The Power of the Senseless

On the Scrubbing of Public Memory 

Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor's New Clothes tells the tale of a ruler who is unconcerned with the reigning of his kingdom—he did not care much about attending the theatre nor making any public appearances unless, of course, he was able to flaunt his latest clothes. That is until one day when two swindlers came to town and tricked the emperor successfully convincing him that they were weavers who could spin him the most beautiful cloth he had ever before seen in his life. These swindlers claimed, “Not only were the colours and the patterns of their material extraordinarily beautiful, but the cloth had the strange quality of being invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office or unforgivably stupid.” It was perfect, of course, for the emperor whose intelligence would not only allow him to see quite perfectly the beauty of the cloth before him but which would also allow him to choose his councillors wisely as he would discard any of them who were unable to perceive the magnificent beauty before their eyes. 

The emperor then bought these fraudsters the most expensive materials of silk and gold and a loom with which to make the clothes. The swindlers kept the materials for themselves and pretended to make the garments from the empty loom. First, the emperor sent his faithful prime minister to check up on the “weavers” who doubted his eyesight as he found an empty loom. He thought to himself, “Am I stupid?” wondering if he was fit for his office. In a choice between his trust of his eyesight or his desire to keep his position, the prime minister quickly came around stating, “It is beautiful. It is very lovely...What patterns! What colours! I shall tell the emperor that I am greatly pleased.” And each of the councillors the emperor sent thereafter had a similar reaction—at first doubting their sanity and then realising that if they did not concede the beauty of the cloth being spun that they risked losing their position. Soon, all those close to the emperor had announced their sighting of a magnificent cloth that in fact was non-existent.

When it finally came time for the emperor to view the completed cloth, the fraudsters and everyone around the emperor informed him how beautiful the cloth was. The prime minister exclaims, “Isn't it magnifique?” However, the emperor had a similar crisis to that of all those he had sent before to check up on the cloth: he saw nothing. He thought to himself, “I can't see a thing! Why this is a disaster! Am I stupid? Am I unfit to be emperor? Oh, it is too horrible!” However, like his officials who realised that their credibility and good-judgment lay in the balance, the emperor capitulates to his officials’ claims and announced the glorious artistry of a cloth that did not, in fact, exist at all. “It is lovely,” exclaims the emperor. After paying the thieves handsomely for their good work, the emperor decides to have the cloth cut and sewn and, in celebration of his new clothes, he has a parade. As he marches down the streets in sheer nudity, everyone in the kingdom is awed by the beauty of his clothes and shares in his delight and belief of the lie. That is until a young child sees that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes at all and the rest of the kingdom slowly begins to realise the same.

This well-known fairy tale serves as an allegory for political ideology that a government can impose upon its citizens, that a well-funded interest group can as well—that of false consciousness. In his essay, The Power of the Powerless (1978), Václav Havel explores what he calls the post-totalitarian regime in Czechoslovakia wherein he reveals an ideology of false consciousness that is strikingly similar to the political consciousness of Andersen’s fairy tale. Havel uses the analogy of a greengrocer who displays in his storefront window the party slogan which reads “Workers of the World, Unite!” Just as the emperor's clothes are a production of artistic sleight of hand and cunning trickery, for Havel so too is the party literature, the slogan of the green grocer. The manoeuvre of an invisible cloth or a state-mandated slogan in both cases becomes the vehicle through which ideology surfaces and inscribes itself upon the masses whereby, as Havel writes, the citizens “confirm the system, fulfil the system, make the system, are the system.”

Havel’s essay is quite critical of political ideology calling it an “almost secularised religion” which maintains its force by offering the wandering masses a “home” that immediately grants the believer a life full of new meaning:

Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves. It is a very pragmatic but, at the same time, an apparently dignified way of legitimising what is above, below, and on either side. 

Havel goes on to assert that ideology feeds a systemic drive that creates a “world of appearances trying to pass for reality” where the post-totalitarian system “touches people at every step, but it does so with its ideological gloves on.” 

Havel’s essay is not only a damning summation of the ideological rituals common within Czechoslovakia, Poland and other Communist regimes of the era, but it eerily portrays much of what is happening in the west today fifty years later. With samizdat, a form of dissident activity across the former Eastern bloc nations long ago retired, we have laid witness in recent years to its unofficial rebirth among many critics of gender ideology. For those who have pushed back against the onslaught of gender ideology that has permeated the neoliberal left over the past twenty years, many critics of this era’s embrace of identity politics who refuse to be silenced have either taken to social media or they have published blog posts under assumed names. Due to the mounting authoritarianism from the left on this subject whereby individuals have faced losing income, being fired from their positions entirely, or being socially and politically ostracised, the protest to the official narratives of gender ideology has been emanating from unofficial spaces. 

Twitter and Facebook have been the two primary social media spaces where feminists and trans ideologues alike have created secret groups in an attempt to strategise, dialogue, and establish actions. It would be an understatement to state that the wave has not only turned in the favour of these feminists, but COVID-19 has assisted the many who previously doubted the importance of material reality, to understand the difference between identity as feeling and the somatic reality of male versus female, a virus versus a unicorn. I have been in many of the gender-critical groups that are composed of only women, only radical feminists, only leftists, and myriad other variations on a theme. Where women and men from the left have joined forces to fight what they perceive as an ideological backwater of men’s rights activism, this fourth wave of feminism has teeth and it is speaking clearly to what resoundingly appears to be a religious ideology of gender.

Now that the NHS and the BBC have radically transformed their websites in recent weeks to update the information on gender dysphoria to include mentioning childhood desistance and ROGD (rapid-onset gender dysphoria), there is now a mass wiping of servers of these and other institutions of all references to Mermaids, a UK-based lobby group and NGO that has long identified its constituency as “transgender children” and their parents. And Mermaids is no outlier in the industry that seeks the expansion of childhood medical “gender transition” as it has consistently encouraged policy changes within the British government and its agencies to effect the quickest possible transition times of the highest number of children with the fewest safeguards in place. In 2018, Mermaids received £500,000 in lottery funding to this end.

So how is it that in less than two years, Mermaids has gone from being the star charity ostensibly championing the rights of children to now being silently removed from the BBC and NHS websites in their information and support sections as all the claims that puberty blockers such as Lupron are “reversible” have also disappeared? More importantly, why is it now commonplace in recent weeks that the media and public figures as well as private and public institutions have in stealth removed mention of Mermaids and the cheerleading of “childhood transition” from their accounts or servers as if a damnatio memoriae rivalling China’s removal of Zhao Ziyang from most every public record available in China?

Last year British actor, Jameela Jamil, participated in a video in support of both sic “trans kids” and Mermaids. Yet, in the same time frame that the NHS and BBC servers were wiped clean of any reference to Mermaids with data amended that exaggerated suicide information or that omitted childhood desistance, Jamil has curiously wiped clean her many Twitter posts referring to Mermaids. While Jamil claims she deleted her history to “become a more activism focused account that I can lend to other activists and charities,” many activists have answered Jamil on Twitter noting the non-coincidence of her and British comedian Josie Long having both dumped their Twitter feed within hours of one another, to include the many tweets in support of both Mermaids and the lifetime medicalisation of mostly gay and lesbian children’s bodies. 

On the other side of this debate, you have trans activists like Katy Montgomerie who are soliciting screenshots of gender-critical people who have “bought this latest Mermaids conspiracy theory” as he calls it. One of the tweets sent to Montgomerie as “proof” of wrong-think was that of fellow-writer, Suzanne Moore, who tweeted this past week: “I see all you celebs deleting your tweets that supported the charity Mermaids? Wonder why you are doing that.” Now that Montgomerie is invested in collecting evidence of women’s words on social media (as if their clearly visible tweets were not enough), the pushback to gender-critical voices has become patently absurd, especially since feminists have been pointing out the sexism and homophobia inherent within transgender ideology for years. Next up, Montgomerie or another trans-identified male will claim that gender critics are right-wing, religious bigots because they questioned the sexism and homophobia of Mermaids which in turn made it impossible for them to question the sexism and homophobia of Mermaids. This is pretty much the cycle these online debates take in the vein of “on the wrong side of history” debates that pervade social media.

Content aside, what should trouble us all is that media of public and private institutions and individuals on social media is being scrubbed of history. As Havel’s essay shows us that the greengrocer’s shop slogan is divorced from what the slogan actually says, the true meaning of the social act of proclaiming allegiance to an ideology is quite clear and comprehensible because the code is so familiar: 

The greengrocer declares his loyalty (and he can do no other if his declaration is to be accepted) in the only way the regime is capable of hearing; that is, by accepting the prescribed ritual, by accepting appearances as reality, by accepting the given rules of the game. In doing so, however, he has himself become a player in the game, thus making it possible for the game to go on, for it to exist in the first place.

Today, here we are in the midst of a tide-turning moment where transgender ideology is being rejected en masse by gay and straight people, men and women alike. Meanwhile, the public institutions which have for years codified the social signs, sponsored the "gender identity" training, crafted the woke lessons transmitted by the BBC and the NHS permeating all arenas of media and public health, in addition to the cast of Harry Potter chiming in with their endless support for “trans people” through Twitter and other media outlets, and we have been handed the perfect storm exemplifying exactly how we got here in the first place. Of course, political ideology is a powerful tool when it leaves no oxygen in the room for anything else. Such an authoritarian narrative creates the subterfuge to the very ideology all these bodies and individuals espouse. 

For those like British journalist Owen Jones who declared in 2015 that all critics of transgender ideology were on “the wrong side of history,” we must be more circumspect in how we approach ideologues who ought to be covering the news instead of participating in it. While gender has wider implications beyond its very narrow media representation, the political backwater of how the media influences public policy, politics and even law is unparalleled today. We need to learn from Havel’s historical example of what happens when we allow ourselves to become the greengrocer who unthinkingly parrots slogans that have neither any base in reason nor any resonance within our society. The repression of artists, poets, thinkers and politicians in the former Eastern bloc countries has been well documented. So too have the attempts to purge antagonistic articulations about gender from the “party line” been noted in recent years across various anglophone countries.

Now that the gender narrative is falling apart quickly, many of its proponents are running for cover skipping over to the very side they previously denounced as “wrong.” Of course, these individuals will happily prefer their slogans be forgotten, to have their tweets removed and their websites altered from public record. “All traces of totalitarian influence, dissidents confirm, define, adopt, and integrate the methods of totalitarianism within their own structure building their 'truth' on its negation,” Havel reminds us.

Let’s now remind these political actors of the dangers that occur when espousing ideological hogwash as human rights. More importantly, let us now learn from this lesson of this dangerous era of public tyranny and return to the drawing board to continue that discussion about historical materialism and its significance today.