“Trans women are women.”
Among the most important themes explored in Orwell’s 1984 is that of language and its relation to oppression.
One of the most compelling moments in that book describes the protagonist, Winston Smith, realizing that the most valuable freedom of all is the freedom to tell the truth.
Later on, he is tortured for the thought he had—the idea that freedom means the ability to tell the truth, to be able to say that two plus two equals four. His torturer, hired by the state to break his will, seizes upon this idea:
“Only the disciplined mind can see reality, Winston. You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be the truth, is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party. That is the fact that you have got to relearn, Winston. It needs an act of self-destruction, an effort of the will. You must humble yourself before you can become sane.’
He paused for a few moments, as though to allow what he had been saying to sink in.
‘Do you remember,’ he went on, ‘writing in your diary, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four”?’
‘Yes,’ said Winston.
O’Brien held up his left hand, its back towards Winston, with the thumb hidden and the four fingers extended.
‘How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?’
‘And if the party says that it is not four but five–then how many?’
The word ended in a gasp of pain. The needle of the dial had shot up to fifty-five. The sweat had sprung out all over Winston’s body. The air tore into his lungs and issued again in deep groans which even by clenching his teeth he could not stop. O’Brien watched him, the four fingers still extended. He drew back the lever. This time the pain was only slightly eased.
‘How many fingers, Winston?’
The needle went up to sixty.
‘How many fingers, Winston?’
‘Four! Four! What else can I say? Four!’
– 1984, George Orwell
It’s a powerful scene. So powerful, in fact, that at least two science fiction television shows have used the same concept.
In the Babylon 5 episode, Intersections in Real Time, a government torturer works to destroy Captain Sheridan’s sense of time, but more than that, to get him to agree that time—one of the most measurable, readily perceived concepts available to human consciousness—is malleable to the will.
INTERROGATOR: This is really excellent corned beef. You have to get just the right mustard. The brown with the seeds, not the yellow kind. And not too much of it. If there’s too much, it irritates the corners of my mouth.
Oh, would–would you like some? I know they haven’t fed you since you got here. That’s at least two days. Besides, it’s lunchtime. Isn’t it? Isn’t it lunchtime? You just said it was morning. Well, you can’t have a corned-beef sandwich for breakfast. It would upset your stomach. Corned-beef sandwiches are for lunch. If it’s morning, you can’t have it. If it’s lunchtime you can. Is it lunchtime?
SHERIDAN: I’m sure it’s lunchtime somewhere.
INTERROGATOR: Excellent answer. Here. I ate half of that myself. Killing you does nobody any good. I told you, I’m here to ensure your cooperation. And I can’t do that if you’re dead, now can I? It does prove, though, how everything is a matter of perspective. You think you see daylight, and you assume it’s morning take it away, you think it’s night. Offer you a sandwich, if it’s convenient, you’ll think it’s midday. The truth is fluid. The truth is subjective. Out there, it doesn’t matter what time it is. In here, it’s lunchtime if you and I decide that it is. The truth is sometimes what you believe it to be and other times what you decide it to be. My task is to make you decide to believe differently. And when that happens the world will remake itself before your very eyes.
— Babylon 5, “Intersections in Real Time”
Star Trek: The Next Generation borrows even more liberally from Orwell in its episode “Chain of Command: Part II,” even re-using the numbers four and five as the basis for the torture. Picard’s captor insists there are five lights on a ceiling which, objectively, has only four.
Picard doesn’t yield to the torture—he’s rescued just in time. Smith does, and is executed by the state once he truly loves Big Brother. Lest anyone believe that starship captains are simply made from sterner stuff than a Winston Smith-style bureaucrat, the episode’s most poignant moment comes from its coda:
PICARD: One thing I didn’t put in my report… at the very end, he offered me a choice… between a life of comfort… or more torture… all I had to do was say there were five lights.
Troi regards him for a brief moment.
TROI: You didn’t say it…
PICARD: No… but I was going to. I was ready to tell him anything he wanted… anything at all. But more than that, I was beginning to believe there were five lights.
— Star Trek: The Next Generation (Chain of Command: Part II)
And therein lies the real lesson of all three works. The goal of the torturers, in all cases, was not simply to urge the profession of belief. The ideal party member, in Orwell’s 1984, is capable of a rather neat mental trick known as doublethink.
When a person doublethinks, they simultaneously believe something to be true and not true. The government in 1984 tells its citizens, over and over, that “war is peace,” and “freedom is slavery.” This enables editors like Winston to more readily change history, since people are more likely to accept being at war with a nation one day and at peace the next, for instance, if they believe that the two concepts aren’t really all that different.
Which brings us to a four-word statement:
“Trans women are women.”
I’d like to unpack this statement a little bit.
I’ve now asked a number of people making it to talk to me about what it means. Specifically, I’ve asked them what “woman” means, in this sentence. I’ve gotten the same answer repeatedly from trans advocates:
“A woman is a person who identifies as a woman.”
This is a statement that is literally devoid of content; a semantic nothing. When one identifies “as a woman,” what is one identifying with?
When I have asked this question, the answers change drastically depending on the person I am speaking to. Sometimes, I am told of boys who longed to have “the feeling of a hole between my thighs being filled” and who insist on surgery to correct their feelings of bodily wrongness (even when told that girls don’t feel a “hole” where their vaginas are), or who believed that a vagina, being cleft, would enable them to do the splits in a way their scrotum would not (just in case you’re reading this, V, splits are easier for girls because of their ligaments–not their vulvas).
Other times, I’ve heard of people feeling forced out by imposed sex roles. “I always empathized more with women.” “I have a softer side and abhor violence.” “I think I was supposed to be a dad, not a mom, because of the way I interact with my child.” Many of these people profess to have little or no actual genital dysphoria, and are upset at the idea that such dysphoria is considered necessary to change sex on government forms and so forth.
In other words, when someone says “trans women are women,” they may be saying one of several things. It can be, for instance, a statement that means “trans women have female brains.” In this instance, “trans women are women” is being used cover for a much more controversial statement, one that forces the person saying it to agree with the notion that there is “brain sex,” a badly outmoded and anti-feminist idea.
Other times, “trans women are women” means “trans women feel they fit in better with women’s social roles.” Again, this uses a deceptively simple four-word sentence to cover a much more problematic truth.
“Trans women are women” is a statement that means a hundred different things to a hundred different people, and it all hinges on this question: what does it mean to identify as a woman? Simply saying that there is only one answer to this question (no matter what that answer is) will yield accusations of transphobia and cause in-fighting. So the only safe statement—since more clear and unambiguous statements will lead to disagreement and strife—is the four-word mantra, “trans women are women.”
Yet this simple statement has worked to serve another purpose, as well.
In 1984, as well as Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5, counterfactual statements are used to wield power.
“If it’s lunchtime, you can have a sandwich.” It isn’t, of course, but you haven’t eaten. So you agree to the counterfactual, starved and not caring. “If there are five lights, we’ll treat you well (and if you don’t, they’ll torture you).” There aren’t, of course, but you’re so tired, and the lights are so blurry…two plus two might equal five, mightn’t it? Of course, it doesn’t, but does that matter when simply saying so will make the difference between captivity and freedom, between contentedness and suffering?
Consider the statement “trans women are women” again. This time, think about how this statement is actually used in online activism circles, rather than how people explain its definition when pressed.
When women refuse to toe the line on the trans mantra, they are harassed, threatened, guilt-tripped. Women—many of them abuse or sexual assault survivors—are told that any statement contrary to “trans women are women” is not simply rude or even untrue, but actually violent, because it could cause transgender people to feel suicidal.
Women are told that violence is unacceptable, time and time again. When women are accused of violence because of “misgendering,” they often change their tone nearly immediately. It doesn’t seem like it matters much whether there are four lights or five, after all. What’s the difference? And if it’ll stop me from getting accused of unfeminist behavior, if it’ll stop me being no-platformed, if it’ll stop all of this—if I can come back into the feminist fold—who’s to say two plus two hasn’t been five all along?
I used to use “she” to describe MTF trans people. I used to use “he” to describe FTM trans people. I will no longer engage in this practice, except for when directly speaking to trans people who could conceivably direct violence toward me. Make no mistake, trans folks: many people outside your movement, even the ones who nod in agreement with the statement “trans women are women,” don’t really believe it. When they are women, they have been trained to spare your feelings and to avoid potential conflict with males—especially those who are backed up by other males with violent tendencies. I hope your pronouns feel like a hollow victory, wrested as they have been from the mouths of women who know the wrath they face for saying any other words but the ones you told them to say.
Remember this, when you’re told that misgendering is “violence”: “trans women are women” is a statement that is meaningless at best and is used a power exertion over women almost always, since they are not able to disagree or even clarify the speaker’s definition without being viciously attacked.
Do what you have to do, in order to get through your day. But two plus two is never five. There are always four lights. And that corned beef sandwich he’s offering you is poison anyway (seriously, look it up).
[[A note to my readers: I expect my next post to be about the NCAA, Title IX, normal distributions, and exactly why “trans-inclusive” athletics policies fail. I don’t know when I’ll have it out, but you can expect it to be sometime in the next couple of weeks.]]