Welcome back to reality, feminists

Feminists like Stock have made a belated rediscovery of biological reality

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

‘What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.”

The opening sentence of Francis Bacon’s celebrated essay “Of Truth” stands like a declaration of intent at a foundation moment of our culture. 

For asking the question, “staying” (waiting) for the answer and having the freedom to pursue it wherever it leads and however uncomfortable the destination might be is the key to the astonishing achievement of the western tradition in the last four or five hundred years.

The quest for “truth” has, however, been notable largely by its absence from the discourse of our universities in the last few decades. The fact was brought home to me by a breakfast-time conversation at a house party last summer. My interlocutor was an agreeable young man recently down from Oxford. He was intelligent, highly musical and of good family and double-barrelled, though fallen somewhat on hard times (his grandmother, he explained, had never really forgiven his father for allowing him to be born in a house with a number).

 Which made his reaction when I said I believed in Truth and Falsehood and that it was possible to establish which was which all the more surprising. It was as though I had spoken in Sanskrit: the idea had never crossed his mind and nothing and no one in his long and expensive education had ever proposed such an outlandish doctrine. 

To those inside academe, Kathleen Stock’s books is radical, even revolutionary and a veritable crossing of the Rubicon

Everything in other words was relative; a matter of opinion or experience or feeling or some other form of comforting subjectivity. The truth in contrast was alien; cold in its remote objectivity and to all intents and purposes unknown and unknowable.

I was reminded of all this by the latest skirmish in the culture wars. It is taking place in the University of Sussex at Brighton where the feminist and lesbian philosopher Professor Kathleen Stock is fighting off a nasty campaign to force the university to dismiss her. Her crime is to have published a book with the title Material Girls.

Material Girls, by Kathleen Stock

The obligatory tacky pop culture reference (for what could be tackier than Madonna who has recently exposed her 65-year-old bottom on American TV?) is, I suppose, obligatory these days. But the subtitle is serious enough: Why Reality Matters for Feminism.

 To those outside the university, such a statement will seem conventional to the point of banality. But to those inside academe, it is radical, even revolutionary and a veritable crossing of the Rubicon. For the earlier generation of feminists believed no such thing and, to sustain their belief, they constructed an entire edifice of alternative language.

The problem, of course, is that the biology of sex suggests that there are essential and ineradicable differences between men and women. This did not suit first-wave feminists at all. They wanted to prove that whatever men can do women could do as well or better. Their solution was to “dematerialise” masculinity and femininity. 

All was going swimmingly for feminists until the fashion for transsexuality appeared

These were not, feminists declared, a product of intrinsic sexual differences (now denounced as “biological determinism”) but mere social conditioning. And whereas sex couldn’t be changed, social conditioning could be.

 Feminism’s final triumph was indeed more or less to abolish the word “sex”. Or at least to corral it safely in pornography and biology. Instead in any other context we were taught to use the word “gender”. The word is borrowed from grammar, where, as anybody who has studied Latin or German will know, nouns or substantives belong to one of three genders: masculine, feminine or neutral. 

That linguistic gender is arbitrarily assigned was a godsend to the feminist purpose; that there are three of them has turned out to be something of a Trojan horse.

All was going swimmingly for feminists until the fashion for transsexuality appeared. This, as a moment’s thought will show, depends for its plausibility on the idea of gender. If social conditioning makes a man a man or a woman a woman then social conditioning can, just as easily, change the one into the other. Or indeed into whatever combination of the two takes one’s fancy. Hence the multiplying of preferred pronouns (also taken from grammar of course): he, she, they, etc.

When confronted with another similarly extravagant doctrine, Bishop Berkeley’s rejection of matter, Dr Johnson refuted it by kicking a stone. Feminists, like Professor Stock, have experienced a similar collision with hard facts as they contemplate the possibility of sharing a shower or a changing room with a self-proclaimed woman who happens (since his biology has not caught up with her/their gender) to have a beard, testicles and a functioning penis.

Faced with such an intolerable prospect, Professor Stock has, to misuse a biblical phrase, “kicked against the pricks”. Hence the schism in feminism and hence Professor Stock’s belated rediscovery of reality.

This was set out most clearly in her written evidence to a parliamentary committee in 2020. Three points stand out: that womanhood and manhood reflect biological sex, not gender or gender identity; that the claim that “transwomen are women” is a fiction, not literally true; and that sexual attraction (being gay, being lesbian) is determined by same-sex attraction, not attraction to gender identity.

To which the only possible response is to welcome Professor Stock back to the real world. To that place where, as I tried to persuade my young interlocutor, there is truth and falsehood. Or, in Professor Stock’s phrase, fact and “fiction”. And that it is possible to distinguish one from the other.

Wokeness is not really an intellectual position at all, more a form of wish-fulfilment

But, once again, the apparent banality of such assertions conceals their academic radicalism, since they amount to the repudiation of the fundamental assumptions of two or three generations. These are the woke, the generations which, knowingly or not, are the disciples of Tony Blair’s guru and that charlatan’s charlatan, Professor Anthony Giddens.

His book, The Social Construction of Reality, has shaped a whole world view, in which the social construction of gender is a mere chapter. Giddens’s message, shorn of its original obscurity and turgidity, is simple: things are what you want them to be. This is solipsistic consumerism draped in sociological jargon.

 Which is both its strength and its weakness: it is psychologically strong, but intellectually weak. Indeed, wokeness is not really an intellectual position at all, more a form of wish-fulfilment. Or, somewhat to dignify it beyond its merits, a sort of pseudo-religion.

Which is why it replicates so many of the forms of religion: the attachment to dogma; the absurd fetishisation of correct language (“people of colour” good; “coloured people” bad etc.); the revival of heresy and the enthusiastic burning (aka “cancellation”) of heretics such as Professor Stock or, indeed, myself; the incantatory formulae (“trans women are women” rather than “Hail Mary”); and above all the way in which wokeness, like religion, becomes part of the identity of the wokester, which to question challenges the very identity of the person in question. Hence the passions, the demonstrations, the uninhibited violence of the language and even real violence.

All of which is very powerful, just as organised religion was once very powerful. And the more so, since like organised religion, woke has captured so many institutions from universities to great international companies. 

But the power of organised religion, great though it was, was brought down. Partly by the eighteenth-century mockery of Voltaire in France or David Hume in Britain. But much more so by the empirical attack of nineteenth-century Biblical criticism in Germany or Darwinian evolutionary biology in Britain.

Which is how the pseudo-religion of woke will be — must be — brought down. By the mockery of Andrew Doyle; by the brave reassertion of biological reality of Kathleen Stock; by the sober appeal to the evidence of Reclaim History and by the drip, drip of hard, unyielding fact. It begins as a trickle; it turns into a torrent and it will wash away this new Tower of Babel.

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