I’m an ethicist who often writes on college controversies, and I make no secret about my double life in professional theater, so it figures that my inbox would include more than one query about Mt. Holyoke College’s decision to end its annual student performance of Eve Enlser’s “The Vagina Monologues” on the grounds that it is now admitting women without vaginas—I know, it’s confusing–who would feel excluded from what was supposed to be an inclusive experience and statement for the all-women’s school.
The annual production of the play is part of a country-wide tradition to perform Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues on Valentine’s Day to raise awareness about gender-based violence and usually coincides with the V-Day campaign. The proceeds are donated to sexual assault prevention organizations or women’s rights organizations. This year, however, Mount Holyoke’s Project Theatre Board is defying tradition by permanently retiring the play. In a school-wide email from the Theatre Board, a representative from the group, Erin Murphy, explained the problems with the play and the reasoning behind its discontinuation.
“At its core, the show offers an extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman…Gender is a wide and varied experience, one that cannot simply be reduced to biological or anatomical distinctions, and many of us who have participated in the show have grown increasingly uncomfortable presenting material that is inherently reductionist and exclusive,” the email, obtained by Campus Reform, said.
Replacing the play will be Mount Holyoke’s own version that will be trans-inclusive and fix the “problems” supposedly perpetuated by Ensler. Murphy also claims that there are problems with race, class, and “other identities” within the play. The new production, comprised of students’ monologues, will be performed in a fashion reminiscent of the feminist classic. The program will be performed alongside the College’s Peer Health Educators, an on-campus student-led group that provides education and workshops for students, including a workshop on how to use sex toys properly.
My reaction to this was and is: Fine. It is not as if the play is being censored. It was supposed to serve a particular purpose, and conditions have changed. I can understand why a play about vaginas is inappropriate if its purpose is to speak to all students, including trans students. You can read playwright Ensler’s reaction here—it’s measured and rational, even if it is too full of boilerplate fem-speak for my taste. It’s a play, that’s all. Would I dread, as a student or theater critic, the planned new version, which sounds like a candidate for most annoying show of the year? Indeed I would. But that’s neither here nor there.
What interested me more was a dust-up over the reporting of the story, which leads me back to the topic of the Left’s increased fondness for censorship, speech policing and thought-control. Old friend Ampersand, aka Barry Deutsch, who is the kind of super-sensitive blogger that makes me yearn for the days when I allowed a commenter to routinely use expletives just to make it clear that I did not endorse the suppression of even uncivil expression, got in a Twitter argument with the author of the Campus Reform piece, Yvonne Dean-Bailey, reprimanding her for calling the women without vaginas “men who identify as women.” Well, actually the argument was one-sided: Yvonne, to her credit, didn’t capitulate to the hectoring or say much more in rebuttal than “But it’s true.”
Barry, however, provided us ( not for the first time) with a useful window into the mind of the self-righteously politically correct, where the imaginary right not to be offended trumps communication and common sense. Here was his chain of 42 character protests, …numbered for easy reference in my commentary that follows it:
1. If you actually wanted to treat people fairly, you’d avoid anti-trans language like “men who identify as women.”…2. There’s no need to be hurtful. There are perfectly good terms – like “trans women” or “transgender women” which can be used….3. Most basically, trans women are NOT “men that ID with female gender”… 4. They are women. And saying otherwise hurts many people… 5. I’m sure you can rationalize being unkind all day. But being inflexible in order to avoid being kind is not good behavior….6. I should have said “appealing to inflexibility as a justification for being unkind is poor behavior.”…7. Bottom line: [the]argument for saying “men who id” rather than “trans women” sets semantics above kindness and civility…8. Calling trans women men is a dick move. And the women you’re hurting include police, include veterans, include charity workers…9. In the society you live in, there are many trans women who live their lives as women. Many people acknowledge them as women…You have an opinion of what “sex” is, but it’s factually indisputable that your definition isn’t universally held…10.It’s also indisputable that reading language like “men who identify as women” in news stories is very painful to some readers…11. You don’t have an indisputable, factual truth on your side. You just have your personal opinion about what “sex” means…12. You have an absolute right to your own opinion, of course. But would it hurt you badly to say “trans women” instead? …13. You wouldn’t betray truth by saying “trans women.” You’d just be choosing to avoid being needlessly unkind…14. It’s like people who insist on calling gay people “abnormal” instead of “gay,” and then say “it’s the TRUTH! Statistically!”…15. You are rationalizing using language that hurts people in the name of “truth.”But it would be simple for you to state your opinion while avoiding trite, hurtful phrases like “men who ID as women.”
1. There’s nothing “anti” anything about stating facts—this is a left-of-center fiction of recent vintage, apparently flourishing because so many cherished liberal theories have crashed and burned to ashes of late. A fully biological male who decides that he is a woman trapped inside—we understand, we’re supportive, and we’re sympathetic—is still a fully biological male, which in this society and everywhere else is called a “man.” Sorry.
2, 1o, and 15 all involve the imaginary “right not to be offended.” “Kindness” is being used throughout Barry’s tweet-wave as a tool of informational suppression. It’s “kind” to capitulate to politically motivated attempts to shape public opinion by language control, so why not do it? I don’t dispute that this “why can’t we all get along?” tactic works, but it is still disingenuous and sinister. “Trans women” or “transgender women” are not “perfectly good” alternatives because few people not involved with trans politics know what the hell they mean.
3. No, most basically that’s exactly what they are, so that’s how they should be described.
4. Saying it doesn’t make it so. Can an African-American become white by “identifying as white”? Can a white man do the opposite? Can an adult decide she’s a child because she feels that way? Barry believes that the same person can be a woman one day and a man the next, and, theoretically, back again, based on feelings, and it just isn’t nice to point out that the biological body involved hasn’t changed.
It also isn’t nice to point out that Barry’s argument is extreme political correctness bullshit, but there it is.
5, 6, 12, 13. This is the “path of least resistance” tactic, again undeniably successful, that activists on all sides of the political spectrum use to ratchet irrational and harmful policies—and yes, sometimes good ones— forward. The person who kicks, screams and complains the most wins, because the side that had logic and rationality on its side eventually says, “You know what? This isn’t worth the trouble to fight.” Thus we are ruled by extremists. Well, I, for one, refuse.
7. No, it sets clarity and communication above intentional obfuscation and euphemisms.
8. Barry is so sensitive about not giving “needless” offense, except when he isn’t. Unless using “dick move” in this context is an intentional witticism….
9. So what? A biological male who lives his life as a woman is a biological male who lives his life as a woman, or, as the maligned author of the article in question put it, a man identifying as a woman.
10. OK, it’s painful to some readers, just as “The New York Yankees have a good team this year” (they don’t, by the way) is painful to me. Nobody has a right to insist that words, ideas and facts be communicated so as to restrict their reasonable or unreasonable “pain.” Nobody has an obligation to alter reasonable and clear descriptions of reality or their opinions about it to avoid the discomfort of the super-sensitive few.
11. And even accepting this as correct, which I don’t—it is a fact, not an opinion, that biological men who decide they are women inside are still men identifying as women—there is no ethical reason why the author’s opinion needs to be bowdlerized because it hurts someone’s feelings.
14. No, it’s not at all like calling gays “abnormal.” “Abnormal” is pejorative. What “men who identify as women” is really like is describing gays as “people who are sexually attracted solely to individuals of their own gender.” If you’re gay and that description bothers you, that’s your problem. Get help.
You see, Yvonne Dean-Bailey understands, whereas Barry either does not, or worse, does and wants to block her free expression anyway, exactly what her ethical obligation as a journalist is, which is not to be “kind,” but to be clear, objective, informative and factual. Political correctness, which is Barry’s real motive here, not “kindness,” is about blurring facts, avoiding truth, and making “bad” thoughts and opinions impossible because the words to express them have been bullied out of existence. We saw the results of this very effective campaign from the left in the CNN reporting on the Charlie Hebdo attack, when Chris Cuomo, son of that late “lion of liberalism” Mario Cuomo, referred to a black Frenchman as an “African American.” Nice reporting, there, Chris, but hey, you wouldn’t want to offend anybody by saying he was “black.”
Let me be clear, now: I’m all in favor of kindness, which is an ethical virtue and an important one. Kindness used as a mandate in order to suppress speech, opinion and information, however, is at the core of the political correctness scourge that threatens our public discourse, free speech and democracy. As I write this, many of our elected leaders are refusing to call Islamic extremists Islamic extremists, while major news outlets are refusing to let audiences and readers see the cartoons that got their artists murdered, out of misplaced priorities that place kindness and civility over truth, facts and communication. Ethics Alarms firmly opposed gratuitous incivility and unkindness: that’s why I objected to “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” and still do. Political correctness, in contrast, is an attempt to turn self-censorship into thought and belief control, and should be opposed by ethical liberals and conservatives alike.