The Strategic Ignorance Award
INAUGURAL WINNER: REBECCA SOLNIT
As soon as I’m finished writing this I’m going to buy this three monkeys sculpture off Amazon, call it the Strategic Ignorance Award and send it to Rebecca Solnit at the Guardian for her disgraceful piece about gender-critical feminists (or as I like to call them, ‘feminists’).
I am as bored of the sound of my own voice on these matters as I was delighted to get that brilliant feminist off of the Twitter, Victoria Smith, to detail exactly what is so rage-inducing about Solnit’s clueless, tone-deaf and yes, strategically ignorant op-ed.
Over to Victoria.
You might find it strange that I’m writing to you. However, as a member of the “British whatever” addressed in your Guardian open letter (how annoying for you that we’re not all right-wing!), I felt compelled to respond. I know that the etiquette in these situations is to take a seat, STFU, listen and learn, make everyone a sandwich etc., but like you, I want to challenge gender norms. Also, I’m really pissed off.
As you note in your essay The Longest War, writing about male violence gets tiresome:
“There are other things I’d rather write about, but this affects everything else. The lives of half of humanity are still dogged by, drained by, and sometimes ended by this pervasive variety of violence”
On this, you are totally right. Male violence is a global outrage. Why, then, have you written a piece which dismisses women’s fears as “really weird”, writes off actual occurrences of male violence as “lurid what-ifs", euphemistically characterises sexual assault as “unpleasantness”, tells women which male people they’re allowed to be wary of (the ones who aren’t your mates) and accuses women of “posing a threat” if they are insufficiently accommodating? Do you have any idea what you sound like? There’s wanting to write about “other things” and going full-on MRA.
I know, I know. When I talk about male people, I mean people who are male; when you talk about male people, you mean something far more sophisticated because “science has gotten smarter in the decades since [the 1970s] and we now know it’s a complex interplay of chromosomes, hormones, primary and secondary sexual characteristics and other stuff, some of which is in the brain, not the pants, and also that quite a significant number of people are born intersex, and some are misgendered at birth, and male and female never were airtight categories anyway”.
If only I was from San Francisco and not a small town in the north of England. Then I, too, could understand why blurring the distinction between sex and gender and misrepresenting intersex people represents cutting-edge science-y thinking. Only kidding. Despite my unfashionable origins, I have an arts PhD from Cambridge. I, too, know how satisfying it can be to play with words and write something which doesn’t quite hold up to analysis yet sounds all the cleverer for it. Even so, after years spent on the coalface of intellectual masturbation, I can still see a difference between engaging in circumscribed wanking for the applause of your peers and doing so to shame victims of male violence, characterising their rational fear as something rooted in cisnormative rituals of abject othering of the transcendent blah blah blah.
Let me be clear: even if you can bodge together a sort-of argument to defend it, it’s disgraceful to tell a subset of female rape victims that their experiences don’t constitute male violence, that, on the contrary, they don’t constitute experiences at all, just “lurid what-ifs". Disgraceful, too, to suggest that domestic abuse victims who require female-only shelters just haven’t understood that “complexity and fluidity can be a blessing”. Truly, what was your thinking here? That if these women hadn’t spent drab childhoods in Nowheresville but had spent more time in “the loudest, proudest queer town around”, they wouldn’t have become such bigots? Are you sure it’s your superior open-mindedness, and not your privilege, that’s talking here?
What I’m seeing here is not a challenge to patriarchal thought. On the contrary, you’re supporting its endless repackaging. Don't you realise that those of us who grew up beneath the shadow of domestic abuse, however “traditional” its presentation, rarely thought this was what was happening to us? The patriarchy is always other people, hence the ease with which you tell other women which male people they’re permitted to fear (not your friends, just everyone else’s).
“But that person isn’t cis and/or straight and you’re just being exclusionary” is but a dull reprisal of “but he’s one of the good guys and you’re just being a bitch”. When violence is too close to home, the person mentioning it is always worse than the person doing it. Hence the decades of disbelief endured by every actress in the years prior to #metoo, and hence you, right now.
You know perfectly well, as The Longest War shows, that in condemning male violence we do not condemn all male people. This does not mean that we should pick out subsets of the male sex class – priests, respectable family men, friends of Rebecca Solnit -- and grant them a free pass. Women are less likely to be assaulted by a male person claiming to be a woman than a male person claiming to be a man. Nonetheless, they are vastly more likely to be assaulted by a male person than a female person, regardless of declared identity. You know this. Why are you pretending you do not?
We need to recognise that social conditioning and expectations that perpetuate male violence can’t be reduced to how a male person identifies or presents themselves. I have literally no idea how the stranger who assaulted me identified, then or now, and since that person wasn’t caught, I never will. Am I permitted to think of this as male violence? Or do I have to go with “isolated incident”? As you yourself wrote, such incidents are “everywhere in the news, though no one adds them up and indicates that there might actually be a pattern”.
What you are offering is an example of the way in which, to quote The Longest War again, “we have dots so close they’re splatters melting into a stain, but hardly anyone connects them, or names that stain”. Male violence exists, but that doesn’t count. You’re allowed boundaries, but not those ones. Patriarchy is the problem, but we won’t analyse what patriarchy is or how and why it arises. The trans women I know and respect do not share your views – they know as well as I do that your posturing won’t protect them from harm – but your politics isn’t really about trans welfare, either.
If, as Virginia Woolf put it, women are mirrors in which men see themselves reflected at twice their actual size, trans women are mirrors in which commentators like you see yourselves reflected at twice your capacity for kindness, generosity and intellectual integrity. Guess what, Rebecca? Trans women are people, too. I get that you enjoy hanging out in those San Francisco bars, but people with friends they want to protect don’t boast about how great and generous they are for spending time with them at all. It makes you sound a dick (“and sorry, I can’t stop boasting about my city” - it’s at that point in the letter that you realised what a dick you sounded, isn’t it? Lording it over the plebs in the sticks with their tiny lives, utterly oblivious to how complex and profound bodies and identities can be).
You do know better than this. You just don’t want to because it would cost you too much in terms of social standing amongst your peers, who’ll cheer as you point the finger at the easy targets – the far-right politicians, the Christian fundamentalists, the incels – but start screaming bigot the moment you question whether male socialisation and entitlement lurks amongst them, too. Honestly, you, me and every feminist on Earth could have a lovely communal rant about what an evil patriarch Trump is, but some of us will still have to go home to allies who beat the crap out of us, and to violence which you insist requires no definition, no political context, no words at all. This thinking – this strategic ignorance – is what patriarchy depends upon. Without it the whole thing would fall apart.
Right now I’m raising three male children and, as the 1970s children’s project Free To Be You And Me advises, I don’t make any assumptions about what they should wear, whom they should love, what they should play with or how they should feel. I tell them being male does not mean they have to be masculine. This is how we destroy patriarchy. Those who perpetuate it are people like the mother of trans child actor Kai Shappley who “spanked, really spanked” her child for liking the “wrong” clothes and toys before deciding her child must have been born in the wrong body. That, Rebecca, is the opposite of the message of Free To Be You And Me, yet that is what you are supporting.
I don’t believe you are too dumb to understand a children’s book. You are perfectly capable of seeing the difference between children being supported in rejecting stereotypes and children being terrorised into rejecting their sexed bodies because they don’t match the stereotypes. You are pretending not to see. You are lying and the safety of women, trans people and children is less important to you than the safety of your career.
There are women and girls who will have been wondering about their own truths who will use your letter as an excuse not to confront them. Who will tell themselves they are the bad guys. Who will retreat into self-doubt and shame.
What a dismal legacy for a feminist to leave.
Enjoy your award.
The British whatever.
Victoria Smith is a feminist writer and editor, whose writing has appeared in The New Statesman, The Independent and other publications. She is on twitter as @glosswitch