Sep 16, 2014

Radfem panic: when demands for inclusivity are a cover for moral disgust

‘70% of communication is nonverbal’. I really hate that cliché, because I’m a words person. To me, carefully chosen and logically constructed verbal arguments should take precedence over all of the attendant (and extraneous) signals like tone, posture and facial expression. That’s what I like about the internet: it strips people’s mannerisms away and leaves them with only words at their disposal. It comes with all kinds of problems for interpersonal situations, but in the absence of trolling and abuse has been fantastically useful for thought, discussion, argument and idea exchange. I’ve always thought that was a good thing. I never had reason to doubt that the affect I’m missing on-line mostly conveys information that is of no interest to me as someone who is primarily interested in analysing ideas, not personalities. So it came as rather a surprise to me to encounter a really powerfully emotional, non-verbal situation, which translated to a strong intellectual insight occasioned by a person’s affect and not their words or arguments.

I was on a panel discussing women’s spaces at the FWSA conference 'Rethinking Sisterhood' last weekend, along with my friends and sometimes co-activists Sian, Helen and Shabana. All brought some really valuable insights into the question of women-only organising and the possibilities for interpreting and enacting sisterhood in that context; I won’t get into them here, but do follow the link to Sian's blog. The part of the conversation relevant to this post came relatively late in the session, when an audience member raised the question of trans inclusion: does the panel think that women-only spaces should be open to all self-identifying women, or not?

Well. You can just about imagine nobody wanted to touch that question with a fricking barge pole. We all know what happens, right? Either what you say is interpreted as being bigoted, transphobic and exclusionary, or it gets interpreted as anti-woman, patriarchy appeasing and callous. No middle ground, no way of pleasing everybody, and frankly a lot of the time no way of pleasing anyone at all. So there was a certain amount of foot-shuffling as we all tried to think of a way to not let the issue completely derail the remaining part of the session, and in the end I offered the following observation:

The important point, for me, about exclusion and inclusion in safe spaces, is not so much who they include and who they exclude, but that, as feminists, we keep ourselves obliged to the principle of consent. What that means is that even if a group of women wants to exclude us, on any grounds whatsoever, however spurious those may seem to us, our first duty as feminists is to respect their boundaries and not try to breach them or cause them to be breached.

I illustrated my argument by putting up my hand in a sort of “Stop!” gesture, palm out towards my audience, and saying: “the magic (i.e. feminist politics) doesn’t happen on this side of the hand or on that side of the hand. The magic happens at the hand: praxis is saying ‘no’ and having it respected”.

On the whole the argument was well received; though at least one radical feminist in the audience thought that this was a fudge and an insufficiently direct engagement with what she saw as the real underlying question: ‘what/who is a woman?’. The question of what is prior, definition or action, is a complex one and one I think that is being worked out as praxis within feminist communities rather than ever being resolvable by pure reason. So it will remain unaddressed here. What I wanted to get to was a particularly powerful response from one other member of the audience.

This woman (I’m going to call her Angela) opened her statement by describing her own emotional state: she said that she was very upset, that she was surprised by the level of her own emotional reaction to this issue. Angela described the physical symptoms of the reaction to us: her legs were, she said, jelly, her heart was beating, she felt flushed and panicky. She was basically telling us (I think mostly me personally, but I might be being a bit self-centred there) that our words have induced some kind of trauma response in her, a fully-fledged psychic distress event. She then went on to say she simply can’t understand how I could be so lacking in empathy, that I could reject someone out of my space who wants to be there is she is claiming fellowship with me as a woman. She also said that she finds my forbidding, stopping hand ‘incredibly aggressive’.

My first reaction was to be irritated: here I am, trying to make a careful argument for something I think needs to be calmly talked about and discussed, and this woman is trying to one-up me, to exploit her own obvious distress by manipulating my emotions. How illogical! How childish! How, well, rude! But later, in that over-intellectualising way I have, I couldn’t help thinking and trying to really understand what just happened in that room.

To explain what I think did happen, and in fact does happen a lot in discussions about lesbian separatism, radical feminism, women only spaces and other politics of women’s autonomy, I need to refer to three concepts: moral disgust, the uncanny valley, and gay panic.

The first of those is quite a familiar concept. We’ll take as a guide the definition proposed by Michael Hauskeller in a 2006 paper: “the expression of a very strong moral disapproval that cannot fully be captured by argument”. Liberals pride themselves on their low levels of moral disgust, in particular in relation to the sexual practices of others. This is why we tend to conceptualise the objections of the right to certain things like homosexuality as “phobias” – irrational fears stemming from an underlying moral disgust. It’s also why the “phobia” frame has so successfully, and without any problematizing interrogation that I could see, migrated to be applied inside the social justice left, in terms like transphobia, whorephobia, fatphobia, femmephobia and so on.

But here was a person literally, in every physical sense of the word, exhibiting a phobic reaction. Angela was terrified by me, terrified of my implacable “Stop!” And much like conservative activists seeking to criminalise or marginalise homosexual relationships, she was using the very viscerality of her own reaction as a strong progressive/liberal moral argument: you have upset me, therefore I am right. What was going on?

To explain that let’s look at the other two concepts: the uncanny valley and gay panic. The first comes from the world of humanoid robotics. Researchers working with robots found that people react emotionally to with high levels of comfort to robots that look completely non-human, somewhat non-human, and absolutely believably human. But at the point on the scale where robots exhibit almost-but-not-quite believably human features, there is a dramatic dip in the levels of comfort people experience (the ‘valley’ of the name). There are a lot of theories as to what could be the reason for this, and no conclusive explanation, but that shouldn’t concern us here; all I want to point to is the discomfort associated with confronting an object that doesn’t fall neatly into one of two categories (machine/human), exhibiting insufficient characteristics of both but not seeming to be fully either. This concept can be useful in thinking about reactions to trans people and the different ways people in general view drag queens or pantomime dames (obviously not female and therefore not triggering discomfort), passing trans women (completely female-looking and therefore not triggering discomfort even when we know they are trans), and non-passing trans women and cross dressers (not quite fitting into either definitely-male or definitely-female category and therefore the focus of a lot of the hostility and discomfort from the general population). It’s a hypothesis that needs testing, more a hunch of mine than a proven phenomenon of course, but I think it’s worth thinking about.

Lastly, ‘gay panic’ is a legal device employed (sometimes successfully) in the defense of men who commit violent crimes against gay people. The contention is that when discovering someone is gay (or transgendered – the use of this defense has transferred to the category of hate crime against trans people too), some people, in practice men, are overcome by an uncontrollable sense of panic, that functions like temporary insanity and drives them to react violently and seek to destroy the cause of their panic by beating or killing that individual. In essence this defense legitimises violence based on moral disgust, claiming that its visceral power is such that it can lead to irresistible defensive (and therefore aggressive) urges. Why these men don’t just run away if they’re scared, don’t ask me – I don’t think it’s a very convincing argument at all, rather an excuse to make male violence seem inevitable and unavoidable (what else is new etc.).

I think when liberal feminists and trans activists talk about transphobia, they are accusing radical feminists of a type of ‘trans panic’, a desire to enact violence on or at least distance themselves from trans women based on a moral disgust associated with the uncanniness of their sometimes ambiguous presentation. I think this is a mistake: there is, as I was saying above, a rational argument to be made for the need for female only spaces in all kinds of different situations, and radical feminists are seeking to make that argument, rather than simply deny trans people full rights and humanity out of a culpable, in the progressive worldview, sense of repugnance. I think that mistake leads people to respond to radical feminist argument the way Angela did: we react with ‘radfem panic’, a kind of moral disgust that ‘cannot fully be captured by argument’, but just is.

Why? What about women seeking to define, defend and police their own social and sexual boundaries causes that visceral, panicky reaction? It seems such an innocuous thing to ask: just leave us these small spaces. Go on with your lives, think, write, organise, work alongside us, ally with us, but respect our demand for some spaces where we would like to be alone. I mean, put like that, it seems completely incomprehensible to refuse, doesn’t it? Who else but women would be denied a small private space to discuss their experiences of childhood sexual trauma, for example? What can even be gained from breaching those boundaries and enforcing unwelcome inclusion in those spaces?
Welp, here’s what I think: I think (and I know this sounds a bit grandiose, but I’ve had a Big Emotions sort of weekend) that the argument between radical and liberal feminists about the inclusion of trans women in women-only spaces boils down to Angela’s reaction to my hand saying “Stop!” And the reason that happens is that the non-compliant woman falls, for many of us, into the uncanny valley of gender, just as much as the non-passing trans woman does. The woman who insists:

“I am not permeable, penetrable, all-containing. I have a border, a definition, a limit to my physical and psychic self which you are not allowed to enter. I contain an authentic subjectivity to which you are not privileged. I get to decide who to empathise with and who to reward with my nurture and my effort; you do not get to claim them as your due. I have an “I”, a real and embodied experience which belongs only to me, which is understood only by me, which I insist must be controlled only by me. I am as fully human as a man. I am a person, and I demand you respect my personhood by respecting my right to set boundaries. Thou. Shalt. Not. Pass.

That woman is a monster of sorts, an aberration for which we have no language. She is uncanny; she is neither a man nor fully a woman, for to be a woman is to be the opposite of all of the above. To be a woman is to be permeable, accommodating, open, inclusive. Femininity is inclusion. The aggressive hand raised in a gesture of prohibition is the antithesis of femininity, and to see someone like me, who for all other intents and purposes looks and acts like a woman, enact that transgression, is disorienting and potentially frightening. All the more frightening when many women, whole groups of them, communities of women stand up and say: no more. We shall not contain. This is our space and we get to say who comes and goes here.

None of the above pertains necessarily to the hoary “are trans women women or not” debate. Who knows what a woman is? I sure don’t. A more badly defined concept hardly exists in the history of Western thought, mostly because for at least the last 3 millennia it was not considered worth bothering with. Everybody knew what a woman was: she was that formless Other that contains as its very function, the repository and source of all life, passive and mute in her fecundity. She has no right to ownership, because her borderlessness lets all property slip through and out. She has no right to know, because she cannot control what thoughts flow into her and what thoughts emanate. She has no right to say who comes and goes in her body and on her body and out of her body; her body’s function is only to receive and contain. She can only feel, and include.

When it turns out that other views are available, is it really a surprise that those views cause ‘rad-panic’?