On the evening of December 8th I spoke at UnHerd’s new space in Westminster, together with Julie Bindel, in a live and live-streamed event entitled “Should TERFs unite with the Right?” I doubt this is precisely the essay question that either Julie or I would have set ourselves! But people trying to attract an audience to an event have similar incentives as headline-writers: namely, to sex things up. So neither of us objected, and both of us just got on with saying what we wanted to say.
For me, the prospect of Julie as a sparring partner was intimidating. She’s an extremely funny speaker with a beautiful voice, and is very hard to pigeonhole. None of these are endearing characteristics in someone you’re about to debate, though they certainly are when it comes to friendship. Also, Julie is a pragmatic person who writes in the Mail and is not particularly prone to political purity tests. So, as I told her before the event, I was disputing less with her than with imagined foes.
If you want to know more about Julie’s thinking you could do worse than reading the letter exchange under way between her and Meghan Murphy, the Canadian founder of Feminist Current and another very interesting, heterodox thinker. Here’s Julie’s first letter, and here’s Meghan’s first.
If you didn’t catch it live, here’s the recording on UnHerd’s YouTube channel. (I get a content advisory when I click on it, saying that “this video may be inappropriate for some users”—can you believe that? Of course you can.)
This week’s issue is slightly experimental in format. I’m sharing my notes for my opening statement, followed by some notes I wrote while preparing, which is in the format of disjointed paragraphs on themes I thought might come up. We were each given five minutes to set out our stall and after that things were to flow freely. So I needed about other points I might want to make, but couldn’t prepare further than that. I’ve decided to put it in front of the paywall, because I think it’s a useful accompaniment to the video.
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In laying out my initial thoughts I’ll focus on two phrases. Specifically “the right” and “unite with”, which I’ll take as “work with”. In my experience, the meaning of each slips to suit the argument people are making at that point.
When you say: “hang on, what’s wrong with the Right?” you’ll be told “I mean the Far Right”—but as soon as you look away they return to complaining about “the right”. The same with “work with”: there’s a conflation of any contact, no matter how distant, with someone on the Right with actually setting up a formal and extensive co-operation with them.
1. The Right
I’m not of the Left, and never have been. I’ve had many challenges to my political views in the past few years, in particular my faith in institutions to error-correct and stand up against interest groups. But I’ve not wavered in my belief that a mixed economy with a strong appreciation for the power of markets, combined with a social safety net, does best at wealth creation and innovation.
That’s one reason I’m not left-wing. There are several others, and I’ll just pick out two: that the Left is on the nature-denying and Utopian side in politics.
I’m with the evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson, the world’s leading expert on ants, who is reputed to have said of socialism that “Marx was right, he just had the wrong species”.
I spent nearly four years reporting on South America, where since the military dictatorships, left-wing progressivists wrote constitutions that attempted to create heaven on earth, and largely made things worse by doing so. In places like Argentina and Venezuela left-wing economic policies have immiserated people. Incremental, sound conservative economic policies would have done an awful lot more to improve people’s lives, especially women’s and children’s.
And although I’m by nature a liberal rather than a small-c conservative, I have learned as I’ve aged the wisdom of “Chesterton’s fence”: a warning to reformers not to get rid of things just because they can’t see their purpose—the example G.K. Chesterton used was a seemingly unnecessary fence across a road. He said—work out what it’s for, then perhaps you can get rid of it. But left-wing progressivists tear down first.
So all this is to say that I think everyone should work with the Right, because on many things and in many ways, the Right is right.
2. “Not the Right, but the Far Right”
Now—I’m sure Julie would say that we’re not talking about “the Right”, but about the Far Right. I totally appreciate that Julie has always worked with people on the Conservative side.
But outside this room I have heard repeatedly that it is simply impossible to be a feminist unless you’re of the Left. I think what’s going on here is that many left-wing people think quite unselfconsciously that they are good and right-wing people are bad, and—this is the strange bit—they think that right-wing people agree with those assessments. It’s like they think we live in Middle Earth, and the Left are the Elves and hobbits, and the Right are the Orcs and Sauron—Good and Evil facing off, with everyone knowing which they are. They don’t seem to realise that we want the same thing they do, namely a better world; we just disagree on the details of what a better world would look like, because we’re not Utopians; and on the means of getting there, because we’re pragmatists.
3. Now for “working with”
I think there are two conflations going on—that if you work with someone on one thing that automatically means you must share a wider agenda, and that mere proximity is the same as “working with”—or even “uniting with”.
My natural approach is to work on single issues with people I regard as aligned with me on that single issue, in part because that’s quite normal outside the Left, but also because hardly anyone agrees with me overall on politics. I’m economically right-wing and socially liberal—that’s probably the least populated political quadrant.
Just to be clear here, the most populated one isn’t where socialist feminists are, it’s the direct opposite to mine—left on economics, right on social issues. That’s people who want higher taxes, more redistribution, nationalisation, strong government, much less immigration, traditional sex roles, much harsher punishments for crime. These people often vote Labour. And this whole conversation about “working with the Right” proceeds as if these people don’t even exist: not only as if there is no Far Left, no Anti-fa, but as if there is no socially conservative, anti-immigration, tax-and-spend Left.
So I’m really used to talking to people who don’t agree with me. I’m used to working towards specific goals with them.
And that has included within “gender-critical feminism”, where I don’t agree that socialism is a good system, I don’t agree that gender is the sort of social construct that could be entirely abolished, and I don’t think that women’s liberation requires that. I don’t agree with sex-difference denialist positions from the neck up any more than I agree with the ones from the neck down, I feel completely alienated by a worrying tendency towards censorship. Too many “gender-critical” women unselfconsciously say that the reason we shouldn’t be silenced is because we are right. But everyone who thinks others should be silenced thinks that—including the ones who want to silence us!
I could totally imagine working with the “Religious Right” to defend a teacher’s or a street preacher’s right to state people’s sex correctly. I would not, however, work with a fundamentalist religious organisation on family-planning and maternity policies. I’m absolutely certain that women’s rights to speak about the importance of sex are going to be won in part by legal cases taken by the sort of right-wing religious people anathemised by left-wing feminists. Their rights to speech and belief are our rights to speech and belief.
4. Connected with
My type of “working with” has always involved policies rather than platforms. When something is a principle worth universalising, very different people can get behind it for a wide range of reasons. But sometimes people don’t really mean “working with”; they mean connected with if you squint and employ a lot of bad faith.
I’ve been told by quite a lot of people, exclusively on the Left, that because I attended a rally in Brighton organised by Kellie-Jay Keen, aka Posie Parker, at which it turned out two people from hard-right mini-group Hearts of Oak were livestreaming, I needed to put out a statement saying I denounce Hearts of Oak.
I refused in part because the demand before I went was that I didn’t go at all. That I shun Posie. That she be scapegoated, and I don’t do scapegoating. It’s been done to me, and I don’t believe in one rule for me and one rule for others.
Also because it’s ridiculous. Anyone can turn up to a rally in a public place, and if you’ve got the Far Left on one side of a police line—which we had in significant numbers that day—it’s almost certain you’re going to have the Far Right on the other.
And I’m just not saying that I’m not associated with people I’ve never been associated with, and that in normal-land, outside the Left, there’s no reason to think I am associated with.
But I’ve had it explained to me that the reason I should do it is that it would be useful for left-wing feminists to point to because they’re at risk of being shunned because of their connection with me.
But someone who would seriously grasp at such a flimsy straw in order to refuse to talk to a left-wing woman of impeccable credentials will always find an excuse not to talk to them.
I don’t ask left-wing people to step into line before we collaborate on a project, and I think it’s cheek that they try to do it to me.
And I’m simply not willing to crimp my room for manoeuvre to this extent, because it would mean repeatedly not doing, and not saying, things I think are important, simply because I’m so afraid of being accused of “working with” the baddies because on some single issue we agree.
Take Drag Queen Story Hour. I think it’s an abomination. That puts me on the same side as not just the Right but the Far Right, and too many feminists are willing to look away from the sexualisation of children through RSE lessons because it’s a point that’s mostly made by the Christian Right and the Far Right.
I’m not going to look away. Because here’s my takeaway: unless you allow political tribalism to shape every one of your opinions, which I won’t do, and most people don’t do, then doing what you think is right will sometimes put you on the same side of the barricades as people you disagree with on pretty much everything else.
A remarkable thing I’ve heard is that it’s not even worth fighting for sex-based rights in law unless you do it from a feminist perspective. I find this remarkable, not because my personal perspective isn’t feminist; it is. But because some elements of what protects women’s rights are easy to detach from feminism, and some aren’t. The elements that are may be best worked on in partnership, the ones that aren’t, maybe not so much.
Another overstretch of “working with” is “talking to”. And I’m more interested in talking to people who don’t agree with me on a topic than those I do. I’m more likely to learn something, and I hope they’ll learn from me too. One of the things I may learn is why people hold opinions I abhor, and support people I abhor.
I actively prefer preaching to the unconverted. I think the most effective way to move the political needle is to present appealing arguments on specifics to people who would probably have previously discounted my opinions out of hand. Most people aren’t feminists, and most people aren’t left-wing. That’s true of women too.
There’s misogyny and homophobia right across the political spectrum. There are many people on the Right who care about women’s safety and dignity, and many on the Left who don’t. Women are more religious than men, and women are not wildly more pro-abortion than men are. In some places and times they’re even less keen on it. So if you want to support women, it’s mad to leave large amounts of potential support on the table for the specific policies that would attract broad support.
People right across the political spectrum have children who are at risk of being caught up in the gender craze. And women right across the political spectrum deserve single-sex spaces.
Free-speech warriors (rich white men) only noticed women were being silenced recently, even though women have always been silenced. But so what? Most people only step up when it hits them personally. It’s a fact that today’s version of Orwell’s “freedom means the freedom to say that two and two are four. Once that is granted all else follows” is “freedom is the freedom to say that sex is binary, immutable and important”. Or the freedom to say “men aren’t women”.
Other people are on the Right because they are religious conservatives. That’s not necessarily because they want to imprison women in gender servitude, but because they believe in a God who has, for reasons that are beyond the ken of mere mortals, mandated specific roles for the sexes.
Some people are anti-abortion because they quite genuinely think abortion is murder—you can disagree but you shouldn’t assume that this is a bad-faith cover for hating women. Or that the only reason the religious, conservative Alliance Defending Freedom in the US would seek to defend free speech is as an utterly cynical end run around abortion laws, rather than taking seriously the possibility that they genuinely think they are arguing for the lives of unborn babies and the immortal souls of pregnant women, and that is so urgent that they will fight not to be silenced.
I don’t feel the need to do political purity checks before working with people—if I did I’d never have been able to work with anyone who had not publicly denounced people like Ken Livingstone and Jeremy Corbyn, both of whom I have long loathed with a passion because of their foolish and wicked support for some of the worst people in South America.
Allying on single issues when it comes to universal principles works both ways. It sometimes means supporting people I disagree with to do things I disagree with. I am against exclusion zones around abortion clinics because I think the grounds on which they’re granted—that this restraint on free speech is worthwhile because of the distress that speech causes—is a double-edged sword that is sure to be picked up and used against women like me. When you think about legal cases, legal rights, new laws, you have to think about everyone who could pick them up and use them as a weapon, not just the people you initially sought to give that weapon to.
I don’t have to imagine what it’s like to be seeking to do something inside a room where people outside are trying to stop me doing it, and trying to stop other people getting in, because they think what I am doing is downright evil, that letting me speak is literally killing trans people and drawing people to the dark side of sex-realism.
I’m not drawing a moral equivalence here, I’m drawing a legal equivalence.
I think there’s a lot to be said for the argument of the “reactionary” feminists, writers like Mary Harrington and Louise Perry, who think “progress” has seen women sold a pup in recent decades, in a variety of ways but in particular by a statist Left that takes the full-time employed man as the pattern for humanity and tries to work out how to squeeze women into that pattern as if they were the same as men except for an inconvenient bit where they gestate and pop out a baby and can then be considered as honorary men again.
So, I’m well used to thinking poorly of at least some of the political opinions of people I am willing to work with. For some aims and goals those political opinions aren’t relevant; for others they are. I would not work with someone who promoted “family abolition” on child safeguarding, because I think people like that are a danger to children. But I might on something else.
Julie has said: “If this is the Left, then I am not a Leftist”—but it’s NOT the Left. I refuse to leave the Left to the misogynists and cultural relativists. It’s mine, not theirs.” I admire this, and I don’t think the fight for the Left is over yet. But I think that at some point it could be, and you could have lost. And then you’ll be in the “true communism has never been tried” position. I think that has already happened in America. Thank goodness for this country’s version of feminism and leftism.
There’s some considerable latitude in what is described as “far right”, even. It’s used of the Canadian truckers, or of Giorgia Meloni. And it also matters more or less depending on how influential, or far from power, someone is. I found Jeremy Corbyn much more worrying than Tommy Robinson, because Corbyn had a shot at being PM whereas Tommy Robinson is a marginal figure.
It also depends on what people are actually able to do. Orban is much more worrying than Meloni because the Italian PM is much weaker than the Hungarian one. I’d worry about saying something that overlaps with things that the National Front was saying if the National Front was near to power in the UK. But it’s not, so I just don’t see the problem in doing so, per se. I’m more worried about avoiding saying things that overlap with what the National Front is saying simply for that reason.
I do feel pretty damn resentful of the “you’ve got right-wing cooties” stuff from women who are supposed to be on “my side”. It’s claimed to be strategic, and yet it’s incredibly unstrategic itself. I’ve never seen anything like the amount of free publicity given by left-wing feminists to Hearts of Oak, who are a total irrelevance no one had ever heard of. They couldn’t have bought an ad campaign like this, not for any amount of money.
I think the Posie Parker stuff was about choosing a scapegoat—look, see the bad woman over there, she’s the horrible mean one, we’re alright—and claiming that simply by attending her rally I was being racist, or working hand in hand with the far right, was an accusation that was intended to scare me away from her.
It’s a method that we should know better than to stoop to use, precisely because it is used against us so much. It’s been used against me so many times by trans-rights activists. It’s how Maya Forstater lost her job—turn on one person, scapegoat her, make being connected with her at all so dangerous that everyone has to pick a side and she ends up shunned. It’s a disgusting tactic whoever is doing it. Picking and choosing between the “acceptable” and “unacceptable” faces of TERFery by a shifting and arbitrary set of criteria. Not hanging together will mean we most assuredly hang separately—the transactivists who denounce Posie don’t make a distinction between me and her.
It’s strange the way these arguments about contagion go just one way: that the far right might be a contaminant so severe that sitting down next to them could destroy me. Nobody ever wonders if I might destroy them—including them. Is it that they have much more confidence in themselves and their beliefs? Or is it that thing about left is good and right is bad, and both sides are expected to see this?
At Battle of Ideas I was on the same panel a lawyer from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), on the subject of lawfare. He never gets told he shouldn’t appear on a panel with me, because he might catch my atheism or support for legal abortion. I’ve had left-wing people say: well fine you could go on a panel with them and use the opportunity to destroy them with facts and logic—but do they not see that that’s a game two can play? It’s amazing, from the ADF’s point of view, that they are willing to sit down with someone like me who—if they believe what they say they do, and I think they do believe it—has the blood of hundreds of millions of innocent babies on my hands, and the souls of hundreds of millions of women damned for all eternity weighing on my immortal soul.
So many left-wing feminists seem so certain that the ADF know they’re awful people who are doing an awful thing because they are awful. And that’s why no one ever asks why they’re willing to be co-platformed with someone as contaminating as me. Because they think they can co-opt me and use me? Well, why can’t that work the other way round? Maybe in America where they are powerful and real feminists are very weak that is unrealistic, but in this country the ADF is on the back foot. They’re willing to speak anywhere they can because on the issues that matter to them they are weak here. I think that’s a lesson we can learn from them.
Andrea Dworkin: men on the right see us as private property, men on the left see us as public property
A line from Meghan Murphy in the exchange with Julie: “Why wouldn’t I want [Stephen Miller] to better understand me (and I him), considering he likely thinks of “feminists” as a bunch of frothing morons in pink pussy hats who sold out their own movement for a bunch of bearded perverts in heels?”
And another from Murphy: “Denouncing the left does not mean ‘moving towards the right.’ It means choosing independent thought, however that manifests. It means determining the left has become unthinking, dogmatic, and dangerous. It means that the left has failed to support women and the working class, and has become cowardly — beholden to their friends, employers, and funders. They have compromised their integrity in the most vile and hypocritical of ways, supporting corporate-sanctioned, manufactured activism, intended to distract people from reality and the real issues impacting the poor and working class. The left has adopted a politic that opposes free speech and advocates authoritarian and sometimes violent persecution of political dissidents.”
Kathleen Stock on guilt-by-association: “How strategic is it really to launch scathing public attacks about the associations of other gender-critical women, knowing that this will inevitably cause many of them to feel humiliated and defensive and exposed? How wise is it to insinuate that through these associations these women are evil or at least in league with evil people, and so morally contaminated themselves? If the aim in doing so is to demonstrate the author’s own purity to those imaginary allies on the Left she hopes will one day appear like White Knights around the corner, that is one thing – though whether they will ever come is quite another. But if the aim is to win these women round to your point of view – or even just to appeal to the neutral witnesses looking on in confusion, seeing only paternalistic, lofty attempts to judge and shame women for not understanding arcane political relationships between people they have never heard of—I think this particular strategy is counterproductive.”
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