Attempts to define 'woman' would be hilarious if they weren't so grim. Women have been subjected to widespread abuse for finding, for example, 'people who menstruate' amusing as a synonym for 'women'. Mostly, it is sad and despairing watching this ghastly, internecine war – and it is now a war – fought in the name of women and transgender people.
The Scottish Government's definition of woman for the purposes of its Gender Representation on Public Boards Act is: 'Woman includes a person who has the protected characteristic of gender reassignment if, and only if, the person is living as a woman and is proposing to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone a process for the purpose of becoming female'. Apart from raising many questions and eyebrows, the opportunity for thoughtful and intelligent compromise was lost in the last six words of this definition.
Generally, those of us who were willing to compromise on the term 'woman' in the context of gender (not sex, to be clear) have that route blocked by the dogmatic refusal to recognise the biological reality of 'female' and its consequences for half the world's population.
Definition stretching does not improve with the defining of transphobia. There was a time when it was distressing to be labelled 'transphobic' when you knew you weren't a transphobe. So ubiquitous and overused is the accusation, it has become virtually meaningless. And because genuine transphobia does indeed exist, and can now hide in plain sight, this is tragic for transgender people.
In Scotland, rising tensions came to a head on the eve of the SNP conference last Friday when a poorly drafted 'call to action' was posted online. It requested like-minded progressives to sign, accusing feminist Joanna Cherry, MP, of transphobia. As she was seeking election to the SNP's NEC, the timing of the statement was not accidental.
Some of the more prominent signatories backtracked over the weekend under threat of legal action by Ms Cherry. Offending sentences were removed but signatories, including elected representatives, continued to claim the original was signed in good faith. The re-worked statement only served to underline the point of the original – to define transphobia in a way that would be prejudicial, and damage Joanna Cherry.
It was immediately apparent that the drafters and signatories do not understand what a legitimate definition is. Defining a problematic term is not achieved by allowing one party to dispute, to rule as illegitimate, the semantic intuitions of the other. The signatories wanted the meaning of the term 'transphobia' to render the annunciations of women defending their sex-based life experiences as transphobic by definition, presumably with the intention of silencing women who protest.
If their definition comes to pass, it will say end with the caveat 'as with any definition, it is a working definition that will change over time'. To be sure it will.
This conflict stems from the new progressives' attempt to extend the term 'woman' beyond the lexical definition of an 'adult human female', and then redefine 'transphobia' to cover anyone who doesn't accept their new definition of 'woman'. Neat.
At first glance, the reworking of 'woman' might look like an attempt at a scientific definition. But the term 'woman' – in contrast to 'female' – is not a theoretical term that shows up in scientific theories.
In science, the terms 'male' and 'female' are used when referring to sexually reproducing organisms, 'female' being reserved for the member with the large, stationary sex cells, the sex cells of the 'male' being significantly smaller and mobile. As the biologist and author Zach Elliot puts it, the biological sciences overwhelmingly support the claim that there are precisely two sexes (no more, no less) in almost all complex multicellular life.
Not a controversial claim you would've thought, but to say that 'female is a biological reality' will soon be a hate crime in Scotland, despite the failure to provide a scientific definition of woman.
If the meaning of a familiar term is vague, the philosopher Irving Copi says a precising definition may be introduced that goes beyond ordinary usage. But in such cases the makers of the definition are not free to assign any meaning they choose but must remain true to the established usage as far as it goes. Many legal decisions involve precising definitions, and arguments are used to justify such definitions by showing that the new meaning is true to the intentions of the original legislators, or because the interests of the public are served.
Proposals by the Scottish Government, activists and others are most plausibly seen as an attempt to provide a precising definition of 'woman'. But the attempt is a failure. For one, 'woman' is not a vague term. Second, it is far from clear that the proposed definition is in the public interest. It is certainly not in the interests of women. Consequently, there is no requirement for a precising definition.
In reality, attempts to define 'woman' beyond the lexical definition to fit certain agendas fail to fit any standard type of definition. In fact, they are blatant attempts to stipulate that a new meaning be attached to a long-established term in such a way as to obliterate the distinction between adult male and female human beings.
When asked what he means by 'gender identity', Humza Yousaf, the Justice Secretary, said it is as 'an individual's gender identity where this is different from their sex at birth'. As it stands, this would mean I cannot identify as a woman, which is absurd. The government seemed to have acknowledged that they have failed to define terms critical to the legislative process. Unable to provide coherent definitions, it now states that gender identities 'are not specifically defined in the Bill because it is not considered necessary for those phrases to be given any special definitions'.
Stymied, the government drops bothersome definitions completely. Last week in the Scottish Parliament, powerful speeches by MSPs marked International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women. Later that evening, the Scottish Government tweeted a call for 'everyone in Scotland to challenge violence and abuse' and so forth. The term 'women' was erased. A deliberately vacuous and provocative response to these heartfelt speeches by women, it felt like a kick in the stomach. Perhaps it was deliberate in another way – simply dropping 'women' entirely from their political lexicon will keep them from thinking too deeply and keep activists from snapping at their heels. Such is the state we are in.
Finally, this horrendous mess is deeply personal for those affected by it. For me, it's really not about toilets and changing rooms. It's about how being a woman means more to me, for example, than being Scottish. I'm sure many trans people feel the same about their identity.
But as in most wars, this conflict is a zero-sum game. Only there will be no winners, whichever side wins. As usual, the extremists shouldn't be held fully accountable. Blame lies ultimately with the generals: government, organisations and corporate businesses who having lit the fuse, sat back with their arms folded, earning without effort their precious progressive kudos and dollars.