Saturday 14 November 2020

A vindication of the rights of whom?


A statue of a naked person was unveiled last week in honour of Mary Wollstonecraft the author of A vindication of the rights of women. She gave birth to Mary Shelley the author of Frankenstein and died soon after doing so as so many women did in those days. 

The statue has been received with a certain amount of derision. It doesn’t in any obvious way resemble Wollstonecraft. Rather the statue is just a generic young woman, slim and rather fit. There is nothing to suggest the eighteenth century and while Wollstonecraft life was judged by some at the time to have been rather scandalous, there is no suggestion that she ever appeared naked in public.

I usually find most forms of modern art to be not worth interpreting, but my immediate response to seeing this statue for the first time was to ask “how do we know that it is a woman?” This would not have been a problem when Wollstonecraft wrote her vindication of women’s rights. But it is a problem now.

We have been told repeatedly by certain academics and political figures on the Left that trans women are women and trans men are men. Well how do we know that the figure depicted by the statue isn’t a trans man? He may have the anatomy that is typically associated with women, but what can this tell us about his identity?

Mary Wollstonecraft began her great book with the following sentences:

In the present state of society, it appears necessary to go back to first principles in search of the most simple truths, and to dispute with some prevailing prejudice every inch of ground. To clear my way, I must be allowed to ask some plain questions, and the answers will probably appear as unequivocal as the axioms on which reasoning is built; though, when entangled with various motives of action, they are formally contradicted, either by the words or conduct of men.

It is hard to think of a more appropriate sentence for the present time too. We have lost sight of simple truths, which were so commonplace to Mary Wollstonecraft that she could write a book on the rights of women without defining what a woman is. She did not go back to first principles in stating that these people were women and girls for this reason while these other people were boys and men for that reason.  It didn’t occur to her that it was necessary to define these things for the same reason that she did not define the other words in her initial sentences, because she assumed that they were ordinary words that needed no definition.

But this is no longer the case. The simple words “girl” and “woman” have become baffling and complex. If the statue can be both a man and a woman, then I have no idea how to define the words “man” and “woman”.

The problem goes deeper. Mary Wollstonecraft’s book is a response to ideas of her time that girls did not require education as their task in life was merely to be wives and mothers and to perform domestic tasks. But her whole argument depends on her ability to distinguish boys and men from girls and women. If people in eighteenth century Britain could not distinguish girls from boys how could they discriminate against girls by failing to educate them?

If it is true that we cannot distinguish between girls and boys by looking at their anatomy, then those poor eighteenth century people must have been condemning some boys to be educated as girls and some girls to be educated as boys.

Wollstonecraft argues that women should be educated because they will become companions to their husbands and educators of their children. But according to modern thinking Wollstonecraft is wrong, because mothers can equally well be men and fathers can give birth. Moreover, husbands can give birth and wives can father children. Worse still whose rights is Wollstonecraft vindicating anyway? The boy who was given the education and had all the advantages and became a husband might just as well have really been a woman. The girl who had all the disadvantages and without education was forced to bring up her children might just as well have been a man.

Why then are we celebrating the life of Wollstonecraft when she was mistaken in her definition of what is was to be a woman when she suggested that it had something to do with being a mother? Mothers can be men.

If trans orthodoxy is correct then Mary Wollstonecraft is quite wrong, because she assumes to be girls and women people who might just as well have been boys and men. How are we supposed to distinguish when any man might be a woman if he or she chooses and vice versa?

But the problem is not so much with Wollstonecraft as with trans orthodoxy.

We must dispute with the prevailing prejudice, which is that there is a distinction between gender and sex. Anyone who has studied a highly inflected language like Russian or Polish must realise instantly that being male, female or neuter forms the essence of the worldview of those humans who developed our languages many centuries ago. They thought this way for a reason.

In Polish there is a different word for “they” if the group includes only men or if it includes both men and women or only women. The whole grammar of the language involves people judging whether something is masculine or feminine. But how are we to tell which pronoun to use? How do I judge whether something is he or she or it? Do I look on the person’s Twitter profile to discover their preferred pronouns? Unfortunately, they didn’t have Twitter when pronouns were invented and when they invented them, they were not a matter of choice.

We judged pronouns at the dawn of language based on external characteristics. We do the same today. If I see someone I have never met and need to describe him as he or she, I don’t go up to him and ask. I judge based on appearance. If I say I saw a policewoman, I don’t check if she defines herself as a man or a woman. Her grammatical gender is public not private, because language takes place in a world we share in common, with shared facts based on how we appear.

To clear my way, I must be allowed to ask some plain questions. When you look at the statue do you think that it could be a man? If you think it could be a man how one earth do you define what it is to be man?

This is the problem with attempting to create a distinction between sex and gender. If the sex of the statue is female, but the gender is male, we lack any bedrock with which to define what it is to be male. If physical appearance ceases to be the means by which we may judge whether someone is a man or a woman, then we are left without a shared language that bases meaning on a world that we have in common. Words become what I want them to mean and we are through the looking glass with a private language that no one else can understand.

Wollstonecraft built the foundations of feminism on clear and distinct objective differences between men and women that no one questioned. These though unequivocal in ordinary thought and language have become entangled for a variety of motives with a trans orthodoxy that contradicts common sense and the understanding of humanity since the time when humanity was able to understand.

The statue depicts a woman. The reason it depicts a woman is that this woman’s anatomy is capable of having children. This distinction is so obvious and fundamental to our nature as human beings that it was central to the development of Indo-European languages. What mattered to the first speakers of these languages was whether a person was a man or a woman and because this distinction was obvious, self-evident and objective they founded language upon it.

It is for this reason that the idea that gender can be distinct from sex and that someone can be woman while lacking the objective characteristics of a woman, makes not merely Mary Wollstonecraft’s work meaningless, but all language meaningless.

If words like “man” and “woman” are not grounded in a shared reality of physical appearance and anatomy, then any word could likewise cease to be grounded in shared reality but could instead be based on mere subjectivity and taste.

If this statue can be a man, then there are no rights of women, there is no feminism and everything we think we know about men and women becomes like a marsh with no firm footing.

Trans ideology not merely contradicts Wollstonecraft it contradicts everything. If people are allowed to redefine words such as “man” and “woman” based on subjective experience, “I feel like a woman”, “I feel like a man”, then we have no shared words with which we can share thoughts. Trans is not so much an attack on feminism and traditional ideas of what it is to be a man or a woman, it is an attack on language and reason. It leaves us dumb brutes unable to think about anything.

Mary Wollstonecraft died giving birth. No man who thinks he is a woman will die in that way. That is the distinction. It is grounded in the bodies of women and the difference between those bodies and the bodies of men. That is the right that was being vindicated. Maybe that is the point of the statue.