Judith Butler: Identity Fatigue

Conservative groups protest Judith Butler during a lecture by the theorist in São Paulo, 2017. Photo: ZUMA Press/Alamy

If you know anything about Judith Butler, you know that during the 1990s they revolutionised gender theory. But can even they navigate the current gender wars?

For at least half a decade I have been living with a debilitating condition. It’s called identity fatigue. Recently it’s got so bad that I worry I’m no longer in control of my actions. If I read one more opinion piece on J. K. Rowling, one more article about how all the tomboys are getting transed, I may sign myself up for a voluntary lobotomy. Because of all the identity-based discussions, the ‘trans debate’ is the most depressing. The moral panic, the political and careerist opportunism, the holy war mentality, have turned dignity and compassion into dead languages, things that people will study in years to come and argue over how they were pronounced.

Judith Butler’s latest book, Who’s Afraid of Gender?, is billed as a roadmap for navigating today’s deeply fractious gender wars. When Butler published Gender Trouble in 1990 it contributed to a profound change in how people understand identity, popularising the idea that sex and gender are both social constructs, naturalised through the constant repetition of learned speech and behaviour. If, once upon a time, Butler was a cultural agitator, today they are firmly ensconced in the academic establishment, a kind of queer Pope who is revered and reviled. (In the afterword to the book they cite being attacked in Brazil while attending a conference in 2017 as the inspiration to write it.) What does Butler have to say about the world they helped create, and a subject that has since been talked into the gutter?

The book sets out to illustrate a global alliance of conservative forces – including the Catholic Church, the World Congress of Families (a US Christian organisation that opposes divorce, abortion, same-sex marriage and ‘gender theory’) and rightwing populist politicians such as Viktor Orbán, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro – who are conspiring to demonise trans and nonbinary people. Butler argues that the rise in ‘anti-gender ideology’ is part of a fantasy of a return to the good old days when men were alpha, women were wives and white people held ‘uncontested racial supremacy’ – a fantasy fuelled by misplaced existential insecurities and instrumentalised by patriarchal actors. Those who buy into it are described as suffering from a collective ‘psychosis’, ensorcelled by a false promise that slaying the trans bogeyman will put an end ‘to the implacable anxiety and fear that afflict so many people experiencing climate destruction firsthand, or ubiquitous violence and brutal war, expanding police powers or intensifying economic precarity’.

It’s sobering to see the links between populist rightwing politics and anti-trans sentiment. Yet at times Butler seems more comfortable railing at familiar foes, such as the Christian right, than engaging with the particularities of the present. After all, we are living through a moment when the Overton window on gender is swinging wildly. A battle is commencing over the middle ground and what counts as a ‘reasonable’ position, and the old political divisions do not always hold. As the anti-trans movement in the UK demonstrates, many of those who deny that a person can or should change sex come from the feminist left. In the chapter ‘TERFs and British Matters of Sex: How Critical Is Gender-Critical Feminism’, Butler grapples with ‘gender critical’ feminists by psychoanalysing them, suggesting that traumas suffered at the hands of the patriarchy are being unfairly displaced onto trans people, who have become a receptacle for their worst fears. Yet the book largely avoids addressing commonplace concerns about the risks of transitioning that dominate public debate. How, for instance, should a well-meaning parent of a child who wants to transition act? Help, and they may be labelled a child abuser. Don’t, and they may be accused of pushing their child towards suicide. The stakes are high, opinions violently polarised, medical and governmental advice changing all the time.

Judith Butler. Photo: Stefan Gutermuth

Despite being advertised as Butler’s most accessible book to date, Who’s Afraid of Gender? offers little to appeal to those outside of liberal academia’s orbit. Butler describes ‘being anti-gender’ as ‘a form of anti-intellectualism’, citing the refusal of the anti-trans lobby to read the many gender-studies texts that are available – an irksome suggestion that ignores the extent to which academic disciplines conduct conversations with themselves in specialised languages. ‘Log on to JSTOR, stupid’ is not a position that is going to win hearts and minds. Nor is describing those who disagree with you as psychotic, a position that only mirrors the frequent framing of transness as a dangerous mental-health epidemic, infiltrating the minds of children and menacing women in public toilets. At times, so similar are Butler’s characterisations of the anti-trans movement to those often used to denigrate trans people and their supporters – suffering from mental illness, wilfully ignoring the literature, peddling harmful ideologies – that reading the book feels like being stuck in that meme where all the Spidermen are pointing at each other.

So where do we go from here? Butler argues that ‘anti-gender ideology’ should be addressed as part of a wider history of colonialism and white supremacy. They lean into the idea that the gender binary is a Western imposition, lay the blame for the current cruelties enacted upon queer people by postcolonial nations squarely at the feet of former colonisers and call for a global coalition of oppressed groups to unite in the push for a more liveable world.

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504, engraving, 25 × 20 cm. Licensed to public domain

‘The only way out of this bind’, they write, ‘is to ally the struggle for gender freedoms and rights with the critique of capitalism, to formulate the freedoms for which we struggle as collective ones, and to let gender become part of a broader struggle for a social and economic world that eliminates precarity and provides health care, shelter, and food across all regions.’

However attractive this sentiment, it feels like an easy out – the kind of sweeping socialist platitude that can be reeled off without any explanation as to how it might happen, and without accounting for anything as troublesome as cultural specificity. For while it’s true that Western powers often exported their homophobic laws to colonised nations, stripping those nations of their political autonomy in the present is infantilising, and only serves to place the West centre stage. Liberal academia’s tendency to romanticise the precolonial Global South as a queer utopia is also questionable – a reboot of primitivism for the identity-political era. There are many examples of cultures with variations on the categories of men and women, but they must be viewed in context, and are not necessarily indicative of greater tolerance towards those who exist outside the parameters of normalcy.

The thing about gender is that there is no obvious right or wrong. How a person feels about themselves is evidently a matter of deeply held personal opinion. The same could be said of abortion, or the age of consent. There is no way to prove with certainty at how many weeks a foetus is sufficiently human to obtain the right to life, or to pick the precise time at which every single member of a society is physically and psychologically adult enough for sex. Such debates must therefore be won by arguing which course of action is the most humane, not who is categorically right. The problem is, it is precisely these kinds of issues that feed the outrage machine, fuelling media platforms and political opportunists who thrive on polarisation, dehumanisation and the formation of tribal factions that wear intolerance with pride – the very stuff identity fatigue is made of. While Who’s Afraid of Gender? may satisfy those who already share Butler’s opinions, it is neither daring enough to force the conversation into new terrain, or generous enough to appeal beyond the ranks of the converted. Unlike Gender Trouble, it is not a book that will change the way people see themselves and the world, but one that will confirm – to detractors and supporters of trans rights – what people already think they know.

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