After two years of a compulsory break due to the pandemic, the Berlin universities and institutes invited to the “Long Night of Science” at the weekend. More than 1400 lectures and discussions, something for everyone: “Everything you wanted to know about the corona virus” or “Arabic poetry as reflected in its translation”, “Feminist law and the fight against the climate crisis” or “On the psychoanalysis of the after-work beers”.
Also on the program: a lecture by Marie-Luise Vollbrecht, doctoral student at Humboldt University and co-author of a guest article published in WELT. In it, the authors had accused the public broadcasters of “indoctrinating children in the sense of trans ideology” and had met with strong opposition, including from Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner, who in a letter to all employees described the contribution as “ underground” and “scientifically at best roughly one-sided”.
At the “Long Night of Sciences” Vollbrecht was now supposed to give a lecture on the topic “Gender is not equal to sex – sex, gender and why there are only two genders in biology”. A “working group of critical lawyers” announced a protest. The student representatives joined the appeal by email to all fellow students. Finally, the university management canceled the event. Reason: security concerns. At the same time, a spokeswoman distanced herself from the biologist when asked by the “FAZ”.
“Trans” or “queer hostility” is the accusation that transgender activists level at scientists and writers who insist that human nature knows only two sexes.
In these circles, for example, “Emma” editor Alice Schwarzer or “Harry Potter” author Joanne K. Rowling are considered “TERF”, as representatives of a “trans-excluding radical feminism”. Or Gunda Schumann, a veteran of the Berlin lesbian movement, who was invited to an event in the “taz” in early 2020, which was also canceled after similar protests. So now Marie-Luise Vollbrecht.
She asserts that she neither denies nor despises transsexuality, but on the contrary sees it as confirmation of her scientifically based conviction that humanity can be divided into two and not any number of genders.
In fact, this debate is at least marginally about people who suffer in the body they were born with, and who endure seemingly endless struggles and lifelong hostilities to conform their gender. It is also not about people who are expelled and persecuted in many countries, even murdered, and whose fates always end as tragically as in the case of the Iranian trans woman Ella, who fled to Germany in search of security and freedom and stayed here for a short time in the ” Paradise” before she committed suicide at the end of last year, also out of disappointment about her new home.
Instead, queer theory and its activist wing have long since moved beyond the cognitive distinction between biological (sex) and social (gender) sex and wish to “deconstruct” the category of gender itself. Hence the thesis that one can determine whether and which gender one belongs to by a performative act, i.e. by a mere declaration of intent.
This approach is closely linked to the academic theory of intersectionality, i.e. the assumption that there are different forms of discrimination that must always be considered and combated together. Bits and pieces of this theory have become famous under the keywords “woke” and “identity politics”.
The mixed situation becomes confusing because many transsexuals who are active as activists or journalists adhere to queer theory. However, this should not hide the fact that this is not a dispute between transsexuals and scientists, but rather an ideology that is loudly asserting itself and with which many sympathize, because the fight against (real or supposed) discrimination is now the epitome of being progressive.
Meanwhile, a rift is emerging within the LGBTI community, with transgender activists accusing the old gay movement of self-determination, equality, and desire of merely promoting their “privileges” as “old, white cis homosexuals”. They in turn countered with the accusation of a “new homophobia” emanating from queer theory, taz editor Jan Feddersen even speaks of a “queergida” that wants community and not a “society of the different”.
Below the general perception, the next crack is already looming: transsexuals who accuse queer activists of stealing their life plans and suffering for ideological purposes or to gain distinction. These transsexuals insist that transsexuality is not an academic fad, much less an activist carnival event. They are not striving for a theoretical “deconstruction”, but rather, ultimately with the help of medical interventions, for the “transition” in order to become the man or woman they have always felt to be.
Queer activists already use the derogatory term “truscum” for such transsexual critics, a portmanteau of “truth” and “scum” (scum). Transphobia, was there something?
But beyond these discursive subtleties and claims, in a liberal society, anyone who wants to can call themselves non-, post-, abinary or whatever and be happy in their own way. One can either share the belief in the performative or not. It only becomes a relevant annoyance when it is associated with the authoritarian gesture.
And of course it is legitimate to get involved in your own political or ideological ideas. In a democracy, everyone has the right to demonstrate against anything they want within the limits of the law: Queer activists against evolutionary biology lectures, lateral thinkers against epidemiological lectures on Covid-19, oddballs against the theory of relativity.
Universities that are committed to the principle of scientific knowledge do not have to tolerate every nonsense under their roof. But on many questions there is not half as much agreement, neither within individual disciplines nor even among different disciplines, as the popular formula of “the” science suggests – a formula, by the way, which is usually only invoked when it is just in fits the stuff. And since what is researched and discussed at universities will sooner or later reach society as a whole, this also applies to academic debates.
Criticism does not always have to take the form of a well-tempered dispute among C4 professors; in a society in which means and opportunities are unequally distributed, it can also take the form of discursive melee. When Holocaust survivors and other members of the Jewish community occupied the stage of the Frankfurter Schauspielhaus in 1985 to prevent the performance of Fassbinder’s play “Der Müll, die Stadt und der Tod”, this was criminally a case of trespassing and also an encroachment on the freedom of art – but also marked the beginning of the emancipation of the Jewish communities in the Federal Republic after 1945.
In such cases, the decisive factor is whether the opponents are willing to engage in dialogue, no matter how sharp it is. Equally crucial are questions of proportionality and the distribution of power. The constellation of dozens or even hundreds of demonstrators against a doctoral student does not exactly speak for proportionality. And who is on the side of power here and who is on the fringes is by no means clear.
In view of the everyday discrimination, exclusion and violence that trans people continue to experience in this country, one could mistake transgender activists for the disadvantaged who are desperately trying to make their voices heard. But with a view to the discourse in culture, media and universities – or also to the self-determination law that the Bundestag is currently discussing – one could come to the opposite conclusion: that queer theory today belongs more to the mainstream than the incriminated position of the biologist.
That queer theory comes from the left and its followers usually think of themselves as leftists; that right-wing conservatives, right-wing extremists and Putinoids see “gender ideology” as the worst expression of the open society they hate and strive to cash in on the achievements of liberal modernity, including the recognition of different life plans; that Vladimir Putin is also engaged in a kind of armed identity politics in the war against Ukraine; that, finally, the neurotic defensive reflexes with which some people react to “gender-appropriate language” tempt them to sprinkle gender asterisks over every text like powdered sugar; none of this should lead to the assumption that queer theory is leftist, progressive, or even dissident.
Rather, global corporations show how compatible “woke” ideology and capitalism are today. Amazon, for example, where they prevent employees from joining a union and encourage them to urinate in plastic bottles so that they don’t miss the performance requirements by peeing: there they use meticulously precise language and behavior catalogs to ensure that nobody has a bad word says and doesn’t make a stupid joke.
The talk of “classism”, the latest craze in the woken milieu, does not change this finding: “classism” is not about power and exploitation, but about language and discrimination: what the proletarian earns and how he toils for it, plays at best, a subordinate role, as long as nobody disparagingly calls him proletarian and turns up his nose at not understanding this or that foreign word.
It is possible that the aggressive inexorability of transgender activists stems from this: because they would like to continue to think of themselves as left and cool and marginal, but only form the radical avant-garde of the establishment, and the left-wing manifestation of a global anti-liberal identity politics.
But before that is forgotten: The scandalous thing about this affair is not the views of activists, but the behavior of the university management.
The word about the cancel culture, which conservatives in particular like to use because they often confuse freedom of expression with freedom of contradiction in their journalistic crybabies, does not become reality from a battle cry because someone is always demonstrating against something on the Internet or on the street. Cancel culture becomes real through the inability of institutions of all kinds to endure criticism and outrage. This inability is shown not only by public institutions such as WDR, but also private ones: the “taz” for example – or most recently the house in which WELT appears. (No, the appropriate response to what I might call an “underground” but certainly legitimate guest post is not letters of distancing from the CEO.)
In short: the cancellation of Marie-Luise Vollbrecht’s lecture by the management of the Humboldt University is pathetically cowardly and the restriction of academic freedom is unacceptable. Of course, it would be just as unacceptable if a university had canceled a gender researcher’s lecture on “Construction of Gender” under different circumstances. Does this need to be specifically emphasized? better yes