What do words mean? A prediction, and a scrap of advice for 2023

Detail from Paris Echo book cover

2023 will be a year to choose your words carefully and stand by them, and it will be a year in which doing so may cause your opponents to froth at the mouth. It may also result in your being arrested, and actually charged, for uttering illegal words.

These days, I have a slight nag at the back of my mind that a feminist blogger, a ‘raging terf’ according to the opposition, should not use a fantasy series written by a bloke as a guide to our world – but I often do. Think of it one of those dark and dangerous grimoires if you will, but episodes from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series return to mind unbidden when I’m seeking answers to political puzzles, such as the one about what a woman is, and what rights she should have. The most obvious story to apply to the women’s campaign is Equal Rites, in which we are invited to consider the problems of a young girl who wants to be, not a witch but a wizard.

Equal Rites book cover

It’s one of the Granny Weatherwax stories and (being written by a bloke) is packed with a bloke’s opinions about what blokes think about women and what blokes think women think about men. Here’s what our girl (the main character in Equal Rites) thinks, when she’s turned her back on hedge-witchery, and is at the blokey Unseen University, trying to find out how to be a wizard…

She was also coming to the conclusion that she ought to learn to read. This reading business seemed to be the key to wizard magic, which was all about words. Wizards seemed to think that words were the same as things, and that if you changed the name, you changed the thing. At least, it seemed to be something like that…

That passage from Equal Rites came back to me when the recent Cambridge Dictionary incident appeared on social media.

It’s annoying that they’ve messed with the definition of ‘woman’, and doubly annoying that ‘female’ is now officially on the ‘offensive’ list but what interested me about the social media responses was that there were two distinct ways of being annoyed about it, depending whether people were thinking of dictionary-makers’ work as prescriptive or descriptive. If you see a dictionary-maker’s job as deciding what words mean, and telling people how to use them (the prescriptive model), then you should be very angry indeed with the dictionary-makers for messing with the word ‘woman’. They have changed the world, by making ‘woman’ a mixed-sex category, and ruling out ‘female’ as a word wom… fe… er… people like me can use to talk about ourselves as a biological class.

On the other hand, if you see the dictionary-maker’s job as describing what they see going on out there (the descriptive model) you should be very annoyed with the academics and activists who’ve pushed this new perception of the word ‘woman’ out into the world. The change in the dictionary definition is a warning light, a reflection of a change in the world that we as wo… fe… er… … Whoever we are, we need to challenge it.

Detail from Equal Rites book cover

So according to the mythology, we assertive women (aka witches – ah, there’s a word we might use) should not be troubling ourselves too much about words. That’s something those silly men (aka wizards) do. The trouble is, if those wizards have an equivalent in the modern world, I think they would be PR consultants, or legal wranglers, such as that organization Denton’s something or other – the one that advised the gender identity industry on how to carry off the lucrative transing-of-children plan.

They shouldn’t be that hard to deal with, really – we just need to hit them with another story – The Emperor’s New Clothes. The Denton Report itself states that they have to get all those new meanings and assumptions about ‘gender identity’ and ‘trans kids’ out into the world before the public gets a chance to discuss the issue (because as soon as you encounter a properly informed discussion of the idea, you see that it makes no sense).

People have been shy of arguing with gender-identity ideologues because their assertions are so complex they are opaque; listeners tend to think there’s a vital point they themselves haven’t grasped but surely, now a few people have found the presence of mind to argue back effectively, gender-theory proponents will be recognized as what Pratchett’s novel calls The Things from the Dungeon Dimensions.

‘They’re pathetic, really,’ she said. ‘They’ve got no life or shape themselves but what they can steal. They could no more survive in this world than a fish could live in a fire, but that doesn’t stop Them trying. And they’re just bright enough to hate us because we’re alive.’

Cognitive dissonance, and a great pair of pants

In the run up to Christmas, many women like me (reality-based feminists, aka ‘raging terfs’) were spending a lot of mental energy trying to work out just exactly what those MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament) were thinking, as they tore apart women’s legal rights in Scotland in order to fulfil the extraordinary agenda currently going under the title ‘trans rights’ or ‘GRA reform’. It got especially difficult to grasp when we realized the majority of those MSPs were even going to reject amendments such as taking steps to avoid male sex offenders being locked up with women in female prisons.

That is the point where some of us got very, very angry, and some took extreme steps to try to draw attention to the enormity of what was happening…

… I find it highly entertaining that the Scottish police are now trying to figure out if there actually is a case of ‘indecency’ to deal with here. It might help us work out what the MSPs are thinking. I suppose if a male in a dress who requires everyone to refer to him as ‘she’ really is a woman, then flesh-coloured pants with an impressive thatch of fake-fur counts as indecent exposure?

Cognitive dissonance

Let’s just check that with our old friend, the Cambridge Dictionary…

Cambridge dictionary definition of cognitive dissonance: a state in which there is a difference between your experiences or behavour and your beliefs about what is true

Our discussions take us in circles. We are asking, “do they believe this stuff or is their bid to write more legal fictions into law an attempt to make it real?” In other words, are their proposed transwomenarewomen laws prescriptive or descriptive (see the Cambridge Dictionary story above) in other words, are they mad, or are they aware that they’re lying to us every step of the way?

I think the two go together. I think we build walls for ourselves as a defence against the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. We do it when we’re lost, confused, or afraid of something, or when we have a high pay-off reason for fooling everyone – high enough that it’s worth fooling ourselves into the bargain.

I remember when I was a kid, teachers routinely pretended to be Christian, and I used to go to Brownies, where everyone had to pretend to be Christian – and that there was my problem. I could see that they were all pretending but I could not figure out whether they knew they were pretending. I can remember having a go at pretending, once or twice, half-thinking that was how you made it real, but I just couldn’t take myself seriously. The big question (for me) is, are there other areas in my life where I’ve succeeded in pretending something to the point of ‘belief’, and not noticed? Perhaps that’s why I’m fascinated, as well as effing furious, when politicians do this thing, sometimes leading the whole country into dangerous waters.

So – what went through the minds of those MSPs, when they’d been doing “transwomen are women” for all they were worth for several years, and then it came home to roost. They were faced directly with “so are you actually going to pass a law that allows convicted rapists to be locked into confined spaces with female prisoners, with vulnerable, wounded females, victims of previous violence and abuse, as most female prison inmates are?”

The cervix question

I have a good idea what went through their minds – I saw it go through the minds of Kier Starmer and David Lammy among others, at that Labour conference a year or two back when the women’s fightback began to break through the walls of neurotic silence. Remember when Starmer was faced directly by one of the women’s shibboleth questions? I think it was the one about “Do only women have a cervix”.

His face went through a range of expressions and livid colours, reminding me of how he had looked a few years ago, during the Corbyn ascendancy, when he was faced, on live-ish TV, by an irate Ken Loach, lambasting him over the cruelties the DWP were inflicting on poor families, with no redress, and not even any verbal support from most MPs. What was he to do? To be seen taking Loach’s concerns seriously would have implied he was a Jeremy Corbyn supporter, but not doing so would make him look like a heartless bastard.

In the ‘cervix’ incident, when his face had progressed through livid red and back to paper-white, he told the interviewer, in an attempted firm, legal voice, “that is something that should not be said.” He was by then an experienced wielder of cognitive dissonance.

Ladies and gentlemen, respect for reality has left the building – long ago.

Humpty Dumpty cartoon

The slide into tyranny

The ‘what is a woman’ issue is a long way from being the first example of our politicians leaving reality far, far behind and it is a symptom of a very dangerous situation for the UK. We find ourselves now with a more or less broken, quasi-democracy, in the hands of a government and an administration filled with two sorts of utterly unreliable people – the first, a mass of cognitive dissonance, endlessly trying to repeat the correct magic words to keep themselves in a job; and the second a bunch of those word-weaving wizards who hold opponents at bay with their lucrative spells and mantras (don’t kid yourself – is there anything Boris Johnson’s ‘government’ did not get away with? How many MPs are there left in the House now who are not to some degree complicit in all that reality-dodging?)  It is hard to think of an entity more dangerous than an established administration that has lost touch with reality, and got almost comfortable without it.

Trips on the Metro

As well as pondering Discworld explanations of all this, I am currently reading Sebastian Faulks’ Paris Echo.

Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks

Of the two main characters, one is a historian who is beset by her own memories as she diligently searches for authentic voices from the largely undocumented era of Paris during the German occupation; the other is a young visitor from North Africa, taking trips (on the Metro, but also via some dodgy weed bought from a bloke in the kitchen of a dodgy chicken restaurant where he’s found a job). He’s taking trips around wartime Paris – As it was? As he imagined it? Perhaps he’s picking up ideas from the lady historian? We don’t know, but we see that most of the words around him — the names of the Metro stations for example, are sounds and shapes, as interesting or otherwise as their affect in his eyes and ears. Words only have meanings if you know their stories. Along the way, he goes to the cinema and discovers for the first time that some films are about ordinary people, and real places…

One of the things we’re led to think about is the cognitive gymnastics that were required of the people of Paris during the German occupation, as their politicians shuffled the deck, adjusting their allegiance between Germany and the Western Alliance according to shifting perceptions of where France would find itself after the war.

How must that look to a youngster with no context to fall back on? How much culture, how much history, how much background, do our kids get in a world where a Pratchett book, with its mass of allusions and assumed contexts, has nothing to refer to?

Faulks presents the Paris government as an administration racing and raging as the war ends – on the one hand trying to get a grip on where they needed to be politically, and on the other, running before an angry mob who variously wanted bloody revenge, comfort, atonement, and the gift of forgetfulness.

Faulks presents units of the Milice, who had served the very worst of the Nazi requirements during the war, waiting to see if the post-war administration were going to hand them medals or shoot them (both happened, in different regions of France – it depended who came to check you out first, and which of the fast-changing narratives they were loyal to). The consequences of confusion and high-speed re-allocation of roles could also be dire for citizens of Paris suspected of collaboration with the Nazis:

They were sent to the Velodrome d’Hiver or to Drancy to wait for the proper courts to be set up. At Drancy, they were beaten up by the same guards who had beaten the Jews.

Faulks writes that the Milice were eventually transmuted into the CRS — the modern day riot police. New government? No worries, just re-direct your thugs, try to forget, and pray no-one ever asks you one of those ‘cervix questions’ on live TV.

I must look that up, about the CRS I mean – Paris Echo is only a novel, after all. It may not be true in the way that good fantasy stories are.

So how do we, here and now in the UK, found a movement to bring reality back into our politics? Unfortunately, established MPs, aided by an establishment media, told the world that our last attempt was led by a man who was simultaneously a raging anti-semite, a communist, a supporter of terrorism, a fiendish operator taking over the Labour Party, a Czech spy and a flaky, ineffectual hippy peace-campaigner. They said he was unpopular and couldn’t win an election, and was dangerous because he was developing a massive, devoted following … or was there a bit of cognitive dissonance going on there?

Still, we could call on the formerly Corbynite activists to help out the women’s rights movement, couldn’t we?

Detail from Paris Echo book cover

Actually no, because they appear to be of the opinion that the women now trying to defend their existing legal rights, including those they knew as comrades in the Corbyn movement for a “better, kinder politics”, are a bunch of silly old women who are hard-bitten borderline fascists and far right, transphobic thugs … or is there a bit of cognitive dissonance going on there, too?

Here comes 2023

So, the New Year approaches, Holyrood and Westminster MPs prepare for a stand-off on an issue neither side appears willing to make much sense about (because the MSPs can’t say what a woman is, and the Tory government can’t quite admit that it doesn’t care about women in prisons and refugee detainment centres), and the left prepare to tell women it’s only bigots and Tories who ‘oppose trans rights’. I predict that 2023 will be a year in which we women should choose our words with great care, defining them as we go if necessary — and if anyone takes my advice, it’ll be a year in which the most common question in political debate will be, “When you say —-, what exactly do you mean by it?”

We could start with ‘trans’, ‘rights’ and ‘trans kids’.


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