How Progressive Nonprofits Went Over the Waterfall
Today’s guest post is by Eliza Mondegreen, who witnessed from within how progressive nonprofits were seized by the ideological frenzy of a rising cohort of junior staffers deeply invested in a pseudo-politics of identitarian deference and grievance that seized the white collar workplace in the 2010’s.
Four years ago, Maya Forstater, a visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development, waded into the United Kingdom’s heated debate over proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act. When it passed in 2004, the Gender Recognition Act represented some of the strongest protections in the world for people seeking gender reassignment. But by 2018, trans activists wanted something far more radical: gender self-identity — legal recognition as a man or a woman (or both or neither) based on an individual’s say-so — enshrined in UK law.
Forstater had questions. Her attempts to facilitate a conversation about gender self-identity on Twitter set off a chain of events: the loss of her contract at the Center for Global Development, an (ultimately successful) legal challenge to protect employees’ right to dissent from the extraordinary set of beliefs about sex and gender that have proliferated across progressive organizations and institutions, the 248-character tweet that pulled J.K. Rowling into the gender maelstrom…
This week, on the eve of the employment tribunal judgment, Forstater tweeted:
I wonder, too. Like Forstater, I worked at a progressive US-based think tank. Over the past five or six years, I watched my organization turn itself inside-out. What happened? How did organizations like ours fall so swiftly and totally into the thrall of gender identity ideology?
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Thinking every issue all the way through to the end is hard. We all use shortcuts, even when we know we shouldn't. Gender identity hacked those shortcuts by capturing trusted institutions, monstering reasonable critics, and exploiting vulnerabilities in the ways nonprofits like mine operated.
When my organization set out to write a report, we tended to know what we would find before we looked. We always already knew what the funders wanted us to find, what would be politically convenient, what would let us add "now more than ever" to what we had always said. ‘Politically convenient’ is too crass, perhaps. We believed in what we were doing. We wanted our research to serve a good cause. So we made sure that it did.
Now there are areas of research where it's safe to draw basic conclusions in advance: Hunger hurts. Poverty limits. But there are risks to mixing research and advocacy. Take that working-backwards approach with gender identity, and problems magically melt away. If 'transwomen' are women, it doesn't matter if they have an advantage in sports or if they pose a risk in women's prisons.
If we want male people to be treated as female people for any or all purposes, then we can't acknowledge there are any possibly relevant differences between male and female people—even if we sound totally bonkers.
If we want to remove gatekeeping around medical transition, then detransitioners are a problem. Therefore, the finding must be that nobody or almost nobody detransitions and that nothing could have or should have prevented people from going on these enlightening 'gender journeys.'
When people like Forstater raise concerns, they find themselves demonized because they worked forward from the evidence rather than backward from the desired conclusion. You're not supposed to do that. You know not to listen to someone like Forstater because she came to the wrong conclusion. You can avoid becoming like Forstater by working backwards from the right conclusion.
Besides, when it comes to gender identity, you never know what you can say without landing yourself in hot water. So, rather than speaking thoughtfully out of the desire to be understood, you speak cautiously out of fear of the consequences. Over time, anyone with an instinct for self-preservation will find herself speaking less and less.
You're told that you don't need to understand gender identity to support trans people. In fact, you're told that you will never be able to understand it as a "cis" person. I'd have expected more of my colleagues to chafe at such orders. But most submitted. Most were happy to do so. Their self-image as progressives demanded just this form of submission.
When trans activists wrapped their cause in the language of civil rights, they sought to exempt themselves from scrutiny and debate. It’s hard to imagine a more effective way to shut down inquiry among self-identified progressives and progressive organizations. Anyone who resisted or even asked basic questions risked being cast in the background of this image:
Even the most apologetically stated concerns or reservations—about males in women’s prisons, women’s sports, and women’s refuges, about the effects of overwriting sex in the law—were instantly dismissed as the bigoted ravings of a privileged mob. The real conflict between sex-based rights and demands couched in an inner sense of gender identity got buried. Trans activists taunted progressives: who wants to end up on the wrong side of history?
Challenging the trans narrative requires direct confrontation — and that’s hard. At every turn, you're urged to ‘just’ be kind. You're told inclusion doesn't cost you anything. You’re told you just don’t get it. And besides, you don’t want to end up getting the Maya Forstater treatment, do you?
In this climate, I watched my organization radicalize, righteously. Ideas no one would have entertained five years ago were elevated to doctrine. The focus on ‘inclusion’ unseated real-world action. We shifted from carving out small material gains to taking on immense systems of oppression—strictly rhetorically, of course. We went from advocating for victims of domestic violence to be able to break leases and phone contracts to preaching about how domestic violence organizations could be more supportive of LGBTQIA2S+ staff, who might find the gendered nature of their work triggering. In other words: less doing, more talking. And, of course, we could no longer talk straightforwardly about sex.
A strange sort of arms race kicked off, where whoever could brainstorm the most byzantine ways someone could feel marginalized or excluded by anything we wrote or said—or (decreasingly) did—won by demonstrating a superior sensitivity. The belief that making something more complicated meant you’d contributed predated the identity panic. But doing so took on a new moral urgency. Action alerts that deployed phrases like “stand up for ___” sparked outcry from junior staffers on the harms of ableism. (“It’s a metaphor. Did you stand up when you read the email?” didn’t go over well.) The cause got lost.
And let’s talk about those junior staffers, my fellow Millennials. One young woman with two sets of pronouns in her email signature exhorted us in all-staff emails to vary the pronouns we used for her to reflect the full spectrum of her ever-fluctuating gender identity. She bombarded us with ‘helpful suggestions’ that read like rejected submissions to Everyday Feminism: Don’t say ‘tone-deaf. Don’t assume anyone’s gender identity but do notice it’s a ‘they’ day when she stomps into work in Doc Martens. Do say ‘women and femmes.’ Do consider slipping in a few words about how actually ‘sex work’ is empowering into a statement about a shooting spree. She couldn’t understand disagreement as anything but the product of regrettable but correctable ignorance. She couldn’t accept the possibility that someone could understand her perfectly and yet go another way. And she wasn’t alone in that.
Directors—newly insecure in the authority they wielded—liked to talk about ‘sharing power’ with younger staff. But in practice, ‘sharing power’ usually meant ‘handing off independent judgment.’ If the demands younger staffers issued didn’t make any sense, directors took it as a sign of just how out of touch they were, how little they understood: they hoped no one would ever uncover this perilous ignorance.
My sense is that these women at the top of the organization wanted to stay relevant in this world that had meant so much to them, to which they had given so much of their lives, a world in which the ground had become strangely unsteady. When I tried to push back on nonsensical demands, I got nowhere. What I said couldn't pass to knowledge or questions or even thought. Every conversation we had about gender felt like the first time the subject had ever been broached, even when it was the tenth such conversation. Every conversation had a slipperiness to it, like trying to have a serious conversation with someone who is playing a video game. I watched colleagues who surely knew better avoid inconvenient knowledge. How convenient it is to only know convenient things!
Meanwhile, our commitment to building bipartisan support for our policy priorities collapsed: purity, not efficacy, was the order of the day. When we alienated former allies by insisting they subscribe to radical new beliefs about power and identity, 'we' took it as a sign that we were Doing the Right Thing®. (It’s remarkable when you think about it: we're alienating people we once worked with to achieve real-world gains so we must be on the right track!) As we shed experienced staff, 'we' talked about upping our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Not everyone was fit for such a mission.
Ultimately, I wasn't fit for such a mission either. I wasn't permitted to have genuine concerns about where we were headed and whether that was a desirable place to go. I wasn't allowed to have different (liberal) values. I was just wrong. Either I hadn’t educated myself or I hadn’t educated myself the right way.
I wasn't cut out for the vital work of bending the future. So I left. And with every person like Maya Forstater or me who leaves, the space for dissent and disagreement shrinks.
After all, what is there to disagree about? Lives are at stake, right? Either we agree, in which case there's nothing to talk about, or we disagree, in which case there's nothing to talk about. That's where so many progressive people and progressive organizations land these days.
Disagreement has become a dirty word, which means that dialogue has become a dirty word. The presumption of good faith has collapsed. People at think tanks fear thinking out loud. Working backwards is easier. You always end up in the ‘right’ place.