Twitter Fights and the New Biology
A few weeks ago, I was dying to jump into a Twitter argument that went on for at least 48 hours. The only thing that stopped me was my staggering ignorance of the topic which was whether sex is a construct and/or a biological fact. Actually, another thing which has prevented me from entering into fights about trans-issues is that, while I’m willing to enter into theoretical debates about transpeople, I’m nowhere to be found when discussions of their persecution arise.
Anyway, during this debate, we, being feminists of West African origin, found a heretic among us, in the form of Twitter handle, @Omogedami, or as I’m going to call her for the rest of this article, ‘Dami’. Dami is an important voice in online feminism. Some people are blessed with passion; others with righteous anger and still others an ability to appeal to our emotional core. For me there is something about the type of tweep who can calmly (almost politely) and methodically take her opponent’s arguments apart, over the course of several days if necessary, that brings out the fan girl in me. It is immensely satisfying when she is fighting ‘on your side’.
This is all very well and good but unfortunately Dami is a heretic. She believes things like sex is a biological fact (described, I think, as biological existentialism – a phrase with an almost infinite capacity to annoy) and that it is gender that is the problem. At the heart of her heresy is the fact that she does not believe that one has to be a qualified scientist to identify a female member of the human race. Others do. Another handle in the heat of the argument signed off one of her tweets with something like this ‘Sincerely, someone who holds a B.A. in Biological Science’ . I was itching to ask her when she obtained that degree and whether the degree covered anything to do with the recently transfigured biology regarding the sex as a spectrum, but alas I was not brave enough to join the fight.
Well, Dami, I see your heresy and I raise you this piece. Here is what I would have said (and probably regretted afterwards).
Yes, sex is a human construct. So is the chair I am sitting on. So is the thing on top of our head that we frequently call hair. Sex is a construct because humans are assigned one sex or the other based on our genitalia. They also decided one day that the thing on top of our heads and in various parts of our body is hair and that. depending on culture, some people should keep some on and remove some. They could have called it ‘the evil halo’ and mandated complete removal. A chair was put together and it was assigned the role of accommodating our bottoms to save us the stress of standing constantly. That too is a human construct.
Sex is an essential classification/construct used to separate males from females. Before the days of theoretical online debates and advanced scientific discovery, someone took the gamble that those with penises are different from those with vaginas. And they were right. As Dami pointed out, there are fundamental biological differences between us and those differences dictate how successfully we can fight ‘the other ones’, how we respond to medical treatment, whether we can give birth or not, whether our bodies will produce milk for our babies and who, assuming equal training and skill, will probably win in a race that could lead to a sports scholarship.
I also agree that the intersex exception does not invalidate this classification. I can now understand the argument that it is wrong to surgically or medically nudge intersex babies towards one of the sexes although I feel confident that I would have definitely agreed to it had one of my children been born intersex. I may set myself a heretical task. I’m going to find out whether people born with ambiguous genitalia have other sex indicators that point, in the majority, to one sex. Now, I know that male and female babies don’t look massively different, but are intersex babies a mish-mash of the sexes with chromosomes flying all over the place and if left to develop naturally, would they really grow up to be a complete mix of what we regard as male and female? Presumably yes, as hormones are also administered but we shall see.
A final word on sex. One contributor to the argument said that she knew someone with XY chromosomes who gave birth to a baby. She was lying (or misinformed). That didn’t happen.
Now on to gender. The consensus, on which all participants to the debate agreed, was that while the sex binary was debatable, the gender binary was bad. I’ve been very careful to avoid referring to gender above. I’ll have to check again because the truth is I use sex and gender interchangeably. I think most people do or at least did until very recently. I don’t talk about males and females, I talk about men and women, usually meaning males and females or even transwomen and transmen if I am not specifically discussing trans-issues. I don’t generally talk about people’s sex (which makes me think of sexual intercourse and also I feel I would cause some confusion and embarrassment two tables down if I start bellowing about ‘sex’ in a restaurant), I talk about their genders.
Here’s my real heresy. I don’t actually think the gender binary is bad in and of itself. Gender may be a construct but again it is a useful construct. I think the vast majority of people would identify themselves as either a man or woman. Even trans people do this and make considerable efforts to present as on or the other.
The first danger of the gender binary is excluding certain non-conforming people or using it as an excuse to persecute trans people. However that isn’t the inevitable result of using the gender binary as a reference point. I’m not sure how much you have to accept as ‘scientific fact’ to not be transphobic but I think a general understanding that while the gender is a useful classification system, the classing of people into boys and girls at birth isn’t the end of the matter is the minimum.
The second and more pervasive (in the sense that it affects me more, of course) danger, in my view, is the strata of sociological and behavioural traits that are attributed according to gender. This branch of ‘science’ has spurred entire industries made out of gendered toys and self-help books; female brains and men from Mars. I think for the most part, it is bollocks (no pun etc) and it has caused immeasurable harm.
I hope it goes away but there’s another new definition of men and women that has nothing to do with biology and everything to do with oppression. Discussion of gendered oppression is important and refusing to acknowledge the differences between trans and cis women can further that oppression. However I don’t agree that a woman is defined by oppressive history. Therefore although some transwomen do act with astounding male privilege, I don’t think that alone disqualifies them from womanhood.
The question I have is what was the purpose of this argument? Was it a scientific debate or is the suggestion that if you don’t agree with the latest re-arrangement of biology, passed down second or third hand through the internet, you are a transphobic bigot? Is it necessary to replace what we know about human development, to believe that transwomen were literally born female, before we can accept the trans community? I can understand why, if what they are saying is true, an understanding of biology will remove the ‘freak, just a bored over-privileged man indulging a fantasy’ slur but judging from articles (e.g. https://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/us_58e1878be4b0ca889ba1a763/amp) I’ve read, what is out there is far from convincing.
Another heresy, this time against the feminists, is I can’t really see the inherent oppression against cis-women in redefining women to include people who identify as women. One fear is that (cis) women will be erased by the insistence that transwomen and cis women are exactly the same. I’ll have to think about that one. I’m not sure that realistically there is any danger that cis-women are going to be erased in the way some ethnic minorities have been done in the past . I think cis women will always be distinguishable from transwomen. Also, I’m still hopeful that ludicrous terms like ‘menstruators’ will quickly fall out of fashion.
The real danger, to me, apart from the thinking that says we must disregard and deny physical facts in order to avoid oppressing transwomen and that if we do not agree with this new biology, we are not just ignorant or wrong, we are bigots, is the tendency to conflate facts, evidence, emotion and feelings of ‘oppression’ when arguing about science or anything else. You can’t just say you disagree with something, you must consider the hierarchy of the right to disagree which is, in descending order:
- whether it is your oppression
danger to women/children/minorities/trans or other vulnerable people;
effect on others’ rights;
intellectual or scientific reasons and finally;
moral or religious reasons
Could we not just accept that trans people exist and have a right to exist, free from persecution and with respect and dignity (and the lack of erasure and all the new woke phrases), and you know, agree that there some fundamental differences between them and cis-women which are sometimes worthy of consideration? At least on Twitter.
Speaking of Twitter, I sometimes feel like I am addicted to it. I don’t know if I really am but I cannot believe I ever thought it was acceptable to incarcerate addicts because ‘if you keep accepting their excuses, how will they ever learn?’. I’m now genuinely worried about it. It is sucking up my life, I do it when I don’t want to and I do it even when I know I’ll suffer for doing it the next day. I sometimes resent the presence of family if it would stop me from ‘doing Twitter’. Whereas before I used to at least attempt to hide the fact that I checked Twitter at night, I now tweet, like and reply with wild abandon at odd hours. I’ve just done it now, in the middle of an article about my Twitter addiction.
I have made some efforts. I have deleted my account for about 1 ½ days after carefully checking that for 30 days, I could get it all back again. The plan was to return on day 21 (pffffft!), when I would be cured of my addiction . I’ve been told that if you can’t stop doing something for at least 21 days, you are addicted. I’ve locked my account for an even shorter period but re-opened it because some stranger just had to see my opinion on his abhorrent tweet. I have checked out books from the library and read a bit of them.
What to do? There are no treatment centres or no 12 steps as of yet that I know of. The harm is real. I’ve sat bleary eyed at meetings, talking nonsense and forgetting the names of the project or site we are talking about, other colleagues and even sometimes my own name. I’ve tweeted in traffic. Yes, you read that correctly. Not just scrolled but actually typed out long answers to debates in traffic (admittedly, it was slow moving traffic, but still). I have piles and piles of admin that have gone neglected because every second of ‘spare time’ in my life is filled with Twitter. I hardly read and am constantly missing school and nursery deadline.
Everything is there – the self-loathing, the whipped submission and the insatiable appetite. I am now supposed to be on a 7-9 pm Twitter diet (which is not working by the way) but sadly I think my only real option is to de-activate my account permanently in the New Year. I am not looking forward to it. The annoying thing is I can’t even say I’m quitting Twitter because it has become ‘too toxic’. People either ignore me or are more polite than I deserve. It has changed the way I speak and think. It’s not been all bad. I am more knowledgeable about many things and have had some opportunities, on one hand, but on the other hand, I now use the n-word (mostly, to myself).
I’ll be spending December blogging about my first attempt to moderate my Twitter use. If I get to it. I note that this is the 1 December and I have not blogged since the end of September.