Social Justice Starts to Go Rogue

I know I’m always banging on about the correlation between the rise of Social Justice movements and the rise of divisions, hostilities and persecution in our societies, but I’m afraid you’re about to be subjected to some more! 

For decades, for centuries even, courageous and independent minded people have striven to correct inequality and injustice in our societies. In doing so, they have addressed the prejudice that both underpins, and is a result of, such discrimination.

Many of their legal battles have been won, and much new legislation (technically) protects the rights of the more vulnerable among us. Along with this, there was a marked decline in overt prejudice and discrimination, and a precipitous decline in its acceptability. The universal and indignant condemnation of prejudice expressed by young people is a testament to the success of those earlier pioneers. The war has not been won, however, although the front line has been pushed forwards from the laws and conventions of the country into the realm of personal attitudes.  

The internet, especially social media, has established a monopoly as the sole theatre of this new conflict, and as the forum for its debates. 

This should not surprise us. The internet is the largest meeting place of minds that the human world has ever known. That means it is also the largest market-place for ideas and for presenting yourself. Changing people’s attitudes involves dealing with their interior world. It means criticising their character and altering their private thoughts, which are the fundamentals of their identity. What better place for this attempt?

However, the internet is also the church of isolated individualism and solipsism. Its gospels are the testaments of self-assertion; its theology that of self-realisation; its saints the disadvantaged and thus blameless; and its blasphemous heretics who must be burned, are any who question, in any way, the truth of any statements made by the faithful. Its blessings (in common with most religions) include the fact that you do not have to consider the victims of your hatred and cruelties as real people because they are not true believers. And, in the internet’s case, you will never meet them.

But religions create their own demons and fears. The internet is plagued by anxieties born of uncertainty and suspicion. We are so isolated from each other that everything and everyone online is un-knowable, hidden behind screens of typed graphemes. It is impossible to verify the truth because you do not share contexts: personal, physical, cultural, social or historical. Everything is unreliable – fluid and protean. There is such loneliness behind all the international contact. 

It was probably inevitable that internet users would end up sitting alone in their bedrooms, worshipping at the shrine of their own feelings. It was also probably inevitable that a medium of such abstraction from real life, and thus such uncertainty, and that relies so much on self-referential data and reading, would develop a sort of half-baked, semi-intellectual culture of rumour, half-knowing and quarter understanding, of mis-remembered statistics and misapplied truths. 

Thank You, Jack Underwood!

But that’s enough about Jack Underwood. I hope, were he ever to read these posts, that he would see how much I appreciated his book, despite all the criticism. In fact, all those words I spent disagreeing with him are a testament to how engaging and thought provoking his writing is. I also found much of his work profound and wise, moving, and beautifully expressed. But that is far less interesting to write about!

You are Your Body

It is an act of great imagination to conjure the presence of a real person from their glitchy image and tinny, interrupted, ersatz voice on Zoom. It’s a testament to the creative abilities of the human brain[1]. But it also speaks of the domineering nature of that powerful organ, and of our increasing alienation from our own bodies, a process that has been vastly accelerated by technology in general, and social media in particular. 

Many modern assumptions rely on the idea that we are entirely mental entities. Think about the idea that one day a person might be downloadable onto a computer, or into a cyborg or robotic body. The internet allows us to exist entirely as language, spending our time exchanging meagre written messages with other insubstantial ghosts and kidding ourselves they are our friends, that we have relationships with them, that they are our people, that we’ve found our family online.

Meanwhile, our bodies remain unsatisfactory, limiting, and disappointing: dully unresponsive to our aspirations, unpleasant to look at, even resentful of our excesses, visiting us with vindictive aches and pains in response to our exertions, refusing to supply us with enough energy or strength. Our bodies trap us, they prevent us being what we want to be.

So, our aspirant minds become like exasperated managers or farmers. Our bodies are recalcitrant workers or animals, quite separate from who we truly are. They are dislikeable, alien objects to be dominated, subjected and controlled, bullied and abused into shape. 

The best and brightest of us are just as susceptible to these misconceptions as morons like me. Jack Underwood is neglectful and dismissive of a huge part of his own existence when he says, “I forget I have a body when I am writing. I disappear from the room and travel here, into my thinking voice.” (Not Even This, 2021, p82) 

Admittedly, Mr Underwood does, briefly, consider the influence of the body on the self. He mentions the enteric nervous system and the 40,000 self-regulating neurones in the human heart, and he wonders if a head transplant would change your personality (p88-9), but these are clearly amusing footnotes and asides because the locus of perception of these experiences is in a pre-existent, singular identity. It’s clear the mind is the person, for him, so that even when he is rhapsodising over his baby daughter’s little body and bodily functions (perhaps the best passage in the whole book) he still says, “I know your body better than my own.” (p93) 

Has all this neglect of our own bodies facilitated the rise of the transgenderism? That set of beliefs seems to be founded on the idea that you are “truly” what you aspire to, imaginatively, rather than what your body has made you. Trans people seem to express a dislike and antipathy towards their own bodies, an extreme form of the distaste most of us feel for our farting, pooing, pissing, sweaty, malodorous, black-head-pitted corporeal forms. Oh to be pure spirit!

In truth, our identities, our consciousnesses, are founded on sentience: the ability to “see or feel things through the senses” (Oxford English Dictionary definition.) The self extends down the spinal column, radiates out through the body along every nerve to the tips of our fingers, the outer layers of our skin, then back again through the sensations they provide. We think through our bodies, our senses. Our nerve impulses are an integrated part of who we are. 

[1] Of course, all human relationships, all of humanity, only exists as electrical impulses in your own brain, but this alienating truth is something we should strive to overcome. It is our moral obligation to reduce the distance between each other: to reach out. 

An Image on a Screen is Not a Person in the Room

Jack Underwood comes across as a kind, caring and deeply thoughtful person, in Not Even This – far cleverer than me. But it is this thoughtfulness that may provide us with a key as to why he is uncharacteristically dogmatic in his approach to gender issues. He is so highly cerebral that he seems to neglect the bio-physical, tangible aspects of his own existence. Like the Trans activists, he seems to accept without question the mind-body distinction of Cartesian Dualism, and to privilege the mental over the bodily. 

There are hints, and outright admissions, to this throughout the work. We’ve already addressed the bald statement, “the specifics of your sexual anatomy are beside the point of your personhood” an astonishing idea that is refuted by any rigorous study of animal and human behaviour. Zoology, anthropology, endocrinology, even ergonomics, rely on the idea that how an animal is made dictates its tendencies and capacities.  

These disciplines seem to arrive at tried and tested, peer-reviewed truths all the time, all of which would need to be false if Mr Underwood’s statement were to be true. The only way around this conundrum, that I can see, is to fall back on the religious idea that humans are not animals at all, that we were created complete in our present form, by some god-like creator, entirely separate and uniquely sentient and ensouled. Yet this position would mean abandoning evolutionary theory, at least, and is being increasingly questioned and eroded by recent studies of animal sentience. 

Another piece of evidence of Underwood’s rejection of body-thought comes when he addresses his daughter, saying, “you have grown up surrounded by technology that can summon people into the room, their voices into the air, their faces onto a screen.” Yet, this incorporeal state is not a person. It is a small area of pixilation on a screen; it is electrical signals mechanically translated by speakers into a facsimile of a speaking voice.  It demonstrates the most limited understanding of personhood to believe only these most abstract and disembodied, intangible and fleeting aspects of the self are the whole person. 

A person is not actually present, without their physical, multi-dimensional body; without the full embodiment of their facial expressions, tone of voice unmediated by electronics, body language, gesture, whether and how much they make eye contact, their smell, taste in clothes, hair-style and deodorant, the volume of their voices, how much they lean in to you when they talk: all the past decisions and experiences, all the character traits, beliefs and tendencies we can deduce from these things.

It is a lonely and solipsistic existence if we deny them. 

The Cyborg Wars

We’ve discussed before how Critical Race theorists have repositioned the word “Racist” by exploiting language’s inherent mutability and sensitivity to context. They have claimed it as a neutral, factual adjective that describes any aspect of a racially unequal society, including any of the behaviours and attitudes of its citizens. At the same time, they have kept its visceral charge, and drawn on its strength, as a deeply insulting criticism. The emotional, accusatory power is smuggled into the apparently measured and sober academic discussion, infuriating their right-wing opponents, and ensuring conformity in their guilt-addled liberal allies.

Trans activists have tried, similarly and unilaterally, to reposition “Sex and Gender”, creating an artificial difference between the two terms. The distinction is incoherent, however. You see uncertainty spread across the face of anyone who dutifully attempts to explain it, as they realise their explanation doesn’t make sense! I’d expect this unstable usage to die away, over time.

I suspect these thefts of our collectively owned resources are as old as sociology itself. Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto (1985), which Underwood discusses, uses the word, and concept, of the “cyborg” to reject traditional, rigid binary definitions: the distinction between Human and animal, or human and machine. These are stimulating and engaging ideas. Haraway advocates a more liminal, perhaps phantasmagorical way of perceiving the world, claiming that all modern people are cyborgs. 

Underwood quotes her as saying the cyborg is “an agent of transcendence and neitherness whose presence interrupts ‘racist, male dominant capitalism’ through its ‘partiality, irony, intimacy and perversity.’ It is ‘oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence’” (Underwood, 2021, p79)

Haraway has taken the term as an emblem of anything indeterminate, transgressive, or marginalised. That’s fine, but it’s a long way from the original sense. In science fiction, a cyborg character can be used to explore any of these issues as part of a narrative that addresses them. In Harraway’s usage, a single word is stretched to cover all descriptions of opposition to social norms. It has become too expansive, abstract, and allusive. It is diluted: softer and more ambiguous. 

We might complain that she has hopelessly confused the original meaning and thus diminished its power, and we might question by what right she has done so. We all used this word quite happily, in a much simpler, concrete way, with a definition that now threatens to elude us. She’s privatised the demotic commons of language. 

This is partly Jillian Weiss’s objection. Jack Underwood describes her as “the cyborg Jillian Weise – who uses the pronouns cy/she/her.” (Except, presumably she doesn’t: she demands we use the pronoun “cy”, when we talk about her in her absence, thus encroaching on our freedom of speech. If enforceable, these demands would be the worst form of tyranny – literal thought control.)

Ms. Weise complains that Haraway “co-opts cyborg identity while eliminating reference to disabled people on which the notion of the cyborg is premised. Disabled people who use tech to live are cyborgs. Our lives are not metaphors.” (Underwood, 2021, p79)

Unwisely, Jack Underwood allows himself to get drawn into this petty squabble. He advises us, “it is a vitally important point; people currently reliant on technological aids to stay alive often face a daily battle for visibility, access and equal rights; if you already possess those rights, and move around a world designed with your able body in mind, claiming to be cyborg would be an offensive erasure of the actual cyborg experience.” (Underwood, 2021, p80)

This whole artificial debate is utter nonsense, including the antagonism directed by Ms. Weise at Ms. Haraway. No-one meeting a person in a wheelchair or using crutches would think, “ah, yes, there’s a cyborg.” Firstly, the common understanding of a cyborg is an enhanced being whose functions have been boosted beyond those of the norm, not someone who uses kit to compensate for some of the difficulties they face. Secondly, because of the primacy we place on the mind in the supposed Cartesian mind-body duality, these enhancements are usually include directly cognitive enhancements.

To be a considered a cyborg, the technological aspects of a person’s existence would need to interfere with their biologically-derived cognitive existence to such an extent that their inherent humanity could be called into question. There would need to be such a significant level of alteration and enhancement of the mind, and thus of their experience of being human, that an ontological tipping point is reached. 

So, neither Jillian Weise nor Donna Haraway are cyborgs. Of course they aren’t.  Weise and Underwood are right to highlight the difficulties and discrimination that face disabled people. But Ms Weise’s claim that people who rely on technology “are cyborgs”, is entirely her own invention, without the support of any common usage at all. Despite her aplomb, hers is not “the actual cyborg experience.” Her use is equally as metaphorical as that of Haraway. 

Jillian Weise’s criticism is hypocritical. She  doesn’t get to own the term more than Donna Haraway simply because she struggles with a physical disadvantage. This isn’t a game of disadvantage top trumps. After all, Haraway bagsied the word as a metaphor first!  

And Jack Underwood betrays the intellectual rigour he shows elsewhere in his book in what appears to be an attempt display his loyalty to his political constituency. 

Cyborgs: Weise vs Haraway, Refereed by Underwood

Mr Underwood’s eagerness to demonstrate his correct thinking leads him into a discussion of cyborgs

Cyborgs are (currently) fictional. This is very clear from the word’s common usage. (That’s how words achieve their meanings.)  The term seems to have been coined by Manfred Clynes, in the 1960s to describe a hypothetical being who is partly artificial/ mechanical and partly biological. Dictionary definitions emphasise this fictionality. For example, the Macmillan dictionary defines a cyborg as “a creature in science fiction stories that is part human and part machine.” Collins defines it as “in science fiction, a cyborg is part human and part machine, or a machine that looks like a human being.” Cambridge: “in science fiction stories, a creature that is part human and part machine”; Oxford: “a fictional or hypothetical person whose physical abilities are extended beyond normal limitations by mechanical elements built into the body” or “a hybrid being: half human and half machine.”

It’s an interesting and very modern idea and has been used metaphorically, supported by its positioning in invented narrative, to explore issues of identity, authenticity, and alienation, of sentience and consciousness, of what it means to be human.

It is pleasing to consider the interface between the human and machine, using the idea of the cyborg as a tool. Any technology mankind becomes reliant on, especially if we can use it to delegate cognitive tasks, could be said to turn us into cyborgs. Paper and pens? They free up memory for other tasks and allow us to record parts of a complicated process while we address other parts. Are there elements of a cyborg existence in our reliance on our mobile phones?  What about our watches and clocks, which have fundamentally altered our thinking about time? Is a human in a wheelchair a cyborg? What about someone who merely uses crutches, or a walking stick? 

But it has been hijacked by those branches of academia whose titles always end in “…Studies” and whose faculty members, those tenure-chasing hucksters and shysters, those slíbhíns, combine pseudo-science with a poetic use of English. The practice allows them to adopt pre-existing words as fanciful metaphors. Once a word is isolated and alone, surrounded by new contexts, its definition can be forcibly changed to suit a new purpose, while still retaining its old emotional charge. This creates doubled, bridging terms that span two discourses and thus serve two purposes simultaneously.

(To be continued…)

Saluting the Flag: Gender Orthodoxy in 21st Century Britain (and Not Even This)

Further orthodoxy, although of an older sort, appears in Jack Underwood’s dismissiveness of masculinity. This is characteristic of a generation of liberals (like myself) who cut their political teeth supporting Feminism before Transgenderism arrived on the scene: people in their 30s or older, really. Thus, Mr Underwood talks of “the limits of patriarchal language and imagination… its erasures and violences”, “the absurd yet enduring alpha-male fantasy of hetero-patriarchy”, how he finds masculinity’s “toxic forms repellent” and how “the fear of being afraid that we cisgender heterosexual men carry inside ourselves is most commonly and violently re-directed at those who are not cis, heterosexual men.” He also admits to fearing if he had a son, he would grow up to be a rapist. 

That’s all well and good, and I would agree that these unpleasant traits are characteristic of maleness and patriarchy at their worst. They are the deserved caricatures of traditional patriarchal societies, when all the complexity and individual variation has been bleached out by generalising. It is to our shame, as men, that our society is recognisable in such generalisations.

However, sweeping statements are the abstractions of theory and statistics, and assumptions cannot be made about individuals on the strength of them. That is prejudice. When Underwood talks of “we cisgender heterosexual men” and uses phrases like “most commonly”, he is suggesting that conformist fear and potential violence is universal. That is deeply unfair to all the lovely, kind men I know.             

Mr Underwood also says, “I know that my class and my whiteness have afforded me more pathways and easier access to cultural spaces where I do not have to perform a strictly normative version of my gender.” In trying to acknowledge his white male privilege, Mr Underwood seems to imply that less privileged men are forced to enact a swaggering and violent form of toxic masculinity that he has been thankfully freed from. In other words, poor folk, he suggests, are violently misogynistic and sexually bigoted, whereas he has the privilege not to be. This is unfair and is society’s fault, he implies, so it’s not prejudiced for him to point it out! Isn’t this a form of sorrowful, compassionate superiority?

All these confident pronouncements are delivered as articles of faith, without any evidence to support them. They are presented in the face of all evidence to the contrary, such as the fact that nearly all human societies, throughout history, have maintained the significant distinction between men and women, no matter how culturally, chronologically, and geographically separate these societies have been. He ignores the profound biological changes caused by sex hormones, especially during puberty, and the distinctive physical, phenological differences that these changes give rise to, from bigger average size and physical strength among men, to penises and vaginas, to breasts and body hair, to the bigger noses and jaws of men, to women’s menstruation and the ability to carry, give birth to, and feed babies. 

Marked biological differences could give rise to markedly different behaviours. Why not? The brain is a biological organ. I have a son and a daughter, and work in a co-educational comprehensive school, and my experience is that boys seem much more likely to be more active, physical and (sometimes) physically aggressive than girls, who are more likely to negotiate their environment and relationships verbally. The physical differences could also give rise to significant different behaviours and roles – in heterosexual sex acts, for example, and in the consequences, and subsequent reactions to these acts. Male sexuality is inevitably projected and invasive while female sexuality is likely to be receptive and discriminatory. Women are also biologically incapable of running away from unwanted pregnancies. 

I’m sure these dissimilarities are at least partly socially conditioned, but there is every reason to believe biology plays its part. After all, social conditioning, especially among the very young, can be indiscernible, and therefore may not always be occurring, whereas biological differences are glaringly obvious from birth.

Jack underwood makes no mention of any of this, nor of the influence these differences may have on behaviour in assigning social roles or social behaviour. All this is so markedly at odds with the thoughtful tenor of the rest of his book that it sounds like he is hurrying through a checklist of orthodox thought to avoid being purged by the secret police. He reminds me of a writer in Stalinist Russia fearfully trying to show his loyalty to the state! 

Perhaps this section is as performative and insincere as the paeans of those oppressed Soviet writers. I hope so. 

The Neo-Liberal Creed on Gender and Sexuality

I was brought up as an Anglican, a member of The Church of Ireland. On Sundays, the church service included a recitation of The Creed, otherwise known as “an affirmation of the faith.” This began, 

            “We believe in one God,

            The Father, the Almighty,

            Maker of heaven and earth,

            Of all that is

            Seen or unseen.

            We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

            The only son of God,

            Eternally begotten of the Father,

            God from God, Light from Light, 

            True God from true God… (etc.)

Jack Underwood recites his version of a neo-orthodox Liberal creed throughout his discussion on gender and sexuality, in Not Even this (2021, London: Corsair.) He labours the points I quoted in my previous post, saying, for example, “Feminist theory also taught me to reconsider my own gender in relation to my body… I am sexed… This aspect of who I am is only considered significant because I live in a society which is already gendered and so politically prioritises such a division and rewards its upkeep, and punishes those already subjected to the violent erasures and brute reductivism of this peculiar obsession with this kind of difference, in the face of all others.” (p36) 

This statement is made with such assurance, in the absence of any corroborative evidence, that it must be regarded as an affirmation of faith. We should not forget that he is a senior lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Goldsmith’s College. Universities used to be havens (and advocates) for freedom of thought and expression, and of debate. Now they have become repressively dogmatic environments, fiercely policed to ensure everyone holds the correct views.  

Strange, that. 

Mr Underwood and False Consciousness

It’s only when Mr Underwood starts taking about gender that his book strikes a false note. Suddenly, rather than scrupulously exploring his own thoughts and experiences, he is reciting a catechism of Liberal pieties. He announces, “The specifics of your sexual anatomy are beside the point of your personhood… but the world as it stands will summon your dormant reproductive organs to give a primary account of your ontology… You should not be subjected to this binary sexualised cleaving” (p34) No discussion or interrogation follows these doctrinaire statements, despite being highly questionable and unscientific. My own experience of Graves’ disease and anorexia have demonstrated how biology, hormones, even levels of nourishment, are inextricably linked to human thinking and thus the experience of self and of society through the interactions with those around you. This conclusion is supported by over 200 years of scientific research. 

Unfortunately, you do not own yourself. You are the common property of your community. Your identity is a construct negotiated between you and those you interact with, a compromise between your aspirational self-perception, how you are perceived and treated by those around you, and how you respond to that. 

The raw material of Jack Underwood’s daughter’s “personhood” will be fundamentally shaped by her gender because of the inevitably biologically gendered development of her body and brain, the recognition and reception of that by the society around her, and her response, in turn, to that reception. Trans men and women, because of the difficult journey they must embark on, are denied the defining formative experiences of the gender they aspire to. Those who wish to be regarded as non-binary must actively renounce their own biology as well as the social constructs that attend it and are founded on it. 

The assumption of self-ownership and authorship is a legacy of naïve cartesian mind-body dualism. This theory privileges a mythic spirit with a fully formed identity that is randomly assigned to an alienated body-casket. The theory encourages hostility to our own bodies because, rather than viewing them as an integral part of who we are, we view them as obstacles to our inalienable right to be who we want to be.

This heroic individualism is the monstrous child of consumer capitalist self-gratification. That Economic theory sells us lies that selfish, individual self-actualisation is the highest good, that it is a fundamental and inalienable right which trumps all social obligations, that it can, and should, be demanded of social providers such as governments, and that it can be expressed through purchasable merchandise. In other words, heroic individualism can be very effectively monetised.

Heroic Individualism is the very opposite of community-mindedness that is the basis of all brands of socialism. It is a capitalist Trojan Horse. Socialism has been infected by capitalism.

What I Like about Jack Underwood’s writing

Jack Underwood’s love for his daughter contrasts horribly with my own cack-handed disasters of parenting, giving me further reasons to dislike Not Even This. I was already prepared to be heartily annoyed by a self-congratulatory record of the joys and successes of his principled parenting. I was looking forward to it. 

But, disappointingly, I was charmed by this book. For a start, it is a courageous endeavour, trying to engage a reader in such an esoteric and personal set of musings. They are so rarefied and so meticulous that there is no room for pretention. He is thoughtful, honest and sincere, unashamed of his abstruse cerebrations and heartfelt in his feelings for his daughter. It’s sweet. 

And his prose is beautifully lucid. In fact, when he distils these vivid thoughts down into poetry, they seem banal and tepid by comparison: fragments of summary, abstruse and imageless referents, of  what he has already discussed so movingly.