Friday, 20 April 2018

Trans Warfare II: Victim framing and the dogmas of sacrifice

Four years ago I started up a blog called ‘100 years of trenches’, partly as a response to the hyped up Anzac and WW1 centenary period (2014 – 2018). A big focus of the blog was to understand and also counter the de-politicised version of ‘remembrance’ pushed on the public by state authorities. The key themes of my analysis include:

  • Remembrance media and ceremonies tend to promote a ‘micro focus’ on dead soldiers and trenches. Military historians tend to provide the framing, with the details of battles, and the image of the ‘Fallen soldier’ being central. This image summons up emotive notions of suffering, death, heroism and sacrifice.

  • The idea of sacrifice which is embedded in this image is very important, but the highly solemn and emotive framing makes it almost impossible to question or even explore. There is a form of romanticism involved here, in which the idea of sacrifice draws on both religious and secular traditions. To suggest that these brave young men didn’t die for a ‘greater and noble cause’ is to violate the moral imperative which is hidden inside the Fallen Soldier image.

  • The micro-focus also makes it harder to look at and think about the years outside the period 1914 – 1918. Questions about the political and economic factors which led to the war are marginalised. Connections between the imperialist state system of 1914 and the imperialist state system of the 21st century are not part of the mainstream media narrative. It is no accident that we place such huge emphasis on Gallipoli; the narrative here is palatable and poses no challenge to the legitimacy of the current military state apparatus.

  • The micro-focus makes it harder to look at and think about the impact of WW1 on other groups of people: the women who lost fathers, sons and brothers, or had to deal with traumatised husbands returning from the war; the people of the Middle East who are still dealing with the consequences of the imperialist carve up of their homelands.

  • Alongside the ‘micro focus’ there are historical meta - narratives. The older versions of these tended to cast the Germans as the vicious aggressors, battling against a much more noble and just British Empire. The more recent and powerful versions involve appeals to the idea of ‘national identity’. Here the idea that New Zealand truly ‘became a nation’ through the experiences of Gallipoli and the Somme effectively frame the meaning of those deaths. The ‘sacrifice’ no longer serves the interest of a greater imperial power we owe allegiance to, but rather a nebulous and untouchable set of National Values: mateship, egalitarianism, courage and honour. The grim and shameful political truth that these deaths served the interests of a brutal imperial state are swept under the carpet of red poppies, Anzac biscuits and solemn ceremonies.

  • The Really Big Things we should remember if we want to truly live up to the demands of the ‘Lest We Forget’ slogan are the structural features of our society which lead to war: capitalism, militarism, imperialism.

  • The micro-focus, alongside the falsifying historical meta narratives, prevent this sort of critical remembrance, and tend to effectively frame war as a sort of natural event, akin to things like volcanoes and hurricanes. Military conflict is naturalised and depoliticised.

For more details, please check out my other blog.

Anzac Day 2015, National War Memorial, Wellington

Over the past year I have devoted a lot of my energy into understanding and writing about a completely different topic, the theory and politics of transgenderism. Yet I have repeatedly found myself pondering over some of the strangely common rhetorical strategies employed by both fervent conservative nationalists and transactivists. In the comments section under my first blog piece (where I examined the logic behind the vilification of radical feminists who questioned the notion of gender identity) is this wee gem of insight and wisdom:

In just about any exchange between transactivists and critics, you will find people highlighting the central importance of the oppression of trans people. The most frequently cited victims are trans identified males (always referred to as transwomen), and particularly ‘transwomen of colour’. There are countless articles and stories about the murder of transwomen, and the Transgender Day of Remembrance which is held every year internationally on November 20th specifically commemorates the deaths of trans people through violence or suicide. After reading a few of these articles, I came away feeling quite dissatisfied. The causes of the murders are invariably ascribed very simply to ‘transphobia’, without much elaboration or insight. The most interesting thing I came upon was this graph of murders by region in a Pink News article:

Why are there so many more murders of trans identifying people in Central and South America? The article makes no attempt to answer this question, so you are left wondering. In online debates I have frequently observed radical feminists point to the fact that a very large number of these deaths are caused by violent punters. The context of sexual violence within the practice of prostitution probably has a large bearing on this issue, but these sorts of interpretations do not seem to be popular. As Julie Bindel has highlighted recently, transactivists tend to side with people who endorse a ‘sex work is work’ framing of prostitution. Criticising prostitution in any way is off limits in the same way as questioning gender identity is.

Rather than acquiring critical understanding of the causes and nature of “transphobic” violence, the image of the murdered transwoman is typically foregrounded as a rhetorical strategy to frame and influence debate about broader issues. Here are a couple of examples from ‘socialist’ (socialist identified?) supporters of trans identity ideology:

In the early hours of Tuesday 22 August Kiwi Herring, a 30 year old trans woman and mother of three, was shot dead by police in St Louis, US. Police had been called after Kiwi had allegedly stabbed her neighbour. After an altercation during which one police officer received a “minor injury”, the police opened fire.
The following day around 100 supporters held a vigil in her honour and marched into the road, blocking a junction. A man drove into the protest, knocking over three people — though none was seriously hurt. One witness reported that he was giving them the finger as he accelerated through the crowd.
Kiwi is the 18th known trans person killed this year. Like her, the majority are black women. Kiwi’s family report that her neighbour was transphobic and had been harassing her for some time.
I start here because in any discussion about trans rights it is crucial to begin with a recognition of the reality of trans oppression. The events described above tell a story of structural racism and transphobia, experienced at the hands of the state and of bigoted individuals.

The article goes on to argue women in the UK have nothing at all to fear from the proposed legal changes of the Gender Recognition Act, and concludes a series of shoddy arguments with the claim that “there is no evidence that trans rights will harm women, and there is every evidence that lack of trans rights does harm trans people”. There is plentiful evidence that gender identity - based access laws such as the proposed GRA will harm women, but the article does not engage with these arguments in good faith. By foregrounding the image of the murdered transwomen, and suggesting (indirectly in this case, but the implication is clear) that opponents to the proposed legislation are somehow complicit with this violence, the author does not even need to try very hard to make her case. The manipulative and emotive appeal to a uniquely vulnerable and oppressed group does most of the work. Leftists are suckers for that sort of jazz. Fighting oppression is what they (supposedly) do.

A second example, unfortunately more typical in its heated and frenzied tone, is the text of a petition for the removal of an article from the UK based site Socialist Resistance. I don’t know that much about the site or the organisation, but this article (Feminism and transgender - why is there is a debate?) was considered so blasphemous that even Marxist luminaries such as Richard Seymour signed the petition for its removal. I also don’t know what it said, because it was in fact removed. But we can glean some idea of how evil the article was by reading the petition text , which opens with the familiar Image of the Oppressed Transwoman:

‘I’ve been to prison and I’ve been raped by men — straight men!’ In these words at her speech to the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally, Sylvia Rivera outlined the conditions still faced by trans women today. Trans women suffer primarily at the hands of men, yet much of the feminist movement passes over this patriarchal violence in silence. A fixated minority within the movement is uncontent even with this, and actively contributes to the villainization of their trans sisters.

The petition concludes with the claim that although it is men who are responsible for transphobic violence, women who question in any way the broader issues of transgenderism are also complicit in the rape and murder of transwomen:

Trans women’s lives are not a matter to be deliberated. Their existence is not an ‘issue’ that it is helpful for leftist sects to publicly discuss and to take ‘positions’ on. Without support from those with more social weight, the rape and murder of trans women simply trying to walk the streets, and subsist by the limited means available to them, will continue.

Another variant of the image is that of trans identified children, who commit suicide because they are prevented from accessing ‘life saving’ puberty blockers and/or synthetic hormones. Again the emotive and victim focused framing which acts as a prohibition against critical perspectives, the  sketchy.evidence for such suicides notwithstanding. In this case the threat of suicide is leveraged into debates precisely in order to smear opponents to the medicalisation of gender as 'bigots' or 'transphobes'. The untouchable image of a child experiencing unendurable suffering due to dysphoria works hand in glove with the essentialist notion of a fixed immutable gender essence trapped in the 'wrong' body. Of course the contexts are radically distinct, but the psychological and rhetorical functions of an heroic young member of the New Zealand Division, sacrificing himself for the good of his country and Democracy appear quite similar. An image of a suffering innocent on the one hand (the young soldier, the gender dysphoric child) alongside a falsifying ideology which insists on the necessity of 'sacrifice' or 'treatment'. 

Going back to consider and compare the trans issue with my analysis of remembrance ideology, it is notable that my ‘100 years of trenches’ blog generated very little debate within the leftist circles who read it. No one faulted me for not placing the suffering and death of thousands of soldiers at the centre of my account. No one had any problem distinguishing between the people caught up in the cogs of imperialist aggression and the political and economic structures governing that same aggression. No one pointed out that as somebody who has never fought in a real battle and witnessed the terrible human cost of war, I had no right to question or explore the idea of sacrifice.

The conclusion from these observations is that ‘trans oppression’ functions the same way that the concept of ‘sacrifice’ does in sanitising war narratives: both tactics foreground pain, suffering and death and insist upon a very particular type of compassion. This is a compassion that must not doubt or question, a compassion which dare not examine the holy necessity of the Cause served by the victim.

San Francisco City Hall lit up with pink and blue, TDOR 2017

Trans murder is a case in point: it is not at all clear that ‘transphobia’ is a helpful way of framing our understanding of the phenomenon, and there is clear and compelling empirical evidence that trans people are no more likely  to be murdered than other people in the general population. I make this point not to dismiss or understate the real oppression suffered by trans identified people, but rather to highlight how a very particular sort of ‘victim framing’ can distort and falsify our perception of reality. It is not that hard to identify a parallel distortion in our Gallipoli remembrance narratives: the 2700 odd New Zealanders who died are vastly outnumbered by the 80,000 Ottoman soldiers killed by an invading imperial force.

If we accept that the violence endemic to prostitution has a lot to do with the murder of a particular subset of the trans population, then the case becomes even more compelling. In a video documenting the Transgender Day or Remembrance in Amsterdam 2017, the opening scene pans across a crowd holding red umbrellas chanting ‘sex work is work! Sex work is work!’:

One of the speakers pays a tribute to “fallen trans warriors” who are “at war with people and systems that put people in little boxes”. The framing of the deaths as caused by a nebulous and loosely defined societal prejudice, rather than a very specific form of male violence, acts as a falsifying meta narrative. It is very hard to challenge this because of the emotive focus on death and suffering: questioning the victim framing is tantamount to complicity with the prejudice targeted by the performative rituals of the ceremony. Just as ‘fighting for democracy’ acts as a falsifying meta narrative justifying the deaths of soldiers, the ‘sex work is work’ slogan falsifies and distorts the true nature of the very deaths the Transgender Day or Remembrance is designed to honour.

If we accept the socialist idea that imperialist war serves the interests of the ruling classes, and that remembrance ceremonies such as Anzac day tend to reinforce and propagate a patriotic nationalism which serves state interests rather than those of human liberation, then the parallels I have sketched also help to explain the way feminist concerns are marginalised, distorted and opposed by trans ideology. In focusing on the suffering experienced by trans people, remembrance practices like the Transgender Day of Remembrance (and the associated rhetorical strategies identified above) reinforce and propagate a set of notions around sex and gender which serve patriarchal interests.  

In New Zealand during the first world war people with German surnames were persecuted: they lost their jobs, had their houses set on fire and were openly discriminated against. This discrimination was carried out with a fervent sense of righteousness: God and Right was on the side of the British Empire. Irish nationalists, Maori who followed the lead of Te Puea Herangi, anarchists, socialists and pacifists all faced massive state sanctioned censure and persecution for their ‘disloyal’ anti war stance. In New Zealand today, and throughout the first world western nations, it is not hard to identify social groups facing censure, marginalisation and abuse because of tensions felt between them and the dictates of trans ideology. The middle aged women  who have their lives up-ended by their trans identifying husbands, the parents  of teenagers with gender dysphoria, the lesbian women  who experience pressure to form relationships with men and feminist women who fight to preserve female only spaces   are some of the notable examples. The thoughtless righteousness and moralistic fervour with which these acts of censure and abuse are carried out appear largely driven by the ideological framework I have attempted to sketch here: a sentimental and quasi romantic image of trans oppression, together with a set of dogmas (‘transwomen are women’, ‘sex work is work’) which legitimate these acts. Although the differences in context, scale and setting are very considerable, the silencing and stifling of dissent during WW1 era New Zealand society has very real resonances and similarities with current day gender politics.

What are the structural realities we should attend to if we wish to understand and address the different types of harm and suffering connected with gender identity? If we reject the focus on trans oppression as a framing tactic, and the associated dogmas, then we avoid the cost of the moral blackmail and are able to critically examine things like:

If we don’t reject the trans oppression focus with its silencing dogmas, then the notion of ‘gender identity’ becomes something like the idea of war as an inevitable feature of human destiny. Gender becomes, rather than an oppressive and profitable result of patriarchal injustice, another essential, naturalised inevitability.  If we can’t connect the dots between things like big pharmaceutical companies, cultural misogyny and neoliberal identity politics the consequence is a ‘naturalisation’ of gender. Gender, and in particular the mysterious notion of ‘gender identity’, becomes a sacrosanct topic out of the reach of critical discussion. 

The acceptance of war and gender as necessary features of society is a conservative stance: being radical means taking seriously the Marxist commitment to the ruthless critique of all existing social structures.

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