Is there a feminist case for virtue?

I’ve been reviewing like mad: first Amia Srinivasan’s The Right To Sex, which I found so evasive I concluded it was a coded cry for help from inside the woke ivory tower. And secondly, Shon Faye’s The Transgender Issue, which I argue here makes a compelling case for trans activism as a legitimate daughter of second-wave feminism – complete with the ambivalent and sometimes matricidal mother/daughter dynamics that pervaded that movement. No wonder the so-called ‘TERF wars’ are so bitter.

Elsewhere, I proposed in American Affairs that what we understand as ‘feminism’ is to a great extent an effect of industrial-era economic shifts, that triggered wholesale re-negotiation of sex roles. But further, that we’re now leaving the industrial era, and thus once again re-negotiating sex roles; and if we try to do this on the industrial-era yardstick for what constitutes women’s interests, we’re going to end up somewhere very dark indeed.

I agree with the intersectionalists that feminism can’t be understood as universal; applying that logic across history opens the possibility that twentieth-century feminist ideals that were legitimately in our interests then may no longer be so now. And all these themes: economic transitions, matricide, woke feminism and trans activism, come together in reflections this week on yet another book: Erika Bachiochi’s The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Legacy.

Another recent read, Susan Faludi’s superb 2010 essay American Electra, discusses the matricidal streak in the feminist movement. Faludi argues that what she calls this ‘persistent barrenness’ (in other words the repeated rejection by successive ‘waves’ of whatever their foremothers valued) has its roots in the 1920s. At this point, following the suffragists’ success in attaining votes for women, a movement that had sought political change with and in the name of its daughters fragmented from a more matrilineal approach toward an individualist, consumer one based on rejecting maternal heritage:

The prevailing pageantry of the 1920s wasn’t simply an infantilization of the girl. It was, more ominously, an eviction of the mother. The forces arrayed against the mother were many. Some of her antagonists would be presented as allies, sympathetic “experts” who knew better than she did how to do her job. Mothers, the new and reigning “behavioralist” psychologists held, knew nothing about “scientific” child rearing and would do irreparable harm to children if they followed their own instincts instead of the male authorities.

To this end, mothers’ homespun skills were cast out in favour of ‘experts’, and crafts in favour of a newly consumerist expert-led womanhood. Faludi quotes sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd, who reported how daughters “fresh from domestic science in school” now “ridicule the mothers’ inherited rule-of-thumb practices as ‘old fashioned.’”

A glance around Mumsnet discussions on unwanted advice from one’s own mother says we’re still living in that world. Putting together Faludi’s connection of consumer society with that ‘matricidal’ streak in feminism, and my own exploration of the relationships between economic transition and the emergence of ‘women’s rights’ as such, I was thrilled to speak this week with Erika Bachiochi, a legal scholar and director of the Abigail Adams Insitute’s Wollstonecraft Project, about how on earth she found time to write a scholarly pro-family re-reading of Wollstonecraft while caring for seven children.

“That is maybe the question”, she told me. Her approach, I gather, was first having a very supportive husband, plus ensuring her children didn’t expect her to entertain them: “I’d be around, but reading”. But while she acknowledges that Wollstonecraft’s own life didn’t match the ideals she set out, Bachiochi tells me she wanted to write this book partly because “I actually have the family life Wollstonecraft describes”.

Bachiochi’s recent The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Legacy seeks to recoup Mary Wollstonecraft from her current role in the pantheon as proto-liberal, for a more Aristotelian understanding of human excellence as rooted in our common experience of rationality and our obligation to order that to the good.

Wollstonecraft, as Bachiochi characterises her, wasn’t interested in a conception of humans with rights in some abstract sense, but in a more grounded, relational one: we have rights in order to do the right thing – which for her was centred around family life.

Bachiochi sets out the way Wollstonecraft challenged Rousseau’s vision of the ideal liberal subject, who was a male one possessing male virtues. Women, he thought, were fundamentally different, had their own set of virtues, and were (or should be) oriented toward pleasing men as well as manipulating them toward moral improvement by offering or withholding sex.

Wollstonecraft disagreed. “Wollstonecraft thought virtue was human, and God’s attributes reflected in humans,” Bachiochi explains. “You can only judge virtue by understanding the attributes of God, and it makes no sense to say they’re specific to sex.” But what about sex roles, then? “Different lives may mean different manifestations of virtue and these may be sexed; but virtue means using reason in principle to master one’s appetites. And that’s applicable to both sexes in pursuit of their duties.”

Wollstonecraft, she tells me, also saw how harmful Rousseau’s notion of sexed souls was for women, once you put it together with his idea that passion, not reason, should lead. “If we allow passions to direct, and we agree with Rousseau that men are more libidinous, then an ideology of passion means freedom mostly for men.”

Looking around, it’s clear who won. It wasn’t Wollstonecraft. One thing that intrigues me about this debate is the way it’s reproduced even among those who see themselves as fiercely anti-feminist: see for example the neoreactionary writer ‘Zero HP Lovecraft’ here expressing a very Rousseauian vision of proper relations between the sexes:Zero HP Lovecraft (HAVER OF VITAL MAGNETISM) @0x49fa98@JamesMaddenUWU @russiancosmist @The_WGD If your wife “thinks for herself” – that ain’t yo wife, that’s yo husbandAugust 23rd 202110 Retweets172 Likes

Much of what we understand as liberal feminism today consists, essentially, of women rejecting this contemptuously-framed role as second fiddle to the active, passionate, political man, and seeking to join men on the same terms. (The perennial question of who looks after the babies while we’re all smashing glass ceilings then spawns its own set of bitter debates).

In any case, Rousseau’s fantasy of a passive, second-order feminine Other to act as foil for his idealised, atomised, individuated liberal subject, is close to the beating heart of liberal modernity. And inasmuch as liberal feminism accepts these premises, and sees female humans as of a different metaphysical nature to male ones, it’s bound to reproduce its contempt for care and marginalisation of mothers.

Contrasting The Rights of Woman with my other two August reads, The Right To Sex and The Transgender Issue, it’s clear that the latter two argue from and within the matricidal tradition that’s descended from these early debates over sex roles, that took place in another immense economic transition. Srinivasan manages to write a whole book about sex without more than a passing mention of love, biology or children – all topics with more than a passing connection to the subject, or so you’d think. And Faye has argued convincingly for trans activism as the legitimate daughter of second-wave feminism’s intermittent trans-humanist fantasies of using technology to liberate women permanently from the need to be mothers.

As presented by Bachiochi, Mary Wollstonecraft’s vision of women’s rights wasn’t rooted in repudiation of the obligations and bonds that come with motherhood, in pursuit of pure atomised selfhood, but rather conceived of as one-half of a common human enterprise centred in family life.

As such it’s clear that Erika Bachiochi offers a radical challenge to modes of feminism that have become entrenched orthodoxy. She mounts a defence of common life that centres motherhood to an extent even I, a purported ‘reactionary feminist’, find challenging. That is, she situates the most profound marginalisation of mothers in the drive – led by feminists seeking freedom on equal Rousseauesque terms with men – for abortion rights.

Abortion, Bachiochi argues, has resulted not in greater freedom or equality but more ‘sexual risk-taking’ that largely benefits men, even as it places the women’s movement ‘on the side of the individualistic and consumerist economy, ever hostile to the priorities of the child-rearing family, and so diametrically at odds with the market-resistant logic for which the women’s movement originally stood’.

This is a difficult and emotive subject, and one I approach with some caution. So for now I’ll just say that we continue our steady advance into the ‘Meat Lego Matrix’, a worldview that sees us all – and women especially – as endlessly malleable flesh, and human fertility largely as a biotech market ripe for opening up. And in the light of these changes, it’s possible – though I reserve judgement still – that we may yet find ourselves needing to argue, for women’s sake, against a medical practice that in an earlier socioeconomic context seemed unambiguously to be in women’s interests.

In any case, Bachiochi makes a spirited feminist case against abortion, in the interests of re-situating mothers and motherhood in the women’s movement. And while I have a great deal more thinking to do before I commit myself either way on this topic, as a reader it was a blessed relief to step from the arid, disembodied, amoral circumlocutions of The Right To Sex to Bachiochi’s warm, woman-centred moral clarity.

Two books, then, feted in the mainstream, in different ways pursue the ever-more-disembodied vision of human selfhood first envisioned by Rousseau: a vision that structurally marginalises care, women and motherhood and takes entry into the market and public life plus the medical interruption of pregnancy as core political aims. This tradition has, perhaps unsurprisingly, spawned as its logical daughter a ‘transfeminism’ that unmoors ‘womanhood’ from bodies altogether, in the name of self-realisation and individual freedom.

A third, considerably more marginal book argues the case instead for an engaged, relational understanding of women’s rights and interests, centred in a common human pursuit of excellence and rooted in virtue the obligations of family life – to the extent of challenging our contemporary view of abortion as a feminist ‘right’ as inimical to that pursuit of virtue.

This right here is the emerging terrain of feminist debate in the early twenty-first century. Are we still killing our mothers? What if any are the links between matricide and feticide? Is there a feminist case for virtue? I’m going to leave this open, as this post is now long enough, but this is challenging terrain and merits a great deal more thought.

The Right To Sex: Srinivasan’s cry for help

If you were a greengrocer in Soviet Czechoslovakia, it would be prudent to display, in your window, a poster proclaiming: “Workers of the world, unite.” This is the famous example Vaclav Havel used, in The Power of the Powerless (1978), to illustrate mass conformity to Communist dogma. Havel’s greengrocer probably never thinks about that slogan, let alone believes it; he puts it obediently in his window to signal compliance with the regime. As Havel puts it: “If he were to refuse, there could be trouble.”

I was reminded of Havel’s greengrocer when reading The Right To Sex, a much-lauded new book on women and feminism by Amia Srinivasan — the holder of Oxford University’s prestigious Chichele professorship of social and political theory, a position previously held by luminaries such as Isaiah Berlin.

Despite — or perhaps because of — her standing, she opens the book with a statement typically found in the preface of any contemporary woke writing about women; I’ve come to think of it as a direct equivalent to the greengrocer’s poster:

“At birth, bodies are sorted as ‘male’ or ‘female’, though many bodies must be mutilated to fit one category or the other, and many bodies will later protest against the decision that was made. This originary division determines what social purpose a body will be assigned.”

Yes, commissar, the statement says, the definition of “woman” in my book about women is “anyone who identifies as a woman”. No, commissar, biology is not a thing.

Continue reading “The Right To Sex: Srinivasan’s cry for help”

On surviving postmodernism, with Benjamin Boyce

Had the most wonderful epic chat with the delightful Benjamin Boyce, where we roamed across such terrain as the psychotic side-effects of postmodernism, why nihilism isn’t the answer, why I don’t believe in progress and what’s left out of the internet’s parody of the social. It’s on YouTube:

What the modern mermaid leaves out

Scuba diving is both magical and terrifying. Put on your gear, slip under the surface, and find yourself freed from gravity. In the glory days Before Coronavirus, I remember diving through the clear waters of coastal Turkey, drifting on warm currents and rolling to stare at the sunshine playing on the surface, from underneath.

But even as I rippled through the deep, marvelling at flashing schools of fish, there was a trade-off: constant self-control. Don’t breathe out through your nose. Don’t sneeze. Never, ever panic. For a short while it’s possible to pretend that you have the freedom of such an alien world, but in truth you’re only ever a tourist, granted safe passage thanks to technology, training and self-discipline.

Something about this sense of crossing an uncrossable threshold surely also powers our obsession with mermaids. And it is an obsession: mermaids are everywhere. Monique Roffey’s novel The Mermaid of Black Conch: A Love Story recently won the Costa Book Prize, while “mermaiding” — swimming in the sea wearing a “mermaid tail” — has gained a cult following in Australia. And you only need to browse the girls’ clothing selection in a high-street shop to find countless cartoon girls with fish-tails, sequinned and sparkly, smiling at you from t-shirts, dresses, wellies, duvet sets, pencil cases and the like.

As a parent of a four-year-old, I’m more familiar than I’d like with mermaid content, and Disney is a rich source. Sofia the FirstA Mermaid Tale is a favourite with my daughter, who is entranced by the moment when Sofia is magically transformed into a mermaid and dives underwater. There, she swims in circles exclaiming: “This is incredible!”. And it is. The rest of the story is almost an afterthought, with the whole narrative punch condensed into that moment of metamorphosis, and the dive into a new and mysterious realm.

If mermaids offer an enchanting dream of transformation, perhaps it’s no surprise that the transgender movement enthuses about the special place mermaids have in their iconography. Activist Janet Mock links this to Ariel, heroine of the 1989 Disney film The Little Mermaid, who chafes at her underwater life and longs to visit the world beyond.

Continue reading “What the modern mermaid leaves out”

Opening remarks for Res Publica post-liberal feminism webinar

The Motherhood Blind Spot

The text below is my opening remarks from Res Publica’s 17 December 2020 seminar on post-liberal feminism, with Kathleen Stock, Louise Perry, Nina Power and Nimco Ali. Watch the full video below:

Before I had a baby, I believed all the usual liberal things about men and women. We’re all basically the same apart from our genitals. We all aspire to freedom and want to choose our relationships and values rather than have them imposed on us. A successful career is something everyone aspires to. Unequal career outcomes are the result only of sexism. Women can do anything men can: we just need the freedom to try.

Then I got pregnant, and found I was no longer a free individual as before. Instead, I was something my liberalism had no language for: a person in a symbiotic relationship. But my symbiote wasn’t some kind of parasite, she was a longed-for baby. She was loved and wanted as well as dependent, and her wellbeing was more important to me than pretty much anything else.

Then I found out this feeling of symbiosis didn’t end when I give birth and was physically separate from my baby. I regularly woke in the night a few seconds before she started crying for milk. I’d lose the ability to think clearly when she needed food. The only time I’ve ever damaged a car in 20 years’ driving was trying to get it round a tight corner with a hungry baby screaming in the back.

All these things get less overwhelming as a baby gets older, but talking to other mums my sense is that feeling of being not totally separate from your kids never really goes away. I’m 41 now, and my mum still often phones moments after I’ve thought of her. I call this the Mum Bluetooth. We have no language for talking about it. This blind spot has political repercussions for women.

Babies are weirdly missing from mainstream feminism except as a problem to be solved. Either they’re an unwanted pregnancy, or they’re holding your earning potential back, or they’re causing ‘unpaid labour’ (also known as caring work) which isn’t shared equally by men.

The unstated premise behind all this is that individual freedom is the highest aspiration for all humans, and inasmuch as female biology pushes against individual freedom women’s biology needs to be overcome.

The Economist, writing about the loss of earnings that accompanies taking a career break to care for children, calls this the ‘motherhood penalty’. That is, for a feminism that’s premised only on freedom and individualism, motherhood is not a superpower. It’s a punishment.

This grudging relationship of femaleness to the ideal liberal subject goes all the way back to the first liberal thinkers. Jean-Jaques Rousseau, one of the foundational thinkers of modern liberalism, didn’t even believe women could be free in this way, and envisaged an education for men that trained them to be independent liberal subjects while women should be raised as charming, compliant support humans.

It wasn’t long before Mary Wollstonecraft challenged the idea that liberalism was just a boys’ club. She claimed education, freedom and emancipation for women on equal terms with men, kick-starting the movement that eventually became feminism.

But here I’m going to be provocative and suggest that actually, in a way, Rousseau was right. Women are less well-suited to liberal autonomy than men. But this isn’t an argument against women, or motherhood. It’s an argument against liberalism.

If we believe the ideal human condition is autonomy, we have no way of thinking about humans as interdependent. And motherhood is the most concrete example of interdependence. An unborn baby is not a separate individual, but nor is it a parasite, or merely a thing.

Even after a baby is born, it’s not really a separate person. The paediatrician Donald Winnicott famously said ‘There is no such thing as a baby, only a baby and someone’. I wasn’t imagining that feeling of being merged, that was so strong when my daughter was tiny. It was an accurate understanding of her condition. If I, or someone else, didn’t love and care for her, she’d die.

In the framework of freedom and individual rights, we have no language for this interdependence.

Liberalism is a doctrine that gives a good account of human society only if you airbrush out all states of dependence. That means that to make the privileging of freedom work, you have to look away from childhood. From old age. From illness. From disability. And if you base your worldview only on freedom, you’ll also end up scribbling out the other side of dependency, which is care.

So it should come as no surprise that we have more freedom than ever before, but we also have a care deficit that no one knows how to address. We clapped for carers during the lockdown, then went straight back to underpaying them. We wince at every nursing home scandal, but have no idea what to do about them, because ignoring dependency and undervaluing care is baked into the liberal worldview. And women, whose biological superpower is the ability to create new humans through a process of symbiosis followed by years of loving care, find that superpower treated as though it’s in fact a handicap.

The sociologist Catherine Hakim has argued that developed-world women’s working preferences actually break down roughly as follows: 20% of mothers prefer to spend all their time with kids, 20% prefer to focus mainly on career, and the remaining 60% prefer a balance of the two. That certainly accords with my anecdotal experience.

But what this means is that 80% of women prefer to make some space in their lives for priorities associated with caring. And yet, because feminism has the liberal blind spot around dependency and care, we find the preoccupations of feminism heavily skewed toward the priorities of that 20% of women whose main priority is individual self-actualisation. That is, the 20% who want a career on the same terms as men. So we have a feminism of childcare, pay gaps, workplace etiquette, celebrating the achievements of successful women and so on. What about the other 80% though? Are we not also women? Whenever I tell people I don’t want to work any harder because I prefer to make some time for family, I sometimes feel vaguely as though I’m letting the side down. But loving your kids shouldn’t be a source of shame.

To be clear, I’m not arguing for sending women back to the kitchen. What I’m saying is that a number of key issues for women can’t easily be addressed unless we stop pretending it’s possible to worship individual freedom and also advocate for women.

If we privilege freedom over biology, we end up writing female bodies out of feminism altogether. That means obstetric care, reproductive healthcare and family issues are no longer specific to women.

It also means even where sex segregation is in place for women’s safety, this becomes difficult to defend. Likewise, if we see males and the careerist female 20% as the workplace default, we’ll struggle to rethink work in ways that meet the needs and preferences of the 80% of women who prefer a balance.

That in turn means a huge proportion of women will end up spending their working lives either having fewer kids than they’d like, which is now the norm all over the West, or else chronically guilty and burned out trying to live up to feminist ideals that were supposed to free us.

To repeat: this is not an argument that there’s something wrong with women. It’s that there’s something wrong with worshipping freedom and calling it feminism. The feminisms that reject this privileging only of freedom and seek to re-centre the women’s movement on female bodies re diverse and there’s plenty to disagree on. This is a space where conservative Christian thought overlaps with radical feminism, as well as with others such as me who don’t fit neatly in either of those groups.

My aim here is just to name the blind spot. To create more space for acknowledging the overlapping themes of women’s bodies, motherhood as a superpower, and the politics of love and interdependence.

Nothing makes it more self-evident than gestating a baby that we belong to each other, not just to ourselves. That’s an idea I’d like to see embraced not just by feminists, not even just by women, but by everyone. It’s sorely missing from our atomised and adversarial politics.

The world according to LARP

Who would have guessed that a weekend hobby for outdoorsy nerds could spawn an era-defining political metaphor?

LARP, or live action role-playing, is an offshoot of the fantasy roleplaying subculture. It involves dressing up in costume and acting out a fantasy-fiction game narrative in real time and space, sometimes over several days. A witty friend once characterised the experience as something akin to ‘cross-country pantomime’.

Thanks to lockdown, no one’s LARPing this year — at least not in the cross-country pantomime sense. But the word ‘LARP’ has escaped into the wild: far from being the preserve of fantasy fans, I’ve noticed it appearing with increasing frequency in political discourse.

When riot police finally pushed activists out of the Chapel Hill Autonomous Zone following the murder of one joyriding teenager and serious wounding of another by CHAZ ‘security’, resistance to the advancing riot shields was so paltry it prompted contemptuous accusations of ‘revolutionary larping’. Weird Christian Twitter (it’s a thing) hosts arguments where people are accused of larping more traditionalist theologies than they truly espouse. Still further out on the fringes, the QAnon conspiracy rabbit hole (don’t go there) is fiercely defended by its True Believers against accusations that it is, in fact, a bunch of people LARPing.

Around the time my friends were discovering LARP, I got into LARP’s Very Online cousin, Alternate Reality Gaming (ARGs). An artefact of the age before Facebook and Twitter colonised most of the internet, ARGs are a hybrid of online treasure hunt, mystery story, and live-action immersive theatre. The first mass-participation ARG was a promotional stunt for the 2001 film AI, and featured a series of fiendish clues for participants to crack and follow, which unlocked further elements of story including live-action segments.

For a moment in the mid-Noughties, ARGs looked like the future of storytelling. The idea of internet communities over-writing stable systems of meaning with playful new narratives that danced back and forth between the web and real world felt refreshing and subversive. With hindsight, though, the phenomenon was just a more-than-usually-creative moment in a widespread unmooring of reality that’s been under way for decades.

It’s not all the fault of the internet. In 1955, the philosopher J L Austin developed a theory of ‘performative’ language: that is, language that does something to reality in the act of being spoken. ‘I pronounce you man and wife’ is an example of performative speech — words that effect change through the act of being spoken.

Then, in 1993, the queer theorist Judith Butler borrowed the concept of ‘performative’ language wholesale and applied it to sex and gender, arguing that the identities ‘man’ and ‘woman’ — along with the bodies and biologies associated with those identities — are performative. In taking these roles on, Butler claimed, we make them real.

While these ideas pre-date mass adoption of the internet, the notion that we participate in creating our own realities has been wildly accelerated by social media. Online, it’s easy to get the impression that we can reinvent ourselves entirely, independent of our bodies or other dull ‘meatspace’ constraints. Unsurprisingly, Butler’s conception of sex and gender as performance has long since escaped the petri dish of academia and, like the concept of LARPing, is evolving rapidly in the wild.

Strikingly, the word ‘performative’ has also mutated. Today, it isn’t used as Butler did, to mean “a performance that shapes reality”, but the opposite: an insincere performance for social kudos. So, for example, celebrity endorsements of social justice orthodoxies are often accused of being ‘performative’. It means much the same as ‘larping’, but with an added payload of cynicism. So where ‘LARPing’ means “playacting at something you wish you were”, ‘performative’ means “playacting at something you don’t really believe”.

Meanwhile, the LARP is no longer confined to cheery camping trips accessorised with pretend armour. Back in the noughties, online communities refactoring reality to fit a fantasy storyline felt like a fun game, but as I stare into the sucking void of the QAnon conspiracy, that perspective now seems hopelessly naïve. It’s not a game today: it’s how we do politics.

Liberal commentators spend a great deal of energy trying to explain why this is bad. Countless writers ‘fact-check’ Trump’s bloviations, seemingly unaware that from the perspective of reality-as-ARG, the fact that Trump is lying doesn’t matter. Nor does it really matter whether QAnon is real or not. Reality is, to a great extent, beside the point.

Laurie Penny got closer to the truth in this 2018 piece, where she characterises the very notion of a ‘marketplace of ideas’ as being a kind of LARP: “a Classical fever-dream of a society where pedigreed intellectuals freely exchange ideas in front of a respectful audience”. The reality, she argues, is that this ‘marketplace of ideas’ is less free, rational exchange than dick-swinging theatre.

Those who like to imagine this pessimistic perspective is new, wholly the fault of the Orange Man (or perhaps Facebook), should recall the words of an unnamed aide to George W Bush, quoted in 2004 on the relationship between facts, reality and the military invasion of Iraq:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works any more,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Ron Suskind, New York Times

Though his approach was less overtly hubristic, Tony Blair’s embrace of spin reflected a similar belief in his own ability to manipulate public narratives. ‘Political communications’ has only grown in significance since those days, and taken a self-referential turn. Today it’s as common for commentators to criticise a politician for performing badly at a presser — for poor-quality larping, or bad theatre in Penny’s formulation — as for saying things that are immoral or factually wrong.

Donald Trump is distinct from George W Bush not so much in disdaining facts as in lacking the religious conviction Bush deployed to fill in the gaps left behind by their disregard. But both, in different ways, embodied or embody the idea that what you believe is what is. If you LARP hard enough, this view says, your larp will come true.

Boris Johnson’s administration has something of the same cavalier attitude to the relationship between facts and rhetoric. To date, the handling of coronavirus has routinely over-promised and under-delivered, while seeming indifferent to the disorienting effect on public life of a string of announcements only very loosely tethered to everyday experience.

It’s not a coincidence that this larpification of politics has evolved in tandem with a public fixation on ‘evidence-based policy’. The political polarity of absolute LARP — blatant political lying — and absolute insistence on evidence are two sides of the same loss of faith in a common understanding of reality.

If you’re not convinced, consider SAGE, the government’s scientific advisory committee. Then consider ‘Independent SAGE’, a kind of counter-SAGE comprising scientists every bit as eminent as those on SAGE. This august body produces its own carefully evidence-based reports, which are then used as a foundation from which to disagree with whatever positions the Tories choose to adopt from official SAGE.

Who do we believe? That’s politics. If the Brexit debate hadn’t already killed your faith in ‘the evidence’, the competing claims of SAGE and counter-SAGE should be the death-blow. There is no dispassionate foundation of facts we can deploy to take the politics out of political decisions. The original LARPers might have a fun weekend, then pack up and go back to their normal lives; but in its political sense, there’s no outside to the game. It’s larping all the way down.

Some parts of our culture are coping better with this shift than others. Among the worst performers, to my eye, are mainstream liberals of both left and right. Many have responded to the larpification of everything by concluding that in losing objectivity we’ve lost reality. Some then imagine they can make reality whatever they want it to be by sheer force of will (the Trump/Bush approach). Others suggest we can fix things by supplying enough facts to prove whatever we already believed (the SAGE/counter-SAGE approach). Others, such as Laurie Penny, try to refuse to play.

But we haven’t lost reality, just the fixed vantage point we pretended we had from which to evaluate it. What we have instead is a kind of reality-shaping free-for-all, and there’s no opting out.

As most of us flounder, disoriented, we’re starting to see subcultures adapting. The old story about the Inuit having 50 words for snow is (appropriately) itself probably fake news. But much as a snow-dwelling people might be expected to develop specialist terminology for different types of frozen precipitation, we should understand the emergence of words like ‘larp’ and ‘performative’ as analogous. We’re developing a specialist vocabulary for types of unreality.

We’re also having to find new ways to talk about the reality that, inconveniently, refuses to go away completely. The grim story of the Iraq invasion and its destructive and bloody aftermath gave the lie to Bush’s messianic faith in his capacity to create a new reality to order. Humans still can’t really change sex. And no amount of fiddling the statistics can bring back those people who’ve already died of coronavirus.

The political future turns on our being able to get used to parsing our new Babel for what’s actually happening, and what actually matters. We have to get used to doing this without trying to eliminate the element of LARP (spoiler: can’t be done) or pretending we can abolish reality (ditto).

But there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. If the ground is moving under all our feet now, the way forward is learning how to dance.

This article was originally published at Unherd

On sexed bodies and mind over matter

As activists campaign to cancel Britain’s best-loved children’s author for stating her belief that biological sex exists, transgender rights has become one of today’s most toxic cultural flashpoints. Even most cautious approach to the topic feels like walking on eggshells.  

My own journey on the subject has taken me some distance from my 00s social life, that for a while revolved around the (then embryonic) London female-to-male trans ‘scene’. There, I explored my own gender identity and presentation, while evangelising queer theory to all and sundry. But as time went on I felt a growing disquiet at the direction the movement was taking.

Back then, transgender identities felt like a progressive challenge to restrictive sex roles. But as such identities have become more mainstream, and normative sex roles ever less relevant to how we work and live our lives in the modern world, it has increasingly felt to me like the cutting edge of the movement is morphing into something less liberatory than hubristic: a radical assertion of the primacy of mind over matter.

Humans are a sexually dimorphic species. Sex roles (commonly referred to as ‘gender’) can’t be wholly separated from biological sex. In asserting that sex roles have no relationship to sex, but are in fact free-floating identities, the trans movement in effect declares that sex is unimportant. Some even question its objective existence.  Thus severed from any material grounding, the social roles ‘man’ or ‘woman’ become costumes or attitudes, no more objectively definable than (say) ‘goth’.

This can feel liberating to those who find the social norms associated with the sexes uncomfortable. But for females in particular, biological sex is far from a trivial detail.

I still remember the first time my brother defeated me in an arm wrestle, when I was 10 and he was 12. I was furious that something as unasked-for as a biological difference between us had now permanently rendered us unequal in a playfight, where previously we’d been evenly matched.

On a more serious note, crime and violence are sexed: males commit some 96% of all murders, 99% of all sex crimes and 100% of all rapes (because you need a penis to rape). Meanwhile females are less physically strong, and our anatomy and reproductive capacity makes us vulnerable to assault, rape and the many risks associated with pregnancy.

Inner identity does nothing to mitigate the threats women face due to being female. It’s physiological femaleness that marks girls out for FGM; physiological femaleness that gets women kidnapped for bride trafficking into China; physiological femaleness that got 14-year-old Rose Kalemba raped at knifepoint to create a porn video monetised by PornHub for years while she was still at school.

Even if we pretend it isn’t there, or is subordinate to our identities, the sexed nature of our bodies continue to exist and shape women’s interactions. So a movement that asserts the absolute primacy of mind over matter, identity over biological sex, is bound to feel jarring to women – because experience tells us it’s not true. And claiming it is disadvantages us at a fundamental level: if we’re all just free-floating minds, women no longer have any basis for talking about the ways our bodies make us vulnerable.

This of course doesn’t mean that we’re nothing but the sum of our biology. Humans are thinking, feeling, social and visionary creatures as much as we are evolved animals. All these aspects of us exist in tension.

Acknowledging the role of our bodies in shaping who and what we are as humans isn’t to reduce humans to the status of mere flesh. Nor is it a claim, as some activists suggest, that male and female humans alike should stuff our personalities into narrow masculine or feminine boxes to match our physiology.

Rather, it’s a recognition that the human condition is a mess of competing urges, aims and longings, and sometimes we can’t have what we want. Sometimes the world outside us refuses to be reshaped according to our innermost desires. That this is true is more distressing for some than others, but it’s still true.

For that subset of people who experience an inner identity that feels at odds with their physiology, that tension between psychic and embodied reality is painfully acute. We should meet this obvious distress with compassion and courtesy, not stigma or discrimination. We should as a society shield transgender people from unjust treatment. But that doesn’t mean we must accept the idea that bodies don’t matter.

Motherhood put and end to my liberalism

I was raised to believe all the usual liberal things about men and women. How humans are all broadly the same apart from differently shaped genitals and some socialisation; how sexist stereotypes alone are what hold women back in the workplace; how success in the workplace and the world at large is what men and women, to equal degrees, do (and should) aspire to. How parenthood, not motherhood, should have equal impact on both parents; how having a child would be a temporary blip in a life otherwise oriented outwards, towards the world.

Then I had a baby. It is commonplace to observe that life after becoming a parent is different from life before, which is true, and one part of this was my cherished liberal beliefs running aground on the physical reality of being, not a parent, but specifically a mother.

For me, becoming a mother involved 12 surreal and painful hours of labour followed by a crash C-section and a week on a drip. Recovery took a month. On sharing this with other women who are mothers I discovered that most of us have a horror story of one sort or another about childbirth, but that a polite omerta exists around sharing these either with men or with non-mothers. On the whole this is probably for the best, or no woman would ever consider getting pregnant. But it is only the first layer in a cloak of obfuscation that lies over the nature of motherhood.

Gestating a baby is physically punishing, and one sports science study compared it to running a 40-week marathon in terms of energy expenditure. Getting the baby out is not easy, either. Although, mercifully, fewer women die having babies in Britain nowadays thanks to modern obstetrics, childbirth still carries a high risk of sometimes life-changing complications.

Women who have had one or more babies by vaginal delivery are at double or treble risk of developing pelvic floor disorders – that is to say, anal or vaginal prolapses or urinary or even faecal incontinence. And once the baby is there, breastfeeding demands some 500 or so additional calories a day, is painful to establish and comes with a risk of mastitis and other unpleasant experiences.

This life-changing experience collides at a fundamental level, as I discovered, with the liberal vision of all humans as equal, rational individuals, for whom embodied existence is a mere servant to the pursuit of individual desire. To the extent that it is a liberal movement, much of feminism has focused on freeing women from those aspects of our traditional roles that seemed an impediment to women’s freedom to fulfil ourselves.

Freedom from domestic drudgery; personal safety on the streets; recognition as equally deserving of the right to vote, own property, succeed in the workplace and so on. More recently, this being largely accomplished, third-wave feminism has focused more on liberating women from the necessity of even being female, declaring that “Trans women are women” and that about this “there is no debate”.

This is all (or mostly) good stuff; I have no desire to live in the nineteenth century. The problem with where we are now, though, is babies. When it comes to the most gruelling aspects of propagating the species, there is no means by which the work can be equally distributed between the sexes. Males cannot give birth, unless you count those male-identified females who are periodically reported in the papers as “pregnant fathers”. Neither can males breastfeed, and it is arguably breastfeeding where the roles of a mother and her co-parent in a couple really begin to diverge.

A breastfeeding mother needs to stay physically close to her baby, and runs on the baby’s timetable for months. That is to say, on a two, three or four-hour feed-play-nap loop regardless of whether it is day or night. The other partner, meanwhile, can support the mother in practical ways but is considerably more free to maintain a normal daily schedule or return to work, as most fathers typically do following the legally-allotted two weeks. (Indeed, fewer than a third of fathers take their legally permitted two weeks’ paternity leave, according to a report earlier this year.)

Reports lament the poor uptake of shared parental leave, but given that males cannot breastfeed, it should not come as any surprise. Or is the idea to ask mothers who have endured cracked nipples, blocked ducts and sleepless nights establishing breastfeeding to then move their baby onto a bottle after a few months so daddy can have a turn at home? Not going to happen.

This in turn shapes how housework is divided. There is no doubt that socialisation plays some role in a differential distribution of housework between men and women, but the rubber really hits the road when children arrive, and this is to no small degree because of a mother’s desire to be close to her baby. It will feel logical for a mother to take on the lion’s share of house and child management during maternity leave.

By the time she returns to work – and over three-quarters of mothers with dependent children in the UK now work – it is highly likely that a pattern will have emerged in which this is normalised, and the mother has become more oriented toward managing the household while her partner is more focused on work.

Then there is what I call the “Mum Bluetooth”. This is more difficult to describe but likely corresponds to what attachment psychology calls “maternal attunement”: the capacity mothers have (to a varying degree according to their own psychological background) to tune into and reflect their infant’s state of mind. Non-mothers of course have some capacity to attune to infants, but for most healthy mothers there is an intensity to the connection that is simply not evident in others, however fond they are of the baby.

I routinely found myself waking a few moments before my daughter did in the night, even after she moved to her own room. The sound of her hungry cry would cause my milk to let down and all rational thought to cease until she was fed: the only occasion in two decades of driving where I have ever damaged a car was trying to get it around a sharp corner with my hungry baby daughter screaming in the back.

I embarked on motherhood with a vision of myself as rational and autonomous. It was unsettling the least to find myself in this messy, leaky symbiosis with a wholly dependent infant whose cries caused me to lactate and lose the ability to think coherently. I am not saying we should shrug our shoulders at the different ways men and women are treated by society, on the grounds that it is a biological inevitability. I want rather to suggest that the simplistic picture of sex equality promoted by popular feminism has a motherhood-shaped blind spot and, as such, lets both sexes down.

Popular depictions of motherhood in our culture tend to go two ways. Motherhood is either an adjunct (or obstacle) to other more worldly achievements but of no notable value or difficulty in itself, or else it is a pastel-coloured ideal of domesticity cleansed of the blood, milk, excrement and hormone-driven altered states of mind.

Left-flavoured liberalism generally ignores the embodied nature of motherhood, and assures us that sexist stereotypes, and those social patterns that conform to sexist stereotypes, are an oppressive creation of the patriarchy designed to keep women from fulfilling our true potential. Right-flavoured liberalism tells us these same patterns are simply a matter of “choice”.

The truth, though, is that carrying and nursing children is neither exactly choice nor coercion: it is an animalistic experience that cuts profoundly across the fantasies implicit in liberalism of free, rational individuals for whom liberation means transcending our physiological natures.

This matters. We cannot think politically about the place of family life in society, or indeed about sex equality at all, unless we can look frankly at what motherhood is, rather than at the motherhood-shaped space gestured at by a liberal focus on identities and economics. Maternity leave in Britain is far better than in many places but it has been a long time since a political party of either Left or Right dared to suggest that many mothers might want to spend years rather than months at home with their children, and adjust the tax codes accordingly.

Motherhood is a crunch point where the liberal pursuit of individual freedom collides not just with communitarian obligations to others in society, but our very nature as biological creatures, yet for political reasons the ball has been dropped and kicked into a corner by Left and Right.

While our mainstream liberal culture pretends that all humans are essentially identical apart from our dangly bits, it will continue to recoil in disgust from the messy reality of motherhood as a deeply animal experience. And so mothers will continue to be as overworkedguilty and burned out as they currently are, and our birth rates will continue to plummet. Perhaps, finally, it is time to restart the long-overdue public conversation about what motherhood is, and move beyond the polite political omertà that covers the subject.

First published at Unherd

Can societies survive without blasphemy laws?

So today I was mulling gloomily over the way hate crime laws seem to have taken seamlessly over the function of blasphemy laws in the UK. I decided to look up when blasphemy was abolished as an offence in the country, thinking it might be sometime in the 1970s. Wrong – blasphemy was abolished as an offence in 2008. The acts governing hate crime (the Crime and Disorder Act and the Criminal Justice Act) were added to the statute book in 1998 and and 2003 respectively.

The CPS’ own website states that

The police and the CPS have agreed the following definition for identifying and flagging hate crimes: “Any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice, based on a person’s disability or perceived disability; race or perceived race; or religion or perceived religion; or sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation or transgender identity or perceived transgender identity.”

These laws have been used in recent times for such diverse purposes as fining a man who taught his girlfriend’s dog to make a Nazi salute and arresting a woman for calling a transgender woman a man.

The common feature of both the blasphemy laws of yore and the hate crime laws of today is that both prohibit speech considered harmful to society’s morals. That society’s morals are no longer situated in a common belief system (such as Christianity) but an atomised, individualistic inner space (as expressed by the definition of hate crime as anything which is perceived by an individual as being such) is neither here nor there. Certain tenets cannot be challenged lest doing so harms the fabric of society.

It’s also neither here nor there that some of those moral tenets are unprovable or unfalsifiable in any objective sense: the Resurrection of Christ, say, or the existence of some magical inner ‘gender identity’. Indeed the more outlandish a protected belief the better, because the function of blasphemy laws is to compel moral obedience, and what better sign of moral obedience than to see people dutifully repeating something that is in no sense objectively true (such as that men can become women) on pain of being punished if they don’t comply?

My argument here isn’t that we should abolish hate crime laws as we did their predecessors, the laws of blasphemy. I don’t want to rant, Spiked-style, about the threat from blasphemy and hate crime laws to free speech so much I want to ask: have we ever really had free speech? It seems no sooner did we get rid of one set of rules about what you can’t say than we replaced them with another. There was, perhaps, a couple of decades where blasphemy was effectively defunct despite the statute remaining in existence and before hate crime came to be. But the collapse of controls on speech for religious reasons is nigh-simultaneous with the rise of controls on speech for social justice/equality reasons. The Human Rights Act 1998 forced blasphemy law to be restrained by the right to free speech; the same year, the Crime and Disorder Act made hateful behaviour toward a victim based on membership (or presumed membership) in a racial or religious group an aggravating factor in sentencing. (Insert chin-stroking emoji here.)

This leads me to suspect that human societies cannot, in fact, survive very long without laws of some kind governing speech. I’d love to see a counter-example. But I’ll be astonished if anyone can point me to a state that has abolished religious blasphemy without replacing it with controls on speech for other reasons, whether (under supposedly atheistic Communism) to forbid speaking against the Dictator, or (under supposedly individualistic, pluralistic liberalism) to forbid speaking against individuals’ notional right to self-define without reference to the collective.

Much as every human represses some aspects of their personality in order to function, every society does so too; it is a foolish or short-lived society that makes no effort to clamp down on behaviours or opinions that pose a threat to what that society considers the good or virtuous life. If that’s the case, is there even any value in trying to fight what feels like a rising tide of authoritarian busybodying keen to tell me what I can and can’t say? Or should I just pile in and make my bid to be on the team who’s in charge of deciding what should or shouldn’t be banned?

Right now, the two groups jostling most energetically for that position in the UK are the proponents of ‘intersectionality’ and the radical Islamists. If Nassim Taleb is correct, and social mores are disproportionately set by tiny ideological minorities purely based on the strength of their conviction, then whether we end up punishing those who assert that men cannot become women or those who draw cartoons of Mohammed will be a straight fight between which of those groups is more determined to blow shit up if they don’t get their way.

I don’t really like the way this argument is going. If I’m right, then social mores in a few decades will bear few resemblances to those of today And whether they’re structured with reference to authoritarian liberalism or radical Islam I don’t think I will particularly like their shape. But there’s nothing I can do about it – the moral majority in the country is firmly post-Christian and, as I’ve argued elsewhere, a society that can’t be arsed to defend its moral traditions is guaranteed to see them supplanted by ideologies with more committed adherents. And indeed, the kind of Christianity that did once upon a time get out of bed to defend its moral tenets by any means necessary would probably, in practice, be as repugnant to me as either of the likely moral futures toward which our society is heading.