation to attend a panel event to justify itself.’

Neither of these critical responses is obviously incorrect and I’m not entitled to dismiss either out of hand.

I guess what I want from something like FODI — or the myriad of other events like it — is something that’s perhaps a bit selfish and entitled.  I think what I want is an event which is actually targeted at the ignorant people like me who would go along with all these pre(mis)conceptions about the world and what’s ‘reasonable’ and what’s ‘intuitively true’ and have those ideas confronted.  When I look at how I’ve constructed this FODI event between the radfem and the trans-community, I’ve framed it in terms of the audience being a whole bunch of people just like me, with the audience being the beneficiaries rather than (necessarily) the two people participating.  Although we all know that the objective of these events is to sell enough tickets to host a similar event the following year, you sort of hope that a desirable goal of FODI is to make the audience slightly less ignorant of these things than when they went in.

I’d call it The Festival of Section 18D.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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