Below is a conversation had on Twitter following my previous post, “Cancel Culture and the Betrayal of Truth”, that I think is worthy pinning here for posterity as it was an opportunity to clarify some things.
The underlying (and perhaps implicit) point of the previous post was that the disarticulation of philosophy from politics doesn’t help anyone, but it is often now seen as the “rationalist” and “realist” position to take. This is a poor foundation to build on, in my experience. In fact, it’s the very tension discussed by Badiou in his Ethics.
There are many interesting passages to draw upon but the quotation to follow seems like the most obviously relevant to me. Badiou writes:
When Nietzsche proposes to ‘break the history of the world in two’ by exploding Christian nihilism and generalizing the great Dionysian ‘yes’ to Life; or when certain Red Guards of the Chinese Revolution proclaim, in 1967, the complete suppression of self-interest, they are indeed inspired by a vision of a situation in which all interest has disappeared, and in which opinions have been replaced by the truth to which Nietzsche and the Red Guards are committed. The great nineteenth-century positivists likewise imagined that the statements of science were going to replace opinions and beliefs about all things. And the German Romantics worshipped a universe entirely transfixed by an absolutized poetics.
But Nietzsche went mad. The Red Guards, after inflicting immense harm, were imprisoned or shot, or betrayed by their own fidelity. Our century has been the graveyard of positivist ideas of progress. And the Romantics, already prone to suicide, were to see their ‘literary absolute’ engender monsters in the form of ‘aestheticized politics’.
For every truth presumes, in fact, in the composition of the subject it induces, the preservation of ‘some-one’, the always two-sided activity of the human animal caught up in truth. Even ethical ‘consistency’, as we have seen, is only the disinterested engagement, in fidelity, of a perseverance whose origin is interest — such that every attempt to impose the total power of a truth ruins that truth’s very foundation.
At its most obnoxious, this is epitomised by a “facts don’t care about your feelings” approach to life, which in turn is mistaken for a “realism”, when in fact it simply defers judgement on certain topics in favour of throwing everything into the marketplace of ideas. At its most benign, it’s a kind of liberal complicity in bad philosophy. There is nothing rational or reasonable in allowing yourself to be a useful idiot for over-egged truths.
I’ve been guilty of this myself on occasion (and I’ve been accused of it on a few more occasions than that). I’d argue suspending judgement until you’re in full possession of the facts is a normal thing to do, so long as you’re actively trying to expand your own consciousness of the issue at hand. However, to remain afloat in this space by persistently placing an over-emphasis on philosophical debate does have a tendency to leave the political out in the cold, sometimes with embarrassing consequences. This was also part of my point in the previous post. Reducing the so-called “principle of charity” to respecting any and all points of view is a hollow conception of an ethics if ever there was one.
This is where we can end up when we take as a given the logical fallacy that politics is the realm of subjective experience (and therefore bad) and philosophy the realm of pure reason (and therefore good). At best, this betrays a very poor understanding of modern philosophy; at worst, it’s a complicity in the various disarticulations wrought upon political thought under neoliberalism. It is in this way that we betray the truth.
Badiou’s thought is slippery in this regard. In his most accessible mode, it is all too easy to read it and see oneself as the carrier of his truthful torch. He writes, for instance, of breaking free from the tyranny of opinion and dedicating oneself to truth:
Opinion tells me (and therefore I tell myself, for I am never outside opinions) that my fidelity [to truth] may well be terror exerted against myself, and that the fidelity to which I am faithful looks very much like — too much like — this or that certified Evil. It is always a possibility, since the formal characteristics of this Evil (as simulacrum) are exactly those of a truth.
But this only supports the plight of the narcissistic and cancelled if they choose to suspend politics, or equate politics with opinion. (Badiou explicitly decries such a manoeuvre.)
This is very easily done today. In most instances it is true that politics and opinion go hand in hand. But striving for a better world is not a matter of opinion. The pill-popping habits of conservatives — where it’s the red pill, black pill, etc. on the menu — consistently confuse the stakes. They see tradition as truth and progress as opinion, but opinion is only a factor in how we get there — there is truth in the forward-facing direction of travel.
To betray this truth is to emphasise the twists and turns at the expense of the trajectory. (See: communism is bust because the Soviet Union failed; the left is dead because I got cancelled.) As Badiou continues:
This explains why former revolutionaries are obliged to declare that they used to be lost in error and madness, why a former lover no longer understands why he loved that woman, why a tired scientist comes to misunderstand, and to frustrate through bureaucratic routine, the very development of his own science. Since the process of truth is an immanent break, you can ‘leave’ it … only by breaking with this break which has seized you. And this breaking of a break has continuity as its motif. Continuity of the situation and continuity of opinions: all that came before, under the names of ‘politics’ or ‘love’, was an illusion at best, a simulacrum at worst.
So it is that the defeat of the ethic of a truth, at the undecidable point of a crisis, presents itself as betrayal.
And this is an Evil from which there is no return; betrayal is the second name, after simulacrum, of the Evil made possible by a truth.
The left struggles to retain fidelity to its own truths — that’s blatantly apparent. But the response from some quarters that goes on to denounce the movement as a whole surely characterises the break above, and without the breaking of the break that a Badiouian ethics suggests must follow.
There was a good thread about this the other day that demonstrates how those on the wrong side of the tracks can nonetheless use this fraught and difficult process to retain a fidelity to a truth. In this sense, some cancellations are an attempt to firmly kick a political football into someone else’s court…
…Too many respond to this by picking up the football and just taking it home with them. They manipulate the way in which they fail to live up to the demands of an event and instead position themselves as taking an apolitical high road in the lofty realm of philosophical discourse. TERFs do this very well but, as Badiou writes: “Fidelity to a simulacrum, unlike fidelity to an event, regulates its break with the situation not by the universality of the void, but by the closed particularity of an abstract set.” He gives nationalist and ethnic examples — “(the ‘Germans’ or the ‘Aryans’)” — we can easily include other ones.
TERFs and racists — or, frankly, anyone who works (knowingly or unknowingly) against the emancipation of others — who find themselves browbeaten by the court of public opinion, tend to run deeper into a darkened politics. Online, philosophy often becomes a safe haven in this regard, where thought is free and travels far and wide. Some cancelled thinkers embrace their newfound “freedom”. They become magpies, decorating their nests in spectacular and exotic materials, only to protect a rotten and paranoid egg at its centre. Power and others create much confusion in this regard, but in ways that are already well-documented. The cognitive dissonance of a Nietzschean will to power combined with a fidelity to political simulacrum is arguably the defining crisis of our modern moment. In Nina Power’s narcissism, the pun is hard to ignore. Her’s is a will-to-Power — a self-interest disguised as what Badiou calls “disinterested-interest”. It is the perfect encapsulation of the disarticulation of philosophy from politics at its most abstract. Power, in particular, increasingly appears to be the ultimate caricature of this kind of postmodern position — the gnostic TERF.
It is with all this in mind that my reading of an article about having a “principle of charity” by someone who has exhausted that principle in others felt like a summary of everything wrong with this moment, specifically in this corner of the internet, that likes to pride itself on a higher level of discourse but often fails to penetrate through the higher level of abstraction that comes with that. This was not intended to be an overwrought exercise in shit-slinging. In fact, I tried to leave out anything that could be misconstrued as gossip. (The very point of mentioning Nancy Hartsock’s feminist standpoint theory previously was to provide a philosophical example of a political epistemology built on a notion of “strong objectivity” provided by lived experience, without necessarily going into the details.) But if we’re talking about ethics — distinct from leftist moralism — we are nonetheless invoking our own behaviour. And it is worth acknowledging the fact that, as philosophers, we can woefully fail to live up to the principles we fill our essays with. If we’re talking about being on the side of truth, but cannot acknowledge that fact, then how truthful are we being? There is a lesson to be learned from a philosopher who has written extensively on Badiou but cannot separate her fidelity to political simulacrum and her fidelity to the event of her own cancellation. I think it is an important one.
This is similarly the most powerful lesson of Bataille’s ethics, but despite her more recent interest in his gnonsticism, Power wholly lacks any of the hubris of Bataillean insufficiency. The truth of the matter is that someone like Nina Power is wholly dependent on the principle of charity to retain support — that’s why she’s in favour of it. But plenty of people who retained that principle for themselves — for over a year after she was first cancelled, in my case — have found it exhausted by repeated evidence of what that principle is being put in service of. It turns out, by declaring you have nothing but a humble interest in ideas, you can get away with a lot of bullshit.
I was vocally supportive of Nina last year. As time has gone on, I’ve found that Linda Stupart was right. I still think the left still has its problems — of course it does — but acknowledging that fact doesn’t necessitate blind support for someone who has long since betrayed their own truths.
Anyway, hopefully these various points are made clearer by the conversation below. This conversation was between David John Roden (henceforth DJR) and myself (XG).
DJR: I don’t see how we exercise the principle of charity AND pathologize an interlocutor as a ‘bourgeois white ….’ clinging on to victimhood. The [principle of charity] requires, at the very least, that we construe our opponents as reasonable, if not right. 
XG: Being “bourgeois” and “white” aren’t pathologies, they’re categories of material condition. Construing an opponent as “reasonable” depends on their ability to be reasoned with, and when those conditions obscure the facts of others’ lives, that capacity for reason is diminished. 
Material conditions can, of course, produce pathologies; just as science can produce ideology in the wrong hands. But being able to identify that difference is a key threshold for rational discourse in my view and most TERF discourse falls well below that threshold. 
DJR: I think you’re confusing being reasonable with being right. Sure, TERF discourse often makes dubious use of scientific claims — I’ve been on the receiving end of venom from Gender Critical Feminists for arguing this … 
However, your piece simply assumes wrongness on the part of the other. It doesn’t engage with them. You don’t analyze the effects of material conditions, you pretty much reduce your opponent to vessels for those conditions. Talk of the POC just becomes hypocritical in this light. 
XG: This is the slippery slope into moral relativism I’m talking about. If being reasonable is the capacity to exercise sound judgement, I think I can reasonably ascertain when someone’s judgement is unsound based on the facts at hand. 
DJR: I think you underestimate the difficulty of arbitrating claims about complex often metaphysical claims (about sexual difference, for example). Most people I know are confused about this stuff. It’s also not relativist to hold that beliefs can be rational but false. It’s realist. 
XG: I don’t underestimate it at all. I’m precisely in favour of those discussions, and I’m aware that those issues are philosophical[ly] contentious. What I reject [is] the use of philosophical ambiguity as a cheap cover for political conservatism. 
DJR: Right. So then why not interpret your opponents in the most charitable light to refute them with a reasoned argument? The POC, as I always tell my students, is the best way to nix the opposition. Assuming that your opponents are benighted dupes of ideology gets you nowhere. 
XG: Because this exact same argument [of philosophical contentiousness] can be used to affirm radical gender experimentation and biohacking, but in this instance, it’s not. It’s being used to defend the right of a rich white women to say trans women aren’t women. 
You’re just continuing to bastardise an ethical standpoint in favour of vague relativism and apologism. As I insinuate in the post, that’s not what ethics is. And no one should understand that better than an apparent reader of Badiou. 
DJR: As stated, the distinction between justification and truth isn’t relativist, it’s key to a minimal realism. And it’s because I think the reasons stack up against TERF claims that I think something like a principle of charity is potentially useful here. 
XG: Realism is a double-edged sword, as you well know. You err on the side of defending “gender realism” here. I’ll take my realism with a second-order drive towards the Promethean, thanks, rather than wasting time defending a TERF’s right to clutch her pearls. 
DJR: C’mon! The fact that gender realists are realists doesn’t mean that all realists are gender realists. Being realist just means that we assume that reality can be structured independently of our beliefs about it, that truth can outrun verification, etc. 
XG: Yes, I know that. And that’s why I think your understanding of realism is hollow. It’s nothing but a moral relativism supported by a passive nihilism.  …You can have a realism that errs towards a Promethean understanding of gender (or w/e). By suspending politics from the equation, you obscure the fact that is a choice, making your realism resemble a realism in the negative sense rather than the positive. 
DJR: Now, having pathologized your opponents, you traduce me, which is a low move I think. I’ve consistently defended trans and non-binary people and opposed gender critical readings — and received some abuse for it. I’m arguing for an ethics of discussion not the substantive issue. 
XG: I’m not pathologising you in the slightest. You’re the one talking about contentious understanding[s] of gender, etc.  I suppose [what] I’m gesturing towards [is] a distinction between a speculative realism or, say, capitalist realism. [You] might claim to support trans and non-binary people but every instance in which “realism” has been invoked here tends towards the latter rather than the former. 
I know what you’re arguing for and I’m saying your ethics is hollow if you’re using it to defend a TERF’s right to be wrong. That right isn’t [even] under threat. But you’re invoking it to take an apparent high road which requires you to superficially suspend politics from philosophy. 
Update: This conversation flared up again and then later lost momentum (again). Nina entered the fray herself both on Twitter and in private emails. The principle of charity has remained a sticking point and, predictably, lead to an trollish Catch-22, where it seems clear that if I exit the conversation and shut it down, I’m the one against discourse. The emails, in particular, are textbook sea-lioning. It is precisely the ease with which such a principle of charity is abused in this sense that I take issue with and it was this sort of tactic that I saw as the manipulative underbelly of an apparent appeal towards ethics. Nothing said or discussed so far has dissuaded me from that opinion.
The overlap between private and public communication only muddies the waters even further here so I would like to include my final email below, even if some of it is devoid of context, as a way of drawing a line under the whole thing and retaining a firm grip on what I find so disagreeable — the way a principle of charity can slip into a deferral of responsibility; the deferring of thinking to asking questions:
My intention isn’t to punish you. You said before I should have the decency to say to you and to the world what I think. I’ve done that. Just because you don’t like what I think, doesn’t make it a punishment. By that same logic, you’re punishing trans people by saying things you know upset them. This might not mean “denying their existence” — a charge I’ve never mentioned against you or Rowling — but it certainly affects existence, in precisely the ways you describe [by blogposts affecting yours]. That doesn’t [mean] no one should talk about anything, of course. Far from it. But you can’t have your cake and eat it.
I’m certainly not enjoying any of this. Hellthreads make me nauseous with anxiety, frankly, so am I also just punishing myself? Maybe. I just don’t intend to sit on the side lines for the sake of my own comfort anymore. Communication is fraught. Bataille said it was “evil”. The consequences are pervasive. It’s precisely this that I don’t think you can avoid simply because you do it with politeness. The way in which you say something is irrelevant. Nothing is without consequences.
I’ve often found your positions to be ambiguous and given you the benefit of the doubt as a result. They’ve become increasingly less ambiguous over time and the recent article made it clear. It’s TERFs sticking up for TERFs. The same as it ever was. As such, your commitments feel confused and hypocritical to me, and from my perspective you’re complicit in the very things you say you stand against. You’re welcome to think the same of me after this, if you like. That’s fine.
The focus here, for me, has always been on the disarticulation of politics from philosophy. If you think the way I did this was too personal, that’s fine too. I apologise. But it was precisely you that I disagreed with. Roden entering the conversation abstracted that somewhat and made it into a more interesting discussion but the stakes didn’t change. I disagreed with it as much from him as from you. Nevertheless, the to-ing and fro-ing between scales — between overarching principles and the interpersonal consequences of standing by them — only obfuscates those consequences and leads to a self-pitying back and forth that I have no interest in. This is what I find disingenuous. The privilege given to open discussion, especially when it has passed the point of productivity, serves only to suspend action until we reach the impotence of agreeing to disagree. It might not have reached that point for you yet but I’m certainly over it. I’ve said all that I have to say.
Nina denies any desire to hurt trans people. I’m sure many would argue that her intent has not stopped it from happening, in part due to the ethics she proscribes to the rest of us.
A few others continued to debate the issue after this fact, attempting to retain space for an open debate about the philosophical and even biological differences in the material experiences of cis women and trans women. Only a bigoted view point can demand that space and not see how it already exists. Trans women and cis women have different experiences and that is precisely why they are named as such. They may be different in kind but they are still both women. Anything less than that — or anything that apologises for anything less than that — is TERF dogma.