In a recent Facebook thread, a trans woman was attacked for declaring herself instead to be a “transwoman”. The missing space was deemed to be crucial; and to me this demonstrated, yet again, the intellectual abyss into which much of left-wing politics has fallen. It began when self-declared transwoman/trans woman Erin Palette shared a blog post she’d written titled Being a Concealed Carrier Made Me a Better Transwoman (note – I’m not endorsing the gun politics here – let’s stay focused).
A comment swiftly appeared:
To which Erin sensibly responded:
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I’ve spent some time over the past few years observing and documenting the bizarre cult of identity politics, as well as trying to explain the phenomenon. There are a number of overlapping explanations as to why the left has been subsumed by this pedantic nonsense.
But in reality, identity politics seems to be best explained by one thing: bullies have found a new language with which to justify bullying. Once upon a time, political activism took effort, required people attend meetings, understand history, and read books. Now, all one has to do is Like a few Facebook pages and learn a few slogans (“neoliberal patriarchal oppression is bad, m’kay?”) and – hey presto – you’re a Marxist, a feminist, or an intersectional person-of-colour LGBTQ+ warrior!
This nonsense invariably surfaces during (attempts at) political discussion. Identity politics means that people can completely ignore the subject under discussion and instead focus on – yes – identity. Thus, any discussion can be “won” (at least, in the feeble mind of the identity warrior) by responding to any point with “Ah yes, but you’re cis/white/male/all three”. Under these politics-for-kids rules, one need never lose an argument. One wins simply by being female/brown/queer/whatever. On this basis, the ciswhitemale must simply admit defeat and exit. “I’m a ciswhitemale and I’ll still be one at the end of this discussion, so there’s no point continuing, is there?”
The new religion of “intersectionality” takes all this to new heights: for example, oppressed white feminists can tell privileged white men to shut up, but in turn can be told to shut up by black feminists who claim to be even more oppressed than they are. This would all be top-class entertainment if these halfwits weren’t slowly infiltrating the machinery of education, media and politics, and establishing their neo-theology as “fact”.
As well as playing the identity card, the identitarian has a second fallback gambit to avoid engaging in actual reasoned discussion: language policing. This is beautifully demonstrated by the reply to Erin:
So we discover that:
a) Men aren’t allowed to join this discussion, on account of them being men n all, and
b) There is a “recognised standard” for good and bad words – thus implying an elite that gets to decide which words other people are allowed to use. Who elects this elite? Don’t be silly, elites are self-appointed, not elected.
In this brave new world, meanings no longer matter. Only words matter. Trying to phrase a political point in the language of Identity is like tip-toeing through a minefield. Your entire argument will be declared null and void if you place a foot wrong. And since the rules keep changing, and only the most dedicated identitarian can be bothered to keep up, you’ll never get it right.
“DON’T SAY BLACK SAY PERSON OF COLOUR!” “DON’T SAY GAY SAY LGBTQ+!” “DON’T SAY PROSTITUTE, SAY SEX WORKER!” etc… (of course, this being nothing more than a childish game, the moment you master the words, they’ll change; see “coloured person – negro – afro-american – african american – person of colour” for a particularly circular example).
But of course – it’s simple courtesy to refer to people using their preferred words, if they have preferred words. But identity politics isn’t about courtesy – it’s about control. We’ve entered a back-to-front world in which people claim “oppression” simply in order to control and bully other people.
If feminists and race activists are good at this game, trans activists often take it to a surreal new level. A perfectly non-bigoted friend was recently screamed at (by a non-trans woman) for daring to ask genuine questions about trans people but phrasing the question wrongly. You can’t be told the answers, because you don’t know how to phrase the questions. It’s as if playground bullying and grown-up politics have suddenly merged – and perhaps they have.
It should be pointed that identity activists rarely represent their supposed constituency. Most women aren’t feminists, most black people choose not to be categorised as perpetual victims, and most trans people are perfectly OK with being asked questions about themselves, even if the language used is clumsy. And it’s been a long time since I met a real-life homosexual who felt represented by the “gay rights movement” (or whichever words it uses to describe itself these days).
Whatever the identity bullies might tell you, you have every right to use any word of your choosing. It’s preferable that you don’t use words in order just to hurt people’s feelings. But this policing of language is censorship, both in reality and intent.