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Sunday, 24 October 2021

Review: Kathleen Stock, Material Girls. Why Reality Matters for Feminism.



This is an excellent book: clear, thorough, convincing and, in context, brave: Kathleen Stock is currently a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Salem but has failed to answer with an unequivocal “Yes” the Witch Question, “Do you believe trans women are women?” (p 142). As a result, trans-activist students (not to be confused with trans-people) are calling for her dismissal: in the pages of Pink News they tell us that they’ve paid their money and don’t expect to have to share their campus space with a transphobe. It’s unlikely that many of them will read this book, though - to be fair - reading books is not their favourite pastime anyway; the favourite is Salem’s distance learning platform, Twitter. Is that not so?

Stock faces more than a local challenge to be heard. There are now tens or even hundreds of thousands of people in the UK and USA with a direct investment in Gender Identity Theory (or Theories) and careers and future careers are at stake: not only do we have the faculty of hundreds of Gender Studies departments and programmes, together with their students. There are the senior university administrators who have fallen over themselves to adapt to Facebook norms and officially recognise a veritable cornucopia of student gender identities: demifluid and demiflux at Kent, for example. (p. 34. Facebook itself offers seventy-one and counting). If only it were some wonderful prank, like the old US Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINNA) which had enthusiastic, donation-offering supporters, and kept going for several years until the founding-prankster decided to ‘fess all. The name should have given the game away since the object of the society was to compel diapers and modesty clothes for cows, dogs, horses, etc. It remains true that if you want to encounter truly wacky beliefs, look to the USA.

Also with skin in the game of Gender Identity Theory are the “charities” which under light-touch UK Charities regulation can function pretty much as cause-promoting commercial organisations with large salary budgets. Stock very pointedly skewers them for misuse of statistics at pages 220-24. These pages ought to make tough reading for those responsible. Why should we regard their Fake News as any different to Donald Trump’s? These pages also remind us of the fact that activist organisations have a bad history of cutting and pasting individual tragedies onto standard issue placards to serve their own purposes, misrepresenting the original history to fit.

Then there are the columnists and commentators and even leading (though not always very bright) figures in major political parties (Labour, Liberal Democrat, Scottish Nationalist) up to their necks in commitments to trans activist demands. None of these people, any time soon, is going to declare that the Emperor Has No Clothes.

Two things.

First, I have never read anything by a Gender Identity Theorist - and I include in that Judith Butler - which has not struck me as flimsy or confused or both, excepting some early work before Orthodoxy imposed its dead hand. As it happened, faculty at the University of Salem were responsible for some of the most interesting of those early contributions though they labelled it Queer Theory (Jonathan Dollimore, Alan Sinfield, etc).

But it is the current state of intellectual weakness in gender identity theory, and lack of intellectual grasp by students supposedly studying it, which I believe leads to the offence, outrage and punitive reaction to any reasoned criticism. Put on the defensive, the advocates have nowhere else to go; it is as if pointed criticism has punctured a fantasy, not damaged an argument.

Insofar as there is supposed to be some kind of foundation to the claims made about gender identity, then it is usually social construction theories which are invoked. But I find little evidence that they have really been studied, understood, or critically appraised. How many have read, say, Alfred Sch├╝tz The Phenomenology of the Social World dating from 1932 but only translated into English in 1967? (Maybe I cite that work because I recall asking my mother to buy me the expensive North Western University Press translation as a birthday present, in 1967. For my own non-technical critique of social constructionism in general, go to )

There is a fall-back position from social constructionism which simply says that people are who and what they feel they are, which in short order reduces simply to what they claim they are. So if you feel you are a woman trapped in a male body, then that’s what you are until you decide to (“performatively”) claim, “I’m a woman”  as if you were saying “I do” in the marriage ceremony, at which point trans activists say we should all agree and open all the doors hitherto closed. But the claim “I’m a woman” contains no more guarantee of longevity than does the claim “I do”. Likewise, "They/Them" claimed as pronouns may last no longer than this year's Facebook account.

Second, from a distance the gulf which supposedly separates Trans activists from their targetted enemy, the TERFs [Trans-exclusionary radical feminists] is just a small piece of disputed territory. As I understand it, most or all TERFs (an unpleasant term, largely applied to older Second Wave feminists) are at least fairly accepting of transgender people and are happy to support measures which make life easier for them. They simply draw the line at some very specific areas which over long decades of hard work have been constructed or retained - and with very good reasons - as Women Only spaces: women’s prisons, women’s refuges, rape crisis centres, women only sports, changing rooms, and toilets. (One never hears any discussion of the situation of trans men in these contexts, which must be either because trans men aren’t rattling the door or because admission is allowed because it is felt or assumed that trans men are safe in a way that trans women aren’t - Stock briefly discusses this).


I recall the moment in 2018 when I decisively lost sympathy for trans activist demands. I saw in the news a photograph of beaming trans woman Rachel Mckinnon having just won a major US and world women’s cycle race. Mckinnon stands with the two females who had come in at 2nd and 3rd . As one of the runners-up, Jennifer Wagner, later tweeted, it “definitely wasn’t fair”. No, it fucking wasn’t fair, but just as in the USA here in the UK we have thousands of middle-class Neville Chamberlain intellectuals ready to declare how wonderful, how inspiring, and any other Pseud’s Corner claptrap which occurs to them as likely pay the rent. Stock makes rather more polite remarks on this example at pp 87-88. In the current climate, she has little choice but to remain polite though she occasionally allows herself a “bonkers”. I found the photograph deeply dispiriting. You can easily Google it.


Stock focusses initially on a defence of the permanent (life-time) importance of biological sex and of the sex binary, even when all necessary qualifications about intersex persons and so on are added. I found the defence impeccably argued. Then she turns to what one might call the predictive value of knowing a person’s sex which is strong even if there is little biological determination of behaviours - socialisation will do the trick even if nature doesn’t. Either way, it’s important to know how biological males and females differ in the long run. Thus it is (as I discovered when I joined this select class) that 82% of UK speeding convictions are collected by males. (The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority used to classify drivers by “Sex” which they asked me to supply many years ago; they now classify by “Gender” and have switched me - this is what Stock calls GENDER in sense 1; really, it’s just a euphemism (American?) for “Sex”.)

Then she pulls apart Gender Identity theory and sets out her own stall on “What makes a woman?”

There follows a very interesting chapter which seems in one way meant as a concession to Identity theory but which would come at the price of conceding that it has an “As If” fictional or imaginary character which is nonetheless important.  (I wondered at this point if Hans Vaihinger’s The Philosophy of “As If” (1911) could be dusted down and turned to use - Wikipedia tells me that Frank Kermode once invoked Vaihinger to help explain the efficacy of narrative fictions in his The Sense of an Ending (1967)).

Then we get to the grim bits: the recent history of LGBT and feminist organisations. I think I am entitled to pass over these chapters, and return to my initial recommendation.





Monday, 4 October 2021

Review: Mark Twain The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn


My last review was of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901) and I have now gone on to read an obvious Compare & Contrast novel, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). I was terribly disappointed, for two main reasons.

The novel is narrated by Huck as a series of scenes, more or less improbable. Though there are fine descriptions of the setting and insightful sketches of characters, the scenes don’t really add up to anything bigger and Huck develops less in sensibility than does Kim; it would be wrong to say that his character is static but it is pretty much full formed from the outset.

More importantly, I found the long drawn-out final scenes constructed out of Tom Sawyer’s fantasies almost unendurable. They aren’t funny and (reading anachronistically, perhaps) Tom comes across as the perfect sociopath, utterly oblivious of the consequences of his actions for those who love and care for him - Uncle, Aunt, Jim, Huck. That is one main reason why the phantasmagoria isn’t funny.

Huck is more it touch with reality but, overawed by Tom, goes along far too much with Tom’s fantasy schemes. They go on for many, many tedious pages and when it is Finally Revealed, death-bed confession style (chapter 42), what has really been going on, the narrative becomes perfunctory when it needs most not to be -  as if all that is now needed to close the narrative is for Aunt Sally to pronounce, “Well, that’s all right then”.

So far from being able to set up a serious Compare & Contrast, I throw up my hands and declare, No contest. Kim is a much better book.