In this conversation with RevDem editor Ferenc Laczó, Eszter Kováts dissects the main anti-gender frames currently employed; discusses the potential interactions between progressive and right-wing conceptualizations and mobilizations around gender-related issues; illuminates the conclusions she has drawn from her comparison of the discourse coalitions around AfD in Germany and Fidesz in Hungary; and reflects on how social scientific research and normative claims relate to each other – and where the borders of democratically legitimate practices are.
Eszter Kováts, PhD, is a political scientist and analyst. She is currently a non-resident associate fellow at the Illiberal Studies Program (George Washington University) and an associate fellow of the De-/Re-Democratization group of the CEU’s Democracy Institute. Eszter Kováts’s research focuses on the enemy image of “gender ideology” in the global context of the political Right but also in connection with developments in progressive politics. Her first book Genderőrületek Németországban és Magyarországon (Gender Madnesses in Germany and Hungary) is published in Napvilág Kiadó’s series devoted to social theory.
Ferenc Laczó: I wished to begin our conversation with a question concerning semantics. Two very basic terms in your research seem to be gender and anti-gender. Both are contested terms that have multiple meanings, so could we start by clarifying what the various meanings of these two terms currently are? In connection with that, since people discuss such varied things using these two key concepts and often do so in such polemical ways, I was wondering whether you think the terms gender and anti-gender refer to rather distinct phenomena that deserve to be treated separately, or whether these two umbrella terms denote closely interrelated phenomena?
Eszter Kováts: There is indeed a lot of confusion around these terms and so I have to start with what I mean by them. One of the points that I discuss in the book is that the confusion around these terms is one of the reasons why right-wing forces can mobilize around them. Without intending to disentangle decades-long debates in gender studies about what gender is or should be, let me say that I am interested in how these terms are used in politics and in policy. I start with looking at the progressive side – those who use the term gender to fight for certain emancipatory causes.
In the policy realm and in public usage, the term gender means various things. In the English-speaking countries, the word is often simply used as a synonym for biological sex – sometimes they even speak of “biological gender,” or if they say that “there are two genders,” they very often simply mean that there are two sexes. Then there is the rather old, let’s say classic feminist usage of the term, which refers to the construction of the societal expectations towards male-born and female-born persons, towards men and women. The feminist critique is about this construction being hierarchical: it elevates men over women and organizes all of society along this hierarchy. And in recent years, the term is used more and more to refer to the felt sense of gender identity as in “I identify as male” or “I identify as female.” My gender identity would then be my gender.
My point is that there is a plurality of meaning and there is also a shift from a more structural understanding of gender towards a more individualistic or queer understanding. This is what the right-wingers can use and abuse to pursue their goals.
It’s not simply because people are ignorant and misled that they fall into the trap of the Right. They tend to see that there is something complicated going on and think that there is something problematic about the use of the term gender.
Concerning the term anti-gender, it is also complicated. First, certain right-wing actors use it for their own purposes. Most recently, Balázs Orbán, the political director of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, said in a public debate that what they are pursuing is “a conservative gender politics, an anti-gender politics”. However, for us in the social sciences, even though the right-wing usage is one of the reasons that many prefer to avoid it, anti-gender is basically an analytical term.
In the last ten years or so, there is a body of scholarship that has been developed to describe how the religious or political Right has been mobilizing against what they call gender theory, gender ideology, gender madness, genderism, etc. The term gender itself has become politicized and researchers want to understand why this has happened.
Notwithstanding all the potential pitfalls, e.g. seeming to imply that there are two camps, the pro-gender and the anti-gender, I like the term anti-gender since it emphasizes that there is something new about the phenomenon. In the German context, this phenomenon, the right-wing antagonizing and politicizing of the term gender is often described as a new form of anti-feminism, which I think misinterprets the phenomenon –mobilization against the term can be called anti-feminism only if you think that queer feminism qualifies as the feminism.
In the academic literature, anti-gender is used to describe the mobilization against various issues that the Right associates with gender. These are partly things that have been around for a long time, but which are now reframed around the term gender. For instance, the question of reproductive rights now gets subsumed under “gender ideology”. Other things are new, like attacking gender studies or attacking various LGBT claims – from same-sex marriage through adoption by same-sex couples to trans and queer claims. In the German-speaking countries, gender mainstreaming – the rather boring technocratic policy instrument that wants to mainstream the idea that equality between men and women should be considered at all levels of policymaking – has also been included as a target of such attacks for more than a decade. Right-wingers now often say, “this package constitutes gender ideology, and it is this package that we have to oppose.”
How the two terms, gender and anti-gender are related to each other is an important and interesting question. I would say there are basically three ways of conceptualizing that relationship.
One is that they are independent: We shouldn’t relate them very directly because that would mean falling into the trap of the Right which is fighting an imaginary enemy. The two can be treated as independent when we say – like I have in one of my previous co-authored essays with Andrea Pető and Weronika Grzebalska – that gender is a symbolic glue. That is to say that there is something which goes beyond the content of gender and symbolizes a lot of issues present on the so-called progressive left and liberal side – gender may symbolize the crises of representation, the failure to properly address material issues in the past, the human rights language, the statistical technocratic language, etc. All these diverse things can be critiqued through the term gender, but these attacks have little or even nothing at all to do with the actual content of the concept. Other things can also serve as symbolic glues, for instance, the terms migrant and migration have functioned like such symbolic glues in the Hungarian context. The talk around these concepts tends to have little to do with migration policy, the discussion is rather about the EU, a key aim is to construct an us-versus-them dynamic.
A second way to relate the terms gender and anti-gender is what we might call the classic position of feminist and LGBT research: the Right is attacking the term gender because it wants to attack its critical content, its ability to debunk patriarchal relations and heteronormative structures. The idea here is that there was progress towards more women’s and LGBT rights, and now there is a conservative backlash against such changes.
The third approach is to admit that the attacks against gender ideology from the Right are related to the concept of gender; but they are related to more recent developments, to what has been happening around the term in the recent years, related to the post-structuralist understanding spreading outside academia and influencing policymaking, related to trans and queer claims having become mainstream, at least in Western countries.
It looks to me like the largest part of the literature starts from the second point, namely that anti-gender today is a new language to express anti-feminist and homophobic ideas – old wine in a new bottle. Such arguments tend to forget the broader context, tend to forget that building up an enemy image is not so much about the content of that enemy image. It’s more about looking for something which helps electoral mobilization and helps to disqualify the opposition.
Such enemy images can help the short-term political goals of political parties but also their more long-term goal of hegemony building.
What is not really addressed in the scholarly literature, or rather it is studied elsewhere but not in anti-gender research, is how the right-wing opposition to gender might be related to real changes in the usage of the gender concept, a change in emphasis within progressive movements, the rise of new politics in terms of trans and queer understandings of the term, and how we should speak about women’s rights or LGBT rights.
It seems to me that the empirical core of your research is the nuanced study of four frames, which you call the frame focused on supposed attempts to blur the distinction between the sexes, the frame that labels gender an ideological construct, the oppression frame, and – fourth – the crisis frame. Could you briefly describe these four frames and discuss what your research has revealed about them?
To understand how the Right in both countries – in Hungary from its governing position and in Germany from the opposition – became involved and the main actor in mobilizing against the term gender, I found it very important to study the frames in the context of political processes and in terms of discursive opportunity structures. Unlike some previous scholars, I am not only interested in how the Right is constructing the threatening image of gender ideology and how to debunk that construction, or how to expose the power relations within their discourse, I am also asking very basic questions about what real occurrences they are pointing to, and whether they have a valid point or not. I’m using the work of scholars of social movements in particular, such as classic works by Robert Benford and David Snow. I am referencing Polish sociologist Marta Rawłuszko prominently who did a great empirical analysis and published an article with the provocative title “And if the opponents of gender ideology are right?” She wanted to explore the empirical credibility of the right-wing frames, to see what they may point to in the real world through their various claims.
I am analyzing the four frames in the two countries – and when I say countries or their Right, I do not only mean the parties Fidesz and AfD, but the discourse coalitions around them that mobilize against the term gender: all the intellectual networks of what we may call the New Right, including the government-loyal media in Hungary, the so-called GONGOs, the intellectuals who are invested in these debates, etc.
What is at the core of much right-wing anti-gender discourse is the claim that gender ideology is blurring the distinction between the sexes.
I try to describe it through the concept of “calculated ambiguity” which was developed by the Austrian linguist Ruth Wodak who has analyzed right-wing populist discourses and says that they consciously play with formulating radical, exclusionary statements but in a way that they can address different audiences. If they are then accused of having said something too radical, they can always say that they are being misunderstood and the statement was not meant like that.
When right-wingers say the genderists want to blur the distinction between the sexes, this can speak to different audiences. They can speak to and for those for whom the loosening of what they think of as traditional gender roles for men and women is already too much. The heterosexuality-homosexuality question can also be addressed by that discourse – this works for people who would say things like “everyone can do whatever they please between the four walls, but homosexuality is not normal.” And then there is a third group, people for whom the strengths of queer claims appear to be too much.
There is a lot of data in my analysis where it is hard to tell what the right-wing formulations are referring to – for instance, when they speak about the traditional family, sometimes they mean the male breadwinner and female caretaker model, sometimes that children should have a mother and a father and not be raised by a gay or lesbian couple, for instance, but might also imply that the married parents shouldn’t switch genders. Right-wingers consciously maintain this imprecision.
Now comparing these right-wing claims with real developments on the progressive side, in recent years in the queer, feminist or LGBT activist milieu the idea has been powerfully expressed that your felt gender identity is most important in determining your gender or sex – dependent on what we mean by the latter terms, of course. Basically, in the most radical formulation of the thesis, these identities are supposed to be independent from bodily realities. In other words, they treat the classification into male and female bodies as arbitrary, which is expressed, for example, in the currency of the term “male assigned at birth”. Right-wingers can point to these developments to say that the other side is attacking something which is really threatening our order.
The second frame I tried to analyze in the anti-gender discourse on the Right was framing gender as an ideology. Curiously, I haven’t been able to identify any text in Germany or Hungary which would provide a systematic analysis of ideology in this context. It seems anti-gender right-wingers just use the term ideology to imply a very basic meaning like false knowledge, manipulation, or a lie – when they say gender ideology, they mean these things without referring to the abundant literature of ideology critique. For instance, the feminist ideology critique debunks how certain ideologies uphold unjust social structures, for example saying that there is a female motherly nature, and this provides a justification for why men should not be involved in childcare or elderly care or why the state should have nothing to do with organizing these activities.
So, I ended up restricting my analysis to a more positivistic notion, trying to stick to questions like whether value judgments are at times presented as facts or how value judgements (like respecting every person’s dignity or identity) relate to and may contradict observable facts. What I have found is that gender identity theory – and I know this is a very controversial statement in many of the Western parts of the world these days – can be qualified as an ideology in this sense of the term ideology. Certain actors make ontological claims which treat the self as a fixed thing and the body as something easily changeable but there is no scientific proof so far that something is in the brain or elsewhere that we may label gender identity. The existence of intersex people is not a proof that sex is a spectrum either.
Also, you cannot change the societal expectations towards the people of your sex just by identifying out of it. To claim otherwise is very radical compared to anti-discrimination and anti-violence claims and other such legitimate claims by trans people.
The third frame is gender as oppression. This is the title I gave to something that is very present in the German and Hungarian empirical data I used – even if my point is obviously not to legitimize those right-wing interpretations. The standard idea of anti-gender actors is that gender ideology is “something they are trying to impose on us from the outside; it is not derived from our national culture, it is coming from the EU, from the US, from the West. We are the oppressed underdogs” – which is a somewhat amusing statement coming from a party that has been governing with a constitutional majority for over a decade, like the one in Hungary. However, they still present themselves as the victims of a very powerful lobby. While they criticize the victim narratives on the left, they are basically trying to appropriate those narratives for their own purposes.
I used the critical literature to understand such statements and published an article in English about this chapter under the title “Anti-gender Politics in East-Central Europe: Right-wing Defiance to West-Eurocentrism.” There are two streams of literature that had not been connected to each other and I try to do precisely that without inventing anything much beyond making this connection. We have decades of post-colonial and world system analyses on the post-communist region and that also goes for gender studies, for gender politics, and for feminist and LGBT activism, which argues how these scholarly approaches or activist claims have been embedded in the very hierarchical East-West relations in the context of EU accession, in the context of donor dependence, or in the context of determining research agendas in the social sciences, including in gender studies. This unequal power relationship has been amply documented in fields beyond gender studies too, of course.
In the case of gender, when Fidesz-related circles or members of the AfD are saying that Brussels is imposing something on us, they are using sentiments present in these societies, feelings of being treated as second-class Europeans who need to comply with how the EU frames issues, comply with “the right way to be European” as defined by others, practices which “we, Eastern Europeans” are fed up with.
This is something that Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes greatly emphasize in their book on the imitation imperative The Light That Failed, which was recently widely discussed in Western academia and among Western publics. This can also be observed in the gender context. Women’s rights movements and LGBT movements are obviously not imported from the West, they can look back over centuries of history, but the right-wingers are pretending that it all arrived after 1989-90 due to certain donors and has nothing to do with local national culture.
I should add that there is a difference between Germany and Hungary in this regard. I was expecting a more pronounced East German–West German division around this question, just as there is between Hungary and Western Europe at the moment, but such a division was much less present than I had expected. This, of course, might be connected to the fact that the AfD aims to be a national party and therefore cannot articulate East German grievances too strongly, despite being more popular in the Länder of the former GDR – they prefer to blame the US or the EU but not the West Germans even as they are trying to politicize Eastern Germanness.
The fourth, last frame is gender as crisis. This is a framing connected to anxieties. It states that there is a threat and an urgency to act; it is a mobilizing frame. In Hungary, the urgency is highlighted aiming to legitimize the use of radical methods, including anti-democratic and stigmatizing practices. A key difference between Germany and Hungary is where these things take place which the Right is opposing.
Whereas in Germany right-wingers are opposing German legislative proposals – opposing the imminent crisis of “green left hegemony”, as the intellectuals of the German New Right like to frame it – in Hungary, government propaganda has been pointing to US-American, British, and German developments, so theirs is more of a preventive act. It is more about trying to stop Western phenomena before they reach Hungary.
Your study is a comparative one: it compares right-wing populist or far right parties, the AfD in Germany and Fidesz in Hungary. You show that there are many similarities between the two in terms of their anti-gender discourses and mobilization, and that they are practically identical in certain respects. You also note that the AfD at times appears more liberal than Fidesz and that it responds to actual initiatives within Germany whereas Fidesz’s discourses and mobilization target foreign and sometimes imaginary threats. May I ask what main conclusions you have drawn from the comparison? What are the main things we find out about the anti-gender discourses and mobilization of AfD and Fidesz when we compare them which we would not have known without having conducted such a comparison?
It may not be an obvious choice to pick these two parties and their discourse coalitions for such a comparison. Fidesz has to some extent succeeded at presenting itself as a national conservative party. It was a member of the EPP till 2021 and sustained a good relationship with Angela Merkel. To someone like me who has followed the Hungarian and German discourses for quite some time, it was evident that Fidesz and AfD are not that different and would deserve to be compared systematically.
I will publish my book in Hungarian and the debate about the Orbán regime is a very heated one.
There is a lot of effort in the public sphere to label everything and everyone pro or anti Orbán. That was one of the reasons why I thought that making a comparison could be helpful as it could foster reflections along different lines which cannot be reduced to how we categorize and judge the current regime.
The fact that the Orbán regime is constantly emphasizing how the West is decaying also made me rather curious to look at what is going on in the West, and whether their discourses are connected to anything that is actually going on.
In terms of the results of this comparison, I would like to highlight three examples. The most significant similarity concerns how they use “gender” in their hegemony building projects. They have a very similar understanding of politics, putting great emphasis on language politics and on the role of establishing consent in society.
A so-called child protection referendum was held in Hungary on April 3, on the same day as the national elections. The opposition and LGBT organizations were cheering the fact that the referendum turned out to be invalid because fewer than half of those eligible turned up to vote. What I completely missed from the opposition reflections was that many more people voted for the Fidesz option in the referendum questions which targeted sexual and gender minorities than the numbers who voted for Fidesz in the elections – some three million voted for the party list but 3.6-3.7 million were in favor of the options the party provided in the referendum. Regime ideologues highlighted that the child protection referendum has revealed how their hegemony could be developed further. In my view, this should be taken seriously.
There is something similar in the German context: there is the idea that opposing the so-called gender ideology can build bridges to the center, I’m not saying anything new by pointing to this as it has been discussed already.
However, the explanations given by scholars tend to refer to the supposedly medieval and backward anti-egalitarian attitudes that the Right instrumentalizes. Such an interpretation is clearly insufficient. At the same time, the observation that the topic of “gender ideology” can help them reach beyond their usual voting base appears to be true in both countries.
The second important finding in this regard is that they constitute the discursive opportunity structures for each other. Fidesz can stigmatize minorities and the Hungarian opposition by pointing to developments in the West by arguing that the West is in decline and that we need to save our civilization and our children – what is supposedly happening in the West is used as an argument for the politics of Orbán, and against the opposition that would, in their framing, implement even the craziest gender policy if they came to power.
In Germany, the AfD uses Hungary as a positive example, saying that there is already a country which pursues the right kind of politics and implements the right kind of laws. In their eyes, the politics of the Hungarian government provides a proof that “there is an alternative”. The German New Right eagerly watches what is happening in the country. They were very receptive to the de-accreditation of gender studies master programs and said how great it was that the Hungarian governing parties put into the Constitution that “the mother is a woman, the father is a man.” They were also very much in favor of the so-called child protection law which bans sexual education about LGBT issues.
Third, this might sound like a sharp statement, but in certain things AfD appears more liberal than Fidesz. If you follow the Hungarian anti-gender discourse, you often cannot decide whether it is homophobic or transphobic.
A teenager discovering his or her homosexual orientation is framed in Hungary as just as bad as discovering you are transgender. They also present homosexuality as the result of peer pressure or of media influence.
What I found in the parliamentary debates held in the German Bundestag in terms of how the AfD frames their opposition to same-sex marriage and transgender conversion therapy is that they are not against various sexual orientations or homosexuality as such, but against certain laws and certain trans issues. Having a lesbian group leader in the Parliament in the person of Alice Weidel implies that this is an image that they want to project.
I think that if we frame everything which is against LGBT claims as homophobic, from marriage to transgender issues, then we overlook certain tendencies and nuances. The comparison between the Hungarian and German Right can help us make relevant distinctions.
Let us also discuss what might make these negative or even highly negative ways of framing gender credible to certain layers of society in Hungary and in Germany. One of the aims of your book is to try and explain why the category of gender can serve as a target – why it is a category against which political actors can mobilize and have mobilized with some success. In this context, you critique previous approaches, not least in gender studies, which have tended to neglect the issue of persuasiveness, often because their primary aim has been to provide a more normatively loaded critique of anti-gender mobilization. You underline that understanding anti-gender mobilization requires us to look at the progressive pro-gender side as well, and it requires us to study the interactions between the two sides. You also emphasize that the connections between material and discursive realities ought to be taken seriously. What main conclusions would you draw concerning such interactions and such connections?
I must admit that I had a lot of unease confronting a large part of the literature trying to explain the anti-gender phenomenon. I could use a lot of the empirical research of others but some of them draw overarching conclusions which is just not backed up by their empirical data – or their claims are very normatively loaded whereas the sociological analyses they provide are often reduced to social psychology.
I am skeptical towards attitude research which aims to confirm something it assumes to know, like the presence of anti-egalitarian attitudes. The framing of the survey questions can already be loaded in such cases. For instance, if you don’t think that women are still oppressed, then you are a sexist or an anti-feminist. This is not axiomatic, such a view could be interpreted in various ways. I am also skeptical when the demand side for such movements or parties and their claims are left out or reduced to the supply side – in the Hungarian context often to brainwashing. The argument goes as follows: state propaganda has a lot of resources to frame things, so if people think “gender” is a bad thing, it means that state propaganda has been successful in convincing people of the narrative it has propagated. A normative bias can obviously follow because the researchers themselves are implicated in these stories.
Gender studies scholars have been exposed to ad hominem attacks which question their personal integrity and put them on the defensive. A normative bias in such a situation is perfectly understandable but may lead to ignorance of the political process – even if gender studies is just a collateral damage in broader processes.
In my view, the political fight in the Hungarian case was not really about the content of gender studies;attacking gender studies just meant an easy victory for the government, an issue where there won’t be huge protests on the street, and which they can also frame through their narrative of fighting “Brussels” and the West. They probably expected the very strong and often emotional reactions by European politicians and members of the Hungarian liberal intelligentsia, which they could then use to back up their own narrative even further. Such attacks do not mean that the Hungarian government were really interested in the contents of gender studies programs, which in fact used to be more about male–female societal relations and not so much about queer issues.
I should state that I do not offer an encompassing sociological analysis in my book, nor do I provide analyses of political economy – through which others have shown that Orbán’s freedom fight is hypocritical, and his actual policies cater to the interests of German and West European capital. I am a political scientist, and I didn’t have access to the research tools that could really explain why people fall for the right-wing narrative concerning the threat posed by “gender ideology”.
Orbán stated in a recent speech, which has received a lot of international attention, that Hungarians should not be fooled by inflation, by the ongoing war, and other such current events since the real questions remain demography, migration, and gender. The Prime Minister basically wants to return people’s attention to the questions where he can easily polarize and propose the us-versus-them narrative which is very important for his manner of doing politics.
In short, if we include in our analysis what has been happening in progressive activism and what has become part of the mainstream in terms of LGBT-related policymaking and relate the Hungarian case to other cases through the study of cultural questions, it becomes easy to see how the Hungarian regime reacts to ongoing international developments to propose what they prefer to depict as their Hungarian interpretation of these questions. It can greatly help us understand what they are doing if we situate them within international political trends.
You underline how important it is to distinguish between criticism and defamation, criticisms and defamations of agendas related to gender as well as criticisms and defamations of anti-gender agendas. Where would you draw the line between the two? Where might be the border between the democratic – and therefore legitimate – and the antidemocratic, exclusionary components of anti-gender mobilization?
Criticism and defamation are often treated as similarly problematic. If you are opposing something that is part of the progressive catalog right now, then you are very quickly labeled as anti-democratic.
In much of the scholarly literature and activist practice – and academics and activists often belong to closely related milieus –, all the arguments that are opposed to women’s rights, or to some LGBT claims, tend to get framed as anti-democratic because they are anti-egalitarian. In other words, some people like to present themselves as the judges of what counts as egalitarian and democratic. In my view, this is a way to inflate terms; I rather wanted to disentangle these complexities.
At least in this sense, I follow Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau who say that conflict is not an anomaly in democracies but a prerequisite. If conflict is banned or framed as anti-democratic based on a catalogue of human rights or some technocratic or moralistic consensus, then the conflict which is inevitably there in society is likely to come to the surface in a more radical way.
Having said that, I don’t want to suggest false symmetries and be equidistant. In Hungary, Fidesz clearly has the power, clearly stigmatizes minorities, and it intervenes with academic freedom.
However, we should make the line clearer between critique and defamation. I would draw the line in terms of political practice, in terms of policies that have material consequences for people. It is not just about stigmatization on a discursive level: rights are taken away and they are trying to homogenize all those who are opposed to that by saying that all those on the other side possess the same agenda: to destroy the nation and destroy our children. They thereby create a sense of crisis and urgency while completely ignoring that there are huge debates between feminists and LGBT activists, between scholars, NGO activists, and politicians. This anti-pluralistic stance is for me a clear sign of being anti-democratic. They are not willing to accept that others are part of the same political community and are also fighting their own battle for hegemony.
However, some of the same practices of homogenization and stigmatization, the pretense that those one disagrees with don’t have the right to speak or organize, can be observed on the left as well, even if these phenomena are not on the same level. Saying that things are wrong on the Right and then overlooking some of the same issues on our side does not shine a good light on our credibility.
That’s why I do not draw the line between conservatives and progressives in my book but rather between those who share an understanding of democracy which treats the other side as part of the same political space and acknowledges that we are all pursuing fights for hegemony, at least as far as politicians but also academics are concerned, and those who are using the techniques I have just described.
As a last question I want to ask you to reflect a bit more on your own position in these often quite polemical discussions. It seems to me like you are in some sense affiliated with gender studies but also have certain reservations towards some of the trends within this broad interdisciplinary field. You prefer what you label a soft constructivist approach and try to maintain a distinction between scientific and more normative discourses. Could I ask how you relate to the evolution and current priorities of the interdisciplinary field of gender studies, and why you consider it important to maintain a clear distinction between scientific work and more normative discourses? And in connection with those questions, how do you view the more directly political stakes of your thorough analyses and the new interpretation you develop in your book?
You interpret correctly that my book intends to be an intervention into debates also about methodology, paradigms, and how to relate scientific and normative discussions. Now I do not want to pretend that I have the final answers. I am grappling with the normative biases within academia which is committed to social justice and equality, and what follows from those commitments concerning our methodologies and interpretations. I am also very interested in questions of how to discern our values and our research.
I wouldn’t identify as a gender studies scholar. However, I am aware that I am often identified as such. I come from a feminist background, and I am a political scientist who is interested in how the term gender gets politicized. Precisely because of what I would call the hegemonic standing of queer theory within gender studies in the West, I would have great difficulties to find myself in gender studies because I would have to explain things which I personally don’t agree with.
As you mentioned, this has epistemological stakes – what is out there, how we relate to what is out there, is there a reality which we can grasp somehow irrespective of positionality and the gaze of the observer. I think that normative theories made a very important intervention when critiquing the false objectivity of the social sciences and showing that while they pretend to be objective, they omit things they just do not see. Science itself is embedded in society and societal hierarchical structure. I can completely go along with that critique.
It’s a good thing to be reminded of your blind spots and to reflect on yourself as a member of society even as a scholar, and to think about all the constraints in academia, – such as you are doing research because there is money for it, or because of what your professor thinks qualifies as a scientific question. However, when positionality and knowledge are treated as identical, as if academia wasn’t a specific field producing knowledge, but just another form of opinion based on one’s biography, then I think we have a problem.
I have difficulties accepting the starting point that there is no knowledge outside of the gaze of the observer. I think there are structures which should be described that may not be directly observable but that are not dependent on your view.
If you want to talk about capitalism or patriarchy, they are not just discursively reproduced, they are reproduced through material processes, through institutions, through labor and welfare regimes or the lack thereof. You cannot queer capitalism and you cannot get rid of patriarchal oppression simply by getting rid of certain concepts or categories. This is not how oppression works.
This is where all the focus on positionality, strong forms of constructivism, and post-structuralist approaches to the social sciences represent a wrong turn in my view.
All this also has a political stake. If everything is just a position and we cannot even say that there is a biological difference between male and female bodies because we are only interested in what is the function of this knowledge, in where this knowledge originates, in which power structures are discursively reproduced if we differentiate between these two bodies etc., then we will quickly take every such statement as a form of biologism or as biological essentialism. If everything is treated as a power effect, then facts will be treated as opinions. And that opens the door to the world of alternative facts.
In Hungary, we regularly get the government to frame things as “our Hungarian way of democracy” or “the Eastern European understanding” of this and that. Then they will speak about the human rights of the unborn – and will add that you are offending their religious feelings if you are opposed to that idea. If we give up on shared reality and on connecting to the material level of existence, which is out there independently of our gaze, then we will not be able to distinguish between things – we will not be able to justify why certain positioned forms of knowledge are better than others.
In collaboration with Karen Culver.