Why Gender Ideology Can’t Survive Elon
No other movement has more to fear from a free marketplace of ideas
Recently, someone complimented me by saying that I don’t do a lot of self-censoring. I responded that if he knew what I was thinking, he’d be amazed at my restraint. I’ve always thought that, paradoxically, it’s the most conformist public figures who are the most unfiltered in their speech, because they’re incapable of even thinking politically incorrect thoughts in the first place. As Robert Trivers pointed out, it can be adaptive for an individual to have no distinction between “what I believe” and “what is good for me to believe.” People often see an intelligent person saying an absurd thing and think there’s no way they actually believe it, but I think most of the time they do.
All writers who are capable of the least bit of independent thought must censor themselves to a certain extent. You wouldn’t survive as a public intellectual otherwise. I’ll admit I self-censor much less than most. But I still self-censor. And when I do, it may be for one of two reasons:
I’m afraid of losing influence over people I want to influence; or
I don’t want to get kicked off of social media.
In general, number 1 is more important than 2. I made a Venn diagram to helpfully show why.
Twitter censorship therefore never scared me that much, and I’ve generally stayed within the rules except for my two suspensions that were for stupid jokes. Elite opinion is usually more restrictive than the terms of service of most social media sites.
There’s one exception to this, though. Here’s what the Venn diagram looks like for trans issues.
I don’t think this is based on my particular collection of beliefs. Rather, it says something about our culture more generally. On race, gender, and most other issues, people are more afraid of social pressures than they are of censors. It is on trans where the censorship has gotten way ahead of where elite culture is. Two of our most prominent comedians are Ricky Gervais and Dave Chappelle, and they both recently had massively successful Netflix specials that were filled with trans jokes. It’s difficult to imagine the culture embracing a comedian that makes politically incorrect jokes about race central to his act. But go on Twitter and try to explain why a Chappelle trans joke is funny, and you’ll be lucky to keep your account.
For the sake of comparison, take the extremely sensitive topic of race and intelligence. A lot of people who believe that the black-white IQ gap is at least partially genetic maintain Twitter accounts and are able to discuss the issue on that website, including Steve Sailer, Emil Kirkegaard, Charles Murray, and Ed Dutton. But many people hide their views on this topic because they don’t want to be socially ostracized or lose career opportunities.
On trans issues, things are reversed. I’ve never “misgendered” or “deadnamed” anyone on Twitter, and it’s not because I’m afraid of the social repercussions. Anyone who would be upset by my rejection of gender ideology already hates me. But Twitter takes a zero-tolerance approach on this issue. Even though I’m not on the site anymore, they have been known to kick people off for non-Twitter activities, so I have to be somewhat careful if I want to keep my account.
All of this has implications for what’s going to happen if and when Elon Musk takes over. I think, in the short run at least, you won’t see much damage to feminism or Ibram Kendi Thought. Gender ideology, in contrast, is extremely brittle. Other liberal beliefs surrounding identity issues might be false, but they usually present scientific theories that one can at least argue about. To what extent are group disparities caused by discrimination? Are standardized tests or certain police practices fair to black people? Why are women underrepresented in STEM? One can present different kinds of evidence on these things, and Silicon Valley has allowed us to have such debates in relative freedom.
Gender ideology is a completely different kind of issue. Instead of making empirical claims like disparities are caused by discrimination, which one can at least in theory rebut, it operates purely through fiat. It’s about definitions, not empirical arguments. What is a woman? The question doesn’t have an objective scientific answer. Language is a democracy: words generally mean whatever the speakers of the language say they mean. Most people define woman as “human with XX chromosomes,” but we could just as easily define woman to mean “all human beings who weigh between 110 and 135 pounds” and that would not be scientifically true or false. According to gender ideology, woman means “anyone who identifies as a woman.” If liberals want to use the word that way, fine.
But it’s something completely different to demand everyone else accept that definition. If language is a democracy, trans ideology is January 6. I’ve never liked the claim that wokeness is analogous to a religion. Wokeness is mostly just bad ideas. But trans ideology is closer to a religion than it is to most political beliefs, with ritual being deeply woven into the faith. When we are supposed to “affirm” someone’s gender identity, we’re not being asked to accept an empirical claim, but assert a metaphysical truth.
This is both a strength and a weakness of the ideology. When leftists claim that blacks are disadvantaged in American society, they can cite research, data, and evidence. While the relevant literatures might be of questionable quality, most people are not social scientists, and have a natural inclination to trust experts making empirical claims. But how does trans ideology convince people? There’s no methodology one can use to establish its claims, even in theory. A supposed expert can’t say “look at the data” and give a pretense of providing an objective point of view. There’s no data that can define “man” or “woman.” All the left has here is unfalsifiable assertions that are clearly motivated by a political or moral agenda rather than grounded in empirical arguments. Dressing the ideology up in scientific garb is of no help, which is why censorship is required.
Moreover, as the success of Chappelle and Gervais show, trans ideology is funny. This is another weakness, and it exists in part because it cannot help but be represented by the most absurd figures imaginable. Most movements have the ability to expel or reject those who go too far because they’re based on some intellectually defensible principle. But because it’s based on nothing but an individual’s self-definition, trans ideology has no guardrails that prevent it from embracing this.
The “mainstream” trans movement has no way to reject the prosthetic boob shop teacher without rejecting the entirety of its ideology. In other words, the “strawman” version of gender ideology and the “steelman” version of it look exactly alike. Those of us who have not bought into the cult are more inclined to laugh than argue, hence the success of “transphobic” comedians, and few things can be as fatal for a movement that takes itself this seriously.
I once promised that if Elon ended up buying Twitter, I would write a Substack about trans issues that I’m afraid of writing now because I don’t want to be kicked off the site. I otherwise will mostly continue talking about the same topics in the exact same ways.
I suspect that many others are in a similar situation. New management at Twitter will mean that although most of our discourse won’t change all that much, the trans movement will face an existential threat. For other left-wing causes, censorship is one tool of many. For gender ideology, it’s essential to maintaining the cult. There is no other movement that has more to fear from a free marketplace of ideas.
Richard Hanania's Newsletter is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.