George Orwell's Coming Up for Air

Fight or Flight


George Orwell's Coming Up for AirIn Coming Up for Air (published in June 1939, months before the Second World War legitimised it), George Orwell wrote about the impulse to do violence against fascists. He was attending a lecture by an anti-fascist at the Left Book Club in London, and, momentarily, found himself within the head of the speaker:-

I saw the vision that he was seeing. And it wasn’t at all the kind of vision that can be talked about. What he’s saying is merely that Hitler’s after us and we must all get together and have a good hate. Doesn’t go into details. Leaves it all respectable. But what he’s seeing is something quite different. It’s a picture of himself smashing people’s faces in with a spanner. Fascist faces, of course. I know that’s what he was seeing. It was what I saw for myself for the second or two I was inside him. Smash! Right in the middle! The bones cave in like an eggshell and what was a face a minute ago is just a great big blob of strawberry jam. Smash! There goes another! That’s what’s in his mind, waking and sleeping, and the more he thinks of it the more he likes it. And it’s all OK because the smashed faces belong to Fascists. You could hear all that in the tone of his voice.

But why? Likeliest explanation, because he’s scared. Every thinking person nowadays is stiff with fright. This is merely a chap who’s got sufficient foresight to be a little more frightened than the others.

I don’t believe that doing violence to TERFs is morally permissible (I don’t believe violence is always wrong, but it should be avoided where possible), nor do I believe it is tactically effective: punching Nazis is effective because it humiliates them in undermining their machismo; doing violence to other kinds of fascist is ammunition for them to shore up their narrative about their target group being a threat.

But I do believe that (at least verbal) expressions of violence against TERFs are emotionally understandable. A year-plus-long ramping up of transphobic coverage in mainstream media coupled with social media leaving trans people out to dry in the face of transphobic abuse online has all contributed to a hostile environment in which trans people are scared.

When you’re scared, your adrenal medulla floods your sympathetic nervous system with a cocktail of hormones, primarily adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol, inducing the commonly-known fight-or-flight response. Opinions vary on how much stress response differs between men and women: pretty much everybody agrees that testosterone and estrogen play a part, but differ greatly on whether that part is small or large. Predictably, almost tautologically, the theories that posit a large difference are at the more gender-deterministic evo-psych end of the field, and we might well question their credibility.

However, even those theories that suggest a large difference between men and women suggest that women tend to use social grouping for protection, which is hard to do when rule one of harassment is to isolate your target.

And this is a vector of harassment for TERFs. Provoke a fight-or-flight response in your target, then use the fight response as “evidence” of “typical male aggression,” or use the flight response – such as blocking the harasser on Twitter – as “evidence” of “not having a reasonable argument.” It’s an ultimately no-win situation for the target.

In common with all fascists, this trick relies on TERFs erasing (or at least muddying) the difference between the aggression of self-preservation, and the aggression of domination. It’s hardly controversial to say that fighting for autonomy and fighting for coercion are different things (and more on that another time), but an old, old fascist trick is to present the fight for autonomy as somehow in itself coercive – this is the premise of IngSoc’s “Freedom is Slavery” slogan in Orwell’s 1984.

It’s taken as read that “male aggression” is problematic, but one must bear in mind that male aggression is almost exclusively about controlling others. There is very little male aggression (per se) that’s about autonomy because there are very few threats to (cis) male autonomy. One cannot talk honestly about the problem with male aggression without accepting this as an axiom.

By contrast, threats – both existential and expressed – to trans autonomy are numerous. Whether it’s pseudo-scientific cranks whose attempts to pathologise our identity take every excuse not to actually talk to any trans people, Clarkson-lite outrage journalists who concoct conspiracy theories to pretend there’s anything brave about adopting a deeply conservative anti-trans stance, or a motivated populist movement dedicated to reductive baby word-game semantic wrangling in order to undermine trans people’s legally protected rights, a number of interests are actively attempting to mandate trans people out of (at least public) existence. And that’s only in The Discourse, to say nothing of the fact that 2 in 5 trans people are victims of a hate crime every year. The fear is justified.

Once again, when (or if) we can separate it out as a moral thought exercise, I don’t think trans aggression against TERFs is “right”, and I don’t think it really does us any favours. But in practice, it is categorically not the same as male aggression, and one would have to be totally devoid of empathy not to see where it comes from. Letting fear get the better of you is not ideal, but it is also not a conscious choice, and should not be taken as an indication of anything TERFs would like it to indicate.