Culture

Judith Butler Blasts TERFs and JK Rowling In This Extraordinary New Interview

"I disagree with JK Rowling's view on trans people, but I do not think she should suffer harassment and threats. Let us also remember, though, the threats against trans people in places like Brazil, or indeed right here in the US."

Judith Butler and JK Rowling

Judith Butler is one of the leading intellectuals of our age, an activist, philosopher and critical theorist who has spent decades writing some of the most acclaimed papers on gender in the canon.

She’s also absolutely not here for TERFs, as a new interview with Alona Ferber in New Statesman proves. The chat, which went live this morning, has already gone viral, prompting thousands of tweets about Butler, her comments on JK Rowling, and the state of the current discourse and media cycle.

Basically, it’s the most talked-about story of the day. And for very good reason.

Who Is Judith Butler?

Butler is a philosopher and activist who is probably best known for Gender Trouble. In that work, she argues that gender is a kind of performance, and that concepts of “woman” are frustrated and complicated by considerations of class and race. Since the writing of that book, Butler has long railed against TERFs — trans-exclusionary radical feminists, AKA those who wish to exclude trans women from the feminist cause.

Elsewhere, Butler is also known for her views on Israel — she is firmly anti-Zionist, and believes that the State of Israel cannot speak for all Jewish people — her work in pioneering literary theory, and her queer advocacy. But if you haven’t read any of her work, do not fear: this new interview expresses her opinions on gender, transphobia and class with salience and wit.

What Judith Butler Has To Say About TERFs

From the very outset of the chat, Butler pushes back against the TERF mindset, cracking down when Ferber, the interviewer, tells Butler that some consider TERF a slur.

“I wonder what name self-declared feminists who wish to exclude trans women from women’s spaces would be called?” Butler asks. “If they do favour exclusion, why not call them exclusionary? If they understand themselves as belonging to that strain of radical feminism that opposes gender reassignment, why not call them radical feminists?

“My only regret is that there was a movement of radical sexual freedom that once travelled under the name of radical feminism, but it has sadly morphed into a campaign to pathologise trans and gender non-conforming peoples. My sense is that we have to renew the feminist commitment to gender equality and gender freedom in order to affirm the complexity of gendered lives as they are currently being lived.”

Later in the same interview, Butler questions why the debate is positioned as being a clash between two monolithic communities. “One clear problem is the framing that acts as if the debate is between feminists and trans people,” she says.

“It is not. One reason to militate against this framing is because trans activism is linked to queer activism and to feminist legacies that remain very alive today. Feminism has always been committed to the proposition that the social meanings of what it is to be a man or a woman are not yet settled. We tell histories about what it meant to be a woman at a certain time and place, and we track the transformation of those categories over time.”

Judith Butler Tackles The JK Rowling Case

Later, Butler directly responds to the case of JK Rowling, the children’s book author who has repeatedly espoused transphobic views. When the interviewer mentions that Rowling has received misogynistic abuse for her views, Butler responds eloquently.

“I am against online abuse of all kinds. I confess to being perplexed by the fact that you point out the abuse levelled against JK Rowling, but you do not cite the abuse against trans people and their allies that happens online and in person.

“I disagree with JK Rowling’s view on trans people, but I do not think she should suffer harassment and threats. Let us also remember, though, the threats against trans people in places like Brazil, the harassment of trans people in the streets and on the job in places like Poland and Romania — or indeed right here in the US. So if we are going to object to harassment and threats, as we surely should, we should also make sure we have a large picture of where that is happening, who is most profoundly affected, and whether it is tolerated by those who should be opposing it. It won’t do to say that threats against some people are tolerable but against others are intolerable.”

As many readers online are already pointing out, the interview is a breath of fresh air in a stale debate — a case of someone very smart talking about issues with real insight. Let’s hope there’s more of it moving ahead.

Read the interview in full here.