Response to TERFs Out of Art’s ‘Statement of Intent’

I’ve written this ahead of tomorrow, when I’ve suggested anyone who wants to and can make it meet in Burgess Park at 2pm near the lake…and no, I don’t really expect the anonymous author/s of the Open Letter or the ‘TERFsOutOfArt’ Twitter account to come to the park. I don’t really expect anyone to come, to be perfectly honest, though I will be there and will talk to anybody if they fancy it. I know that some friends and former friends think I have not responded to their requests to talk in the past. Perhaps that’s true. Perhaps it is too late in some cases, and perhaps not in others. It has been difficult to know what to respond to, now and then, and I haven’t kept up with a lot, and it is hard to know what to respond to first and whether I should respond to some things or not, or whether it just makes it worse. I wasn’t in a good state for a long time, for reasons I’ve documented, and my thoughts were even less clear than they are now, and my behaviour was a lot more stupid in general.

There are also still so many people who have sent interesting, personal and supportive messages I want to get back to. Sometimes I think, fairly or unfairly, that other people, particularly the ones who use your name on Faceback on Twitter without directly addressing you, who don’t really want a discussion with you but only about you, just want you to admit you are wrong, to pay penance, to capitulate. Or they don’t want you to say anything at all, actually, but rather they just want to feel whatever posting something about someone else, someone they don’t know, or used to know, or met once, makes you feel. But what if we just don’t agree on a particular topic, or about a particular strategy, or about a particular person, genuinely? Can we agree to leave it, with no hard feelings, or must a price be paid?

Certainly some prices have been paid. I have lost my work at The Wire as a consequence of going on the YouTube video with Daniel and Justin, and I suspect that fear generated by the negative online chatter about me had a lot to do with that decision too. I had an interview taken down off a podcast, which was actually a shame as it had gone really well and had nothing to do with any ‘controversial’ topic but was rather focussed on my research on the recorded female voice in public spaces, which is a very interesting thing to think about, I think. This is one of the things I find strange, actually, in these calls to ‘no-platform’ people or to lose them work. At The Wire or in my Philosophy teaching or on panels or in talks, I rarely, if ever, talk about the topics I am currently supposed to have a ‘wrong’ position on. Even if I did, I am not sure these events and positions work in the way that people trying to block me from them think they do. Teaching is never about indoctrination, for example, especially not in philosophy. We discuss ideas, arguments, positions, people disagree, we often end up in aporia and further questions rather than unanimity. I never push a ‘line’ that I would expect everyone to agree to.

Similarly in talks, panels, everyone in the audience is always free to question, critique, denounce etc. I like that sort of robust back-and-forth, and I enjoy listening to and responding to even very strong criticism, I think a lot of people do. Further, If I give a talk about Diogenes and humour, or about laughter and the law, or about feminism, or music, but I am supposed to hold a terrible position on one topic, does this mean that I should not also give talks about other, unrelated, topics? Does my very presence at a talk or on a panel mean something bad? Am I a kind of contaminant, a malign presence? Someone to be shunned because of something I supposedly think, or believe, or have written, or said, or because I appeared with people or persons who are deemed to be wronguns, or because I gave a talk on ‘naughtiness’, or because I spoke about the sacred, or nature, or the sun, or paganism, or whatever, or because, because, anything, everything, something, nothing…just be cancelled already, you annoying woman! If it’s any consolation, I am thinking of running away to live in a cupboard or by a river, or something, so perhaps I will disappear, and, in any case, of course, as always, you never have to pay any attention to me in the first place – in fact, I would recommend this.

The ‘contaminant’ model, I suppose, is the sort of attitude taken in the anonymously-authored ‘TERFs Out of Art – Statement of Intent’, posted the other day. Like the ‘Open Letter’ it does not reveal who is behind it, only that it is overseen by ‘by a group of trans people and cis women’. I am not sure why they chose to remain anonymous, but I suppose that is up to them. Perhaps they feel frightened by me, or that they would be criticised by other people. But to me it feel unbalanced and asymmetrical to be so obviously and personally the target of this anonymous group (their ‘pinned tweet’ [edit: WAS their pinned tweet, they changed it for their statement of intent] is a link to a googledoc of an old Facebook thread from my wall operating they think as ‘proof’ that I outed myself as a ‘TERF’ – they claim I deleted it, ‘avoiding accountability’, but I actually just locked it because the discussion was getting heated and because I often lock posts when I try to sleep. Whoever is running the Twitter account resurrected it as a kind of backstory to my apparent current ‘TERFyness’ I guess, though I wonder in these situations whether this is actually a kind thing to do – less so for me, but for trans people who might be hurt by it. If the content is so upsetting, why put it back online? Wouldn’t it decrease harm to leave it offline?). In any case, I don’t think the Facebook thread does any such thing as confirm me as a ‘TERF’, whatever people mean by that, but obviously people can make up their own mind.

The ‘Statement of Intent’ itself if a bit strange, I think. They claim they were alerted to my TERF-being by the Open Letter, but the letter itself makes no reference to my supposed transphobia, and we did not discuss sex and gender on the livestream. I am assumed simply to be a TERF from the off, and I am described as a ‘so-called feminist in the art world’. I understand that I don’t meet the terms for their definition of the word ‘feminist’, but I think it strange to believe somehow that I am not, or am no longer, such a thing, having written and given many talks about feminism within and outside of the ‘art world’ (and the question of the limits and boundaries of this entity are also a complicated question, and the relation between ‘theory’ and ‘philosophy’ and ‘art’ are very much an open question. I remember interviewing Lotringer for frieze a long time ago and his description of the artworld was as a ‘black hole…don’t fall in!’).

The group describe ‘the systemic marginalisation of trans people within the arts, which is a human rights violation’, and they believe that my presence at talks and on panels contributes to this ‘systematic marginalisation’. I hesitate to say simply that it does not, because of course you could say, ‘well, you should give up your invitations to trans women in order to demonstrate your commitment to eradicating this systematic marginalisation’, and it is true that I have not done this, though I would actually be open to doing this, if anyone wishes to propose such a thing. My work email is available online.

The statement says:

We’re not focussing on those who are on the brink of seeing the light or redemption, but rather those who are bedded down in or moving increasingly into transphobia, and who have the power and/or platform to have or create a negative effect on the lives of trans people and trans rights in the art world and wider society.

This is perhaps the crux of it. Whoever runs the group has clearly decided that I am not on the brink of ‘seeing the light’ and that ‘redemption’ is not possible for me. Between the Facebook thread, my own admissions of misgendering in a private conversation and whatever other random information the organisers have, they believe, and I believe that they believe that they are acting in good faith, that I am transphobic and that I have the power to negatively affect the lives of trans people in the art world and in the world more generally. I am of course rather sad to think they think this, but the dichotomy seems clear from the statement: one is either a transphobe/TERF or one is not. There are no other available positions.

No matter how much I say I do not wish to exclude trans people from anything, nor do I fear or dislike trans people, it probably won’t matter, not now nor in the future. This group has decided that I do hold these negative views, and they will try to ‘remove [me and others deemed transphobic/TERFs] from situations where they may adversely affect the lives and rights of trans people’. That’s their remit and goal. The authors state ‘If your [the person reading] concerns about potential loss of work do not apply to trans people as they do to transphobes then your view is either being compromised by transphobia or is purely cognitive dissonance springing from a personal affinity with the person who is being called out’.

For the record, I would like to state that I personally do not and would never support trans people losing any work for being trans – why would I? I would like everybody to flourish and to speak and write wherever they would wish to. Trans people are as entitled to work as anybody else, obviously. So much for the statement. I wish it wasn’t aimed so personally at me, because I don’t think I am what they say I am, or hold the beliefs they think I do, or even have the power they attribute to me, but that’s their desire, I guess. I repeat again, I would be happy to enter into a discussion with the anonymous authors of the statement and the Twitter account, but I cannot promise we will agree on everything.

On that note, one of the aspects of the whole discussion around sex and gender over recent years that has bothered me is something that’s reflected in the letter – a kind of absolute either/or; you’re either with us or against us. I have, as it happens, been extremely pro-trans in the past, both personally and publicly, offering my spare room to trans women, for example, signing petitions in support of trans rights, giving money to trans women, speaking on panels and in discussion with trans women, supporting their writing, etc. I did, as I admitted in an earlier post, misgender someone in a private conversation both because I was drunk and I felt that the person in question had said some extremely misogynist things. I started also, a while ago, to feel that some genuine questions and concerns about social and legal changes on sex/gender were being shut down, and that this was leading to several impasses, both politically and personally, for a lot of people.

I remember, for example, a distinct feeling of cognitive dissonance a while ago, trying to reconcile in myself various views on sex and gender but struggling to do so, and feeling consequently rather mad and upset at the same time. If trans women are women, ok, great! But what then is a woman? A woman is whoever says she is a woman…but women weren’t and aren’t treated on the basis of self-declaration, otherwise women in the past could have identified out of women-ness, and voted as men, for example, or exited their poor treatment as women, and women today around the world could do the same and presumably escape oppression as women, no? So what is a woman? Is this too simplistic? Perhaps, but why? We were raised to think of gender as a kind of social imposition, that we could challenge, and eventually overturn, through countering stereotypes of what it meant to be a boy or a girl, a man or a woman…parts of the second wave filtered down in this way up to the 1990s and a little bit beyond, perhaps. I understand that, for some people, to transition is to escape these gendered expectations a different way, not by being a man who likes stereotypically ‘feminine’ things, for example, but rather by being a woman, or by trying to escape the gender binary altogether by being neither man nor woman. It is difficult for me and for others I think to think of gender as personal choice, when we are used to thinking of it as something that ‘comes from outside’ as it were, as a more social, structural thing to which everybody is subject. I find it hard to accept, too, I suppose, that identity has become so central to political and social life because I grew up at a moment where we were trying to challenge identity as such, to become who we were, collectively, without ‘labels’. Perhaps I am showing my age here, and perhaps this is a conflict between a pre- and post-internet generation, in which case, I am ok with being consigned to the dustheap.

I realise, as I write this, how unsatisfying this all sounds, and how naïve, in a way. I can feel that I won’t be believed, that I must be saying this to cover how I really feel, which must be really, secretly ‘TERFy’ and ‘transphobic’. But I don’t know what else to say. I don’t particularly want to lose any more work, but if I must, so be it. If this is what this ‘anti-TERF’ group and whoever they tag or write to decide to do, it’s how it is. But I refuse to believe that anyone wondering about sex and gender, in all of its immense complexities, legal, social, historical, scientific, existential, is doing so out of some kind of hatred. I find it impossible to imagine that everyone who thinks about these things is doing so purely or primarily out of a negative feeling towards another group of people. It just doesn’t seem very likely. It may be, actually, ultimately, that we are committed to the same end, but are variously using different strategies – perhaps we all want something like the end of gender, towards a world in which everybody feels free to express their being and desire in a joyful, non-harmful, way. If so, we can talk, surely?

In general, on this topic and on many others, I think repressing questions and thoughts, or getting others to, will lead to anger and confusion. I think sex and gender are extremely complicated for everyone, and social life in general is filled with opposing and varied views and desires. I nevertheless think we can, as speaking and thinking beings, try to live together better.

I have said before that I am prepared to lose everything if that it what it costs to think and speak freely. I find it constitutively impossible to go along with someone telling me what I should think, but I am open to changing my mind. I think, in fact, that we should talk to people we strongly disagree with in every respect, the better to know our own minds, and to persuade other people that their views are open to challenge, just as our own are. I am not suggesting, either, that it is anyone’s job to change mine or anyone else’s mind. I know very well how busy and strange and tiring life is. I would simply like to try to suggest that things are not so simple as the group or the statement makes it seem and that, even if I have made mistakes and haven’t always spoken or proceeded with care on these issues, my motives are not nearly as negative as they think, nor do I have as much desire to impose my views, such as they are, in any kind of dogmatic way, on anybody. Nor do I think, in reality, that social and intellectual life proceeds in this way. I think spending too much time online is generally a bad thing, and that conversations in person tend towards nuance and greater understanding. This is why I am interested in having free and open group discussions, preferably offline, and preferably outside, weather permitting.

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