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Distinction without a Difference: Weirdifying Anti-Trans Discourse

Conservatives like Michael Knowles have made it clear that their goal is to erase trans people from existence - with GOP laws already attempting to forcibly detransition people in the south. Jen breaks down how to dissect this anti-trans rhetoric and weirdify it.
Published:March 8, 2023

By Jennifer Mercieca

“For the good of society… transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely,” ultra-conservative Daily Wire host Michael Knowles said during his CPAC speech last week --“the whole preposterous ideology, at every level.” When news organizations critiqued his speech as “eliminationist” and fascist, he threatened to sue for libel.
Knowles specifically said “transgenderism,” not “transgender people,”--but that’s a language trick meant to provide plausible deniability for his fascist discourse. Specifically, it’s what logicians call a “distinction without a difference”— a fallacy where someone uses a distinction between two things where no real difference exists.
There can be no transgenderism without transgender people. Therefore, arguing to eradicate “transgenderism” is the same as arguing to eradicate “transgender people”—it’s a fallacy to say otherwise. Think it through: if you eradicated “feminism,” then you’d also need to eradicate “feminists”; if you eradicated “Mormonism,” then you’d also need to eradicate “Mormons.” The “-ism” is inseparable from its word stem because the “-ism” in question wouldn’t exist without the existence of the referent. And with transgenderism, the “referent” isn’t an idea or belief system or a religion, the word refers to actual people. Knowles would like to unpeople transgender people, treating them as an “ism” rather than as the actual people they are. 

This unpeopling is incredibly dangerous.
It’s incredibly dangerous because it’s another kind of fallacy too, one that’s often associated with the dangerous “eradication” of people through genocide: reification (treating people as objects). In arguing to eradicate “transgenderism” (the category) without acknowledging that transgender people exist, Knowles erases and reifies transgender people, turning them into objects (a category of thought, an “ism”). He would have us eradicate transgender people twice: once in our thoughts and words and once again in our laws and actions. Knowles’ speech and his follow-up defense amounted to a double eradication of transgender people.
According to Knowles, that was precisely his point. He claimed he was happy for the controversy over his speech because he had intended to set the agenda and frame the debate around “what does it mean to eradicate transgenderism from public life?”
But why does Knowles argue that transgender people must be “eradicated from public life”? Transgender people are not more threatening to public safety than other people. In fact, according to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, they are four times more likely to suffer violent crimes than the rest of the population. So, why are transgender people so threatening to Knowles and other conservatives?
The truth is that the very existence of transgender people is extremely inconvenient for fascists.
When Knowles uses “eliminationist” rhetoric, he’s being fascist. According to Umberto Eco’s “Ur-Fascism” (eternal fascism), fascists present life as “permanent warfare.” It’s “us” versus “them,” and they’re evil, vicious, and dangerous. One goal of fascists is to use fear appeals to coerce people into accepting a fascist worldview that is highly militaristic, masculine, and intolerant of difference. Fascist discourses seek to “normalize” fascism itself by turning fascist ways of looking at the world into the standard way of understanding reality. Fascists also seek to punish those who refuse to (or cannot) conform. Those who resist fascist normalization are especially dangerous to fascist power because they show that fascist power can be resisted.   
This “will to normalize” means that diversity of all kinds is intolerable to fascists. Eco explained that fascists attempt to create an unnatural “consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference.” Specifically, according to Eco, fascists attempt to normalize a world that values a militant masculinity—the fascist worldview is “the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality).”
Simply, in their quest to dominate a society, fascists seek to normalize gender in ways that are militantly masculine. The very existence of transgender people gives the lie to the entire project of “normal” itself and shows the fascist attempt to normalize militant masculinity is actually a farce. Knowles claims that transgender people do not exist because there can be no difference (diversity) between a person’s assigned sex at birth and their gender. But sometimes there is a difference, and fascists cannot normalize transgender people out of public life.
Transgender people resist fascist normalization just by existing, which makes them especially dangerous to fascists because their existence shows that fascist power can be resisted. Transgender people are weird, whereas fascists tell us that only normal is possible.  
A few days before his CPAC speech, Knowles specifically denied the existence of transgender people, claiming that because they don’t exist as a “real ontological category,” it wouldn’t be possible for him to threaten them with genocide. “They said I was calling for the ‘extermination of transgender people’,” Knowles said on his show. “They said I was calling for a genocide of transgender ‘people’ [he used a “scare quote” gesture to indicate that transgender people don’t exist]. “I don’t know how you could have a ‘genocide of transgender ‘people’…because ‘genocide’ refers to genes, it refers to genetics, it refers to biology, and the whole point of transgenderism is that it has nothing to do with biology…‘Transgender people’ is not a real ontological category, it’s not a legitimate category of being.”
It’s fascist to try to define, deny, and normalize who can exist, and it’s a dangerous language strategy that has historically led to violence.
For example, on the same night that Knowles gave his CPAC speech, white supremacist Nick Fuentes gave a speech at his CPAC adjacent conference across the street: “to take it a step further,” said Fuentes, referring to Knowles’ speech, “he says transgenderism is terrible, has got to go because it’s wrong and evil and wicked and harming children—well, then, in that case, feminism, gotta go too. Liberalism has gotta be eradicated…Satanism—gone! Totally gone. And, at the end of the day, you know what else has gotta go in a Christian society? [someone in the crowd yells, “democracy!”]…Talmudic Judaism!” [the crowd roars its approval]
It is all the same to Fuentes: transgenderism, feminism, liberalism, Satanism, and Judaism. All must be eradicated because they don’t fit the fascist definition of “normal.” One of those “isms” isn’t an “ism” at all--they’re people. Transgender people.