Scott Alexander – the author of Slate Star Codex, a cult-hit blog about philosophy and science – uses the term “respectability cascade” to describe the process by which social phenomena travel in and out of mainstream discourse.
Sometimes a respectability cascade drags a movement or an idea downwards into the hell of taboo status. Alexander gives the example of endocrine disruptors: hormone-like pollutants that are believed to interfere with the endocrine systems of animals and humans, which can lead to cancer and sexual development problems. Scientists began looking into the issue of endocrine disruptors in the 1990s, with no fanfare whatsoever, aside from occasional sober coverage in news outlets such as the New York Times.
That was until 2010, however, when Alex Jones, the American right-wing radio host, encountered the idea. Jones, presumably, came across some scientific work on the physiological feminisation of male amphibians exposed to endocrine disruptors in their environment. But Jones is not a scientist. His conspiratorial way of thinking led him to the conclusion that the US government must be intentionally putting chemicals in the water with the goal of feminising American men. “It’s a chemical warfare operation,” Jones told his listeners. “I don’t like ‘em putting chemicals in the water that turn the freakin’ frogs gay!”
This was bad news for the endocrine disruptors theory. Having been given the kiss of death by someone with a respectability status of nil, it was no longer a concept that could be discussed in polite company. The theory of endocrine disruptors has only recently managed to distance itself from Jones, and is now working its way upwards in the respectability cascade. Five years ago, it was semi-respectable as a theory, but now it’s the subject of a new book called Count Down by Shanna Swan and Stacey Colino, which has been widely praised. Goodbye “gay frogs”, hello bestseller lists.
What can send an idea upwards in a respectability cascade? There are times, as in the case of endocrine disruptors, when the strength of scientific evidence makes the theory undeniable to anyone in a position of expertise. In other cases, the idea might be intuitively persuasive, but has for some reason been relegated to outsider status.
The success of two new books suggests that we are witnessing the progression of a new respectability cascade in relation to “gender-critical” beliefs – a branch of feminism (often described as “trans exclusionary radical feminism” or “Terf” by some critics) that is sceptical of gender stereotypes and rejects the idea that the biological categories of male and female are socially constructed.
Material Girls by the philosopher Kathleen Stock presents a critique of the idea of “gender identity” – an inner feeling that is believed by trans activists to be more socially significant than biological sex. Trans, by the Economist’s Helen Joyce, provides a political account of the points of contention between the trans movement and feminists.
Both books are incisive, compassionate and nuanced, and both are also very sympathetic to the gender-critical side of the argument. And yet, the sales of the two books have done very well. Material Girls reached number 13 in the UK non-fiction charts and Trans is currently at number seven, with positive coverage not only in right-leaning media but also in the Guardian.
Putting their names beside such controversial arguments has still come with a personal toll for both authors, but their recent success should be compared with the situation 15 years ago, when there was almost no one offering any kind of gender-critical argument in the UK media.
In the first decade of this century, it was unthinkable that a gender-critical book could even be published by a prominent publishing house, let alone become a bestseller. At that time, Julie Bindel was one of the very few journalists writing on the subject. After a column she wrote for the Guardian in 2004 was accused of transphobia, a number of university student unions and conferences declared they would not share a platform with Bindel, while an NUS LGBT conference passed a motion describing her as “vile”. Bindel has since been compared to Hitler, and, in 2019, was physically assaulted after an event in Edinburgh.
Bindel has always been at the vanguard of feminist activism, challenging the government in the courts and advocating on behalf of people who are typically forgotten, such as women convicted of murdering their abusive partners. Occupying the radical fringes is very much her raison d’être, which made it easier for her critics to cast her out of respectable discourse when she stood alone in advancing gender-critical arguments.
But slowly this has all changed. Although it is still possible to “cancel” gender-critical feminists within some social or professional circles, there are larger areas of public life in which this strategy doesn’t work. For example, the artist Jess de Wahls recently had her work withdrawn from the Royal Academy gift shop in London, in response to comments she made regarding sex and gender. But after the gallery was criticised, her work was apologetically reinstated.
You can track the upward movement of the respectability cascade in the media over the past decade, as gender-critical pieces migrated from small feminist outlets such as the website Feminist Current, to radical newspapers such as the Morning Star, and eventually to legacy publications such as the Times. What was once taboo has become mainstream, with each person and publication in the respectability chain emboldened by the outspokenness of the one before them. There is a quote that is often attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “How did I go bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” This is also how ideological change happens: slowly, then all at once.
[See also: The science of sexual conflict]
* This column was updated on 29 July 2021. It originally stated that Julie Bindel was no-platformed by the National Union of Students. Julie Bindel is not included on the National Union of Students’ no-platform list, and the NUS does not no-platform individuals. The actions described relate to individual student unions and conferences. We are happy to make this clarification.
This article appears in the 28 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special