Judith Butler on her Philosophy and Current Events

Judith Butler received her PhD in philosophy at Yale, and continues to teach at the University of California Berkeley in the Department of Comparative Literature. She is known for her contribution to the idea that gender is performative which is formed throughout her several books. She is an American philosopher and gender theorist that supports LGBTQ+ rights around the world.

In this interview we talk about a variety of topics that may need some context. In 2017, protests in Brazil burned Judith Butler in effigy while holding crosses and bibles when she was in Brazil for a conference on the state of democracy. The current president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, has a very long anti-LGBTQ history varying from saying he would rather have his son be killed than be gay and “removed the concerns of the LGBT community from consideration by the new human rights ministry” on his first day. So with these facts, the results of a study done in 2017 is not that surprising when it shows that “every 48 hours a trans person is murdered in Brazil. In 94% of the cases, the murders were against women”. 

Another talking point is about intersectionality which is an idea introduced to me by my first gender therapist; we both looked at the overlapping categories in my life that contributed to discrimination. Kimberle Crenshaw first coined this term in her paper to describe how being black and a woman were not independent of each other, and that a black woman and a white woman did not experience sexism in the same way. Crenshaw showed that ways to bring equality for women and ways to bring equality for blacks did not always make things fair for black women.

Most people that know your work will associate your name with the idea gender is performative and would classify you as a gender theorist. Do you agree with the label the general public has given you, or would you rather be known for a different idea? 

JB:  I no longer have control over what people associate with my name, so I try to affirm that situation.  It is rare that someone can control the associations that others have with one’s name, and I certainly lost that control a long time ago.  Perhaps the only thing I can say is that there is some confusion about what “performative” means and that is sometime difficult to see. It does not mean “made up” or “fake” – it only means that something is enacted in the way we live our genders.  what this is, and how we think about it is a matter for discussion.

My intended audience for these articles I am writing are people wanting to educate themselves on the problems affecting the trans community. To a high school student or adult still learning about about gender theory, how would you describe performativity of gender in basic words so even someone without extensive knowledge in feminism can understand? 

JB: First of all, many people do not understand their genders as performative.  They understand them as a deep-seated aspect of their subjectivity. It is, for some, an enduring and important feeling about who they are in the world – and also in their own eyes.  I would not say that gender is only performative, but I do think gender is acted out in the world, that we see people enacting various conventions and customs that govern how men and women should behave without quite realizing that they are doing so.  Sometimes they have ideas of gender that they seek to embody in their actions, gestures, and speech. And even if that is the case, there is a wide spectrum of ways of living gender. Some of it is chosen and some of it is not. Many people also believe that if you are born into a female body you have to become a woman, or if you are born into a male body (or one the medical establishment determines as male) that you have to become a man.  I don’t think that is true. Biological sex does not determine how you live your body or who you love or what kind of appearance you should have. My view is that the gender one lives does not always match sex assignment at birth. But also, if you find that you are discriminated against on the basis of gender, you can see the extent to which gender is a sociological, legal, and historical phenomena that exceeds any of our individual circumstances.  The norms that discriminate against trans people are also reenacted and fortified all the time. That would be an example of performative power exercised by the law and social norms. The point is that the field of gender is being actively contested by those who want greater freedom and recognition and those who seek to deny it.

What do you think must be done for violence like in Brazil against the trans community-especially trans women? Why is there such a stigma against those that identify as trans? 

JB:  Bolsonaro shows us that new forms of fascism are linked to the anti-gender ideology movement.  First, gender is not an “ideology” – it is a complex field of experience, and gender studies is a complex field of study with  many different approaches. Transphobia is a form of hatred, an “ideology” of hatred based in ignorance, and everyone, whether trans or not, should be fighting against it.  To be subject to violence on the basis of one’s gender presentation is an attack on one’s humanity. It is not enough to have laws against the killing of trans people, the entire social and cultural world in which those killings take place has to change.  Why and how do politicians and the police support and reproduce transphobia? The entire left – indeed, the entire society – should oppose this kind of killing, and make stronger alliances to fight this. The killers should be held to account, and yet too often the police and whole communities simply look the other way.  The right-wing Christians make those of us who are gender nonconforming into the devil, a threat to the family and to the Church. And yet, we are in their families and in their Churches, riding with them on the bus, living next to them. The transphobic panic is one that is stoked by a form of Christianity that has forgotten its roots in the doctrine of love.

What do you think must be done to protect the rights when there is still a lack of legal rights since only 17 states and D.C. have laws in place to prohibit against employment and housing discrimination based on gender identity? 

JB: We have to fight to remove this government in the US and to demonstrate the social justice of policies that recognize trans rights as fundamental.  The state right now, in threatening to withdraw public protection for trans people, is not just refusing to recognize their reality, but seeking to make them invisible in public life and forcing them to conform to norms that deny their existence.  This is a radical injustice.

What would you say to someone that is using your works such as Undoing Gender or Gender Trouble for evidence against the existence and validity of non-binary/genderqueer identites? 

JB:  I have never read anything that says this about my work, so I do not know how to respond.  I understand my work to have contested the binary framing of gender and to promote and recognize genderqueer identities.  I am myself now legally “non-binary” so I am confused by your question.

What would you say to someone that, after reading your works, says gender is just drag? 

JB;  I mentioned drag in one paragraph of Gender Trouble 30 years ago, and I now see that that was clearly an error.  For now sometimes people say that Butler believes that gender is only drag. Drag is not the same as trans life, and drag cannot be a model for understanding gender.  I hope I have made that clear in subsequent publications, but I recognize that I do not always have the power to correct that view. We do not simply clothe ourselves in a gender when we want to (although some people do). Gender is also a way of life, an understanding of a deeply felt identity, and the view of ‘gender as drag’ does not sufficiently recognize that.  In Gender Trouble, I thought that it would be important to move beyond the binary framework for understanding gender. But some trans people want to be inside the binary or, rather, understand themselves to be deeply within the binary, but not in the way that society has assigned it. Others understand trans existence to contest the binary, to call for new language.  And my early work did not address this sufficiently, but I am learning, and accept the trans criticisms of my early work.

The mass public has many debates if a person stating their gender identity is something other than cisgender that they are doing it for attention-even more if the person decides to detransition later on. In the trans community, some say if a trans person does not suffer from gender or body dysphoria that they are doing it to be trendy. What is your view on this type of belief prevalent in the current discourse? Is a person’s gender invalid if they change it multiple times or affected by gender dysphoria? 

JB:  I am not sure it is always so easy to understand or judge motivation. If someone asks for recognition as a given gender or wishes to be addressed by a certain pronoun, it is important to honor that request for recognition and change one’s language practice.  I am interested in the fact that others decide who is cisgender and who is not. Someone can be cisgender in one cultural context and very much not. There is no one view on what is gender conformity, since the norms of gender are not the same in all times and places.

Information on a website says you hold the Hannah Arendt chair at European Graduate School. I am curious if being endowed a chair of Arendt is reflective of your opinion on her political phenomenology. Also, her idea of actualizing plurality sounds similar to the ideas present throughout your works; I am wondering if there is a connection, or I am mistaking the similarity as something else. 

JB:  I do share some of her views as I tried to make clear in my book Parting Ways.  She gave me a way to think about performativity as a collective act, as a way of acting in common.  I think this is very important for protest and for making a new social world that is anti-violence and guided by principles of inclusivity and social justice. She also articulated a critique of the founding of the State of Israel, claiming that the principle of self-determination should be extended to all the people inhabiting that land.  I share that view.

Do you find the idea of intersectionality useful or do you find it destructive for the movement towards equality?   

JB:  Yes, I think both Patricia Hill Collins and Kimberle Crenshaw introduced this term and it has become very important for describing and understanding the social conditions of various kinds of minorities, but also the modes of effacement that have been practiced by those who sometimes consider their politics progressive.  They made clear that a black woman is a woman, but not all women are black, and that this difference allows us to see the convergence of misogyny and racism in the lives of women of color. This is also true for trans communities where the indigenous and trans people of color suffer disproportionately exclusion, discrimination, and violence.   I find the concept indispensable to the movement for equality. Otherwise we return to the situation in which the Left speaks for all Leftists, but the one who speaks is a white man, and the Left becomes a presumptively white male community. Or a white woman speaks in the name of all women without realizing that she has effaced a vast population of women, including trans women, in the way she has spoken.  So we need a more complex understanding of power, and how it affects our lives and our politics, in order to build stronger alliances – all of which is necessary to check facism at this time.

Citations

Coaston, Jane. “Intersectionality, Explained: Meet Kimberlé Crenshaw, Who Coined the Term.” Vox, Vox, 20 May 2019, http://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/5/20/18542843/intersectionality-conservatism-law-race-gender-discrimination.

“Gender Trouble.” The New York Times, 12 Mar. 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/12/style/tmagazine/gender-trouble.html. Accessed 27 Dec. 2019.

Jaschik, Scott. “Judith Butler Discusses Being Burned in Effigy and Protested in Brazil.” Insidehighered.Com, 2017, http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/11/13/judith-butler-discusses-being-burned-effigy-and-protested-brazil. Accessed 27 Dec. 2019.

“Judith Butler | Research UC Berkeley.” Berkeley.Edu, 2018, vcresearch.berkeley.edu/faculty/judith-butler. Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.

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