Jun 13, 2015


This evening I’ve been thinking about Jen. I met her when we were both 17, as part of a Roots program – a summer trip to Israel for US-based Jewish kids, cross-sponsored by their parents and some Jewish agency or other. I liked Jen, though we weren’t close; she was a smiling, friendly girl, petite and pretty, and the kind of hairless, fair skinned white-blonde you rarely see in Israel. Through the haze of decades, I only have one clear memory of talking to her. We were discussing how everyone had got on the program, and Jen told us that her stepdad is Jewish, and because he raised her and she loved him, she considered herself Jewish too, hence the desire to connect to her ‘roots’. I remember thinking – and I wouldn’t be surprised if I said it, too, I wasn’t the most tactful teenager – that this is obviously wrong. You have to be born Jewish or convert to Judaism, you can’t just be Jewish-by-association. It’s not a family club membership! But I didn’t resent her for it or anything, like I say she was a very nice person and we all sort of shrugged our shoulders and accepted her strange desire to be associated with something that to us spoke most strongly of war, conflict, struggle, even genocide. But you know, different strokes, right? These Americans drove to the synagogue on Shabbat anyway, they were all a bit weird as far as we were concerned.

We had a kind of collective Bat Mitzvah ceremony one weekend. We all went to (I think a Reform) synagogue in Jerusalem, dressed appropriately in long skirts and modest t-shirts (it was the Indian fringed skirt era, if anyone remembers that – we all looked as if we were wearing a strange hippy uniform) and did ‘aliya laTorah’ – basically a reading from the synagogue’s big Torah scroll. Actually I think I may have gotten out of that one on the grounds of being an atheist, but again, it was all sort of taken in stride and we had a nice day. For some of the girls it was quite emotional and meaningful, and so again, we didn’t judge them for it.

I suppose in retrospect, it could have been that Jen’s presence on the program was problematic. What if another kid, maybe from a less affluent Jewish family, missed out on their place on the program because she got to go? What if some more religiously minded people were really troubled by her participation in intimately Jewish ceremonies, felt perhaps that her inclusion was disrespectful, or even desecratory? But that at the time none of this troubled me; I sort of filed it away in my head as “not really Jewish but if she wants to be called Jewish and do Jewish things, it’s no skin off my nose”. She obviously had some life experiences, and family circumstances, that made her really attracted to this tradition and culture, and meeting that emotional need seemed perfectly fair enough to me. I myself had never ‘felt Jewish’ or had any concept of what it would be to be Jewish outside of a shared history and family ties, so how different was Jen to me, anyway? And if she did ‘feel’ Jewish in some way, or insisted she had a Jewish soul, neshomah in Yiddish, well, I didn’t care – nobody has a soul anyway, so she’s not that much more wrong than anyone else making that claim.

I have two political identities that are ‘marked’, or non-neutral (the default, unmarked identity being that of the white male): a racialised one and a gendered one. And in respect of my gendered social identity I never felt any different than in respect of my racial one: I don’t ‘feel like’ a woman, I don’t have a female brain or a female soul or female intuition. I am treated by others as women in my society are treated – I get doors opened for me, I’ve been sexually harassed at work, I am referred to as ‘she’ when I’m not in the room. I look more or less as a woman in my society is expected to look, and have many of the interests that women in my society are expected to have, not because of some deep female essence, but because a mixture of peer interests and overt pressure has slowly streamed me into those avenues. I also have the kind of humour that Jews are expected to have, and many of the interests Jews in my society have, not because of some inherited predisposition, but simply because that is what I heard and saw around me all my life.

In terms of people who choose, for whatever reasons to do with their family background, personal experiences, personality or circumstances, to identify themselves with the same gendered identity I’ve been slotted into, I feel much the same as I did towards Jen: I might not really understand it, but it’s no skin off my nose. Why should I care what anyone wears, or how anyone wants to be referred to? Seems easy enough to just be kind and polite, really.

I can’t fully understand why the reaction to the revelation that Rachel Dolezal was not born Black is so much less indifferent than mine was to Jen. I have some intuitions, to do with the exploitation of Black people in slavery and the enormous historical wound that is, to do with the appropriation and repackaging of Black culture for white consumption, to do with the persistent racism and inequality that dog and mar the lives of African Americans. To do, in the final analysis, with trust, community cohesion and honesty in public life. I don’t fully understand it, but I get it.

So I’m not here to say: hey Black people, it’s no skin off your noses. Because it is. It’s a big, big deal when a marginalised group discovers that someone belonging to its oppressor class had potentially infiltrated their ranks under false pretenses, especially if that person is in a position of power.

What I am here to say is: spare a thought for women who feel just as strongly about the fact that the ‘highest paid woman CEO’ in the US was not born a woman. That the person on the cover of Vanity Fair this month was not born a woman. They became women and all power to them – whatever it was in their past, their upbringing, their experiences, that made them feel that they need to make that huge change in their lives, I don’t know it and I don’t judge it. But it is hard for members of a marginalised group to see people belonging to its oppressor class rise to positions of power within its ranks. Whoever that group happens to be.

I know that people reading this are shaking their heads right now, saying “but it’s not the same thing at all! Can’t you see how different it is?!” No. I can’t. Like I said I have two marked identities, and the only way I can form opinions about this is by introspecting about both of them. Mostly because nobody will say or write anything about why it’s so different. People assert that it is, with great vehemence, but nobody will say why. Well, I’m left to make up my own mind then, and in my own mind, there is no why. There are clear similarities and analogies between different people reacting to their own lives by changing or transforming their social and political identities. And that doesn’t make Rachel Dolezal suddenly a saint, or Caitlyn Jenner suddenly a sinner: but it does call for perhaps a continuation, rather than a suppression, of this conversation that I’ve been having with myself this evening.

I wonder what became of Jen. She really was a nice person.

Apr 13, 2015

Dr Christian and the Cartesian Dualism of the Gender Identity Debates


Implicit in the discourse of gender identity is the understanding that the mind, or inner feelings produced by the mind, is who we “really are” – the body is at worst an irrelevance, at best a malleable vessel or tool for the expression or performance of the true person within, a person who has a distinct and stable “identity” irrespective of the physical conditions imposed on it by the incidental body. This view is called dualism, specifically Cartesian Dualism, after the philosopher RenĂ© Descartes. There is a hierarchy built in to dualism: the mind is the real human being, the seat of reason and conscience. The body is just so much dead meat. To alter the mind is a violation; to alter the body, a trifle.

But it turns out the body and mind don’t work like that. The former is not some inert Golem for which the latter is the magic, animating scroll. To the best of our current understanding, the mind is an emergent property of complex interactions within the brain that are entirely and completely physical. No special substance, no stuff of thought, is circulating around your scull cavity, “being” you. Your mind is not something that is, it is something that your brain does. A process is a better way of thinking about it; or even, according to some philosophers, a mostly illusory effect.

Brains, as we all know, are not independent agents knocking about in the world. Your brain lives inside your body, is an inseparable part of the complex system of interactions and symbioses that make up the entire animated, sentient entity that is you. Your brain eats the same food as you, it breathes the same air as you. It gets sick when you are sick. It goes through puberty when you go through puberty – worse, in fact, the whole damn thing is its fault, because it kicks it off to begin with. Your brain “hears” everything that is said to you. It is a full participant in the process of conditioning, education, learning, trauma, memory, preference building and socialisation that you undergo. The brain does not “store” who you are – it becomes who you become.

When you learn a new skill, like how to do Sudoku or even something much much simpler, like the exactly correct level of pressure it takes to push a thumb tack into your particular office wall with its unique density & resistance, your brain physically changes. It doesn’t change “in order to” store the leaning, or “as a result of” the learning. Learning is a physical change in your brain. A small group of cells inside your head is creeping towards other cells as you read my words, making minute contacts, touching in ways that were not happening before, creating tiny chemical bridges that hadn’t existed before. These tentative little gropes towards learning will be reinforced in the future by a teeny tiny release of dopamine if and when you remember the words I typed here: your brain bribes you with little chemical highs, that’s how it gets you to continue to learn throughout your lifetime, navigating new roads, figuring out the timer on new microwaves, remembering the names of new nurses in the nursing home – unless something goes seriously wrong (as in the case of Alzheimer’s or CJD), your brain-that-is-you is a hive of cell growth and reconfiguration every day of your living life, every bit as much as your gut is (more, if anything, because so much of what the gut does is outsourced to your microbiome, whereas your brain is mostly you).

So to say that you were born with an “identity” that is immutable and fixed, and that your body needs to change in order to be congruent with this identity, is just incoherent. Your identity is a product of things that go on in your mind, which is a product of things that go on in your brain. Your sexed body and your personality or sense of self are not two things independent of each other, but aspects of a single process of cumulative interactions with external and internal stimuli gradually builds up through complex sets of action and reaction to become expressions of a unitary entity which is the complete human animal that you are.

Changes to other parts of your body will, eventually, become changes in your brain. It will learn to feel itself anew (although it can sometimes struggle with that, as in the case of phantom limbs – and it really should be investigated whether post-operative trans people ever suffer from that debilitating condition). It will reconfigure itself (I hate the term “rewire” – such a limited, stunted metaphor for the virtually infinite curlicues and arabesques the brain/mind is capable of) in order for you to walk a certain way, talk at a certain pitch, use particular hand gestures. Your body will not magically “fit” a pre-existing image of your true self in your mind: if you change some parts of your body, another part of your body – that part of it that is in your skull – will continue to change until you can preform the gestures and mannerisms you consider appropriate to your new body seamlessly and without deliberate effort, like a skilled pianist plays scales or an experienced driver goes through the motions of the familiar morning commute. This level of so called "unconscious" skill is the result of well-developed pathways in the brain, which is just a fancy way of saying that your brain has physically changed a lot in order to facilitate them.

If you change your body, your body will change. There is no other “you” out there – or in there – for you to model those changes on. If you really believe, like Dr Christian, that the talking cure is a kind of “conversion therapy” for one part of your body, then the “chopping cure” is exactly the same thing – just conversion therapy, trying to force your body to be something it currently isn’t. And that includes the part of your body that generates your mind, or the amorphous, nebulous thing that is your “identity”. 

Mar 26, 2015

Censorship: it's bad, because it can happen to men

Having recently written about what qualifies as free speech and who we generally take to have a right to it, I was grimly amused to read Nick Cohen's Standpoint piece on censorship in the Left.

It's not so much that I disagree with the main thrust of Cohen's argument: I signed the original letter to the Observer expressing concerns about the creep of no-platforming on British university campuses, which I do think is both a symptom of a worrying conservatism among young people too buffeted by (often unacknowledged) worry about the future to be able to meet opposing, confusing or upsetting information head-on, and a cause of further narrowing and blunting of public debate. No, it's more the fact that in setting out a narrative for the self-destructive descent into Orwellianism, Cohen chose to place its beginnings at the door of Katharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin.

It was only thank to the United States' superior legal protection against censorship, Cohen writes, that
The US Supreme Court duly struck down an ordinance MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin drafted for Indianapolis City Council in 1984 which would have allowed women who could say they were harmed by pornography to sue.
The proposed ordinance, Cohen claims, was but a censorship tactic seized upon by disgruntled feminists, frustrated by their inability to prove that pornography was harmful to either its consumers, its performers, or the public at large. Legally allowing women to openly test in court their contention that they had been harmed by pornography is censorship. Going all the way to the SCOTUS to prevent them having their day in court is protecting free speech.

This seems both very silly and very telling. Cohen, neither a misogynist nor, ordinarily, a stupid man (only one guilty of what all men are guilty of: thinking he understands women's issues based on no research, because hey, it's girl stuff, how hard can it be?), here falls neatly for two of the dumbest and most pervasive conservative tropes of the backlash age:

1. Feminists are themselves to blame for the social ills they now complain of, from the second shift to rape to, in this case the silencing of feminist voices: had we only not meddled with traditional values, men would be more respectful, women would have to work less hard, and reactionary tendencies in society would not be expressing themselves through surveillance and censorship. You made your bed, ladies, don't cry over unintended consequences

2. When women fight for their human rights, they necessarily and by design deprive men of theirs, in a zero sum game (after which this blog is named) that positions every gain for women as a direct attack on men. More women in the workplace are at fault for fewer men being able to earn a decent wage (the collapse of the unions had nothing to d with it apparently). Better justice for victims of male partner violence is really an attack on Fathers' Rights. And, in this case, a right for women to bring civil suit for damages done to them is an attack on the freedom of speech of the men who create and consume the majority of pornographic material. Hands off our Hustler, girls, what is this, North Korea?

To be anti pornography is not to be, by necessity, pro censorship. I should know, because that happens to be the position I hold. I don't want Page 3 to be banned: I want to expose its irrelevance and misogyny, as the NMP3 campaign repeated ad nauseam. But of course nobody listened - it was always "they want to ban P3", never "they want the Sun to reconsider it". Because the idea that feminists are fun-sucking, humourless, totalitarian granola munchers is so ingrained, even respected columnists who remember to mention Mary Waterhouse later in the piece feel like a coherent narrative of suppression must, somehow, start with them.

Jan 21, 2015


Today is the anniversary of the death of George Orwell, so it seems like a good day to tackle a topic that he is famous for defending: free speech.

I’ve never read much Orwell, I must confess. Donnish and, despite his internationalist aspirations, unremittingly English, he is not as revered outside the English speaking world as he is within it. If you asked the average French person who their emblem of freedom of expression was, they're much more likely to say Voltaire. Were you to pose such a question to a Russian intellectual, they may very well say Solzhenitsyn. Or Vysotsky, as like as not. Or “what is this free speech you speak of”.

But anyway, Orwell is famous for free speech, right? Everybody knows that: Big Brother, surveillance, thought control, language manipulation, bad bad stuff.  So, here we are.

It happens also that today is when the always hotly anticipated satirical news magazine Private Eye's latest cover comes out, and this is the image they’ve gone with:

Oh, those rascally World Leaders! So hypocritical in their solidarity with the French Nation after the massacre of free-thinking, free-wheeling satirists, when in their own country they imprison and kill journalists themselves! How comical! Let’s all be wry and cynical about it in the best tradition of English humour!

Funny, that (not funny ha-ha): that this joke is coming from such a very English publication. After all, similar criticism could have been leveled at the assembled country heads from the Asian-British humourous weekly, or the feminist Viz, or the… Oh wait. There is no Muslim Private Eye. No Arab Charlie Hebdo. No Afro-European Viz, no Feminist Rory Bremner, no Orthodox Jewish (or, God forbid, Zionist!) Voltaire poking fun at the post-WWII pieties of a prosperous Western Europe, sanguine in the knowledge that we’ve done the Holocaust now, it’s so 20th century darling, We Shall Remember and It Will Never Happen Again.

One does rather wonder. Well, no, actually, one really doesn’t. White men have the vast majority of the money, power, influence and education on this continent (sorry Brits, I’m lumping you in). They always have done. They get to say what goes, and frankly they get to say what’s funny, too. And even if it were to so happen that an Afro-French comedian were to amass the money, the following, the influence and the media visibility to really start taking the piss, well then he’d just… What’s that? Get arrested, you say? Barely days after the whole world was up in arms about freedom of speech & how important the French tradition of irreverent humour was? Surely not!

I’m Jewish, which means there’s not really much love lost between myself and Dieudonne M’bala M’bala. Frankly, he creeps me out. But I am unquiet to a degree unmatched by the many self appointed (male, white) champions of freedom of expression that France is expiating its Dreyfus &Vichy guilt on his particular African back. Like, thanks and all that, but no thanks. I’ll handle my own anti-Semitic comedians – the nice gentlemen of the security service could perhaps better employ their time providing Hebdo-style round-the-clock security to my sisters who are speaking truth to male power and encountering the terrifying Heckler’s Veto of death threats backed up by publication of their own and their families’ addresses, employment details and banking information.

It’s not as if women in aren’t killed by men on any given day, is it. Or for that matter, it’s not as if Muslims aren’t killed by drones, occupying armies and so called “peace-keeping” forces sent by the West, like, all the time. Atleast 160 by just this one guy, according to a Clint Eastwood flick that opened "surprisingly strongly" at the weekend despite being the most blatant, virulent anti-Muslim propaganda seen in years. And Clint wasn’t even trying to be funny. Why, one wonders, aren’t Iraqis living in the US provided with NSA bodyguards?! I’d sure want one if I were them!

But then again America is a law unto itself, with its constitutionally enshrined free speech and its tradition of free press and its absence of laws banning any kind of speech or expression. I mean yes, if you’re a black protester holding his hands up and chanting “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”, then the police will tear gas and arrest you. And you’ll get called a terrorist by people on TV. And your protest will be reported as if it had been a riot. But look, if you’re a large corporation run by white men, then your freedom of speech is protected by the Supreme Court, so it’s all good, right? Freedom of speech is obviously A Thing! That exists! And people have it!

Yesterday I saw this news item in passing, about a teenager arrested in France for sharing this spoof Charlie Hebdo cover (I have my own suspicions about what colour teenager that was):

I thought it was rather good, mostly because, unlike almost all the Charlie Hebdo cartoons I’ve hitherto seen, it’s actually funny (especially in context). Freedom of speech, it says, is no protection against actual violence. The pen is not literally mightier than the submachine gun. And as if to prove the point, the lovely chaps of the Nantes constabulary hauled in this kid for sharing this on Facebook.

I mean, c’mmon. The double standard here is so eye-bleedingly blatant I can’t even find words to write about it. It seems so thumpingly obvious that freedom of speech must be extended to all lest it be functionally withheld from all that I actually don’t know how to bring this paragraph to a close now.

Except, I guess, to say this. If, in the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders, your instinct was to mount an impassioned defence of the right to offend in the name of freedom of speech, then you weren’t only defending an ideal: you were also defending a status quo. And in that status quo, actual freedom to speak is not an equally distributed resource: rich white men like Rush Limbaugh and Nigel Farage have it, and pretty much everybody else doesn’t. 

Satirical magazines like Charlie Hebdo and Private Eye stand for that status quo at least as much as they stand for the principle which they nominally embody. I’m sure the men who run these publications are perfectly nice liberal guys who think that freedom of speech is a splendid thing, Orwell, Voltaire, yaddah yaddah. But this doesn’t change the fact that they are heard that much more loudly and clearly against the background of silence from all the people who are not them.