The zero-sum logic of rightwing culture wars.

Many years ago a sister-in-law of mine and I were debating about gay marriage. I have no issue with it but she did. When I asked her what the problem was, she said something to the effect that “giving gays the right to marry diminishes the sanctity of my (straight) marriage.” I found that logic to be very odd. Why would gay folk marrying in any way take away from or diminish straight marriage? If anything it would reinforce the normative preeminence of marriage as an institution over common law partnerships of any orientation, and would give additional legal protection to both the couple and any children that they raise (especially when it comes to travel and foreign residence because some States, among other things, require people to be married for spousal benefits, work permits and child visas. Singapore and several Latin American countries have such requirements).

Over the years my sister-in-law mellowed on gay rights because of exposure to gay people in her wider family, at work and amongst friends. Good on her. But the flaw in her earlier logic has stuck with me and been reemphasised in my mind by the current wave of cultural wars unleashed, Russian invasion-style (and with Russia’s actual involvement) by Western right-wingers. The premise remains the same: granting rights to gays, transgendered, intersexuals, historically oppressed communities, linguistic and religious minorities, schoolchildren (when it comes to what they can read and see in class), etc. comes at the direct expense of someone else, particularly straight white religious adults. Universalizing human rights is seen as usurping the rights of parents, business owners, religious authorities, and in fact, the “natural” patriarchical, racial, sexual and other social hierarchies of previous eras. The “natural” order is seen to be under existential threat and hence all-out war must be waged against those who, consciously or not, adopt Gramsci’s concept of a “war of position” in order to infiltrate “traditional” social, economic and political institutions with subversive intent.

Which makes me remember that foot-binding was once part of the “natural” order in China, and beating of wives and children permissible in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia–to say nothing of much of the Anglo-Saxon world. Bullying very much remains a cultural trait in Aotearoa. Not all tradition is worth preserving.

Much is written about the role of fear in rightwing perspectives. Fear of the “other” specifically. But fear needs to be analytically disaggregated as a concept and social construct. That is to say, fear has its own logic, sometimes rational and sometimes not. What is feared is less important than why it is feared. What fear is rests on two things: uncertainty and a particular perspective on how costs and benefits are distributed. This involves basic notions of loss and gain, particularly who gains and who losses in any social interaction. It is perversely transactional in nature. For example, cuddling an alligator may make him friendly, Or not. How one weighs the balance of odds in that interaction is what determines whether they fear the ‘gator or not. On the other hand, those who go to war know that death is a very likely fate. They know that, they internalize that (because of military socialization), and they get on with the job.

Civil society does (or at least should) not operate that way. It is about the limits of communal tolerance, not the requirements of war. This makes the cultural war references all the more disingenuous and destructive because, quite frankly, one (granting rights to previously marginalized groups) is not like the other.

The type of analytic logic where one rejects the extension of rights to others is known as “zero-sum:” one actor’s gain comes in inverse proportion to another actor’s loss. Expansion of rights for some is seen as a loss of rights for others. Coexistence is impossible under those circumstances because one group wins directly at the expense of another. This is the root perspective underlying prejudice among those who are not stupid (with the idiots more susceptible to the mean-spirited manipulation of non-stupid bigots and authoritarians).

Continuing the game-theoretic angle, the reality is that rather than zero-sum, the likely outcome of the culture wars is either (on the positive side), even–sum (both sides neither win or lose), positive-sum (both sides win) or (on the negative side) negative-sum (both sides lose). Either the bigots abandon the zero sum logic and the rights franchise is expanded to marginal communities without discernable loss of rights to historically dominant groups, with potential benefits accruing to binary and non-binary people resulting from the exchange, or both sides lose as the culture wars deepen, become more divisive, leading to broad scale violence and social rupture as all sides begin to see the conflict as existential. To be sure, I would prefer to see even-sum or positive-sum outcomes prevail but truth be told, many of the transphobes and their rightwing fellow travelers and enablers already see the “struggle” as existential–or an opportunity to stir up contrived controversy.

The last point is worth noting. Some of the arguments against the extension of rights to marginalized groups and individuals indicate that those making them know that they are specious. Claiming that drag queens and transgender people (transsexuals and Democrats!) are pedophiles and “groomers” betrays a moral and ethical dishonesty or gross ignorance. Claiming that transgender people using female bathrooms are a sexual assault threat to biological females (aka females at birth) is grotesque given the gender orientation and self-identity of the non-binary individuals. It may be true that heterosexual male sexual predators have sometimes dressed as women in order to gain access to female-only facilities with evil intent, but the instances of this have been extremely rare and, even rarer yet, are the instances of transgender women using their non-binary status to commit sexual assaults on heterosexual women. Plus, the root problem of such exceptionally rare assaults are different. A heterosexual male posing as a female in order to commit sexual assaults on biological females in female-only spaces is not the same problem as transgender females assaulting other females. The motivations–a question of the mind rather than simply driven by biology–are different even if violence and coercion are the method. As any specialist on transgender violence will explain, the more common issue is one of violence against rather than perpetrated by transgender folk.

Then there is this. Given the percentage of people world wide who are genuinely transgender, the odds of them constituting a significant number of sexual predators anywhere is mathematically low even if all of them were of evil disposition. Which is clearly not the case. When and where transgender initiated violence occurs is a product of personal and social circumstance given the specific context in which a person is situated. Again, the confluence of circumstances that lead to a transgender person lurking in bathrooms or grooming children is exceptional and the arguments that they are common occurrences is risible.

Pablo and his first son in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval, 1987. The poodle is a dude.

I am no expert on the subject, but believing that gender difference is defined purely by genitalia is reductio ad absurdem logic at its worse given the presence of non-gender type conforming (third sex) people throughout history. In fact, several non-Western cultures, including those in India and Polynesia, accept the existence of non-binary people and see them as a separate category rather than as either male or female. Their social roles are not those of males or females, and the culture accepts them for who they are. The history of these human beings has been largely non-violent. The trouble is that in Western societies issues of gender/sex have traditionally been treated as either/or rather than a socially acceptable inflection point on the continuum of human difference. The opprobrium historically assigned to transgender people in the West can therefore be seen as part of a larger pathology grounded in conservative Christian repression when it comes to sexuality and “proper” gender/sexual roles. That is weird. To put it vulgarly by paraphrasing the Tool song title, a “hooker with a penis” may be just that regardless of gender identification (thanks Maynard).

It seems to me that although transphobia is the prejudice d’jour, it follows a long history of bigotry that is marked by the zero-sum approach to social relations. It is simply an extension of earlier and repeated attempts to limit the rights of designated “others” who are seen, hypocritically or out of ignorance, as a threat to the “normal” way of life and social order.That this zero-sum perspective is shared and megaphoned by conservative churches, politicians, lobbying groups and media whose network connections cross international borders makes for a more dangerous and troubling future for those who believe in and have a preference for democracy, human rights and the benefits of egalitarian societies.

Then there is the issue of “wokeness.” In 25 years in academia and the subsequent years doing consulting, I have never once been bothered or infringed upon by “woke” anything. I say this even after having lost an academic job after false accusations of being racist by a foreign (female) student and her coterie of “progressive” supporters annoyed by my stance on some controversial international issues (like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict). Even after that, “wokeness” is simply not an impediment to me leading my life. Personal anecdote aside, I think I know the reason for this. I assume that being “woke” means being attentive to the needs and concerns of others, especially the traditionally oppressed, exploited, subordinated and marginalised. I assume that it means paying attention to one’s words and deeds so as to not cause psychological, emotional or physical harm to others. It means calling out and confronting dog whistling, gaslighting and overt racists, xenophobes, bullies and bigots. If I am correct about what it means to be “woke” then I have no reason to be concerned and instead can be counted in as a “woke” snowflake. And if it means pointing out the analytic flaws in the zero-sum logics of bigots (should the bigots try to be analytic rather than emotive in their reasoning), then I am waaaay woke. Shoot, I just might be a closet gay dude who has not consciously realised it yet! My wife sure is gonna be surprised when she finds out.

Also, if any side is behaving as (anti) woke snowflakes, it is the Right. If they watch their mouths and refrain from bleating hateful rhetoric, no one will “cancel” them. Instead, all they do is complain and whine about socialist/communist/liberal/progressive wokeness and cancel culture and the attack on (insert traditional values and “freedom” shibolleths here). They see everything as an assault on their social superiority, entitlements and privilege That includes the extension of rights to those they traditionally dominated. They are the ultimate “Karens.”

More on point, this is not about cancel culture and stifling free speech. People are merely denouncing hate-mongering and calling out arbitrary privileges assigned by class, race, birthplace or gender. Some of it may boisterous but much of it is justified and non-violent. More broadly, if one cannot understand that individual and collective rights come with responsibilities and that rights end when they infringe, deny or impede on those of others, then one is anything but democratic in social orientation, an ignoramus, or both. In fact, many of those pushing back at the extension of rights to previously excluded groups are outright authoritarian and socially hierarchical in perspective, be they racists, transphobes or Islamicists. Put it this way, if you believe that human society is akin to lobster society where the male with the largest claw gets the best feeding and mating grounds, then you need to go back to high school biology 101 and stop with the cross-species analogies. This is not about alpha and betas, predators and prey, hunters and gatherers and the “natural” social hierarchies. It is about fairness, equality and social justice.

The good news, if any, is that more and more of them are now out in the open, so they can be confronted more readily across many platforms and venues. The bad news is that they also have broad support, including from the institutions mentioned above.

In the end one either wants to see people treated equally so long as they obey basic and broadly shared social mores and principles, or you do not. As far as I can tell Drag Queens reading children’s stories in school and libraries is in line with the first view. Inciting and enabling hatred towards and threatening violence towards marginalized people is not.

This is not “just” about conforming to the gender identity and social roles that genitalia assigns us at birth. It is about much more. It is about who we are as human communities.