Left antisemitism, gender critical feminist transphobia, and the (il)logic of essentialism

“Any demand that people clearly be men or women, let us be clear, is the patriarchal world view. But from the view that sex is material, that biological sex is immutable, comes a requirement that bodies line up, to appear as men or women. Biological sex is used to create a social line, that we have the right, even moral duty, to enforce. Any costs become regrettable. In such a world view, deviation is seen as dangerous, even deadly. This is how, by treating the idea of two distinct biological sexes not as the product of the sex-gender system, but as before it and beyond it, “gender critical” feminists tighten rather than loosen the hold of that system on our bodies. To breathe in feminism we have to loosen this hold.” [Original emphasis] (Sara Ahmed, 2021)

“As a fascist trend, the anti-gender movement supports ever strengthening forms of authoritarianism. Its tactics encourage state powers to intervene in university programs, to censor art and television programming, to forbid trans people their legal rights, to ban LGBTQI people from public spaces, to undermine reproductive freedom and the struggle against violence directed at women, children, and LGBTQI people. It threatens violence against those, including migrants, who have become cast as demonic forces and whose suppression or expulsion promises to restore a national order under duress. That is why it makes no sense for “gender critical” feminists to ally with reactionary powers in targeting trans, non-binary, and genderqueer people. Let’s all get truly critical now, for this is no time for any of the targets of this movement to be turning against one another. The time for anti-fascist solidarity is now.” (Judith Butler, 2021)

In November 2021, three motions relating to academic freedom were tabled at my local UCU branch: two explicitly addressed the case of the sacking of David Miller (one of which called out his antisemitism) and one implicitly related to both the cases of David Miller and the resignation of Kathleen Stock. This latter motion is noteworthy in the differentiation it made between those who label the views of others as “‘hate’” and contributing to feeling “‘unsafe’” (note the use of single speech marks) and those who experience “genuine hate speech and threats to safety”. Two groups are implied here: Jewish students and staff, and trans students and staff. Whether intentional or not, this motion reflects a wider phenomenon in the leftist and feminist milieux: both Jewish and trans people are delegitimised when they call out, respectively, antisemitism and transphobia, since both are accused of manipulating their ‘apparent oppression’ for sinister ends.

Left antisemitism and the transphobia of gender critical feminists while separate also intersect: Jews (who do not denounce Israel) are seen to be complicit in a Zionist network of world destructive power; trans women are viewed as carrying patriarchal power and as seeking to both destroy sex-based rights and invade women’s spaces and bodies. Both Jews and trans women are deemed as having especially dangerous, invisible and lurking hegemony. The Jew vis-à-vis Israel and Zionism is ‘the Other’ of the Left and the trans woman is ‘the Other’ of gender critical feminism.

Essentialism is precarious territory for leftists and feminists to slip into. The idea of a hierarchy of inferior to superior biological ‘races’ is both intellectually out-dated and regressive; this includes the delineation of naturalised culturally essentialist ‘races’. The gender critical feminist fixation on and essentialisation of – and primacy given to – biological sex is fundamentally incompatible with a project for human liberation and emancipation. Any intellectual and political endeavour that ascribes power to the skin colour or the religion or the genitalia that one is born with will find itself intersecting with a trajectory of far Right ideology.

Students of the Deutsche Studentenschaft, organized by the Nazi party, parade in front of the Institute for Sexual Research on Beethovenstraße, Berlin, on 6 May 1933 (Wikimedia Commons)

Joni Alizah Cohen (2018), in her article, The Eradication of “Talmudic Abstractions”: Anti-Semitism, Transmisogyny and the National Socialist Project, elucidates on the history of the far Right and antisemitism and transphobia:

“The earliest entanglement of Nazi anti-semitism and transmisogyny occurred in response to the emerging gay and trans liberation movement in Weimar Germany. The earliest development of an organised effort for gay and trans liberation emerged in Germany in the late 19th century, and reached a new level of power in 1919, with the establishment of the Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin. The Institute’s founder was Jewish Marxist scientist and political campaigner Magnus Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld was a committed organiser in the German Social Democratic Party, and headed the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee – the world’s first gay and trans advocacy group. Hirschfield is credited with the coining of the term “transvestite” and “transsexual”, and in his research and advocacy he was committed to opposing the eugenic homophobic and transphobic science of sexology that emerged in Germany at the end of the 19th Century, a science which had come to dominate state understandings of sexual and gender issues and which profoundly influenced the sexual and gender politics of National Socialism. […] Eugenic sexology understood homosexuality essentially through the lens of gender, specifically as the corruption of the male body and psyche by femininity. […] Transness is here understood as a dysgenic biological defect that must be eliminated for the health of the species.”

The denial of trans rights and existence on the basis of sex trumping gender is premised on the notion that trans existence is biologically false and unnatural and thus harmful to the body politic – the intersection and potential slippage here from gender critical feminist thought to fascist thought is plain.

Cohen (2018) continues:

“For his crime of arguing against this strand of eugenic science it is not surprising that Hitler is reported to have named Magnus Hirschfeld “The most dangerous Jew in Germany” […] The Institute was seen by the Nazis as a hub for Jewish Marxist intellectuals and their nefarious plans to undermine the purity of Aryan racial biology and culture. […] We can see that Nazism understands itself to be engaged in a culture war with Jews over gender roles and gender/sexual variance. But, just as we saw in the original National Socialist regime, Nazism also understands the fundamental terrain of this war to be on the level of biology. There is a deep anxiety expressed in Nazi and far-right thinking which is constantly concerned about the biological undermining of the white race yes, but also the white male, and his hormone balance, his testosterone level. Nazi political ontology understands the biological as one of, if not the most important terrains of political dispute. We know this in our understanding of Nazi race theory, but what has been neglected is the centrality of endocrinological purity and security to Nazi ideology. In this sense, endocrinological purity is the gender/sex corollary of the Nazi eugenic project of racial purity.”

Far Right ontological thought elevates the biological terrain in its quest for racial and sex purity. Social categories and material reality are reduced to biology, including the demand for men to be men and women to be women. Drawing on the work of Moishe Postone, Cohen (2018) offers an explanation for this biological materialism:

“[…] it is not only the concrete ‘side of the antinomy which can be naturalized and biologized… the manifest abstract dimension was also biologized – as the Jews. The fetishized opposition of the concrete material and the abstract, of the “natural” and the “artificial,” became translated as the world-historically significant racial opposition of the Aryans and the Jews.’ The “natural rootedness” of the Aryan Volk is contrasted to “rootless cosmopolitanism” of the wandering Jews, who in their diasporic state, abstracted from territory or nation, become a perfect candidate to represent the transnational abstraction of the capitalist world-system. The essential content of National Socialism then is ‘a biologization of capitalism – which itself is only understood in terms of its manifest abstract dimension – as International Jewry.” The National Socialist project is therefore a fetishized ‘overcoming of capitalism and its negative social effects’ through the total eradication of the Jews.”

Similarly, Cohen (2018) demonstrates (drawing on Gonzalez and Neton’s essay The Logic of Gender) that the far Right has:

“[…] an understanding of gender/sex wherein gender is understood as a social construction (an abstraction), but the naturalisation of sex is redoubled. Gender is therefore historical and mutable whilst sex forms the natural and transhistorical substratum upon which it is written. Following Postone, the authors argue that ‘the transhistoricisation of sex is homologous to a foreshortened critique of capital, which contends that use-value is transhistorical rather than historically specific to capitalism.’ If we take the structure of Postone’s argument about anti-Semitism and apply it here, we can begin to see where the foreshortened critique of gender posits sex as the concrete reality which must be protected from the pernicious abstractions of gender. In the National Socialist framework of fetishized concretism the concrete biological reality of sex is figured as primary and pure; along with a thorough renaturalisation of gender as a reaction against the mainstreaming of denaturalised nature under late capitalism. For National Socialism, the primacy of sex is reinforced in opposition to the ‘Talmudic abstractions’ of multiple and fluid genders then cast as the pernicious force which seeks to dominate and even erase the sensuous, simple and concrete sexual dimorphism and the natural binary gender roles which flow from it.”

Cohen (2018) concludes:

Just as the Jew becomes the concrete manifestation of the abstraction of capitalism and the law of value, the trans woman becomes the concrete manifestation of the abstraction and denaturalisation of gender. The trans woman is a woman without the concrete biological content of womanhood. She is woman in the abstract, separated from her biological foundation, and therefore her use as the conduit for the reproduction of the Aryan race in this grand Darwinian struggle. She is everything that is detestable about womankind, for Nazism, without any of the redeeming biological expediencies. Further, she represents the worst excess of the cultural degeneration of modernity and contemporary capitalism. Just as the “rootless cosmopolitan” Jew represents abstraction by being rooted in no Nation, trans people demonstrate a rootless cosmopolitanism of gender/sex – with disregard for rootedness of sex and the allegiances of gender. She is a product of a culture so abstracted and so sick, in their eyes, that it actively encourages the corruption of the purity of biological sex and the destruction of gender roles so essential in the battle for racial primary.” [Original emphasis]

The powerful insight delivered by Cohen (2018) is that both antisemitism and transphobia operate on the same (il)logic of a concrete biological reality of ‘race’ and sex: the purity of the Aryan ‘race’ to be protected against the pernicious Jew, and pure and primary sex to be protected against the pernicious abstractions of gender. As long as the culturally naturalised and essentialised Jew vis-à-vis Israel and Zionism is ‘the Other’ of the Left and the biologically essentialised trans woman is ‘the Other’ of gender critical feminism, the related ideas and arguments of the leftist and feminist milieux will intersect with fascist ideology. Our comrades and sisters are not fascists. The battle for ideas is absolutely critical here if we are (to paraphrase Sara Ahmed’s opening quote) to breathe in a politics for the liberation and emancipation of all of humankind.

References:

Ahmed, Sara (2021) Gender Critical = Gender Conservative, Feminist Killjoys, https://feministkilljoys.com/2021/10/31/gender-critical-gender-conservative/, last accessed 21 November 2021.

Butler, Judith (2021) Why is the idea of ‘gender’ provoking backlash the world over?, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/commentisfree/2021/oct/23/judith-butler-gender-ideology-backlash, last accessed 21 November 2021.

Cohen, Joni Elizah (2018) The Eradication of “Talmudic Abstractions”: Anti-Semitism, Transmisogyny and the National Socialist Project, Verso Blog, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4188-the-eradication-of-talmudic-abstractions-anti-semitism-transmisogyny-and-the-national-socialist-project, last accessed 21 November 2021.

Academic freedom has never been sacrosanct, we must fight for it

Academic freedom is contingent on the epistemologies and politics of the time.

A case in point are the past debates in the University and College Union (UCU) for an academic boycott of Israel, which premises that Israel’s negation of academic freedom for Palestinians should consequently negate academic freedom for Israel. A paper co-authored by the left-wing Israeli academic Oren Yiftachel and the Palestinian academic Asad Ghanem was submitted to the journal Political Geography in the spring of 2002. The paper, which identified the state of Israel as “dedicated to the expansion and control of one ethnic group” and thus could not be substantively considered a democracy, was returned unopened. The explanation: Political Geography cannot accept a paper submission from Israel (Beckett, 2002). One of the journal’s editors, David Slater, stated that he did not read the paper, but because he was familiar with some of Yiftachel’s earlier work, he “was not sure to what extent [Yiftachel] had been critical of Israel”. The paper was eventually accepted for publication after substantial revisions were made, including the comparison of Israel to apartheid South Africa (Beckett, 2002). Slater (2004: 646) later stated that an academic boycott of Israel is a “legitimate and necessary” response to the Israeli state’s denial of academic freedom for Palestinians, but that his original “total boycott” was a “maximalist” position that he no longer held.

Intersecting with the epistemologies and politics of the time, academic freedom is dependent on research funding and the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

The REF effectively discourages academic diversity “because universities tailor their submissions to what they think REF panels want, and REF panels reflect disciplinary hierarchies” (Sayer, 2014) and the power of particular academic cultures (Stockhammer, 2021). The “continued narrowing of [the discipline of] economics”, for example, is “bolstered by the REF”; with “[n]on-mainstream approaches that rely on different ontological or methodological premises hardly ever […] published in the top journals” (Stockhammer, 2021). Thus, academic dissent, debate and innovations of thought are limited.

In principle, academic freedom is the freedom of academics to conduct teaching and research without political or commercial interference or institutional censorship; this must balance with, UCU (2021) notes, “the responsibility to respect the democratic rights and freedoms of others” and must “refrain from all forms of harassment, prejudice and unfair discrimination”.

The sacking of David Miller in October 2021 was, according to the University of Bristol, the outcome of a disciplinary hearing that found Miller had failed to meet the standards of behaviour that the employer expects from its staff (BBC, 2021). If Miller did breach the staff code of conduct, then a genuinely independent, open and transparent process was needed. Academics should not be dismissed for their political views. Discriminatory or harassment behaviour, which may or may not follow from political views, could be considered grounds for dismissal but only after a due process and where alleviation without further harm to the victims is not possible (Solidarity, 2021).

Academic freedom is conditional on wider societal forces.

The resignation of Kathleen Stock from the University of Sussex in October 2021, under her lament that she was a victim of a “medieval” “witch-hunt” (cited in Hayes, 2021; Adams, 2021), has since provided her with an extraordinarily high platform in mainstream media. This platform reflects both the dominance of the socially traditionalist ideas that Stock holds on the sex/gender binary and transgenderism, and the fact that she falls on the Conservative government’s side of its culture war on so-called ‘woke’ academia. Stock has used her hegemonic platform to question the right of students to protest and to discredit gender scholars such as Alison Phipps (see: BBC Women’s Hour, 2021; UnHerd, 2021). Under the guise that her own academic freedom has been infringed, Stock appears to be consciously seeking to infringe the freedom of others – students and academics in support of transgender rights based on gender identity – at precisely a moment in society when the rights of transgender people are under attack through the conservative notion of biological sex as destiny.

Academic freedom has never been sacrosanct, we must fight for it. It is a site of struggle shaped by competing ideologies, forces and conditions of existence and relations of power. Democratically-organised academic agency, which is active in critical thought and debate, is essential for its survival and necessary advancement.

References

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Adams, Richard (2021) Kathleen Stock says she quit university post over ‘medieval’ ostracism, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/nov/03/kathleen-stock-says-she-quit-university-post-over-medieval-ostracism, last accessed 11th November 2021.

BBC (2021) Bristol University: Professor David Miller sacked over Israel comments, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-58765052, last accessed 10th November 2021.

BBC Women’s Hour (2021) Professor Kathleen Stock, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001153q?at_custom1=%5Bpost+type%5D&at_custom3=%40BBCWomansHour&at_custom2=twitter&at_campaign=64&at_medium=custom7&at_custom4=E0AE9ED4-3C87-11EC-BE34-937496E8478F, last accessed 11th November 2021.

Beckett, Andy (2002) ‘It’s water on stone – in the end the stone wears out’, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2002/dec/12/highereducation.uk, last accessed 10th November 2021.

Hayes, Andy (2021) Kathleen Stock: Professor who resigned over trans rights ‘witch-hunt’ joins new US university, Sky News, https://news.sky.com/story/kathleen-stock-professor-who-resigned-over-trans-rights-witch-hunt-joins-new-us-university-12464140, last accessed 11th November 2021.

Sayer, Derek (2014) Five reasons why the REF is not fit for purpose, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2014/dec/15/research-excellence-framework-five-reasons-not-fit-for-purpose, last accessed 10th November 2021.

Slater, David (2004) Editorial comment: academic politics and Israel / Palestine, Political Geography 23, 645-646.

Solidarity (2021) Kathleen Stock resigns, https://www.workersliberty.org/story/2021-11-02/kathleen-stock-resigns, last accessed 11th November 2021.

Stockhammer, Engelbert (2021) The REF’s singular focus on excellence limits academic diversity, LSE Blogs, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2021/04/29/the-refs-singular-focus-on-excellence-limits-academic-diversity/, last accessed 10th November 2021.

UCU (2021) UCU statement on academic freedom, https://www.ucu.org.uk/academicfreedom, last accessed 11th November 2021.

Unherd (2021) Kathleen Stock: I won’t be silenced, https://unherd.com/2021/11/kathleen-stock-i-wont-be-silenced/, last accessed 11th November 2021.

For a Progressive Geography of Congruent Self-Actualization

The Al Jazeera podcast Degrees of Abuse is the result of a two year investigation into British universities and the institutional handling of sexual harassment complaints. It features the case of geographer Dr Ian Shaw – who, in his words, researches “political violence and how we can work together to build better worlds”, and who denies any and all wrongdoing (Davies et al, 2021). Listening to these two particular episodes was unsettling: it made explicit wider issues and problems that have long existed in academia (including on one’s own disciplinary turf of geography) and it implicitly raised a bigger question. Does a generalised academic culture effectively provide cover for, and fuel even, the abuse of power? The women featured in this podcast are courageous. I hope their courage is not in vain. It is the responsibility of all of us who consider ourselves to be progressive academics to foster a movement for change, but what does this mean when/if the perpetrators of abuses of power are themselves ‘progressive academics’ and part of a generalised culture and structures of power one seeks to challenge and resist?

The words of bell hooks, from her book Teaching to Transgress, are helpful here in offering an explanation for the potential disconnect between REF-rewarded minds and everyday academic bodies and, more specifically, of the incongruity of what a progressive academic might do and how they might be:

“I learned that far from being self-actualized, the university was seen more as a haven for those who are smart in book knowledge but who might be otherwise unfit for social interaction. Luckily, during my undergraduate years I began to make a distinction between the practice of being an intellectual/teacher and one’s role as a member of the academic profession. It was difficult to maintain fidelity to the idea of the intellectual as someone who sought to be whole – well-grounded in a context where there was little emphasis on spiritual well-being, on care of the soul. Indeed, the objectification of the teacher within bourgeois educational structures seemed to denigrate notions of wholeness and uphold the idea of a mind/body split, one that promotes and supports compartmentalization. This support reinforces the dualistic separation of public and private, encouraging teachers and students to see no connection between life practices, habits of being, and the roles of professors. The idea of the intellectual questing for a union of mind, body, and spirit had been replaced with notions that being smart meant that one was inherently emotionally unstable and that the best in oneself emerged in one’s academic work. This meant that whether academics were drug addicts, alcoholics, batterers, or sexual abusers, the only important aspect of our identity was whether or not our minds functioned […].” (hooks, 1994: 16)

Spaces of spiritual self-actualization have, of course, also been sites of abuse; a movement for change requires something other than simply mindfulness and yoga. But the point here I think is that the systemic orientation and reward for one aspect of an academic’s identity (and productivity) nullifies the contradictions of an academic’s being. The powerful insight of bell hooks is that academia is an institutional asylum of emotionally destructive behaviour. Part of the journey towards academic self-actualization involves creating and sustaining spaces of reflection and dialogue that Degrees of Abuse helps open up.

I hope the testimonies of the Degrees of Abuse podcast stay alive as an impetus for transformation. The observation of hooks below poignantly resonates:

“[…] I listen to students express the concern that they will not succeed in academic professions if they want to be well, if they eschew dysfunctional behavior or participation in coercive hierarchies. These students are often fearful, as I was, that there are no spaces in the academy where the will to be self-actualized can be affirmed.” (hooks, 1994: 18)

Progressive geography, if it is to mean anything meaningful and worthy of its name, requires a radical overhaul of incongruent spaces and selves that are complicit with abuses of power. Progressive geography could, at its best, offer itself to shaping spaces in the academy for congruent self-actualization and wellness. This will entail open, honest and difficult conversations.