Affirm my identity – or else!
The dangerous authority of the victim
7th April 2021
Joanna Williams argues that the moral authority that comes with victimhood is being used to legitimise a terrifying new authoritarianism.
‘What is your sex?’ This question has appeared on every national census carried out in the UK since 1801. It has only two possible answers, male or female, and has never been considered controversial or difficult for people to answer. Until now. In 2021 respondents were assumed to need guidance with this question. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) initially proposed that sex was an ‘umbrella term’ that referred to ‘self-identity’ before settling on advice that those struggling should use the sex recorded on an official document like a birth certificate or passport. Only passports are not a legal record of a person’s sex at all; gender on a passport can be changed with just a doctor’s note.
It took losing a last minute judicial review, brought by the group Fair Play for Women, for the ONS to return to a purely legal – and biological – definition of sex. But we need to ask why it ever occurred to the census question-compilers to alter the meaning of a category that has been taken for granted for centuries. A clue appears a few questions further into the form with new, voluntary questions on sexual orientation and gender identity. For the first time in 2021, respondents were asked: ‘Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?’. There followed a choice of two answers, yes or no. For those who answered no, there was a further instruction: ‘enter gender identity’. Unlike the binary choice presented in answer to the question on sex, people whose gender identity differed from their birth sex were free to pick any label they preferred.
Transgender activists welcomed the inclusion of questions on gender identity as a ‘good first step’ – presumably a first step towards normalising the notion that everyone has a gender identity. Owen Hurcum, the mayor-elect of Bangor, told the BBC, ‘I think it is great that we can finally put our real genders on the census,’ adding that they would describe themselves as ‘non-binary agender.’ However, Hurcum added, ‘As nice and as validating as that will feel for us to do, it really is only the tip of the iceberg for what the government can do.’ Such statements are revealing. Hurcum refers to their ‘real’ gender but ‘non-binary agender’ – not being exclusively a man or a woman, having no particular gender – is a made-up concept. It’s not only biology that Hurcum rejects: the use of plural pronouns to refer to one person twists our common understanding of language beyond all recognition.
Being unique, it seems, must now come with government approval and bureaucratic validation.
Despite having created an identity that rejects both scientific fact and social convention, Hurcum wants validation from the census and for the government to do more – although exactly what that might be is unclear. Being unique, it seems, must now come with government approval and bureaucratic validation. The purpose of the census has moved from being a straightforward population count to an instrument designed to affirm individuals’ identities while simultaneously producing statistics that will increase the visibility of certain groups. This shift has been hastened by the ONS involving charities and campaigning organisations like Stonewall in the compilation of the census.
Increasingly, gender critical feminists are questioning the influence of groups such as Stonewall, a charity that campaigns for ‘acceptance without exception’ for lesbian, gay and transgender people, and Mermaids, a charity that supports transgender children and their families, upon publicly-funded state institutions. They argue that a small number of transgender activists has been able to wield disproportionate influence on not just the ONS but the police, the National Health Service and the Crown Prosecution Service as well as within schools, universities, local councils and public and private sector workplaces.
They assume, not without good reason, that Stonewall prefers to implement change from the top down, rather than having to go to the trouble of convincing ordinary people of their cause. Being open to public scrutiny risks exposing conflict between the rights of males who identify as women and the rights of females. To take one example, single sex, female-only spaces such as prisons or domestic violence refuges can no longer be said to exist if forced to accommodate biological males. Yet directives ordering exactly this to happen can be introduced when debate is by-passed. Some feminists are rightly critical of what they see as the transgender lobby’s ‘hijacking’ of institutions that are supposed to safeguard women’s interests.
Why have so many organisations been ready and willing to give Stonewall representatives a seat at the boardroom table and allow them such influence?
Groups such as Stonewall and Mermaids have certainly taken advantage of opportunities to shape public policy and institutions. But we need to ask why these opportunities were made available in the first place. Why have so many organisations been ready and willing to give Stonewall representatives a seat at the boardroom table and allow them such influence? Why did the ONS think it appropriate to invite Stonewall to consult on the wording of census questions?
Stonewall clearly has an abundant supply of expensive legal advisers and experienced lobbyists. But when it comes to shaping public policy, time and again Stonewall finds itself pushing at an open door. From universities to the police, all manner of organisations have sought out Stonewall, invited its spokespeople in, and voluntarily jumped through the hoops necessary to receive the ‘Stonewall Champions’ charter mark. The tremendous influence of Stonewall tells us more about a moral crisis within our institutions than it does about the particular cunning of Stonewall’s directors.
From agents of change to passive victims
To bring about social change, activists often portray the people they represent as victims of prejudice, discrimination, abuse or circumstances and life events they have no control over. They ask those in positions of power to recognise their suffering and act on their behalf. If those they speak for are seen to have any agency themselves, it lies only in the power to name their own particular trauma. Often, victimisation is shown to be compound; a particular characteristic or attribute leads to disadvantage which, in turn, triggers prejudice and discrimination that leads to more disadvantage.
This approach to agitating for reform marks a significant shift with the past. In the twentieth century, trade unions sought to portray their members as powerful. Solidarity gave workers the upper hand: united, they were able to bring industry and manufacturing to a halt. Their input produced profit and by withdrawing their labour they could cut off revenue to the owners of property, be they private capitalists or state institutions. Although they experienced many failures, workers had some awareness not only of the power that came from threats to withdraw their labour but also of the power to hold their own representatives to account. Union membership, local branches and the need for officials to be elected meant at least some connection was sustained between rank-and-file employees and trade union leaders. At the same time, campaigns for broader political change, such as civil rights and liberation movements, demanded legal reforms on the basis that their members were equal to everyone else in society and should therefore have equal rights.
Over at least the past three decades, trade unions and campaigning movements alike have largely stopped arguing that their members are powerful and begun presenting them as beleaguered. They have stopped demanding equality and started asking for special concessions for some alongside the policing of others. At the same time, the leaders of these organisations are less likely to represent the views of the majority of citizens or even, necessarily, their own membership. For example, in 2016 the leaders of Britain’s 10 biggest trade unions, together representing virtually all union members, issued a joint plea to workers to vote to stay in the EU. History suggests their views were unrepresentative and their pleas had little impact.
They have stopped demanding equality and started asking for special concessions for some alongside the policing of others.
These shifts are most obvious in liberation movements. Many liberation movements appear to have transformed into revenue-generating charities, like the Fawcett Society or the Runnymede Trust, that employ large numbers of people and operate more as businesses than campaigning organisations. Other than their own employees, it is far from clear who exactly these groups represent. Their directors act more as self-appointed spokespeople for particular constituencies than as elected leaders of grassroots organisations.
By the same token, their funding is more likely to come from state grants and corporate sponsorship than membership dues or small contributions from individuals. In order to secure such revenue streams, charities argue that their constituency is uniquely disadvantaged and oppressed and requires differential treatment to compensate for the hardship and discrimination endured.
Stonewall is the group that perhaps best embodies this transition. Founded in 1989 in response to the then Conservative government’s notorious Section 28 legislation, Stonewall campaigned for equal rights for lesbian and gay people at a time when they faced legal discrimination. It helped achieve notable victories including the equalisation of the age of consent, the lifting of the ban on LGB people serving in the military, gaining permission for same-sex couples to adopt, the repeal of Section 28 and first civil partnerships and then same-sex marriage.
Ironically, Stonewall’s success creates a problem for a well-funded and professional campaigning organisation. The achievement of not just legal equality but also a major shift in public attitudes raises fundamental issues about the group’s purpose. People who have dedicated their lives to a cause, turned it into their career and made it an intrinsic part of their identity are unlikely to reach a point where they simply say, ‘job done’ and retire. Instead, they seek out new inequalities to campaign around or new cohorts to represent.
Desperately seeking victimhood
For groups like Stonewall, the achievement of lesbian and gay equality marked a shift in focus towards transgender people – they consciously sought to add the ‘T’ to the LGB movement. This change of direction opened a new constituency and new issues to campaign around. Even though the transgender community is far smaller than the proportion of lesbian and gay people, merging the two groups together and eliding their experiences has proven to be a masterstroke in justifying Stonewall’s continued existence. It is far easier for LGBT campaigners to present transgender people, rather than gay people today, as an oppressed and disadvantaged minority. When the cause of oppression is biology, and when equality for transgender women (biological males) comes at the expense of the sex-based rights of females, then the demand of activists is not for equality but for state-sanctioned special treatment.
To make the case for differential treatment and government protections, campaigners do not claim that those they represent are essentially the same as everyone else. Instead, they claim to speak on behalf of a group that is uniquely vulnerable. To this end, Stonewall and Mermaids often highlight the mental health problems experienced by transgender people. They point to a greater incidence of suicide, self-harm, drug or alcohol misuse as evidence of the emotional and mental health difficulties caused by daily experiences of discrimination and transphobia. Stonewall claim that two in five young transgender people have attempted suicide and claim this proves that transphobia is widespread, induces trauma and leads to mental health problems.
Stonewall’s success is premised on its claims that transgender people suffer more and are bigger victims than any other group in society. Transgender women are presented as doubly oppressed; they experience both transphobia and misogyny. Transgender children, represented by Mermaids, are portrayed first as victims of their own bodies and then as misunderstood and abused by the very parents, teachers and health professionals whose job should be to protect them. In turn, these claims are amplified by an array of activists, politicians and journalists who garner support for aligning themselves with the victim.
Whereas equality is about freedom from state interference and discrimination, recognition premised on suffering is a demand for the state to compel respect.
Stonewall and Mermaids demand recognition that LGBTQ people are made vulnerable through trauma and abuse. But this is fundamentally at odds with demands for equality. Whereas equality is about freedom from state interference and discrimination, recognition premised on suffering is a demand for the state to compel respect. Victim status is not then a claim of agency but an insistence that others act on your behalf. You have a voice, but you can only talk of your suffering. This paves the way for people in positions of power – be it public sector institutions, local or national government, schools or universities – to assume the moral authority that comes with acting on behalf of victims. Oppressive measures, for example, policing speech or eroding women’s rights, can be justified if they are carried out in the name of protecting victims or offering affirmation to the vulnerable.
Some of the claims made about the experiences of transgender people can be challenged. For example, we do not know whether struggling with gender identity in an apparently hostile world causes mental health problems or whether young people with underlying mental health problems or developmental conditions such as autism are more likely to be drawn to the notion of transitioning gender in the first place. If they are, then changing gender may be the symptom of a problem, rather than its cause. Many surveys that purport to show high levels of suicidal ideation among transgender people draw upon very small sample size of self-selecting respondents. In addition, the decision to draw together LGB and T people into the one group makes any claims about specifically transgender people more difficult to substantiate.
However, in the context of a culture that socially and culturally valorises victimhood and places notions of ‘personal truth’ and ‘lived experience’ beyond all doubt, challenging narratives of vulnerability or oppression with facts is considered taboo. The findings of the government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities that ‘we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities’ were met by outrage and claims that the commissioners deliberately ignored the lived experience of racism endured by black people. In this way, rather than challenging a victimhood narrative, different identity groups compete. They argue that they are the real victims – or, at very least, just as oppressed – and that they are in need of state protections and should have special treatment in recognition of their suffering.
Feminism seems to have followed just such a path. In its first and second waves, feminists focused on overturning legal inequalities. The rights of women to receive an education, vote, open a bank account, own property, initiate divorce proceedings and to receive equal pay for equal work were all important victories and represented a significant step towards the achievement of sexual equality. Demands for access to abortion, contraception and childcare were not premised on claims of female victimhood but were about liberating women to live and work as equals to men. As a result of these historic battles, women today lead lives that their great-grandmothers could not have imagined. Girls outperform boys at school and go on to university in far greater numbers, women now dominate many of the professions and younger women especially earn just as much as men.
Yet these statistical successes stand in stark contrast to lamentable narratives of women’s continued oppression. And whereas once it was the law that needed to be changed, today the emphasis is far more on male behaviour. A previous generation of women may have laughed at the suggestion that winking, whistling or overhearing lewd jokes were the biggest problems they faced but feminists today count such incidents as sexual harassment and demand that offenders be recorded by the police for committing misogynistic hate crime. The killing of Sarah Everard led women to share their experiences of street harassment on social media and, more recently, teenage girls have spoken out about sexual assault, rape, abuse and harassment on the website Everyone’s Invited. The media, in turn, adds to and amplifies such stories. News that women walk home alone after dark and nothing happens to them does not make headlines. As a result, individual tragedies become re-presented as the generalised abuse of all women.
Today’s dominant narrative is that to be a woman is to be a victim either at the hands of specific men or of a patriarchal society designed to benefit men in general. The feminist promotion of this narrative means that when transgender women move into female only spaces, the only room for challenge is to present females as bigger victims than trans-women. In an open letter to protest about the inclusion of transgender author Torrey Peters in the long list for an all-women literary prize, the female authors argued that in the UK men are ‘hunting us like prey in the streets.’ This unedifying exaggeration detracts a more principled case for freedom of association.
The stories of women who are quite happy with their lives and do not routinely confront sexism and misogyny are rarely heard – perhaps because such women have little need for the affirmation that comes with placing personal revelations in the public domain. Victim feminism presents a selective view of the world that sends a message to young women that life will be difficult and the world is against them. The more this message stands in contradiction to the reality of women’s lives today, the more feminists seek out increasingly bizarre examples to justify claims to oppression; for example, the invention of ‘period poverty’ or the idea women are hunted like prey.
A similar trajectory has been followed by campaigners for racial equality. The civil rights era demand for desegregation was driven by an insistence that black and white people were equal and colour blind policies would allow everyone to be judged by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin. In the 1980s, a black self-reliance movement led to the establishment of black owned businesses and saw black communities, particularly in the US, take responsibility for housing, education, medical assistance and welfare provision within their neighbourhoods. Black people were presented as equal to white people in all respects and able to exercise agency to improve not just their own lives, but the lives of those around them.
Today, in stark contrast, key figures in anti-racist activism are critical of such initiatives. Ibram X. Kendi argues ideas around self-reliance represent an assimilationist idea that black communities are at fault and need to become more like white communities. Similar accusations have been levelled at the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities for de-emphasising the problem of institutionalised racism and considering the role of the community, family and individual in determining life chances. Today’s anti-racists reject the notion that everyone can succeed on their merits as a cover for white privilege.
The assumption that white people are the beneficiaries of innate privilege and black people the victims of systemic racism is built into much thinking about race nowadays. Yet such gross generalisations call into question individual agency and attach limits on personal ambition. They ignore the role of social class in determining opportunities and shaping life chances. Just as feminism today allows wealthy, privileged women to present themselves as victims of sexism, so too does today’s anti-racism allow well-educated, middle-class, wealthy black people to claim to be victims of racism.
Sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning explore the emergence of a victimhood culture in their 2018 book The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces and the New Culture Wars. They argue that people are incentivised to identify as victims in return for recognition, support, and protection: ‘victimhood is in fact a social resource – a form of status.’ For those who are not members of a particular victim group, ‘believing certain claims of victimization is upheld as a kind of moral duty.’ In a victimhood culture, any act, however seemingly trivial, that is thought to perpetuate inequality or decrease diversity becomes a cause for serious moral condemnation. Such a culture, Campbell and Manning argue, is ‘most likely to arise precisely in settings that already have relatively high degrees of equality.’
In a victimhood culture, being wealthy, educated and privileged no longer automatically confers status, power or moral authority. This is to be welcomed. As trade union members discovered decades ago, power and privilege are not always accompanied by a sense of justice or fairness. However, what is now required in order to garner social status and power is not just wealth, education and privilege but also, crucially, experience (or experience by proxy) of suffering.
Evidence that calls into question the assumption of suffering because of sex, sexuality or skin colour poses a challenge to the claims made by today’s feminists or anti-racist activists. It threatens the position of people whose identity, income, social status and source of influence and power is premised upon claims of victimhood. This goes some way to explaining why professional race experts and anti-racist activists have been so vociferous in attacking the (mainly BAME) members of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. The CRED report highlights data and statistics that directly challenge the source of the professional anti-racists’ moral authority.
The moral authority of victimhood – encapsulated in an array of current woke orthodoxies – legitimises a terrifying new authoritarianism.
Members of apparently oppressed groups can never afford to give up on claims to victimhood. No matter how much they achieve or earn, no matter the titles or influence they accrue, they remain forever aware that their status is entirely dependent upon them – or those they represent – being recognised for the suffering they have endured. It is only through exercising the moral authority that comes with acting on behalf of victims that all manner of spokespeople and professional activists can gain media platforms; compel policy makers and institutions to act on their behalf; close down ideas and debates they find offensive; summon police and lawmakers to their cause and drive social media censorship.
Such is the authority gained from acting on behalf of victims that it appears to excuse otherwise morally reprehensible, or even criminal, behaviour. The label TERF – applied to gender critical feminists by transgender activists – apparently legitimises the most atrocious acts. On university campuses, feminist academics routinely put up with being no-platformed from public debate. Some have had death threats, had their office door drenched in urine or need security guards to accompany them to lectures. Similarly, no insults are considered too gross or racist they cannot be hurled at Dr Tony Sewell and the other members of the Commission for Race and Ethnic Disparities.
The moral authority of victimhood – encapsulated in an array of current woke orthodoxies – legitimises a terrifying new authoritarianism.
Joanna Williams is Director of Cieo.