The response to Greer and her alleged transphobia is just one example of a creeping trend among social justice activists of an identitarian persuasion: a tendency towards ideological totalism, the attempt to determine not only what policies and actions are acceptable, but what thoughts and beliefs are, too. Contemporary identity-based social justice activism is increasingly displaying the kinds of totalising and authoritarian tactics that we usually associate with cults or quasi-religious movements which aim to control the thoughts and inner lives of their members. The doctrine of “gender identity” – the idea that people possess an essential inner gender that is independent both of their sexed body and of the social reality of being treated as a person with such a body – has rapidly been elevated to the status of quasi-religious belief, such that those who do not subscribe to it are seen as not only mistaken and misguided, but dangerous and threatening, and must therefore be silenced.
If you haven’t witnessed this first hand, this might sound a touch hyperbolic and overwrought. But in the methods and reactions of those who espouse the doctrine of gender identity, we see many, if not all, of the features of thought control identified by Robert Jay Lifton in his classic study of indoctrination in Chinese re-education camps, to varying degrees:
- Milieu control – seeking to establish domain over what the individual sees, hears, reads or writes. Students at Cardiff University must not be permitted to hear Greer’s views, because those views are supposedly dangerous.
- Demands for purity – dividing the world sharply into pure and impure, good and evil, believer and nonbeliever. There are people who believe that trans women are women, and there are transphobic bigots who “deny trans people’s right to exist”. No intermediate position is possible.
- A cult of confession – individuals are required to reveal their sins and transgressions in order to be redeemed. As a non-trans person, the only way to secure one’s status as an ally is to confess to one’s “cis privilege” and to engage in repeated, performative privilege checking. (My own personal experience of this came when I publicly stated that I do not accept the label “cisgender”, which resulted in my being accused of the chillingly Orwellian-sounding crime of “privilege denial”).
- Loading the language – the use of thought-terminating clichés and complex and ever changing terminological rules. Just try to critically examine the soundbite “trans women are women” and see how fast the accusations of prejudice and bigotry come flying in. This is a phrase intended to stop you asking difficult questions.
As with so many of the current high-profile no-platforming cases, Greer is being ostracised and shunned, cast out of our moral community and declared beyond redemption, simply for the crime of believing the wrong things, of holding the wrong thoughts in her head, of defining concepts in ways that run counter to those of the newly-established doctrine of gender identity. It is not sufficient to behave towards trans women in a certain way, to respect their preferred pronouns and to support their right to receive the medical treatment they need. You must also really and truly believe that they are women. And if you cannot be made to hold this subjective mental state in your head, that is sufficient to justify silencing you, in the name of protecting the believers.
What all of this assumes is that we have the right to make these kinds of claims on each other’s inner lives. It supposes that I can legitimately demand that you believe the things I believe in order to validate my identity, that I can demand that you share my perception of myself because it would be injurious to that perception if you do not. And from there, it’s a quick step to the belief that if you do not share my perception of myself, you are committing an act of psychic violence against me. That by refusing to accept the narrative I tell myself about who I am, you harm me just as much as if you really did incite physical violence against me. Thus I become justified in using any tactics at my disposal to ensure that you see me the way I see myself, in making use authoritarian methods of thought control and indoctrination. Acceptance of the doctrine is the only path to salvation and enlightenment, and dissenting views are not only mistaken, but threatening – both to my understanding of myself, and to the ideology itself.
So it should come as no surprise that the non-believer in gender identity is so often told to “die in a fire, TERF”. It’s simply the twenty-first century’s “burn the heretic”.