How language games are destroying understanding for political gain
There is a phenomenon I’ve noticed in political discourse many times in recent years, which goes like this:
An existing term is colonised and its meaning subverted to new political ends
Previous users of the term are forced to try to come up with a new term to replace the old one
The new occupants demonise the old, and deny political legitimacy to any new terminology
The best description I can think of for this process is semantic gentrification, in which users of a word’s original meaning are forced out by newcomers who consider themselves morally enlightened in comparison to the older population, who completely change the character of the term in service of their own, narrow interests, and who regard the now-homeless former inhabitants with contempt.
Inherent in this is a sense in which the new meaning is superior to the old, representing a progressive, moral inevitability, and that attempts to reassert old meanings are denied legitimacy as regressive, backwards, and “on the wrong side of history”. Why would you want to hold on to a run down, backwards old semantic neighbourhood, when the shiny new hipster takeover is such a clear improvement?
More than just a straightforward language drift, where a term changes or becomes emptied of meaning over time, this is much more of an explicit takeover. A subversion and destruction of language as a clear exercise of the power of the colonisers, appropriating whatever goodwill exists towards the original semantic structures, while those who are usurped are both ostracised and unable to clearly articulate their position.
And since this process is invariably in service of men’s needs and interests, that really puts the gent in gentrification.
Sex, Gender and Feminism
This process has happened time and again in terms that have been at issue in the sex and gender conflict - words like male, female, man, woman, sex, gender, feminism, all undermined to include their opposites, while legislation and protections using the old meaning are seamlessly transferred to the new.
For example, the female-centric analysis of feminism was colonised and redefined into a gender-centric one promising “equality for everyone”, women’s studies supplanted by gender studies, and so on. Rather than a movement to redress historic inequity for women, and bring women’s needs to the fore, this shift reinforces women’s stereotypical role as primary caregiver, sacrificing their own needs - their own words - to right all of the world’s wrongs.
Of course, in this inverted analysis, the most wrongs are perpetrated against the most “marginalised genders”, and the most marginalised of all are the men who wish to be seen as women, whose concerns have become so central that any women’s issues that exclude them are deemed hateful. The new meaning of feminism - of man, woman, male, female, sex, gender - is “trans-inclusive”, so therefore the only reason to not accept the new meanings is to be “trans-exclusive”. And being exclusionary to marginalised genders sounds like the sort of bad thing that happens in the run-down backwards old meaning of these words, not the shiny new forward-thinking, renovated, artisan-genderfluid-coffee-shop-on-every-corner meaning.
Mounting a resistance has meant starting from scratch, trying to carve out new semantic boundaries where the old ones were, all while being absolutely demonised - invisibly redistricted into bad (right-wing) discursive neighbourhoods.
As this process took shape, the existing users of terms like “feminist” increasingly resisted this process. Some conceded new meanings of “woman” while trying to draw the line at “female”, or used new more precise terms like “gender-critical feminism” to describe what it was they advocated. Others rejected such moves as needless and tautological, since “being critical of gender” is inherent in the meaning of “feminism”. Some have attempted to apply differential labels to the colonisers, such as “genderists”, but lack the cultural power to make this relabelling stick in any meaningful sense. In any case, the problem was that the original words had been taken over and now the new occupants were denying the former inhabitants any language to describe the original meanings.
As time has shown, these attempts to maintain boundaries with new terms or by reclaiming the old ones have faced an enormous struggle, since any language that rejects the gentrified meaning becomes “anti-trans” by definition. No matter what phrasing is used, all alternatives are readily portrayed as a cynical attempt to smuggle “anti-trans” beliefs under reasonable-looking language, to the point where terminology so basic there is nowhere left to go (such as “female” and “biological sex”) are considered “dogwhistles” for hateful bigotry.
For example, when the 2010 Equality Act was written, it would not have occurred to the vast majority of people that “sex” could ever be interpreted as other than referring to a person’s actual, immutable, biological sex. However, the gentrification of sex that has accelerated since then - supplanting it with vague, sovereign conceptions of self-declared “gender identity” - has forced critics to waste time and political impact with cumbersome language and lengthy explanations, just to make statements that ought to be uncontroversial.
In 2023 the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) suggested clarifying the law to preserve its obvious original intent, but too late. The plain old meaning of “sex” was now anathema to its entitled new squatters, and Stonewall (along with dozens of other organisations) are currently attempting to strip the EHRC of its “A” status for daring to mention boring old “biological sex”:
A recent report by Women’s Rights Network documents how UK Police Forces have adopted a 2021 policy which allows male officers to strip search female detainees, so long as those male officers claim to be female. This absurd policy appears to have been nodded through unchallenged with no serious consultation or visibility, simply because it is seen as “the right thing to do”. However, little about the policy is actually new, but rather formalises what was in many cases already happening. If pressed to ask where all these changes originated, it seems likely those involved would be unable to provide a clear trail of decision making. Across institutions, policies such as this have been brought about by the incremental adoption of “best practices”, all of which take as an underlying assumption that obviously the new and improved understanding of sex is more modern and accepting than the messy old version.
This is unthinkingly accepted by progressive, liberal-minded policymakers, HR departments and uninvolved bystanders alike because of the presumed moral authority of the new semantic occupants, representing as they do “progress”, ushering in an inevitably brighter future. While all of this has taken place, the most vocal advocates have been free to attack any hint of dissent as old-fashioned or conservative, all of which has fostered a climate where zero real scrutiny takes place. Merely trying to describe an alternative position is a doomed, uphill struggle, because it starts from the disadvantaged position of moral inferiority.
Shared understanding cannot be assumed because the entitled new occupants have appropriated the old semantic structures, and supplanted them with their new, fashionable concerns. Every attempt to speak with precision about the pre-gentrification meaning of these words, to talk only about women’s rights and needs, to talk specifically about LGB issues, to make a feminist stand on a newsworthy event or a matter of policy - all becomes a trans issue. The conflict is inescapable, and a huge amount of time is expended trying to restate entirely reasonable feminist points from first principles. All the while the new inhabitants of these well-respected old semantic neighbourhoods have free rein to use their stolen goodwill to reshape society in the way they see fit.
Sensible debate and policy scrutiny around women’s rights has foundered in this environment, which is dismal enough. However, this exhausting process is now well underway in the arena of therapy, in service of the same political ends.
“Conversion therapy” has long been understood as a coercive and often brutal attempt to forcibly change an individual’s sexual orientation, ie to stop a gay person from being gay. Unlike actual therapy, this process has a fixed endpoint in mind - that being heterosexual is the only acceptable outcome - and uses a variety of means, from prayer to coercion to psychological or physical abuse in service of achieving this.
Many would intuitively understand that trying to stop an individual from being gender nonconforming is strongly associated with homophobia. If, for example, you have a small boy who likes wearing dresses and playing with dolls, beating him to make him stop because you’re afraid he’ll grow up gay would seem to be clear and obvious homophobic abuse, and the sort of thing people have in mind with “conversion”. After all, gender is the socially constructed set of roles and norms, and heterosexuality (by way of male dominance and female submission) is perhaps the primary norm that gender invariably enforces. Trying to make a gay person straight is similar to trying to stop a “feminine” boy from “being like a girl” insofar as they are both reflective of rigid social gender norms. Indeed, this sort of pathologisation of stepping out of the strict confines of gender norms is why so many noncompliant young women - many lesbian or bisexual - were institutionalised or lobotomised for “hysteria” throughout the 20th century.
However this previously uncontroversial understanding of an abhorrent practice has been modified in recent years to cover both conversion of sexual orientation and gender identity. And while trying to stop someone from being gender nonconforming would seem to fall under that heading, modern conceptions of “gender identity” radically alter this picture. Specifically, the shift from seeing “gender identity” not as an unconscious internalisation of regressive social norms but instead an authentic expression of some important aspect of individuality. When a boy wears dresses and plays with dolls, rather than accepting this unremarkable behaviour that should not be sanctioned or pathologised, this can now be interpreted as “expressing an innate female gender identity”.
There is an obvious conflict between saying a same-sex attracted girl does not need therapy on the grounds that there is nothing wrong with being a lesbian, and saying a same-sex attracted girl doesn’t need therapy, because they’re “really a straight boy”. This distinction is especially important when the latter perspective takes as a given - even encourages - the possibility of changing the body irreversibly to “match” this conception of internal self.
It is somewhat unclear when and how this redefinition of conversion therapy started, but seems largely taken as read without any call for evidence or any close examination of what it all means. The presumption that LGB and T (or sometimes SOGI, for sexual orientation and gender identity) now always go together has merely created a sort of groupthink that conversion therapy must apply the same to both. These omnipresent acronyms create powerful assumptions and are hard to challenge since any attempt to distinguish the two is portrayed as an attack on both.
Newcomers have moved in on this term and taken over, reshaping it in their own interests, and if you have a problem with this new and improved meaning of conversion therapy, that can only mean you’re trying to justify conversion therapy.
In exactly the same way that straightforward statements of the obvious such as that you can’t literally change sex became unspeakable because of the threat of being labelled “anti-trans”, so challenging the straightforward treatment of gender identity as the same as gay conversion therapy is also “anti-trans”.
So if you, for example, publish a video talking straightforwardly about the complexity of conflating sexual orientation and gender identity under the same umbrella of “conversion therapy”, or if you examine the evidence base for any proposed ban on gender identity conversion therapy in the first place, YouTube will happily slap context on your video correcting your wrongthink.
The term has been gentrified. This is the new, unquestionable, morally superior meaning, enforced by technological intervention to nudge you in the “correct” direction. Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity are the same. LGB with the T, always, and if you have a problem with that you’re on the wrong side of history,
Exploration vs Affirmation
When the UK government proposed a ban on “gender identity conversion therapy”, the British Psychotherapeutic Council rather naively issued a statement that there was:
no real risk of ethical exploratory therapy being misconstrued as an alleged form of “conversion therapy”
All therapy is supposed to be exploratory by definition, and most would regard this as a basic assumption of the process.
In 2022, the Cass Review of the treatment of gender-related issues by the NHS released an interim report, which has led to the winding down of the Tavistock Gender Identity Service (GIDS) and the release of new service specifications by the NHS, stressing the importance of exploratory approaches.
The interim Cass Report describes exploratory therapy as:
Therapeutic approaches that acknowledge the young person’s subjective gender experience, whilst also engaging in an open, curious, non-directive exploration of the meaning of a range of experiences that may connect to gender and broader self-identity.
By contrast, the review described the affirmative approach predominantly used by GIDS as:
A model of gender healthcare that originated in the USA which affirms a young person’s subjective gender experience while remaining open to fluidity and changes over time. This approach is used in some key child and adolescent clinics across the Western world.
The key distinction is that the exploratory approach considers there may be underlying factors leading to an individual’s gender distress - past trauma, unresolved issues with their sexuality - and that if given time to explore these issues, the idea of “being another gender” may actually resolve. Significantly, in the past it has been recognised that the overwhelming majority of young people presenting in this way desist in this manner, with most growing up to be lesbian, gay or bisexual. By this view, exploring underlying causes is vital to avoid “diagnostic overshadowing”, ie the presumption that an individual’s gender distress is self-explanatory, rather than a symptom of other, underlying causes.
However, what the affirmation model takes as its starting point is that a person’s stated gender identity is true, and should be affirmed (not questioned), and the principal exploration is the way in which someone may wish to express their gender, largely focusing on how that may be facilitated (through social or medical transitioning). Rather than examine underlying causes, this approach invariably regards those issues (self-harm, depression, anxiety, even autism) as symptoms of a non-affirmed gender identity.
The response to the Cass Review from advocates of affirmation-only approaches was strong condemnation. The World Professional Association of Trasngender Health (WPATH) issued a statement calling “exploratory therapy” tantamount to “conversion”. They are not alone, and a series of reports and publications in the past couple of years have explicitly called exploratory therapy “conversion therapy” and “pseudoscience”, demonising anyone who suggests gender-questioning youth might in some cases have other unaddressed issues.
By this new understanding, it is considered “conversion” not just to attempt to alter how an individual dresses and behaves, but also to explore whether there is any other reason why an individual is seeking irreversible medical procedures in the first place. Advocates believe it is conversion therapy to consider:
issues such as unprocessed trauma, childhood abuse, internalized homophobia or misogyny, sexual fetishism, and autism as the “real” explanation behind one’s transgender identity, rather than accepting that a child who identifies as trans is sharing a real, deep, and even joyful truth about themselves.
The semantic gentrification of “conversion therapy” has allowed this shift of meaning, all supported by the practically mandatory use of co-associating acronyms like LGBT and SOGI. By taking the false equivalence of sexual orientation and gender identity as a given, and the consequent push for affirmation as the preferred model, more skeptical therapists have found themselves unsure whether basic exploratory therapy will fall foul of plans to criminalise them. Psychological interventions which avoid the risks of social and medical transition are routinely portrayed as conversion, because social and medical transition is now joy.
At the end of December 2023, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced the composition of its panel which will develop the guidelines on the healthcare for “trans and gender diverse people”. The panel is single-minded in its conception that affirmation is the only permissible route forward, and that “pathologising” gender distress or “gatekeeping” medical transition are conversion practices. At this stage it seems almost certain that WPATH’s affirmation-only approach will be endorsed by WHO, and that any conversion therapy bans which cover gender identity will inevitably criminalise exploratory therapy. Responses to this will be an uphill struggle against not only the policies, but the very meaning of conversion, of identity, of sex and gender.
While doubtless there will be focus on the more visible policy concerns, or apparent institutional takeover by activists, I believe it was all made possible by the longer-term shifts in meaning that have already taken hold. Time and again, important language is being appropriated in service of the narrow self-interest of the language gentry.