Even Matt Walsh Doesn’t Get This About Transgenderism and Language:
Debunking One of Gender Ideology’s Favorite Red Herrings
by Simon Maass
There are few crusaders against gender ideology in the United States more influential than Matt Walsh. After his much-discussed documentary “What Is a Woman?” was released on June 1 this year, the National Review’s Jack Wolfsohn observed that the film had “brought an intense amount of backlash from the Left.” Then, on July 6, Malcolm Harris criticized the movie in New York magazine under the title “The Right’s Dangerous ‘Just Asking Questions’ Anti-Trans Campaign Is Working.”
Ironically, it is in his recent response to Harris’s critique that the novice filmmaker makes a logical mistake, failing to rebut effectively one of the gender ideologues’ most common arguments. The stumbling block is the reviewer’s contention that “words change. Stretched by the practicalities of real-world usage, our language warps and evolves. It’s an organic, unavoidable, and even auspicious process.”
This, of course, is meant to justify the redefinition of words like “woman.” Walsh quotes the passage, then offers his refutation: the change in the sense of “woman,” he says, is not the outcome of natural evolution, which happens “in order to make the meaning more clear in common usage.” Instead, argues Walsh, it represents “a top-down decree from people with institutional power.”
To bolster his case, he adds that the “natural evolution of language doesn’t have its own law enforcement arm,” alluding to “penalties” for those who refuse to abide by the newly prescribed definition of “woman.”
While there is truth to all this, Walsh – and those on his side – could do better. For one thing, the “natural evolution” of language often renders meanings more nebulous instead of clearer. Witness the melding of “ye,” “you,” “thou,” and “thee” into the single word “you,” which created so many ambiguities that alternative phrases like “you guys” have emerged to distinguish singular from plural.
Furthermore, changes in meaning caused by natural evolution can in fact be enforced through taboos and even laws.
Consider the FCC’s power to fine broadcasters for transmitting indecent content. The scope of this prerogative has necessarily been shaped by the unintentional permutations of language because, as linguist Dr. John McWhorter explains, the set of words considered unacceptable has changed substantially over the centuries.
Thus, oaths imbued with religious significance were much more offensive during the Middle Ages, whereas words pertaining to feces and sexuality have come to be viewed as more vulgar since then. Finally, if a man is, in Aristotle’s phrase, the “political animal,” then is a top-down alteration of meanings really unnatural for human societies?
The argument Walsh should have made instead is that, while the meanings of words may evolve, this fact is almost entirely irrelevant. It is not the definitions of words that are at stake in the debate over gender ideology but the definitions of concepts. Once this simple distinction is made, the specious point about the evolution of language loses all its power of persuasion and is exposed as a cheap sleight of hand, a distraction from the real issue.
The gender ideologues do not ask merely that we use “preferred pronouns” to make people with gender dysphoria feel better. They demand that we actually assert those people’s membership in their chosen genders. They expect us to endorse their concepts, not just to use their vocabulary.
For instance, in his 2016 appearance on The Agenda with Steve Paikin, Prof. Jordan Peterson unequivocally states that he would call transsexual man Theryn Meyer “she” if he were one of his students. And yet he has come under ferocious attack by gender activists for his contention that “sociological contagion” was a source of gender dysphoria. Those who seek to foist transgenderism onto society do not merely want people to go along with their quaint linguistic usages. They will settle for no less than the embrace of their concepts, which is what makes the argument about the mutability of language so misleading.
Threadbare as it is, this is one of the gender ideologues’ favorite talking points, which says a lot about the lacking involvement of logic in the construction of their worldview. For example, Dr. Julia Serano, a prominent transgender activist, complains in an addendum to a blog post that people have criticized him for failing to define “woman.”
In response, he glibly argues: “Anyone who has a passing familiarity with dictionaries can tell you that most words in the English language have multiple (sometimes many!) meanings, and ‘woman’ is no exception.” True enough. Yet if the definition of the word “woman” is fluid, that does not make the meaning of the concept, i. e., social category, “adult human female,” equally fluid. When people ask how you would define “woman,” they are essentially asking how you would redefine the social category “adult human female” to include biological men. Hopefully, whatever novel definition you propose will be more logically coherent than “a woman is anyone who identifies as a woman,” which, as Matt Walsh has observed here, is circular.
The vacuity of Dr. Serano’s argument is easily illustrated via an analogy. The word “bank” refers both to a financial institution and to a riverbank. However, when lawmakers debate what regulations are to be placed on banks, it does no good to point out that the word being used can also mean a riverbank.
Obviously, the discussion is about the concept of “an establishment for the custody, loan, exchange, or issue of money, for the extension of credit, and for facilitating the transmission of funds,” to use Merriam-Webster’s definition. Likewise, when people like Matt Walsh inquire what a woman is, they are not asking for the addressee’s proposed dictionary entry for the word “woman,” which might indeed legitimately include an array of different meanings. Rather, the substance of the question is this: “By what social category, if any, do you wish to replace the social category ‘adult human female’?” This, as noted above, tends to receive a logically circular response.
So the next time you encounter this red herring about the fluidity of language peddled by the likes of Malcolm Harris and Julia Serano, remember the simple distinction between words and concepts. The concepts are what is really at issue. Focus on the words is a smokescreen.
Simon Maass is a student of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. His work has appeared in your own Independent Sentinel, as well as Intellectual Conservative,