of gender in any individual’s sense of self.
-- Baroness Hale, President of the Supreme Court
In 2016, writer Sara Ahmed interviewed American academic Judith Butler for the journal Sexualities. The interview meanders around various topics, such as the formation and performance of sexual identity and the construction and institutional boundary policing of academic disciplines, but rebounds repeatedly off the central item of interest to both interviewer and interviewee – namely, Butler herself. In response to a question about professional, academic vulnerability, Butler has this (among much else) to say about how early in our lives we become vulnerable to the labels and expectations of others.
If, for instance, we think about gender assignment as ‘being called a name’ then we are affected by gender terms before we have any sense of what they mean or any understanding of what kind of effects they have. Indeed, this follows, I think, from the fact that we are affected by the ways we are addressed, and those modes of address start early and against our will; they are there, as it were, from the start. Sometimes those modes of address embrace and animate, but they can inaugurate a chain of injury as well.
In this passage, the labels and expectations that matter to Butler are gendered. On Butler’s view, our vulnerability is universal, but not everyone who is vulnerable (i.e. subject) to gendered modes of address is injured by them. A problem arises, for Butler, not with gendered terms, but with the imposition of the incorrect gender terms. On that view, I am not intrinsically harmed, there is no injustice done against me, by the imposition of certain gendered terms of naming which go on to shape and channel my psychological development; I can only claim to have been so harmed if I grow up to strongly disidentify with the specific terms assigned me. To put it more plainly: if someone calls me a bitch, that is an injustice only inasmuch as I strongly feel I ought to have been called a bastard.
This line of thinking is again plainly evident in Butler’s recent New Statesman piece, where she repeatedly references ‘gender freedom’ as the ability to choose one’s gender: ‘one may be born a female, but become a man.’ The problem, on this view, is that we ought not to force gendered modes of address on children and young people because we don’t know whether they will grow up to identify with the terms we choose (typically the terms aligned with their sexed body). We should wait and find out from the child themselves how they choose to identify in future.
This approach seems perhaps eccentric but basically innocuous: what’s wrong after all in not imposing our ideologies on infants? But it betrays a way of thinking about gender that is not simply misguided, it is deeply injurious to the absolute majority of people – especially women – who don’t go through a process of pointedly rejecting their identification with the feminine gender and don’t take steps to switch to the opposite, masculine gender (become men) or to the still ill-defined and ambiguous “non-binary” identification. To illustrate by analogy:
Say you happen to be a Nazi bureaucrat during the 1930s in Germany. If, as part of your administrative role, you slap a yellow star on a non-Jew, the injustice does not reside in the misidentification. The non-Jew might object that he is ‘no one of those people’ and feel aggrieved – they have been, to use a parallel construction to ‘misgendered’, ‘mis-raced’. From outside the logic of Nazism, however, we see that the problem here is not that there are ‘those people’, the abject and inferior ones, whom it is our responsibility to correctly sort into the proper category in order to achieve a just disposition of racial identity. The injustice, instead, resides is the existence of a system of thought that divides people into castes, and a system of symbols that enforces the division. If you wanted to make sure that no non-Jews were ever injured by being forced to wear a yellow star, you'd abolish the yellow star.
If you keep the system but enact a bureaucracy to help non-Jews avoid the injury of being forced to wear a yellow star, you're not protecting them from harm: you are legitimising a system in which their humanity can be abolished by a piece of yellow (or pink, or red) cloth. Similarly with gender, if you protect gender as a system, but enact a bureaucracy to help some people avoid the injury of being coerced into a specific status, you are seeking to protect the hierarchy in which some people's humanity can be abolished by perceived reproductive potential. And yet the demand Butler reiterates in her NS piece is for ‘the freedom to be, or become, a gender.’ The system, overall, remains unreformed - but a certain amount of movement is permitted between categories. This is the epitome of confusing movement with progress.
In other words, gender theory is not a solution to the problems of coercive gender, but merely a loophole. A loophole that allows some people to opt out of gendered expectations and judgements at the price of people's humanity remaining held cheap. Because if there is no greater majority – or at least some stable group of people – who live the normative gender expectations to the full, including the physical and psychic violence that makes them legitimately subject to, there can be no subversion of a repressive norm such that ‘gendered life can be an expression of personal or social freedom.’ There is no need for a bureaucracy that, in Butler’s terms, would help avoid injury for the few people who feel they have been harmed through mis-designation to the wrong gender category.
At issue as well is a question of autonomy, conceptualized not through individualism, but as an emergent social phenomenon: how do I name myself, how can I establish my status within the law or within medical institutions, and to what extent will my desire to live as a particular gender or within an established gender category be honoured by those who claim to ally with me but who position themselves against my desire to be named and recognized a certain way?
Now clearly, if you conceive of yourself as an autonomous individual in a world of autonomous individuals, there is no problem there: in theory everyone could use the loophole described above. But once that move is made, one forfeits the right to speak and think about ‘political freedom’, as Butler does. Because politics exists only between connected, embedded people. There is no politics of one. Conceptually, an ethic that depends on atomisation for its enactment has no business claiming the mantle of ‘justice’, let alone ‘social’. Pragmatically, the escape hatch of transition-for-some only embeds others more deeply in a system of violent repression.
Butler’s conception appears to be that oppression, at its root, is an injury to the self: the nature of oppression is in that it limits the individual from expressing their authentic self. This is in contrast to the traditional conception of oppression as a material framework of deprivation or curtailment which limits people’s ability to live a maximally flourishing life in material and economic terms such that they can, within that enabling framework, choose to actualise their self. It’s a kind of inverted Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, with food, shelter and security taking a lower rung to self-actualisation and fulfilment. In the example of Nazi Germany, the reason that the injustice, for Butler, would properly reside in the non-Jewish person being made to wear the yellow star is that they are being denied the freedom to ‘have their desire to live as a particular race within a system of race’ is respected. The properly Jewish person – in Butler’s conception, the person who ‘self identifies’ with Jewishness without coercion – is left to their own devices: there is no place in the self-actualisation framing to decry the fact that their material wellbeing, their right to work and participate in civic life, is being curtailed: the key moment of oppression is not in what a system does to you, but what it calls you while so doing.
The current debate about the amount of movement that should be allowed to individuals within a violently oppressive system – gender – is a distraction from any consideration of reforming or even abolishing that system. The ease and rapidity with which our institutions of power – epitomised by the epigraph to this post, which is a quotation from this Supreme Court judgement regarding a transgender woman’s right to contact with her Orthodox Jewish children – have adapted to accommodate gender ideology should add a pinch of salt to any claims about its revolutionary potential.
As linguist Deborah Cameron notes, while we argue about who should and shouldn’t be called a woman, the assumption that men are the default human beings is going entirely unchecked – and ‘a gender revolution that does not challenge the default status of men is not a feminist revolution.’ While Pope Francis calls for gender essentialism and Judith Butler calls for ‘gender freedom’, feminists should, and do, call for complete liberation from gender and its attendant coercive apparatus.