On Twitter in June, J. K. Rowling took issue with the use of the term ‘people who menstruate’ as a needlessly transgender-friendly substitute for the more obvious word: ‘women’. The furore from transgender supporters in the wake of Rowling’s tweet was as predictable as it was depressing.
Rowling ended up publishing a 3,600 word personal response on her website, graciously explaining her views. This seemed only to exacerbate online indignation among her critics.
It also highlighted how uncivil the debate over transgenderism has become. Reasoned argument doesn’t seem to matter so much as shouting the loudest. This breakdown of discussion, particularly concerning transgenderism, stems from a world where old anchors of home, family, community, religion, and nation have either collapsed or been thrown into flux.
Rowling, like Germaine Greer before her, is now a fine example of what critical theory’s grip on our thinking can lead to: today’s victim becoming tomorrow’s oppressor. There is no constructive endgame to critical theory. In fact, one might quip that the game is the end: the constant destabilising of any claims to power or truth is the purpose.
If you have an a priori commitment to critical theory, you must realise that you have a tiger by the tail. If at any moment you want to let go of the project merely because it has destabilised your particular target, you’ll find that you and yours are soon to be devoured by it.
Transgenderism as cultural ideology
Rowling’s response implores her critics to recognise the victimhood of other groups — not least the victims of transgender thinking and practices.
Her article is civil and compassionate in tone, 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. 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 the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre uses it. Two aspects of his definition are particularly relevant.
First, its plausibility derives from the fact that it contains kernels 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 appear differently in South Korea, the United States, England, and Nigeria. This is the kernel of truth that makes the ideology plausible.
Second, and resting on a deeper set of social practices and assumptions, transgender ideology 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 and endowed with 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 angered those wishing to deny the fundamental significance of physical sex differences when it comes to gender identity.
Put another way, Rowling has rendered herself vulnerable to accusations of the most serious crime of all in these days of psychologised identity: that of essentialism — implying there’s something about our genetic and physical maleness or femaleness that determines identity and behaviour.
Of course, essentialism itself needs nuance. A beaver instinctively builds a dam. It’s part of its hardware, part of its essence over which it has no real control. Human beings are different: we are reflective, intentional creatures, 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. 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 and should be contested. Creating a culture where such contestation is impossible is not to prove one’s case (any more than arresting Newton and burning his books would disprove 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. 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. The distinction and complementarity of men and women is a central part of that image. This biblical view of man and woman also gives us a significance that transcends this world. That is unmentioned in Rowling’s defence.
While her Harry Potter novels highlight a longing for the enchanted and 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 biological, but that doing so is merely to engage in lexical gerrymandering to suit ideology rather than reflect reality.
A version of this article appeared at The Gospel Coalition. Reproduced with permission.
Carl Trueman is a presbyterian minister and professor at Grove City College, Pennsylvania