Photo by Francesco Carta fotografo

Gender ketman

Masking doubts to avoid dissent

Artillery Row

Ketman is a game of acting. It involves outwardly performing in compliance with a dominant belief system whilst inwardly rejecting it. Ketman is a form of self-protection, particularly when living under strict religious or totalitarian rule. Today, the game of Ketman is played as a way of hiding real opinions about gender ideology.

Milosz illustrates the lengths to which people went to mask their inner convictions

I first came across the concept of Ketman in Csezlaw Miłosz’s powerful 1953 book The Captive Mind, about life in Poland under Nazi right-wing and Stalinist left-wing totalitarian control. Miłosz dedicates one full chapter to Ketman. To play Ketman is to wear a mask, to simulate the behaviour that is required to fit in with the masses, to avoid the consequences of speaking up against a dominant ideology.

When the UK trade union for academics and lecturers, the University and College Union, released a video last month of their 2023 congress, it showed a crowded room of people loudly chanting in unison “trans rights are human rights”. They were holding up identical cerise-pink signs with words in all-caps, “TRANS RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS”. I wondered, as I watched the clip, how many in that room were practising Ketman.

Miłosz came across the idea of Ketman in a book by Count Joseph-Arthur Gobineau (1816–82), entitled Religions and Philosophies in Central Asia. Gobineau served as a French diplomat in Persia during the mid-19th century, and he reckoned that the masses in Persia were practising Ketman. Gobineau also wrote about the “Allah lexicon” that included expressions such as inshallah and mashallah and insisted that scarcely one out of twenty Persians believed what they were saying.

Although Miłosz considered Gobineau a “rather dangerous writer”, he recognised Gobineau’s description of Ketman in the behaviour of people in Poland under Stalinist rule. The person practising Ketman must keep silent about their true convictions and must sometimes engage in trickery to deceive their adversaries. This can mean participating in rituals, waving banners, saying words or phrases to deceive others, and writing books filled with ideas the authors themselves don’t believe.

Miłosz said there were many different varieties of Ketman. Versions outlined in The Captive Mind include Metaphysical Ketman, which involved pretending to have no religious beliefs; and Ethical Ketman, which resulted from inwardly opposing the ethics of the “New Faith” of Stalinist communism, such as informing on neighbours.

Milosz’s description of National Ketman illustrates the lengths to which people went to mask their inner convictions. National Ketman was manifested by loudly proclaiming praise for Russia’s achievements, carrying books by Russian authors, humming Russian songs, dedicating works to Russian figures, publicly and openly condemning those who expressed a desire to follow the national path to socialism, all the while inwardly feeling contempt for Russia.

After reading The Captive Mind, which I picked up in the bookshop section of the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow last November whilst on a Holocaust study trip, I realised that Ketman is being practised widely in western societies today. It takes place in the form that I will refer to as Gender Ketman.

Gender Ketman is an act, a game, a performance. It manifests itself in different ways. It can include staying entirely silent about gender ideology or proclaiming, like one senior academic I spoke to recently, that they don’t know anything about men and women because their PhD was not in gender studies. Ketman can also be performed by wearing badges, displaying flags, including pronouns in email signatures, chanting (or writing) mantras, signing letters of condemnation, or publicly disowning someone who has questioned or critiqued gender ideology. The person engaging in Gender Ketman hides their true beliefs that biological sex does matter and that humans cannot change sex.

Ideas that appear hugely popular are sometimes secretly opposed by most of the population

Miłosz points out that when a person plays Ketman for an extended period of time, they end up unable to distinguish their real self from the self they simulate. It’s almost like they begin to believe the lie. This level of association with the role being played gives some relief however, as the person no longer has to worry about dropping their guard when in conversation with others.

Helen Joyce, in her speech at Genspect’s The Bigger Picture conference in Killarney, Ireland, in April this year, spoke about her incredulity when she realised that some people really really mean it when they say that men can be women. The people she was referring to are true believers. They don’t have to play Ketman because their belief is real. It’s impossible to distinguish true believers from those who are practising Ketman or from those who have now fully aligned themselves with an acted role.

Some of those protesting Kathleen Stock’s recent speaking event at Oxford Union were possibly practising Ketman. Certainly, it is likely that many of the protestors hadn’t read what they perceived to be her blasphemous book Material Girls. Andrew Doyle, on Free Speech Nation, made the point that Kathleen Stock wasn’t being monstered for her views; she was being attacked because she had the courage to say them out loud.

The practice of Ketman contributes to the ongoing spiral of silence. Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, who developed the spiral of silence theory, suggested that people’s willingness to express their true opinions about controversial moral issues is linked to perceptions about the popularity or otherwise of the opinions. If an idea is perceived as unpopular, the person will often keep it silent to protect themselves from the risk of social isolation. Sometimes, ideas that appear to be hugely popular are secretly opposed by most of the population.

The greengrocer in Vaclav Havel’s famous essay “The Power of the Powerless” is another example of a person practising Ketman. The shopkeeper places a sign in his shop window with the words “Workers of the world, unite!” It’s the shopkeeper’s way of marking himself out as someone who is compliant with the required ideology. Posting the slogan is participating in the masquerade.

Ketmanship is sometimes necessary to secure social status or keep a career. People have children to feed and mortgages to pay. One way that they try to straddle the gap between playing Ketman and honestly expressing their views is by having anonymous accounts on social media. They are practising a version of Ketman whilst at the same time expressing their true opinions from behind the mask of anonymity.

Gender Ketman can ease the path of life during trying times. Open opposition to gender ideology, or even mild-mannered critique of it, can result in a rough road. Without Ketman, there can be a naked vulnerability and a risk of social exclusion. People not playing Gender Ketman have lost friends, lost jobs, been publicly condemned, dumped from degrees or from literary or artistic circles. Although it’s impossible to know how many are practising Gender Ketman, my suspicion is that it is widely utilised. No human being can change sex. Staying silent about it, really believing it is possible, or engaging in Gender Ketman can’t change the truth that exists beyond words.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover