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The Critic Essay

The “shameless disrespect” of Judith Butler

The celebrated academic is too ideological to understand and accept different opinions

Such shameless disrespect on the part of someone professing solidarity with trans people could have concluded with this gesture of appalling mockery, but Rowling takes it further, identifying trans women with rapists, and refusing to check the speed and layering of her fantasy, namely, that trans women are really men (beware!) and that men are rapists or potential rapists (all of them, really?), by virtue of their organs (understood how?).

Judith Butler, Who’s Afraid of Gender?

I don’t remember exactly when I first read it, but I do remember that I read it with a certain frisson. I am talking about Martha Nussbaum’s no-holds-barred takedown of Judith Butler, who had already reached a cult-like status in gender and queer studies circles when “The Professor of Parody” was published in The New Republic on February 22, 1999. 

“One observes a new, disquieting trend” in the US, Nussbaum lamented, “something more insidious than provincialism” which has always been a defining feature of Western feminist scholarship. Rather, “It is the virtually complete turning from the material side of life, toward a type of verbal and symbolic politics that makes only the flimsiest of connections with the real situation of real women”. “One American feminist has shaped these developments more than any other”, Nussbaum said. “Judith Butler seems to many young scholars to define what feminism is now. As we wonder what has become of old-style feminist politics and the material realities to which it was committed, it seems necessary to reckon with Butler’s work and influence”.

Not surprisingly, Nussbaum’s critique of Butler’s impenetrable prose and her misgivings on the originality of their philosophical insights weren’t well-received among their many followers and friends (since Butler officially changed their gender identity to “non-binary” in California and said, in a recent interview, that they are expecting their pronouns to be respected, I will use the pronouns they/them in this essay)

“A vicious review”, said Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. “While Nussbaum raises some worthwhile questions, the element of vituperativeness in the essay is disturbing”, claimed Seyla Benhabib, Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson; “Nussbaum’s good versus evil scheme substitutes moralist fundamentalism for genuine philosophical and political debate among feminists”, maintained Joan Scott, inadvertently — and perhaps ominously — introducing an issue that was going to be central to discussions of Butler’s work in the following decades. 

Butler never responded to Nussbaum’s critique, other than a passing reference to criticisms of their writing style, which earned them the first prize in the annual Bad Writing Contest organised by the journal Philosophy and Literature in 1999. “The demand for lucidity forgets the ruses that motor the ostensibly ‘clear’ view”, wrote Butler, likening their critics to Richard Nixon who once “looked into the eyes of the nation, and said ‘let me make one thing perfectly clear’ and then proceeded to lie”. The reply was a red herring, for dense prose wasn’t Nussbaum’s main concern. What prompted her to write the article in the first place was the growing popularity of a new type of feminist politics, which she believed Butler exemplified — a “self-involved” feminism focused more on cultivating the self than improving the material condition of others. “Butler is like the Pied Piper leading all the children away!”, an unrepentant Nussbaum said in an interview in The New York Times, referring to the title character of the legend of Hamelin who played his magic pipe to drive rats away from the plague-stricken town. “If all these wonderful people drop out of politics, then there are that many fewer people left to fight against evil”. 

I wasn’t in a position to judge the merits and limitations of Nussbaum’s arguments, for I hadn’t read Butler’s work on gender; still, there was something that didn’t sit well with the image I had of Butler. “Judith Butler’s hip quietism is a comprehensible response to the difficulty of realising justice in America”, Nussbaum wrote in the conclusion of her essay. “But it is a bad response. It collaborates with evil. Feminism demands more and women deserve better” (my emphasis). Much more than a critique, this was a damning condemnation of Butler’s politics, and one that imputed agency and malign intent to its protagonist. How could she be so harsh, I thought, given Butler’s active involvement in social-justice initiatives, often to the dismay of the very establishment they were accused of collaborating with? Perhaps the dispute was personal, a turf war between two powerful personalities ploughing the same furrow. 

I had forgotten about Nussbaum’s essay by the time I reached out to Butler in 2013 to ask them to write an introduction to a collection of essays on the Gezi protests in Turkey I was trying to put together. They were kind enough to accept my invitation, and contributed not only to The Making of a Protest Movement in Turkey: #occupygezi, but also to a special issue of Globalizations on “Academic Freedom in Turkey… And Beyondwhich I edited in 2016. I finally had the chance to meet them in person in 2018, and spent an afternoon with them in Barcelona. They were caring and compassionate — the opposite of the person depicted in “The Professor of Parody”. Sure, I still didn’t have a clue about the “parody”, but I had now met the “professor”, and for all I know, there was nothing “evil” about them.

I was therefore shocked when I was involuntarily thrust into the centre of Turkey’s “gender wars” in the wake of my cancellation in June 2020, and discovered a world which was every bit as dystopian as the one foreseen by Martha Nussbaum. It didn’t take me long to notice that the figure of Judith Butler loomed large on both sides of the debate, either as a modern-day Oppenheimer whose discovery of “performativity” led to the erosion of women’s sex-based rights, or a rebellious Barbie whose dismantling of binary categories helped liberate tormented souls from the bodies they were “trapped into”, guiding them into a light blue, pink and white Barbieland. I no longer had the option of remaining on the sidelines, for my “trans activist” cancellers had already decided that I was on “the wrong side of history”, with those who they thought were bent on destroying the gender-fluid Barbieland and its inhabitants, even though I had never uttered a single word on feminism or the transgender issue. So I was spurred to find out more about the purported two sides of history. I learned to read gender-speak, and familiarised myself with the origin story of Barbieland which took me back to Butler and Gender Trouble. The more I learned, the more I agreed with the substance of Nussbaum’s critique. This wasn’t a question of writing style, but rather the implications of that writing style, the “mystification that eludes criticism”, and the “obscurity [that] creates an aura of importance” which “bullies the reader into granting that, since one cannot figure out what is going on, there must be something significant going on”. 

That explained why Butler’s theories had so much traction, sure, but not the grandiloquent claim that they collaborated with evil. One could disagree with their ideas, doubt their scholarly acumen, or dislike their politics. Yet none of this suggested calculation, or ill-intent. Was I missing something? 

It seems I was, and it was none other than Butler who planted the seeds of doubt in my mind. “I am not aware that terf is used as a slur”, they said in an interview they gave to The New Statesman on September 22, 2020, accusing feminists who questioned prevailing orthodoxies on gender identity of colluding with Trump and evangelical Christians. That was bizarre, and somewhat disturbing, especially if you knew about Butler’s earlier reference to Richard Nixon to discredit their critics. Why would believing that biological sex is binary, immutable and socially relevant make one an ally of “the most reactionary forces in our society”? And how could someone so immersed in “gender wars” not be aware that the term TERF (“trans-exclusionary radical feminists”) was used disparagingly — indeed, as a slur — to vilify, abuse and bully those who hold these beliefs? 

Butler was much more direct and belligerent in a podcast they did with Guardian writer Owen Jones a couple of months later. In response to a directed question about J.K. Rowling, they said: 

I think it’s terrible that she chose to make public these views or that she didn’t have a chance to work them out in a less than public venue. I understand she has a traumatic history, many of us do, but a traumatic history, I mean, it’s terrible to be subject to sexual violation for anyone is absolutely terrible, but that itself does not mean that … all men are rapists or that the penis wields this nefarious power on its own, I think that she has not used her public position well. That she’s fostered hatred and misunderstanding and perhaps capitalised on a history of sexual trauma in order to afflict and persecute others which does sometimes happen among traumatised people and it is in general a kind of responsibility not to pass along your trauma, not to find ways to persecute others um in a kind of revenge fantasy for the persecution one has received. (Edited for clarity)

Rowling “capitalised” on her sexual trauma “to afflict and persecute others in a kind of revenge fantasy”? This wasn’t the caring and compassionate Butler I thought I knew. And my research into gender wars, as part of a broader project on identity politics (which eventually saw the light of day as Cancelled: The Left Way Back from Woke), had already shown me that this certainly wasn’t what Rowling, or gender-critical feminists for that matter, defended. I felt a real need to talk to Butler, and ask why they said these things. It looked as if I didn’t have to wait too long, as I heard they were returning to Barcelona after a three-year, pandemic-related, hiatus. They seemed happy to hear from me, and we decided to make time for a coffee. When I followed up a week later to fix a date, however, I found out that they had changed their mind. Why, I don’t know. I was frustrated, of course, but accepted the brush-off. I valued our friendship, and I had done what I believed every friend should do: I reached out to try and talk about our differences.

Picture credit: Euan Cherry/Getty Images

The more excruciating part was to watch their public rant against “TERFs”, whom they believed were part of the global reactionary movement working towards a “fascist restoration”, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Pope Francis, Donald Trump, Giorgia Meloni and Viktor Orbán. This, and a series of similar performances at other venues — in addition to an uncharacteristically high number of online appearances and interviews, including a controversial one with queer historian Jules Joanne Gleeson in The Guardian which was amended after publication to remove factual inaccuracies (see unabridged version here) — provided the answers I was looking for. Butler was on a mission. Not an emancipatory one to forge a rainbow coalition that would fight against the dark forces of fascism, but a mission to seek and destroy. 

Nowhere is this more clear than the much anticipated Who’s Afraid of Gender?, their first book intended for a general audience, which ends up being both a blessing and a curse — a blessing because we finally understand what Butler is actually saying, and a curse because, well, we finally understand what Butler is actually saying. “When Butler’s notions are stated clearly and succinctly”, Nussbaum wrote a quarter of century ago, “one sees that, without a lot more distinctions and arguments, they don’t go far, and they are not especially new. Thus obscurity fills the void left by an absence of a real complexity of thought and argument”. In retrospect, far from being a “rhetoric of overkill” as it was portrayed at the time, this was a charitable interpretation of Butler’s writing, by a fellow philosopher who respected them enough to take the time and effort to closely read their work, meticulously citing them to allow others to take issue with her conclusions — the bare minimum of scholarly rigour.

We find none of this in Butler’s 320-page long manifesto-cum-call to arms, which should have been desk rejected by any editorial board or publisher worthy of the name had it not been written by an academic celebrity with an iconic status, and a brand that is highly sought after by the niche clientele of the ever-flourishing identity economy (the book was #1 in LGBTQ+ Demographic Studies, #2 in Literary Criticism and Theory, and #2 in General Gender Studies on Amazon at the time of writing). And that’s probably what led Farrar, Straus and Giroux, one of the so-called “Big Five” dominating the publishing industry, to turn a blind eye to the text’s egregious errors, distortions and omissions tirelessly documented by a number of sharp critics since the day it hit the shelves.

Alex Byrne … pointed to Butler’s “carelessness with citations” which led to what he called “a scholarly car crash” 

Many, notably Alex Byrne, pointed to Butler’s “carelessness with citations” which led to what he called “a scholarly car crash” in chapter 9 where they reproduced an entire paragraph by philosopher Catherine Clune-Taylor, and “passed them off as their own” without acknowledging the original source. This, and Butler’s persistent misrepresentation of views they purport to criticise, would be “unacceptable in an undergraduate essay”, Byrne concluded, let alone get published by a major publisher. Byrne left it there, but one could add that Butler’s text might well be considered a violation of the Berkeley Campus Code of Student Conduct itself, which defines “academic misconduct” as the “use of intellectual material produced by another person without acknowledging its source”, “furnishing false information”, “fabricating or altering information and presenting it as legitimate”, and makes these grounds for disciplinary action. It’s difficult to know the extent to which the text is guilty of the first, since Butler hardly cites their sources (and I agree with Byrne that the case of plagiarism he identified was probably unintentional). It’s clear, however, that they are liberally, if not necessarily consciously, “furnishing false information” and “fabricating or altering information and presenting it as legitimate”. As Holly Lawford-Smith, one of the two academics Butler engages directly alongside Kathleen Stock, noted, they’ve done so without referring to the books or scholarly articles these authors wrote (not a single word from Gender-Critical Feminism or Material Girls, for example). In fact, “from those individuals”, Lawford-Smith added, “she appears to have read only the text of one of my YouTube talks [and]Guardian article by Stock (which is about her starting the Lesbian Project, not a summary or defence of her gender-critical views)”. A glaring example of this is a passage in chapter 5 where Butler writes

Referring to neuroscience in an interview, [Kathleen] Stock claimed that the perception of two sexes is something that the brain simply does … As a result, [Stock] argued, to help children understand that someone assigned one sex at birth can elect for another sex assignment on the basis of their lived experience of gender is, in her view, to potentially distort children’s perception of the facts, or true reality — it is to harm children!

Where did Stock say that? Did she really say that, or did she say it the way Butler rendered it? We don’t know, and we can’t know because we aren’t told which interview they are referring to. Could we perhaps give them the benefit of doubt, and consider this as yet another “car crash”? 

We could, if there weren’t more. In the same chapter, Butler also discusses J. K. Rowling’s June 10, 2020, blog post explaining her reasons for speaking out on sex and gender issues: 

Rowling cites the well-known case of the psychiatrist David Bell, who resigned his post at the Tavistock, the central gender clinic in London, in protest over the medical treatment of trans youth. According to Rowling, Bell maintains that “claims that children will kill themselves if not permitted to transition do not ‘align substantially with any robust data or studies in this area. Nor do they align with the cases I have encountered over decades as a psychotherapist.’” Again, “the robust data” is oddly missing in this forceful declaration”.

To begin with, David Bell didn’t resign his post at the Tavistock “in protest over the medical treatment of trans youth”, but retired in 2021 as had been planned for years, a factual error Butler could have avoided if they had read the widely-circulated Guardian interview with Bell or simply Googled his name. Second, and more importantly, Bell never said the things Butler attributed to him. And third, Rowling never claimed Bell said those things either! Her 3670-word long essay doesn’t even mention David Bell, let alone cite him. The relevant passage from the blog post reads: 

In an article explaining why he resigned from the Tavistock (an NHS gender clinic in England) psychiatrist Marcus Evans stated that claims that children will kill themselves if not permitted to transition do not ‘align substantially with any robust data or studies in this area. Nor do they align with the cases I have encountered over decades as a psychotherapist” (my emphasis). 

This is a clear case of “fabricating or altering information” which raises several questions: given the recurrence of the problem, is it possible to assume that this was unintentional? How could readers know that one of Britain’s leading psychiatrists never made such a claim? Why does Butler cite — wrongly — a central figure of the debates they are covering through another source, and not refer to David Bell’s writings on the issue, or their scholarly exchange with pro-trans psychoanalyst Avgi Saketopoulou “Can we think psychoanalytically about transgenderism?” before commenting on Bell’s (or the person they say is Bell) experience of working with youth suffering from gender dysphoria? Could there be more car crashes in the text? And how many car crashes amount to “academic misconduct”?

But it seems that Butler has no time for such formalities. Their determination, and their choice of methods aren’t that different from those of the reactionary forces they profess to abhor. The Vatican (78), Pope Francis (25), Trump (24), Orbán (16), Putin (10) and Meloni (9) — the numbers correspond to the number of times each name is cited in the text — keep parading through the pages, more as rhetorical props to discredit Butler’s opponents than in their own right. As Sarah Ditum puts it, “Butler might be all about troubling the gender binary, but morally hers is a simple world of goodies and baddies”, one that is organised around the concept of “gender” which, they claim, has become “a phantasm with destructive powers”. This phantasm provides “the baddies”, “a range of examples and accusations to shore up the political case it wants to make”. It also operates like a conceptual Swiss army knife which serves many functions, allowing Butler to dissect, categorise, moralise and, of course, assert a Manichean logic which paints anyone who disagrees with their worldview as “racist”, or a “fascist” with a brown shirt hanging in their closet, to use Katha Pollitt‘s words. 

The weaponisation of the term phantasm and other psychoanalytic tools to allegedly debunk “anti-gender ideology” tells us more about Butler’s mindset and intentions than those of their opponents. This was neatly captured by Kathleen Stock who used Butler’s own weapon against them, drawing attention to the possibility of “a deeper fear” which might be at work in their crusade, “an unconscious desire to sublimate guilt”. “The level of projection in this book”, Stock wrote, “by which I mean, attribution of unrecognised features of one’s own behaviour to others, in the Freudian and Jungian sense, is off the scale”. Stock doesn’t elaborate further, for her aim is simply to offer a quick glimpse of how annoying it could be to be put “on the shrink’s couch”, by a complete stranger no less. But armchair psychoanalysis is easy, and tempting, especially when one is on an “eristic” quest to win at all costs. As John Poulakos explains in Berkeley-library-recommended Encyclopedia of Rhetoric edited by Thomas O. Sloane, “an eristic tries to overwhelm his opponent by drawing him into logical traps, confusing him with logical puzzles and paradoxes, exploiting the ambiguities of language, using fallacious reasoning, and showing that the other’s argument leads to absurd consequences”. Some of the better-known examples of eristic Poulakos cites are illuminating: “when one is telling the truth about lying, he is lying; if you know your father, and do not know the veiled person in front of you, but that person is your father, you both know and do not know the same person; if you have not lost something, you obviously have it — you have not lost horns, therefore you have them”. 

I will go out on a limb here, and indulge in some armchair analysis to illustrate how problematic, and dangerous, the Butlerian project is, in particular considering the level of projection at work which, one could argue, goes beyond the Freudian view of projection as a defence mechanism, and reflects a cognitive bias as demonstrated by Newman, Duff and Baumeister in their oft-quoted 1997 article “A new look at defensive projection: Thought suppression, accessibility, and biased person perception”. The new model of defensive projection proposed by Newman et al. claim that people’s effort to suppress thoughts of their undesirable traits may have an unintended side effect: “It may lead thoughts about the problematic personality trait to rebound and become chronically accessible”. “Insofar as chronically accessible constructs serve as the filters through which we view the world”, they write, “people may eventually come to see in others the precise traits that they most fear and loathe in themselves”. In short, “threat elicits defense, defense increases accessibility, and accessibility alters person perception”.

The question in Butler’s case is, what undesirable traits might have set this process in motion? What do they perceive as a threat? Obviously, I’m not referring to external threats here, but inner threats to one’s ego at the level of the unconscious, which trigger distressing thoughts that one tries to avoid through projection. Could it be a lack of academic rigour? Why does Butler accuse “advocates of the anti-gender position” of not reading “the scholarship on gender that they oppose” when it’s clear, as we have seen earlier, that it’s them who doesn’t have the faintest idea about the views of their interlocutors, preferring to misrepresent, in some cases even attribute words to them? We also know that Butler is aware of the importance of citing sources since they reproach J. K. Rowling and Marcus Evans (the psychiatrist otherwise known as David Bell) for failing to provide “robust data” or supplying statistics “for which there is no citation”. So why are they so frugal with their own citations? And what exactly do they consider as “robust data”? Pink News which they cite for prison crime statistics?  

Or is it moral absolutism, the black-and-white worldview? How else do we explain Butler’s representation of gender-critical feminists as a nasty bunch who describe their opponents “as stupid, suffering from false consciousness, fad-driven, doctrinaire, even totalitarian, allying with the rhetorical aims of the Christian Right” when they themselves claim, in fact in the same chapter, that “‘gender-critical’ feminists hold many of the same views on sex reassignment as anti-abortion activists, the Vatican, Trump, Orbán, Meloni, and other right-wing conservatives and nationalists”? How could they entertain the possibility that their opponents, most of them lesbians, gays, people of colour, of being driven by the wish to restore “a patriarchal dream-order where a father is a father … women, conceived as ‘born female at birth,’ resume their natural and ‘moral’ positions within the household; and white people hold uncontested racial supremacy”? 

Perhaps the answer is both. What rattles Butler most is a more general fear of being exposed. Shorn of the protective cloak of their inscrutable prose, it’s possible that more or more people would come to realise that Martha Nussbaum was right, that Butler’s “casual mode of allusion” prevented the readers from noticing that they are “advancing highly contestable interpretations that would not be accepted by many scholars”. This applies, above all, to their use of “psychoanalysis outside the clinic”, to borrow the title of a popular book by Birkbeck psychologist Stephen Frosh (who is an admirer of Butler’s work). Take the discussion of rape in a prison setting, which Butler describes as a “phantasmatic sliding in the service of fearmongering”, in this case attributed to Kathleen Stock (again without any citation). Butler’s description of what they perceive to be Stock’s line of reasoning is worth quoting in full:

Stock’s argument for not letting trans women into women’s spaces—an overtly discriminatory position—seems based on the notion that women will feel unsafe if there is a penis in the room. Where does that idea come from? What power is given to the penis in such a scenario, and what does it actually represent? Is the penis always threatening? What if it is limp or simply in the way, or the last thing on anyone’s mind? … Consider, then, the irony that the women most feared for having a penis may be among those people most disinterested in having one.

Let’s play along, and not disrupt the narrative with sexual offence statistics which don’t necessarily mirror Butler’s magnanimous depiction of “the penis” (see, for example, CDC and RAINN for the US, and CSEW for England and Wales. Perhaps more importantly, recent government figures in the UK revealed that “More than 70 percent of transgender prisoners in British jails are serving sentences for sex offences and violent crimes”). Instead, let’s recycle a question Butler asks Rowling on the question of self-identification: “She has appointed herself judge in the case, but what gives her that qualification?” So what gives Butler the qualification to speak authoritatively on rape? Did they spend time with survivors of sexual abuse or assault in a professional capacity? Did they work at a rape crisis center? Did they carry out fieldwork with victims of sexual abuse? Do they even know how to get ethical clearance to work with victims of sexual abuse? Do they have any idea about how a survivor of rape would feel when they read the following?

Yes, rape is unwanted penetration, and that can be from a penis, a fist, or anything else that can serve as a blunt instrument. The instrument does not give rise to rape, though it makes it happen. Strangulation requires the hands, but the hands themselves are not the reason why someone is strangling someone else. The activity of the penis or, indeed, a blunt instrument to execute a rape is surely not the cause of rape, but one of its possible instruments.

At this point, it would only be fair to turn around Butler’s accusation against Rowling (which gave this essay its title), and apply it to them: “Such shameless disrespect on the part of someone professing solidarity with trans people could have concluded with this gesture of appalling mockery, but [Butler] take it further”. “The trans-exclusionary feminist approach to banning those with penises from the bathroom or changing room, or mandating sex-segregated prisons makes no sense without understanding the powers of fantasy that seize upon the organ” (fantasy?). “Rowling seems to know this”, Butler writes, “but her argument veers off course as soon as she introduces, and extrapolates from, her personal experience”. And here things get personal. “In her view, whatever subjective feeling leads trans women to believe they are women is not to be taken seriously”, Butler says. “The ‘subjective’ is considered baseless, whimsical, worthless, but it is also strategic, shameless, base, and opportunistic”. “Rowling surely asks that her subjectivity be taken very seriously. Like others who oppose gender, Rowling finds herself riddled with contradictions, suturing discordant elements of her presentation together, to confirm that what she suffered once will be what all women will suffer if the category of women is expanded”, referring to Rowling’s experience of “domestic abuse and sexual assault”. “The reality of the trauma we suffer”, Butler tells us, “makes it difficult to distinguish between what we most fear and what is actually happening, what happened in the past and what is happening now”: 

To refuse to recognize trans women as women because one is afraid that they are really men, and hence potentially rapists, is to let the traumatic scenario loose on one’s description of reality … If I became convinced that a trans person carries or represents my personal trauma, then I have accomplished a projection and displacement that makes it even more difficult to tell my story, as well as theirs. Trans people now represent the violence of what has happened to me, even though they were not there, and someone else, who is strangely nameless, and notably a cis male, certainly was. Are feminists not inflicting a form of psychic violence on trans people by projecting in this way, associating them with rape when they are themselves struggling to get free of myriad forms of social violence as well? (My emphasis)

Let that sink in. What did Butler just do? They claim that they “have made use of psychoanalysis in the above criticism of trans-exclusionary feminism”. But they haven’t. They didn’t turn to psychoanalysis (not even armchair psychoanalysis) as a method of interpretation; they actually “analysed” Rowling. This gives us the right to ask the following: was Rowling Butler’s analysand? Did they follow the procedures of “the clinic” and meet her regularly for several years? How should we interpret the use of the first-person singular to recount Rowling’s experience? “Trans people now represent the violence of what has happened to me”, Butler-as-Rowling tells us, “even though they were not there, and someone else, who is strangely nameless, and notably a cis male, certainly was”. What does “strangely” mean here? Surely Butler is aware that the perpetrator is Rowling’s ex-husband, Portuguese television journalist Jorge Arantes, who admitted publicly in 2020 that “I slapped Joanne … I’m not sorry for slapping her” and that, on the night she left him, “I had to drag her out of the house at five in the morning, and I admit I slapped her very hard in the street” (Arantes was already in the news in the early 2000s. See here and here). Or is it simply a parapraxis? After all, how could Butler not know the name of the perpetrator, given their claim to know everything else that’s going on in Rowling’s mind?

Enough with the parody. What Butler does here is bad use of psychoanalysis — in a reductionist and pathologizing way and, as David Bell puts it, “as a kind of rhetorical weapon rather than a way for enriching understanding” (personal correspondence). On one occasion, Butler rebukes Stock and Rowling for dismissing transgender self-determination: “Who are these people who think they have the right to tell you who you are and what you are not, and who dismiss your own definition of who you are?” But the question is a boomerang that returns to its thrower’s hand: who does Butler think they are? Do they believe that they have the right to tell Rowling how their lived experiences should define their relationship with the world?

Butler is deploying the same technique to keep their dwindling audience engaged and spellbound

Herein lies the key to the question that has haunted me for the last 25 years. This isn’t simply a matter of “collaborating with evil”, as Nussbaum put it. Butler’s politics is part and parcel of the “authoritarian structures and fascist passions” they describe as evil. “Contemporary authoritarians may not consider themselves to be fascists”, they write in their conclusion, “but they rely on fascist technique and stoking fascist passions to stay in power”. Butler is deploying the same technique to keep their dwindling audience engaged and spellbound, waiting for the high priestess to take them to Barbieland. 

The problem is, of course, that the likes of Pope Francis, Trump, Meloni and Orbán have little patience for such fictions, or pronouns. Nor are they afraid of gender, as we are instructed to believe. At the end of the day, there are two sides to history, but the moral dividing line isn’t between progressives and reactionaries, or even between those who believe in reality or truth and those who don’t; it’s between those who are willing to listen to what others have to say and those who aren’t. Butler is firmly on the side of the latter, prepared to do whatever it takes to disparage, even ridicule, feminist voices they disagree with — promoting, to harken back to Joan Scott’s words, a “good versus evil scheme [which] substitutes moralist fundamentalism for genuine philosophical and political debate among feminists”. Whether Butler is aware of this is not a question that I, or armchair psychoanalysis, could answer.

I would like to thank David Bell, Alan Sokal and Julie Wark for their comments on an earlier version of this article. Needless to say, they are neither responsible for, nor necessarily agree with the ideas expressed herein.

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