Trans politics,  Zeitgeist

Watch your language!

By Jurek Molnar



The purpose of this essay is to give the uninterested observer a brief introduction to language policing. We are uninterested observers, if we do not approach the topic through a partisan lens. We are in a first step neither for nor against it or have any strong feelings about the issue in question, let alone resentments or prejudicial judgments. We only want to understand what it is, how it works and why it appears at a particular moment. If we have successfully managed to do this, opinions are in abundance. Our arguments depend on the assumption that logic is not the same as truth, but we are convinced that logic at least comes very close to what can be regarded as true. In this understanding an argument can hold truth if it passes the test of logical cross-examination. The uninterested observer will find flaws and illogical conclusions easily and is highly encouraged to correct me at any point. So, let’s begin, shall we?

What is language policing, then? Obviously, language policing is not an official policy. Hence, it does not make sense to come up with a smart definition, when officials and activists who propose some of these ideas will deny that such a thing even exists. However, that does not have to worry us. We only have to focus on a few occurrences we think justify the term to start our investigation.

Here is one: The well-reputed medical journal the Lancet recently dedicated major parts of its latest issue to the “cultural movement against menstrual shame”. Readers who have reached an age of well-informed maturity will certainly recall that women who are in their monthly cycle had been in the historical past treated unfairly to say the least, and were for instance discouraged to participate in religious ceremonies, ashamed to be unclean or in any other way discriminated and excluded by individuals and institutions. However, this is not what the “cultural movement against menstrual shame” is about. According to the Lancet the term “menstrual shame” is considered a discriminatory practice against trans-women who for some reasons do not menstruate and are hence unfairly ashamed not be women in the full sense of the word. To use “menstrual shame” in the context of women who are discriminated because of their period is according to the Lancet an incorrect application of the term, because it should focus solely on the plight of trans-women who for various reasons will not bleed once in a month and are ashamed if someone reminds them of the fact. That is a good example of language policing, but there are more.

In recent reports, well-reputed institutions of medicine have recommended to avoid the term “breastfeeding” and use the term “chestfeeding” instead in order to do the same thing as discussed above. Trans-people who for some reason lack the ability to give breast milk to toddlers have been ashamed by the term “breastfeeding” and hence the terminology has to come up with more inclusive and general terms, like “chestfeeding”. Just keep that in mind, I will return to this later.

The topic of language policing has also come up after several news outlets and online commentators have reported about recent US congress hearings in which several speakers questioned the conventional wisdom about male and female biology. Tucker Carlson on Fox News and Ben Shapiro on The Daily Wire concluded both that these speakers expressed the opinion “Men can get pregnant”. And while I appreciate both their efforts to make sense of this, they are of course wrong in their attempts to interpret these expressions the way they did. The speakers in the US congress did not say: “Men can get pregnant”. They said: “Not only women get pregnant”. The reason they gave for expressing this view was the claim that the sentence “Not only women get pregnant” includes people, who were until recently “left out of the conversation”. Carlson and Shapiro both missed the impact of this brilliantly crafted statement.

“Not only women get pregnant” does two things: it reinforces the constraints of biological sex (women get pregnant) and it diminishes it (not only women). It does both at the same time, in the same line, without having any doubts about its accuracy. In other words, the line is a beauty and one can only admire its linguistic architecture. As uninterested observers, we should ask ourselves, why this works so perfectly well. “Men can get pregnant” and “Not only women get pregnant” seem to express the same meaning on a surface level, but saying “Men can get pregnant” or “Men can menstruate” is at least counterfactual and can be refuted very easily. People who try to push counterfactual claims run into severe problems to make them sound reasonable. But saying “Not only women get pregnant” is inclusive. Inclusivity is not counterfactual, because it does not care about facts; it only cares about inclusion. The statement indicates that at least the possibility should be considered factual in order to guarantee that some people are not left out of the conversation any longer. The formula is carefully designed and the people who came up with this know exactly what they are doing. The matter we are dealing here with is not exactly language, rather than perception. “Not only women get pregnant” represents a different perspective, a shift in the perception of what the issue is about. Or as the late Leonard Cohen put it: “There is a war between the ones who say there is a war and the ones who say there isn’t.”

We can also see that there is no obvious policing or enforcing of lies in place here. The shift of perception itself makes policing unnecessary, because it does not enforce a lie; it only creates a new space for possibilities that can be established as facts later. The policing only starts when one argues that the possibility of “not only women” is also a non-fact. Also, the idea that men can give birth is more theoretical than practical and does not need to refer to an event in the real world. It is regarded as a possibility, not necessarily a fact. Recommendations to avoid the term “breastfeeding” are more explicit in their policing activities. Since breastfeeding is an actual thing in medicine and health care, it is not sufficient enough to state that “Not only women do breastfeeding”. The shift of perception only allows us to imagine possibilities, not to make them realities altogether. However, breastfeeding is either done in the real world or not. And if it is done it has to be “chestfeeding” for matters of avoiding counter factuality. Everybody has a chest.

The policing of language is not done for the sake of policing but for the perception shift to work properly. It matters a lot that in order to install language norms which can be policed it is necessary to have a perception shift where the possibility can be established and counter factuality is avoided. It makes therefore sense to conclude that the perception shift is a precondition of the language policing. The task is not to promote a lie or a non-fact, but to have a space where new facts can emerge. You want to create these new facts at any point. What the policing does is not to guard untruth, but to separate the facts from the context in which they appear. The rationale goes like this: Breastfeeding is not an attribute of a biological state but an isolated function, which is independent from biological states and even sex differences. Breastfeeding can be substituted by “chestfeeding” because it is a functional property and not an immanent systemic effect of female metabolism. Everything that is functional can be attributed to all bodies that are willing to implement that function. A term like “birth person” is the logical conclusion of a degradation of the human body to mechanical functions. It is not a lie. (Harry Frankfurt comes to mind.) It is a new fact, emerging from a perception shift, which carefully avoids counterfactual statements. They are not stupid. These new facts could look like this: A few months ago, several print and online media headed with a claim that in the last year 53 men had given birth to children. In all of these accounts, it was explained later with a lot of regret that science and society are unwilling to count these extraordinary events as cases of male birthing because all of these men were assigned a female gender when they were born, as if this was an unimportant detail.

The pay-off is immediately recognizable. It does reinforce the constraints of biological sex and diminishes it at the same time, in the same line, without having any doubts about its accuracy. In the realm of possibilities, inclusion creates functions neutral to the biological state of a human body. That is what it does. People, who can be “not only women”, will be able to be women in the full sense of the word by appropriating the biological functions of “birth persons” formerly known as women. Simple as that.

We are still not at the point yet, where we can say in all certainty that the possibility itself is untrue. We have to prove first that the perception shift is flawed somehow and relies on counter factuality. Surprisingly this is quite easy to do, but we have to establish the context first.

In June 2021 the left leaning German newspaper taz (shortcut for “Tageszeitung”, daily newspaper) published a piece which started: “Daniel Masch is trans and has borne a son.” In the following interview Daniel Masch tells his story, while he and the journalist unfold the narrative that also men can get pregnant. Daniel Masch himself, who is a sweet and friendly man, obviously a loving father, was born female and wanted to change that all his life. The interview goes into detail what kind of obstacles and problems this process encountered and what Daniel had to go through. When I first read this, back in June, I have to say that I felt a lot of sympathy for his struggles. Daniel describes in detail how pregnancy affected him, and before pregnancy, menstruation reminded him painfully of the reality of female metabolism. At first glance, I could not put my finger on any particular idea that was expressed in the interview but I was nevertheless disturbed by the way Daniel and the journalist wrought  the narrative. What can be concluded from the interview can be boiled down to this: Before Daniel became a man, she was a woman with several issues. She became pregnant, which postponed the transition for 10 long years and could only continue after the child was born and breastfeeding ended. After transition, he is living as a man, whose sexual organs are somehow modified. The details are for understandable reasons not disclosed in a specific manner. These are the facts we can determine with certainty.

One interesting habit of people, who are invested in this topic, is to indicate implicitly that the process of identifying as the opposite sex without surgery or hormone treatment is exactly the same thing as a complete transition with the help of surgery and hormone treatment. In the patterns of these activisms there is rarely any hint that such a difference is important, and the identical nature of these states is generally assumed as an axiomatic precondition and hence a non-debatable fact. Let’s assume for a moment it is true that there is no distinction between a presumed gender identity and a full transition process. The perception shift wants to be inclusive of both and will not make that distinction because there is no counter-factuality to such a claim. Inclusion is indifferent to factuality.

But that is not what Daniel in his interview expresses. He and the journalist are both convinced that men can get pregnant, because he defines himself as a man right now. And consequently this makes him a man in the past even at the time when he was actually not. In the process of self-identification, the female past of a “birth person” is intentionally omitted. Men can give birth, because they are men now and the necessary fact that they were assigned a female gender in their birth certificate is regarded as a minor detail which is more or less irrelevant to the process. And while we cannot say for certain that a distinction between identity declaration and full transition really exists, it should be a crystal-clear proposition that trans-people for all their merits are not able to bend time or reverse the physical premise of cause and effect. I will call the fallacy that leaves the fact out of consideration that men who give birth must have been born female, an inversion narrative. A good example for such an inversion narrative comes from trans-activism itself: it is called “deadnaming”. Deadnaming is the malpractice to call a trans-person by the name and gender the person was originally born into after he or she has made the identity change. The inversion narrative is a crucial part of the perception shift. It establishes a dominance of a present state in a human being’s perception of his or her own life. The presence is not an effect of the past, but the other way around. The present state is dominant over the past. And as we have requested before such an operation is indeed counterfactual.

Ideologically speaking Daniel must have always been a man, if he declares that being male is his present state. From the perspective of the presence in which he perceives himself to be male, everything else in the past is interpreted inverse to satisfy the narrative. It is simply a social agreement to accept the present state of conditions of the human experience as the main (and only) projection of a personal history. If I imagine myself in a conversation with Daniel Masch, I would express all my sympathies for his struggles. I would ask him nevertheless why he thinks it is necessary to erase his own past for the sake of a present state and if he likes to do so why everyone else has to repeat this fallacy as a demonstration of good will. In the activist’s handbook, language policing punishes the refusal to omit past identities because the critique of the method is regarded as an insult, even a personal attack, on those who promote it and the people it claims to include.

I think we can make a very good point here that the basic premises of trans-activism are deeply flawed. The logical chain that we established makes the case that language policing is the necessary consequence of a perception shift, which is based on inversion narratives. We should be aware that analyzing flawed logic is easy. The hard part is to establish political norms that will enable us to counter the authoritarian impulses of current politics by flexing the muscles of civil liberty. Our critics will not miss the next best opportunity to accuse us of transphobia, thereby constantly accusing us of being discriminatory, hostile and threatening towards trans-people. I cannot provide a feasible solution for this problem. We must not fool ourselves that a successful logical examination of these fallacies will do anything else than contribute to bitter conflict and polarization. We may be able to determine truth values by inferring valid conclusions as much as we like, political reality will continue to emphasize that diversity, equity and inclusion are more important goals and the logical examination of these fallacies is nothing but an unwelcome disturbance. We are on Orwellian territory now and essentially, we have always been at war with East Asia.