Orwell, trans activists and the inexorable power of the thought-terminating cliché…
“FOUR LEGS GOOD, TWO LEGS BAD was inscribed on the end wall of the barn, above the Seven Commandments and in bigger letters. When they had once got it by heart, the sheep developed a great liking for this maxim, and often as they lay in the field they would all start bleating ‘Four legs good, two legs bad! Four legs good, two legs bad!’ and keep it up for hours on end, never growing tired of it.”
Animal Farm was published 75 years ago this month. I never cease to be amazed by how much George Orwell got right. How did he know?
“Four legs good, two legs bad” is what we now refer to as a thought-terminating cliché – an overused phrase that acts as an impediment to critical thinking. The ideal thought-terminating cliché is simple to remember, simple to understand and lacks any nuance. It doesn’t have to be true ¬– in fact, it’s better if it isn’t. The aim of the thought-terminating cliché is to become true by repetition.
The most audacious thought-terminating clichés of our age are those used by the trans activist movement. The one you are most likely to see, over and over again, is this:
“Trans women are women. Trans men are men. Non-binary identities are valid.”
It has all the simplicity of “Four legs good, two legs bad.” Unlike Orwell’s slogan, however, it has the added quality of not making any sense whatsoever: it falls apart as soon as you critically examine it. How can a trans woman – a biological man – be a woman? How can a woman be a man unless you completely change the meanings of the words “woman” and “man”? The linguistic trick is in the coinage of the phrase “trans women”: if it has the word “women” in it, it must mean “women”, right? The phrase “men who identify as trans are women” sounds much less convincing.
The slogan thus has a kind of hypnotic power – it doesn’t need to be true to sound as if it’s true. Of course, if it were true, there wouldn’t be any need to keep on repeating it. (Nobody goes round saying “Chinese women are women” or “Disabled women are women” because, well, duh.) I’m not the first to point out that you could repeat the words “sea horses are horses” until the end of time and it still wouldn’t be true. The aim of the slogan is to close an argument down rather than to engage in debate.
The third statement – “non-binary identities are valid” – bears no logical connection to the idea contained in the first two statements. If sex is a binary (ie everyone is one sex or the other), then it’s not possible to be non-binary; if non-binary identities exist, then the concept of a sex binary, and the ability to cross from one sex to another, falls apart.
What’s extraordinary is the number of people one previously imagined to be intelligent repeating this slogan, including politicians, journalists, lawyers and academics. In other words, the very people whose job it is to think about things are deliberately, consciously refusing to think and then advertising the fact. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, surpassed himself in February this year by tweeting the following variant on the slogan:
“Trans women are women. Trans men are men. Non-binary people are non-binary. All gender identities are valid.”
“Non-binary people are non-binary”! I wonder how long it took him to think of that one? And all gender identities are valid. Really, Sadiq – all of them? How many does he reckon there are?
The purpose of a thought-terminating cliché is to enshrine an ideological position in language and then use that to police people’s thoughts. Take the phrase “gender assigned at birth”. We all know that no one is assigning babies’ gender at birth: sex is determined at conception. The baby’s sex is then observed either after it has been born or, increasingly, at a prenatal scan. There is no special skill to observing a baby’s sex.
And yet you see this phrase used everywhere, even by organisations that should know better. The MSP Jenny Marra recently questioned the use of the phrase by, of all organisations, the National Health Service. When health care providers fail to understand basic biology, we really are in trouble. The hysterical overreaction to her tweet included accusations that she was promoting “fear and discrimination against trans nurses, doctors and patients.” Really? For pointing out that sex is observed on a prenatal scan?
My favourite thought-terminating cliché, for the sheer chutzpah of it, is the phrase “literal violence”, used to refer to the offence of “misgendering.” The fear of being found guilty of “literal violence” leads people to self-censor, knowingly referring to people who are quite obviously male as “she”. There will always, of course, be a few rebels who won’t be cowed, and for those we have to wheel out the thought police (another Orwellian idea, this time from Nineteen Eighty-Four). That’s why some people – mostly women – have been banned from Twitter for misgendering. It’s why a police officer told Harry Miller that the police needed to “check” his thinking. And it’s why a judge reprimanded Maria MacLachlan for referring in court to the man who attacked her as “he”.
I said at the beginning that I didn’t understand how George Orwell got so much right. But that’s not quite true. Orwell was less a prophet than an observer: both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four take their inspiration from Stalinism and its brutal suppression of dissent. Under Stalin, dissenters were killed or exiled to the gulag for “re-education”, and citizens were encouraged to report on expressions of political disagreement by neighbours or family members.
And yet, even though the evidence of Stalin’s brutality was available to the world, there were many on the British left who refused to acknowledge it. Orwell’s great works were not just a warning, but an attempt to convey the full horror of what was happening in Russia. Even after the Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary and Czechoslovakia, some socialists continued to believe the Soviet project was benign because they wanted to believe it.
There must be an analogy in there somewhere. If only I could put my finger on it.