The storm surrounding J. K. Rowling’s tweets on women and menstruation is as predictable as it is depressing. That her gracious response has, if anything, exacerbated the fury simply underlines the way civil debate is now apparently impossible on matters that are—to put it mildly—highly contestable (and the ability of a man to become a woman, or vice versa, would seem about as contestable as anything). And this breakdown of discussion isn’t on trivial matters but on the most pressing issues of our day—the issues of identity in a world where the old anchors of home, family, community, religion, and nation have either collapsed or been thrown into flux. This is a serious development. Argument doesn’t count; it’s simply a matter of who shouts loudest.
Argument doesn’t count; it’s simply a matter of who shouts loudest.
Rowling, like Germaine Greer before her, is now a fine example of the fact that, in a world where critical theory increasingly drives how the world is conceptualized, today’s victim can easily become tomorrow’s oppressor. Some weeks ago at First Things, I observed that there’s no constructive endgame to critical theory. In fact, one might quip that the game is the end: the constant destabilizing of any claims to power or truth is the purpose. And, if you have an unconditional and uncritical commitment to critical theory, you must realize that you have a tiger by the tail. If at any moment you want to let go of the project merely because it has destabilized your particular target, you’ll find that you and yours are soon to be devoured by it.
Transgenderism as Cultural Ideology
Rowling’s response to her critics is a fine plea for recognizing the victimhood of other groups—not least the victims of transgender thinking and practices. Indeed, while I disagree with many of her own convictions on the matter of human sexuality, her article is a model of civil engagement, thoughtful in its argument, and compassionate in its tone. She’s someone with whom one could have a constructive discussion. But none of this carries any weight, because she doesn’t have the right to decide who is and isn’t a victim. That belongs to the officer class of the dominant ideological framework currently operative. And the ideology of the moment finds one of its principle expressions in transgenderism.
When I call transgenderism an ideology, I’m using the term in the sense that Alasdair MacIntyre uses it. Two aspects of his definition are particularly relevant.
First, its plausibility derives from the fact that it contains a kernel of truth. The notion that gender is performative, not biological, is fundamental to modern gender theory. And, of course, men and women do “perform” their roles differently in different cultures because of the distinct set of expectations such cultures have. Masculinity and femininity do look different in South Korea, the United States, England, and Nigeria. This is the kernel of truth that makes the ideology plausible.
Second, resting on a deeper set of social practices and assumptions, it presents itself as just the way things are, and therefore incontestable by any fair-minded person. This wider matrix of social practices is deep-seated and longstanding, making transgenderism difficult to unseat. The story of how this matrix came about is long and tortuous but it’s now our cultural moment. And, to connect the dots, to call transgenderism an ideology is to indicate its role in the exercise of current cultural authority.
Crime of Essentialism
Rowling has run afoul of this. Dramatically so. By raising the obvious point—that menstruation is part of a woman’s experience of the world—she has roused the ire of those who wish to deny the fundamental significance of physical sex differences to gender identity. To put it in more sophisticated terms, she has rendered herself vulnerable to accusations of the most serious crime of all in these days of psychologized identity: that of essentialism, of implying there’s something about our genetic and physical maleness or femaleness that determines identity and behavior.
To call transgenderism an ideology is to indicate its role in the exercise of current cultural authority.
Of course, essentialism itself needs nuance. A beaver instinctively builds a dam. It’s part of his hardware, part of his essence over which he has no real control. Human beings are different. We are reflective, intentional animals, capable of decision-making, and not entirely subject to our hardwired instincts to make us who we are. There is (again) a kernel of truth in Sartre’s adage that our existence precedes our essence. My identity is intimately connected to decisions I have freely made, not just my genome. But even so, our bodies shape how we experience time and space and each other. I don’t menstruate, and I can’t give birth.
Those are important factors in shaping my performative identity, just as is my lack of feathers and inability to fly south in the winter. To say an adult woman’s menstruation affects her experience of the world is, thus, a truism. One can, of course, deny that menstruation is a normal part of being an adult woman, but then you’re separating the term “woman” from bodily realities and making it arbitrary. Such a move rests upon a host of other philosophical assumptions—assumptions that can be and should be contested. To create a culture where such contestation is impossible is not to prove one’s case, any more than, say, arresting Newton and burning his books would have disproved gravity.
Changing Words, But Not Reality
As a Christian, I do see Rowling’s approach as ultimately inadequate. Precisely because we’re intentional beings we’re therefore more than the sum of our biological functions. And in Christian theology the fact that we’re not just creatures but intentional creatures—i.e., persons—is founded on the fact that we’re made in God’s image, of which the distinction and complementarity of men and women is a central part. And this biblical view of man and woman also gives us a significance that transcends this world. There is no hint of that in Rowling’s defense. While her own books highlight a longing for the enchanted and the transcendent, in the “real world” she cleaves closer to the naturalism of this immanent frame—and that will ultimately not prevail against the contemporary cultural commissariat.
But credit where credit is due. Rowling has pointed out that we can play around with words and remove from the mere term “woman” any reference to anything that distinctively reflects a woman’s biological makeup or how that shapes the way she experiences the world; but to do so is merely to engage in lexical gerrymandering to suit our ideological purpose and cultural tastes, not actually to transform reality.
Kudos to J. K. Rowling for courageously making that clear.