Marc Glendening is the Head of Cultural Affairs at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
The decision by the Government, confirmed in the Queen’s Speech, to drop its intention to make ‘gender-conversion therapy’ illegal has, predictably, aroused outrage among those who subscribe to Politically Weaponised Transgenderism (PWT). Principally, Stonewall and its allies. It is utterly incredible to think that a supposedly Conservative government was even contemplating going down a road that would have prevented psychologists from advising their patients about potentially life-changing decisions.
PWT is taking New Left identity politics to a higher level of authoritarianism and denies metaphysical reality. Identitarianism based on physical characteristics such as sex and ethnicity is now being supplemented by imagined states of personal being (if only for certain favoured groups of people).
It opens the door potentially to the provision of special privileges for people who perceive themselves in all kinds of fantastical, existence-defying ways: as tall when they are short, black-skinned when white, thin when fat, young when old, maybe even as members of other species entirely. This extension of the scope of identity politics potentially opens up a rich new seam of support for the contemporary centre-left.
PWT represents a desire to restrict our right to challenge the contemporary left’s portrayal of human existence, and to dictate how we must interact with our fellow citizens. This is why it needs to be intellectually challenged head-on.
Together with its broader umbrella ideology, it is nothing less than a quest for epistemological domination. It wants individuals to sacrifice both their capacity to objectively analyse the material world and to express themselves freely in accordance with that.
Nancy Kelley, Stonewall’s Chief Executive, has compared gender-critical views to anti-Semitism and has said they should be subject to legal intervention. Transgender-sceptics are routinely vilified for their alleged ‘hate’ speech and culture-cancelled. They often find themselves placed on police Non Crime Hate Incident databases where the police are not confident of obtaining prosecution.
How, then, does an inherently illiberal movement attract the support of such a large army of fellow travellers, stretching from most higher-educated people, the public sector and big business? This is a quandary that political liberals, whether of left or right, need to grapple with. More broadly, why is it that the New Left’s identity-politics agenda is seen as extending ‘tolerance’ and ‘diversity’ whilst it simultaneously seeks to force the rest of society to submit to its worldview?
The chief reason, I would argue, that PWT and sister-ideologies, including Critical Race Theory, are not viewed as the authoritarian menace they are is that the New Left has harnessed the double-speak rhetoric associated with postmodernism. Contemporary leftism, unlike its anti-liberal predecessors, is far more opaque, riddled with baffling inner contradictions. It has discovered a strategically more subtle way of advancing a radical agenda which masks its ultimate objective of establishing extensive control over the cultural sphere.
Politicised transgenderism deploys postmodern ideas in three key ways:
First, postmodernism is, at heart, an assault on Western rationalism: the belief that human beings have the potential to develop correct, universally valid ways of understanding the world and to act accordingly. The Enlightenment was about unleashing the power of the human mind, liberating it from an enforced submission to irrationality.
By contrast, postmodernism asserts that everything we think we know about reality is ‘socially constructed’ through dominant ideologies that represent, not the truth, but ‘privileged’ interests. Belief systems such as ‘heteronormativity’, which states that there are objective differences between the sexes, must be delegitimised; a philosophical wrecking ball taken to the idea that there are hard conceptual boundaries between distinct entities. Everything is ‘fluid’.
This all sounds superficially liberatory, an epistemological free-for-all in which we can choose what to believe and how to define ourselves. Who says that a man cannot be a woman if he refuses to acknowledge the traditional sex-binary?
Thus, there are no natural reasons preventing us from seeing ourselves in ways that are outside the conceptual boxes created by western rationality. But here we have a major inner contradiction associated with this mindset: if our perceptions of reality are dictated by those with power, as the New Left claim, how come some social categories get to defy these established assertions of truth?
Denying metaphysical reality takes on an entirely different light when seen in a political context. Postmodernism was always designed to pave the way for radical ideologies aimed at replacing Western liberalism by discrediting its most basic assumptions. Namely, the objective nature of material existence, human free will, and society as an interaction between the two.
Secondly, and key to this full-frontal attack, is the redefinition of ‘power’. Rationalist liberals see power in terms of empirically observable coercive actions (or their immediate threat) against specific individuals. By contrast, the postmodern left view it as a ‘systemic’ domination of entire groups of people. All social relations, even when ostensibly peaceful, are really a quest for control. Human beings are not seen in their full complexity but are reduced to abstracted characteristics (selected for us by the theorists of the New Left). These denote whether we are awarded oppressor or oppressed status. This is the type of hard-binary they do adhere to, but it is one that bears no relation to empirical reality.
PWT has now taken this outlook further by claiming that those who see themselves differently to the nature of their objective physical being are discriminated against when this is not socially acknowledged. Therefore, trans-women (biological males) being ‘misgendered’ or denied access to spaces traditionally reserved for females become defined as violations. The taxpayer is expected to pay for what amounts to cosmetic surgery when some trans people decide to go ahead with a sex change operation.
A third theme is ‘lived experience’. PWT argues that those who feel they are living in the wrong bodies are asserting a fundamental ‘truth’ about themselves. Having dismissed the possibility of an objective reality established through scientific procedure, it now changes the rules of the epistemological game.
PWT awards group privileges on the basis of unverifiable personal testimony, not just memories of actual discrimination, but now also feelings of gender identity that are internally generated. Human consciousness becomes entirely separated from its wider material, bodily context.
Through this, a relativistic understanding of reality is combined with an absolutist claim to truth that can never be gainsaid. This disingenuous process simply bypasses the law of logical contradiction, which states that one entity in time and space cannot simultaneously be another.
By championing supposedly marginalised groups through this type of jiggery-pokery, postmodernism gives government licence to subject the rest of society to a regime of intense cultural regulation. Having the courage to challenge this variant of New Left ideology is vital, a test case of whether conservatives really still possess the will to fight for the most basic of rationalist principles, ones that a free society cannot live without.