Anti-Essentialism and Cancel Culture: Notes of TERF Science and Anti-TERF Science

At the end of last year, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling caused another TERF storm on Twitter after she weighed in on Maya Forstater losing her case of unlawful dismissal against her former employer.

Forstater, who had an unfortunate tendency to tweet TERFy stuff about biological essentialism, ended up losing her job at an international thinktank for being too online. Rather than taking a chance to reflect, she decided to sue them and use it as a PR opportunity for the sort of hard time “gender critical” feminists like her have when trying to speak their superior minds about their superior bodies.

The case predictably brought all of the UK’s TERFs out of their holes like the slimy eels they are and led to them doing the usual conservative thing which is turn the conversation into a weird freedom of speech issue when it’s really about something else.

J.K. Rowling jumping on the band wagon only served to throw a can of gasoline on what was effectively at that point just a few candles for a self-determined martyr. The case exploded but, most frustratingly, it exploded in terms that were set by the TERFs themselves, making the discussion surrounding the case all the more toxic.

Despite the outcome of the trial, the public conversation around it was reduced to Forstater’s (losing) argument with no mention of the judge’s actual ruling which, frankly, was excellent.

As The Guardian reported at the time:

Forstater has been supported by Index on Censorship. Its chief executive, Jodie Ginsberg, has said previously: “From what I have read of [Forstater’s] writing, I cannot see that Maya has done anything wrong other than express an opinion that many feminists share — that there should be a public and open debate about the distinction between sex and gender.”

But in a 26-page judgment released on Wednesday, [Judge] Tayler dismissed her claim. “I conclude from … the totality of evidence, that [Forstater] is absolutist in her view of sex and it is a core component of her belief that she will refer to a person by the sex she considered appropriate even if it violates their dignity and/or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. The approach is not worthy of respect in a democratic society.”

What I found particularly interesting about this was that Forstater was arguing that her right to deny trans people the dignity of being addressed how they would like to be addressed constituted a “philosophical belief” and should therefore be “protected” under law, when the truth of the matter, as the judge demonstrated, was that Forstater’s belief in her own right to speak over others constitutes an explicitly anti-democratic approach to the debate she says she wants to have.


Forstater illuminated a pervasive problem we see across politics at the moment, which is that poor arguments are emboldened by being self-described as the product of intellectual pursuits.

It is the political equivalent of saying “I think, therefore I am intelligent.”

The Cartesian callback here is not made unknowingly. It is an explicit bastardisation of a philosophical position because it takes an approach that is meant to be rational and logical but eschews any semblance of Cartesian doubt in its own constitution. As a result, there’s nothing recognisably philosophical about her view at all. If there is, her allusions to ways of thinking about the body and the mind are still inherently out of date.

The primary tension of Forstater’s position comes from the fact that she does not believe her belief to be a belief at all. Confused? So is she. As far as Forstater is concerned, when it really matters, these are not opinions but scientific facts. Sex is real. Which is to say, her opinions about sex are real and if she thinks them then they must be true.

If she were truly attempting to be philosophical in her position, chances are she would be much more humble about the origins and fallibility of her own reasoning, which is not just absolutist but ugly and arrogant. Instead, in each articulation of her right to determine another person’s expression of self, she confuses philosophy, politics and science in an unclear blob of emboldened beliefs that don’t really latch onto anything except an essentially fascistic view of the body. She essentialises and repeats a Cartesian dualism, just as Rowling does, that says you can dress and think however you like, but that’s your mind. And your mind is not your body.

It’s basically the most boring version of that oft trotted out conservative declaration that reality is more terrifying and unjust than you can imagine and cannot be softened by your humanistic appeals to ethics. As Ben Shapiro infamously puts it with his dumb catchphrase, “facts don’t care about your feelings.”

But this sort of gender essentialism misses so much out from our collective experiences — and not just our experiences of gender but our experiences of being human. The real reality is that the unruliness of the human body (including its brain) terrifies TERFs and so they clutch at their sex pearls. What if, instead, science itself is woefully insufficient in describing the experience of life and consciousness in this regard — and surely that is obvious? More often than not, it is loaded “facts” that are used to prop up political points about what it means to be a valid human being and science is invoked in a way that lops off any feeling in ways that are actually deeply hypocritical and paradoxical. They think they’re channelling Vulcan logic but instead appear blinkered and repressed. (And I say this in a pop science sense, which has seen a rise in attempts to re-legitimise race science as well in recent years — not looking to incur the wrath of any neorats here… Although they’re often guilty of this too, in far more innocuous ways.)

When H.P. Lovecraft said: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” I felt that.

Suffice it to say, as far as I’m concerned, the hard reality of subjectivity isn’t that facts don’t care about your feelings but rather that feelings that don’t care about your facts. The maelstrom of consciousness has yet to be unravelled by biology or statistics or any other science. This is not to say the humanities are much better but at least they’re more likely to be honest about it when deployed in pop culture Overton Windowing.

However, you’re very unlikely to hear anything like that on social media, in a neoliberal age where, even on the left, the weathervane of pop scientific discourse is made out to be the last line of defence for and against biological bigotry. For example, it is often at this point that many well-meaning biologists weigh in on hellthreads to counteract TERF science with some lefty science of their own.

J.K. Rowling’s tweet remains a key reference. For instance, Twitter user @eugenegu responded to Rowling with a viral tweet of their own, saying that “it is both a scientific and medical fact that intersex individuals do exist and gender is not as binary as mainstream society is set to believe.” Many other tweets basically followed this line and, whilst I’d like to think it is very much correct, that doesn’t mean I think it should be wheeled out as an absolutist response to a TERFy absolutism.

This sort of scientific validation might be well-meaning but, more often than not, it just sounds gross. Who has ever felt validated and felt better about their lived experienced by the knowledge that intersex people have been observed in a bio lab? It feels like the product of a confused biological determinism for the 21st century.

Not that I have any clue either way. I’m not trans but I do often think and write about experiences of slipping through societal expectations of what is right and proper when it comes to class and gender, and this is often a topic that can get me in hot water.

Because I hate essentialism. I hate it from the right and I hate it from the left. Whilst it’s somewhat expected from the former, I am more likely to take the latter to task over it because the conservative right are more or less defined by a tendency to absolutise everything in their path — essentialising subjects, cultures, and the past in general, all to service and give an illusory ground to their political imaginary. Political imaginaries are fine but when the left starts pearl-clutching around issues of subjectivity as well, no matter what progressive cause it is supposedly in aid of, I just don’t think it is a good look.

Is this a long-winded way of saying “idpol sucks”? Maybe… Probably… But that’s not to say that the politics of subjectivity are not incredibly important for understanding ourselves and each other — it’s the abstraction of this into modes of subjectification that explicitly appeal to contemporaneous authorities of individualism that needs to go.

With this view of idpol in mind, what I find interesting about the judge’s ruling in the Forstater case in this regard is that it could apply just as easily to “cancel culture” and the creation of intimidating and hostile environments for people who do not fit into an essentialist view of politics.

This is not an arbitrary accusation or one that I want to see used to defend slippery manipulative edgelording, but the fact remains that when you spend a lot of time with your head above the parapet of social media discourse, it’s never long before you end up getting called a “crypto-this” or a “crypto-that”, or just straight out shut down for apparently being 100% some kind of political subject. Half of my own grumpy posts on this blog come from a deep-felt frustration at having a position essentialised and reduced to finer and finer points that supposedly define my entire way of being and thought. (They never do but everyone loves summing people up in that way.)


Contrapoints’ latest video is really good on this and, whilst her personal receipts constitute something of an endurance test to sit through, she breaks down this problem of essentialism not being a problem of opinion but of flawed logic in a very convincing way within the video’s first 15 minutes, demonstrating perfectly how the knee-jerk reaction of cancelling is emboldened by fundamentally bad ethical logic dressed up as radically militant political reasoning.

The basic argument, as I see it, is one of suspending judgement. Any philosophical reasoning — and this is something noticeably shared by everyone I personally admire — is understood as a form of becoming, in that people take time with their reasoning and their decisions and leave themselves open to correction and changes of opinion, constantly thinking and adapting thoughts and not settling on some essentialised project. More than that, they refused to be defined by a single utterance. (Resisting the sanitising of Mark Fisher’s thought in this regard is one of the main projects of this blog, for instance.)

This is not to say these people cowardly resist taking a position one way or another. If the history of philosophy is going to tell you anything it is that change is constant and nothing under the sun will avoid the test of time. It is often philosophy’s task to do much of the tearing up of sociopolitical norms. The hardest thing in the world, I think, is carrying that knowledge with you whilst constantly repeating the modernist mantra of “make it new.” To do this openly, wearing your doubt on your sleeve, and always working to update your opinions is not just philosophizing 101 but cultural production 101, and the primary thing I mourn within contemporary leftist politics is an inability — both from within and enforced from outside — to do these two things in tandem whilst the right gets away with it with much more ease because, at least in this country, sociopolitical experimentation is traditionally the exclusive hobby of the upper classes who don’t need to work to feed themselves. (See, for example, Dominic Cummings’ most recent blog post.)

Instead of trying to “make it new”, keeping ahead of oppressive forces and forging new forms of life, the latest phase of cancel culture — of the vampire’s castle — is defined by a desire to simply keep up with the micro-political trends of the herd, typically established by accident, through the mechanisms of the cancel machine itself, here understood as a sort of internalised and secularised Christian moralism, buoyed by fake news rather than research. Later in her video, Contrapoints basically explains how and why this is bullshit and challenges people’s assumptions that they have all the facts, whilst describing the ways in which this behaviour snowballs into a vigilantism that does a disservice to actual forms of social justice.

The reason she gives for this is brilliant but subtle and comes to a head within the video’s last 20 or so minutes, where I interpret the argument, tentatively and somewhat nervously offered up, to be as follows:

Your McCarthyism boils down to fighting any perceived gender essentialism with a bullying political essentialism.

Anyone who has had any sort of brush with cancellation will recognise this equation immediately, I’m sure. Of course, on its own, this doesn’t amount to much and I’m painfully aware — and feel quite sorry for Contrapoints in this regard especially — that, when you’ve been misrepresented by idiots online, sometimes the only thing it feels like you can do is construct a robust defence full of receipts even if no one has asked for it and you know the result will get you ridiculed and most won’t read about it anyway.

(Speaking from personal experience: The U/Acc Primer was primarily a 10,000 word collection of receipts to try and shut up accelerationist naysayers who insisted on smugly essentialising a position based on little more than a viral misreading. It was dismissed on a few occasions by the people it was targeted towards as a “long-winded tantrum” despite being an attempt to park emotion and instead introduce into the conversation some unprecedented levels of rigour. Thankfully, over time, that gesture has won out and it did successfully shut up some of the dumber naysayers. I’ve been less successful with this in trying to counter the anti-xenofeminist Facebook crowd.)

It is typically at this point, when you’ve done all you can in terms of trying to course-correct the trajectory of a public conversation, that the question stops being one of politics or belief but purely philosophical and, more specifically, ethical. However, here again the sheer poverty of that declaration, in the mouths of people like Maya Forstater, becomes abjectly depressing.

Ethics, today, isn’t really in vogue. It’s also confused with lots of other political trends. Being in possession of an “ethics” or an ethical response to a certain topic or agenda is not the same as having a political hair-trigger. It is also not the same thing as having an essentialised and immoveable response to a certain kind of question. It is also not a praxis of McCarthyite moralism.

Ethics, as far as I am concerned, is about communication.

My favourite ethicist is Georges Bataille — the man who declared that all human communication is violent and “evil” for the way that, at its most affecting, it ungrounds the self and the other. He wasn’t interested in the nausea of Sartrean individualism or the Christian hangover of a political moralism à la Simone Weil. He sought the affirmation of communal experiences that dramatically removed the self from the everyday and thrust it into the maelstrom of being-with other people. At its most virulent, this is why it is the “community of lovers” that is the pinnacle of his ethical system, wherein the everyday is ruptured by a radical commitment to the other, as shared by two.

None of this is to say that the answer to inter-leftist bullying is that we all form a giant polycule — although Bataille did spend plenty of time in orgies, it seems, but in order to lose himself, not bureaucratise asymmetrical relationships through domesticity — but it does demand a level of patience and compassion that is alien to most people in their daily lives. (I have an old essay series on Bataille’s ethics here if you’re keen to learn more — there’s also a lot about it in Egress.) It is a compassion that is not just reserved for the political conformers in your day-to-day encounters with the world — those inside the in-crowd of political respectibility — but also the mad lot who might be falling apart at the seams and be saying dumb shit. It’s to embrace everyone as comrade and not use that word as an excuse for gatekeeping. (Recent example of that issue here.)

I recently saw something, for instance, that said “political correctness” is a byword for compassion and the right just can’t seem to understand that, but the left has nonetheless internalised that same discrepancy, where the enforcement of political correctness is often wholly dispassionate and negatively affects many people who it is supposed to protect.

Contrapoints almost stumbles onto this point in her latest video, addressing one particular drama around having Buck Angel contribute to one of her videos. She refers to an Instagram post he made in which he somewhat dismisses the outrage of the trans community, directed at himself, because he knows that all trans people are in pain and he does not take their projection of this pain onto him personally.

Contrapoints reads this generously and I am inclined to as well. The point being made, it seems, is that people who find themselves ill-fitting within sociocultural infrastructures go through huge amount of internal distress and trans people are perhaps our most visible marginal group of late who talk about this openly as a community. And yet, online, these debates that are occurring at the very edge of our sociocultural Overton Window too often substitute actual compassion for border control, gatekeeping and delegitimising — even, and (paradoxically) sometimes especially, when those are the supposed targets of the mob’s rule. (An excellent text on this, I think, is Foucault’s Friendship as a Way of Life.)

Untangling these political interrelations is messy, and I’m aware the above summary probably sounds like it is lacking in the very generosity to calls for, so I don’t want to try and unpack that any further. This is undoubtedly the reason why Contrapoints’ latest video is one hour and forty minutes in length. Unpacking stuff like this is hard but she does a better job of it than I am right now. Instead, I want to shift gear to what I see as the only ethical response to these sorts of issues that is similarly Bataillean in its affections (at least in my reading of it):

The basic ethical perspective of xenofeminism, as I understand it, is that we must be radically anti-essentialist on all fronts. It is only in this way that we will find the porosity through which we can let in new forms of life that both left and right, with equally misplaced suspicion and fear, would rather subject to humiliating lab tests before deeming them worthy of existence.

Killing the fascist in your head is one thing, but kill the scientist in your head as well. Don’t categorise — just go with the mutation. Don’t fall back on objective understandings of nature to back up your politics, no matter what they are. Change your mind. Change your body. If nature is unjust, change nature.



Update #1: “Kill the scientist in your head” is a glib and inaccurate turn of phrase, as pointed out by Dominic in the comments below. Don’t do that. Do kill the tendency to deploy science in a way that plays into a subservient and reductive politics though. “Kill the scientist” in the same sense of making yourself a “body without organs” — don’t literally eviscerate yourself; do away with the bureaucratic understanding of anatomy that limits what we think our bodies can do. Don’t reject the cold rationalism of science; do reject the scientific superego as arbiter of a “realist” biological understanding.

3 thoughts on “Anti-Essentialism and Cancel Culture: Notes of TERF Science and Anti-TERF Science

  1. I’m not sure about “kill the scientist” – with what are we to “change nature”, if not the techno-scientific acumen of the hacker and the researcher? More generally, seeking recourse in the supposedly irreducible weirdness of consciousness feels a bit like asylum ignorantiae. The point of Mark’s “cold rationalism”, as I had understood it, was to see consciousness as first-order materially (cybernetically, etc) determined, but second-order reconfigurable by altering the circumstances which give rise to it. I don’t want to speculate idly on the grounds or parameters of others’ experience, but one way to look at some aspects of “transition” might be as something like this sort of second-order alteration of the circumstances – social identification and recognition, how one “presents” and how that presentation is received and affirmed by others – which give rise to a viable sense of identity. (Consider “class passing” by way of comparison). The whole point in a way is that this can’t happen purely in one’s head – one can’t CBT one’s way out of a split-class consciousness, or dysphoria (broadly understood), because such things arise because of a contradiction between the social forces contouring one’s inner landscape, and some irreconcilable or implacably resistant feature of the resulting structure of feeling.

    (Neurodiversity indicates a particular class of obstacles here – the processes of parenting, peer socialisation, formal education etc all seek to develop an individual along neurotypical developmental pathways, and produce glitches and resistances in people who learn differently or with difficulty – cf the lyrics of Codeine’s “Tom”: “I went to school to learn / it didn’t work / how do you learn to try? / why can’t I?”)

    In a way, the whole point about science – modern science, in any case – is its principled and thoroughgoing evacuation of any teleology, any sense of essence or intrinsic purpose, in the phenomena it examines. That’s why actual biologists for the most part aren’t biological essentialists, about gender or anything much else. And this is why I think that the scientist in your head may actually be one of the strongest allies at hand against the fascist.

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    1. This was a particularly glib note to end on admittedly. I need to fully absorb what you’re saying but I don’t think I disagree. I’m likely just being inarticulate. For the most part, though, I should clarify that I don’t think science itself is the enemy but it’s political cooption in popular discourses does leave a lot to be desired.

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