Liberalism, Anti Fascism and the politics of Now.
Updated: Aug 18, 2022
I was quietly browsing twitter on a Sunday morning - as one does - and came across the following link (See picture)
This gave me pause to consider scribbling a few words about something that has been circulating within my own field for a while now. I would agree with the statement in the above article that:
"...The way I have defined fascism is a merger of a mythic and essentialized identity and the belief in an innate inequality of people, all pulled together by a populism that rejects both the establishment and the left. Antifascism, then, is simple enough: it is the movement in direct response to fascism, to repudiate it, to eliminate it."
What some students and others that I have spoken with sometimes seem confused by in respect of Gender studies, and trans gender studies in particular, is the idea of an essentialised self. Much of what I hear from cis gender people can be summed up in the phrase "make this make sense" Some, less sympathetic commentators have even inferred that to be trans and claim a post transition gender of woman or man is anti scientific and anti truth or double speak.
So - this is my brief attempt to bring into focus the nuances between liberalism, gender, and the politics of an anti fascist fight for trans recognition.
Liberalism and linguistics.
Freedom of thought and action is synonymous with the principle of bodily autonomy, & free will. Indeed these ideas are the corner stone of our legal system since without free will there is no responsibility and thus no culpability. Word, thought, and deed have always existed in something of a loop, particularly when one considers the social world of "expectations and intent". The vast majority of the 8 billion people on this planet likely have one main goal. To live a pleasant life, and for the author this holds true as well. However to quote the headmaster of the Shaolin temple Europe, She Huang Yee, in the best case a pleasant life will also bring the same to others.
Fascism, as the above article says "... is a merger of a mythic and essentialized identity and the belief in an innate inequality of people, all pulled together by a populism that rejects both the establishment and the left" It is a rejection of liberalism, and comprises a specific and particular prescriptiveness of language that limits expression of self and identity to that which is socially acceptable. Of course what is socially acceptable is a moveable feast and in fascism there tends to be an overarching theocratic approach and a narrowing of the gap between church and state.
In my work I have argued somewhat against a type of universalised liberalism, yet within trans studies we lay claim to the body as an individual entity, and also recognise socially constructed aspects of gender as being distinct from the body. We move away from macro narratives that specifically limit expression and individualism, but individualism is also implicated in the responsibility/accountability aspect of social life. It is this that leads some to erroneously conceptualise trans gender/sex 'ways of being' as "anti scientific" individualist and (from some viewpoints) a problematic neo liberal 'choice'.
So all a little contradictory...Right?
However, my criticism, of a universalised liberalism that is often found in academia and other spaces, is born of the tolerance paradox. If one is tolerant of poor treatment then not only will that poor treatment continue, but you engender the idea in the minds of those treating you poorly, that it is ok to do so. On a societal scale this "relatia" results in authoritarian government and erosion of minority rights. At the meso level it creates a focus on task only - promoting a functionary mindset, one divorced from accountability beyond requirements of role. Whilst at the micro level, it causes abusive and damaging relationships - coercion, manipulation subversion, and other social ills. However, what constitutes, or is deemed to be, poor treatment is also a movable feast. Boundaries therefore become important in both cases, and boundaries are anathema to the over entitled & intolerant.
In our current Neo liberal world of de regulated markets - and (supposedly) liberal views - one can see that the entitled, enabled and intolerant can thrive in the atmosphere of the corporate and commodified. If everything is for sale then its just a question of price, rather than ethics. (And ethics is a boundary). Moreover the 'marketisation' of daily life within this system becomes entrenched in the collective psyche, such that it reaches a point where its application to, and assimilation of, other social systems is no longer questioned. Liberalism, and in particular an uncritical (Neo) liberalism of discourse, opinion, and consumerism, therefore privileges the already enabled, and begins sliding to the political right, which has always favoured a pseudo Darwinian meritocracy over the idea of social responsibility. So it has been in the UK for the last 4 decades. A slide towards individualism and the side-lining of ethics and ethical responsibility for "the other", in favour of marketisation and commodification.
Linguistics are important here because words are both battle ground and ammunition. Meaning and equivocation are the subtle attacks and skirmishes that shift the boundaries of the political discourse in one direction or another and in so doing shift the centre ground of "acceptable political comment" or "poor treatment" in a similar fashion. When gender critics (whom I would suggest we more correctly refer to as trans sceptics) suggest they do not know what “transphobia” means or that women and girls need protecting from “men” “misogyny” or “male aggression”, one can hear the equivocation in their words since they would include the author in the latter demographics. They go on to say that trans woman or trans men defining as those genders is essentialising woman hood (or manhood) as “merely an idea in the head” and is thus anti scientific and driven by “male sexuality” (in the case of a trans woman such as the author). However, what one might see from this last point Is that trans sceptics, in suggesting “male sexuality” have themselves essentialised an idea of the male – namely heterosexual – predatory and one who views women as “on the menu rather than sat at the table” ...
(Incidentally, this last presents a double bind for trans women who are not attracted to men, because as you can imagine, dating is a potential minefield of colliding (miss)conceptions! leading to the fear in the mind of many trans people that anyone interested in them is “too good to be true” [but that is another autobiographical story for another time] This line of thought also presents a double bind for bisexual people regardless of gender/sex. Similarly a trans man would be “a victim of the trans agender – trying to escape oppression” by virtue of joining the other side)
...Note the essentialised woman is always placed as the victim in these critiques of trans gender Being. It is a narrative and nuance of victim/victimisation that those who do victimise women, (or centrist liberal apologists for them), love to twist into deflection with the "but women aren't victims - that's calling them weak" rebuttal. So words are that which we think with, and freedom of the body is a key aspect of both liberal and very necessary approaches to individual choice. But a universalised liberalism is that which fails to name or recognise boundaries, and as a result cannot critique their inceptions. So what of society and moreover, governmental responsibility towards naming of the world and bodily autonomy?
Responsibility and accountability.
Fascism as a governmental process retains all the authority and yet non of the accountability. Individuals shoulder the burden of the latter whilst the government elite sets the rule to which the public are held accountable. It’s this specific aspect that commentators such as Jordan Peterson critique when they suggest that 'trans people' are using “compelled speech” or similar argumentations, citing fact/value contradictions, personal responsibility narratives, and other things. Yet consider that language is a tool of communication, and as already mentioned words are a battle ground. So evolving words and re considering context and meaning may result in a change in the way people are treated. Peterson's criticism therefore begins to sound a little like a boundary issue and dislike of systemic change. But the key point here is why does he (and others like him) think this change is so bad? I would suggest that it is because the change appears illogical (to him). Because it doesn't make sense. Why? Because Peterson is wedded to an essentialised (theocratic) idea of male and female as absolutes. Thus he is complaining about the illogical essentialising of the trans agender, whilst basing his argument in the very essentialising he suggests he fights.
Yet as Julia Serrano considered in her book “Sexed up” – that widespread essentialised view is the product of the very thing we have discussed above “how humans collectively see the world and others in it”. Composed/constructed in part through political forces and linguistics, it has traversed various academic disciplines over many years, spreading a narrative of one singular ethics, a particular form of naturalism that we call hetero normativity, and which authors in trans and gender studies like my self suggest is underpinned by cis normativity. When these latter two are combined then both result in the idea that if one has a certain body type then one should grow up to be a certain way, and should then do things in a certain way.
Trans people, and more over the existence of trans people, is that which gives the lie to this singular universal ethics of Being. A trans inclusive view is one that recognises difference – and in so doing it challenges the totalitarian and essentialised male/female universal. Whether at macro or micro level.
(Just look at the sheer effort cis normative patriarchal power structures are expending to deny the possibility of trans kids - or suggest trans-ness is nothing more than a surface identity, pseudo orentation. This is because the entrenched essentialism of Petersen et al cannot allow for any variation, or for even the idea of the boundary between male and female to become known as in any way porous)
If you’re an individualist, successful, and driven by meritocratic thinking, whilst basing your intolerance on essentialised views of predestined success and the subjugation of others, then the idea that this world view may not in fact be 'true' or "rational" is quite scary. Its safer for some to assume everyone else is illogical and stick with the status quo, or what Giles Deleuze called “common sense”. Structurally this is done by making the ones who are the threat to your world view (trans people) appear to be a threat to world stability and reason (yes mainstream media moguls I'm looking at you). However if one is worthy (so to speak) of the encounter with new knowledge then one could, “pass through the mirror” and welcome a world of diversity that goes beyond. But one still could ask: why should we?
Why diversity makes sense.
Diversity is an often over used word these days – it has become a tick box process, and for many it lacks meaning. However diversity as difference is written into the very material being of the human – from biological processes to the way in which we think and act, whether that be of self or others. As the author professor Rosi Braidotti explains
"The human is not a neutral term. It indexes access to power, norms and privileges, resulting in multiple intersections of negative othering, exclusion and discrimination… The racialised and sexualised ontologies that constitute the European vision of the human - mean that this version of humanity constitutes itself as much by what it excludes as what it includes."
People have intrinsic value above and beyond their commodification by capitalism, outside, underneath and independent from their expected roles and responsibilities in any given societal structure. Limiting the idea of the value of human Being to a specific and universal singular is the very thing that is already leading us back towards “female and males” with prescriptive roles and expectations – lack of choice in the work place, health care and other walks of life.
Diversity is more than just gender non conforming clothes or make up. It is much more than just skin deep, nor is it limited to the anatomical, sexual, or intellectual. It is deeper than socially mediated identities, gendered or otherwise, and it is the very thing that makes us human in the first place. Consequently, just as before in history – if we fail to name and recognises its importance, then the price may very well be our humanity – with a resurgence of "mans inhumanity to fellow man".
“Many and sharp the numerous ills Inwoven with our frame; More pointed still, we make ourselves Regret, remorse and shame; And man, whose heaven-erected face The smiles of love adorn, Man's inhumanity to man, Makes countless thousands mourn.”
So – if you find yourself considering what fascism is and how change and resistance to it might occur, I would encourage you to think difference differently. Many commentators criticise the modern phenomenon of identity politics. Yet if we don’t take heed of the currently occurring political shifts and their prospective consequences, or acknowledge our part in them, figuratively, historically, or individually, then those same political shifts will create our collective (and individual) identities for us.
Politics is after all the linguistic means by which collective identities are given meaning: Us. Them. Same. Different. Safe. Threat. Help or hinderance. rational or irrational. Then. Now.
To echo what I said earlier, most people simply wish to lead a pleasant life. The vast majority of people are content to live their lives in peace and leave others to do the same. But do not mistake pleasantness and politeness for a lack of intent to disrupt. Universalised liberalisms render invisible the ethical boundaries that warns us of poor treatment: Fascism cannot be reasoned with, it cannot be bargained with. It is by it very nature totalitarian and intolerant of dissent. For its Evil to endure it is only necessary that good people do nothing.
To echo something I said to a friend way back in 2016, People may be made equal, but Ideas are not. Ideas that lead to Fascism are always unhelpful. More over the ability hold a particular idea is independent of a persons biology, class, socio-economic status or ethinicity. Whilst perceptions of that idea are socially mediated, our thoughts and actions create us. So the only responsible, sensible question left to ask ourselves is "who do you want to be now? For your self and to others."? After all 'now' is all any of us really have anyways.