Thursday, 26 June 2014

Brendan O'Neill Gets Genderfucked by Conchita Wurst

Back in May the outcome of the Eurovision song contest provoked predictably unreconstructed reactions from the usual quarters. It was to be expected, so sadly predictable are bigots. Still, for a long time it looked as though the Europeans had traded their tradition of slaughtering one another for a song contest. One such dismally unreconstructed and dim-witted response came from Brendan O'Neill in his blog at The Telegraph. In case you're not acquainted with the O'Neill schtick, Brendan edits sp!ked and claims to hold a Marxist libertarian perspective. About Ms Wurst's claim to womanhood, this soi-disant contrarian had this to say:

News reports tell us that Wurst prefers that people apply the female pronoun to him when he slips his dress on. Okay. But does that mean we all have to comply with this rather strange demand, no questions asked? Does objective reality – the fact that there are biological differences between men and women, and that the vast majority of humankind decides whether someone is a man or woman by those biological attributes – count for nothing in the face of one person's wish to be known as something he is not? By the same token, can I now request that people refer to me as black even though I'm white? Who are you to say I am not black? I might feel black.

Brendan O'Neill fell far short of his libertarian commitment to individual liberty this time. There was no thought for Mill's experiments of living or for the harm principle. The shibboleths of classical liberal thinking were completely absent in O'Neill's tiresome screed. Given that O'Neill claims to filter his libertarianism through Marx it would be easy to expect him to reach for the radical feminist critiques of transgenderism in this case. The paucity of O'Neill's imagination is on full show. He even commits the rookie mistake in conflating a biological distinction (sex) with that which is cultural and performative (gender). He wants to disregard the claims of the transgender movement at the cultural-performative level and assert his own claim to a 'objective reality' which they deny.

Note the use of 'objective' here should be reassessed. In bringing up racial identity O'Neill opens up another can of worms, but not an entirely irrelevant can. Race is objective, but not in the nineteenth century meaning of 'scientific' racial distinctions. Race exists as a social formation, and not just a historical construct, which we've yet to do away with, and insofar as it does it is objective. The same may well be said for gender roles which are not to be confused with differences of sex. O'Neill seems to want to insist on difference at a fundamental level, stand up for individual freedom, all the while reinforcing categories, and challenging those who do not conform. He falls short of his claim to be a coherent libertarian on these grounds.

The irony is that females and males are far more similar, biologically, than in terms of gender roles, which have long been defined by minorities. If O'Neill wants to defend the binary distinction between woman and man he undermines his own reactionary project. He should have little qualm with gender reassignment if he wants to defend a strict dichotomy. The rejection of the automatic sorting of males and females into clear-cut categories of men and women does not necessitate a rejection of gender roles in itself. This is at the level of liberal emancipation, the kind Karl Marx wrote about in his essay on Jewish emancipation. O'Neill would know this if he was as well-versed in early Marx as he pretends to be. He is explicit in focusing in on Conchita's beard and that it is the bending of gender conventions which really irks him.

It's ambiguity which threatens him. He is much too concerned by a possible break in social reproduction posed by men and women jumping from one gender role to another. Yet as an individualist O'Neill should be rejoicing. What could be more appealing to those guardians of untrammeled liberty than a social order determined by free individuals? It's not like a libertarian to see individuals as situated and shaped by existing social conditions. A more radical demand would be why we should accept such conditions in the first place. Of course, abolition is not on the agenda, but rather conservation. In this regard we can see Brendan O'Neill, not as a libertarian provocateur, but as a cultural conservative, in spite of his contrarian appeals.

After the spurious appeal to 'objectivity' we have the casual deployment of right-wing swearwords, 'relativism' being a long-standing favourite. He writes "The bending of gender speaks to today's speedily spreading cult of relativism. We live in such relativistic times, in an era so hostile to the idea that there are measurable truths or concrete realities, that it seems we can no longer even speak of 'men' and 'women'." This is the best he could come up with - half-witted blather at best! He doesn't take the time to justify his own censorious standpoint in the first place. He has no such sense of courtesy, but he does have a salaried platform.

First of all, one could not articulate a coherent position on identity without normative presuppositions (at the very least) as relativism can only function in descriptive terms. One relativism rises above the level of description it ceases to be relativism. If you condemn racism in favour of a society in which migrants can settle and maintain a cultural identity in conjunction with our own you are not a relativist. The same applies to Conchita and her request to be recognised as a woman and not "a beardy bloke in a dress" as O'Neill puts it. It presupposes a set of normative standards. It couldn't be the case that this abandons all sense of 'objective reality'. These are the terms set by O'Neill and should be thoroughly undone if we are to see his opponents as more than straw targets.

As for 'narcissism', you wouldn't expect a self-proclaimed libertarian to criticise someone for their sense of identity as if free-market individualists have ever sought to disregard selfhood. If a right-wing libertarian is to be consistent on the questions of self-ownership and sovereignty there is no reason an individual cannot choose another gender role. The best of the liberal tradition comes in the praise for experiments in living and takes heed not to trample the lives of others. Leaving people alone has its advantages. It is this basic impulse which is absent in O'Neill's writing. Except, of course, when it comes to the freedom of poor people to starve to death then O'Neill is a lover of liberty. The radical free-marketeers of this world don't stand for freedom, but misery and repression.

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