On trauma, paranoia, and fascism (and on Nina Power)

Linda Stupart

Without Nina Power, I may never have broken into academia in the UK. She supported me emotionally, financially, and professionally, in ways that were sisterly and generous.  These things – friendship, trauma, and love – make it hard to divest of a person. Equally, for myself and many of my peers, there is an overwhelming feeling of having failed both Power, and ‘the movement’, now that it is clear that former feminist activist and comrade[1], Nina Power, is openly aligning herself with violent ‘edgelord’[2] alt-right men[3]; transphobes[4], and has definitively divested herself of contemporary feminist thought[5].

I do think it is important to clearly say that right now, Power should not be speaking as a feminist in public (since she has clearly said she has no allegiance to contemporary feminisms); and to interrogate the harm her ideas are doing in academic, social, and political circles, particularly to transgender people, but also all those most affected by the rise in alt-right sympathies, including people of colour, women, and the Muslim and Jewish communities.

I also think that it is perhaps more useful to think through how experiences of trauma, which are common to activists and marginalised people, can calcify and transform into dangerous, conservative, and exclusionary politics. This is not a ‘diagnosis’ of Power, but rather an attempt to understand how this could happen and to map commonalities of victimhood, protectionism, and paranoia, which are prevalent in contemporary forms of fascism, including the biological determinism of transphobia.

I’m going to focus particularly on how these mechanisms operate in white women. This is partly because trying to understand Power’s radical turn away from emancipatory politics has led me to thinking through these causalities, but also because I recognise in myself elements of these same paranoid, exclusionary, and violent politics: my very worst thoughts come after, “Yes, but I have also suffered or worked hard or been abused”, etc.

Women are very likely to be victims of violence, particularly male violence. Although women of colour and especially trans women of colour are more often and more violently victimised, this statement also holds true for white women. This is also true of activists who have been victims of state violence.  This very real violence produces real victims, and this status of victim, of vulnerable, of hurt (and the corollaries, survivor etc.) easily becomes a central part of one’s identity matrix. I include myself here – my experiences of trauma have very much produced and continue to produce who I am.

I absolutely do not want to suggest that there is an intrinsic link between trauma and a move towards the right. Most of the people I know who have been victims of major traumas, particularly at the hands of the state, have been politicised via these experiences.  The holes or wounds or gaps that trauma punctuates can make space for a radical and powerful empathy.

The problem comes, however, when this victim status becomes so central to an understanding of self, that this trauma-identity becomes individualised, paranoid, and exclusionary, and thus weaponised against other (often more) marginalised people.  A well-documented example of this kind of behaviour is ‘white tears’ – the propensity of white people, particularly white women, to use their position of wounded, hurt ‘damsel in distress’ to derail black women’s experiences of racist violence and harm inflicted by white people, including white women. As detailed here by Mamta Motwani Accapadi, a structural critique of race and violence is transformed into an individualised performance of pain – the white woman cries as a way to cement her own victim position, and thus refute any possibility of complicity, as well as positioning the black women as the aggressor. The white woman’s victim status (that same victim status that was also responsible for the historic murder and continued vilification of black men) is preserved only at the cost of an Other’s.

Transphobic logics, and particularly those of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (often abbreviated as TERFs) are often similarly produced and practiced. Because transphobia is based around abstract assumptions of genital-centric difference, to include trans women’s experiences of violence under the umbrella of all women’s experiences of violence is feared as an unacceptable expansion of the category of victim, as if transgender women’s experiences of male violence invalidate or dilute cisgender women’s experiences of that same violence. Trans exclusionary women build walls around their womanness in order to retain their primary victim status. This solidification, alienation, and further identification with trauma-identities inevitably leads to not only a defensive doubling down, but also a paranoia, which is then affixed onto the bodies of the transgender ‘other’ woman.  A prevalent example of this paranoid transferral is the changing room panic, which has been popularised by mainstream media in the UK, and argues that allowing transgender women into women’s spaces (in this case spaces in swimming pools and malls) will encourage men to pretend to be women in order to gain access to these spaces and sexually or otherwise harass the women therein. It’s important to note that this Trojan horse fantasy has never happened, and to reiterate that men do not need any kind of pretence in order to inflict violence on women, since they engage in this kind of violence free of any feminine or other artifice. Ironically, the only people who have enacted this particular subterfuge are trans exclusionary women intent on demonstrating the dangers of transgender women in women’s spaces by themselves infiltrating male swimming groups[6].

At this point, we have an individual and collective subjectivity, which is mired in paranoia, defensiveness, and, in the case of trans exclusionary feminists, biological essentialism. The link between paranoia and conspiracy is clear; delusions of persecution, the interconnectedness of unrelated events, and terror of the Other, are all key facets of the alt-right and related contemporary fascisms, with conspiracy being the most shared common language of white nationalism and the alt-right. From incels who believe they are oppressed because women do not want to have sex with them, to white genocide conspiracies, to the myth that young children are being forced to have genital surgery[7], it’s clear that the logics of exclusionary individualistic trauma-subjects, transphobes, and the alt right have much in common. This circular production of victim-subjects also means that any criticism is immediately reframed as an attack, thus furthering claims of persecution at the cost of all others.

More specifically, transphobia is at its core an assertion of biological essentialism – that is that anatomy (specifically genital anatomy) is destiny, and that womanness can be defined via observable, inherent, biological differences; the “uncontroversial fact of reality” Murphey refers to in his video with Nina Power4.  It is not coincidental that biological essentialism is also at the heart of sexism, racism, and fascism, most notably in the practice of eugenics.

So, what is the purpose of this argument? I have attempted, mostly in the footnotes, to clearly evidence Nina Power’s current transphobic, anti-feminist, and alt-right positions and allegiances. This is not an attack on someone who was a very good friend, but rather an explication I hope will add to the anonymous letter, twitter accounts, etc. and to clarify the issues that many now have with Power and her place in public life. I have also tried to understand what I see as a fundamentally tragic causal relationship between trauma, victimhood, paranoia, and fascism, and to frame transphobia as biological determinism and essentialism, which is common to other forms of fascism. In asking, “how did this happen?” I hope to also open up the more important question of, “how can we stop this from happening again?”

My answers to the latter question are less developed, but I remain hopeful that the core strategies of emancipatory thinking, with a focus on care for the self and for others, can still save us. I wrote earlier of my own exclusionary politics, based on a core of both trauma and neurotic persecution narratives. As a young white South African, I had unacceptably violent beliefs in Post-Apartheid whiteness as an oppressed position; as a teenager I hated so many ‘girly’ girls because I believed they invalidated my way of experiencing the trauma of femininity. These beliefs have changed through the simple practices of trying (and still failing, often) to listen to the pain of others before my own; through solidarity and the power of collective action; and through a more careful attendance to my own trauma, and how it exists in my body (of course, I have also been educated by the tireless and thankless labour of others, for which I am eternally grateful).

On Nina Power, I want to end by echoing Jules Gleeson’s response to Power’s transphobic turn. “Like all bigots,” Gleeson wrote on a Facebook comment, “I hope she changes her mind”.

1. Though Power is well known as a feminist, she also worked on anti-racist and anti-police violence campaigns, including anti-fascist protests, working with Defend the Right to Protest, and supporting families of people who have been murdered by the police.

2. Someone who attempts to seem edgy or cool by doing and saying intentionally harmful, socially unacceptable and ‘politically incorrect’ things, often online.

3. D.C. Miller is most well known in the UK for being the sole counter protestor at the demonstration to shut down LD-50 gallery, after it was discovered they were hosting confirmed alt-right commentator, Nick Land, and open ethno – nationalist Brett Stevens, among others. Miller, like many in the alt-right, ‘ironically’ flirts with fascism e.g. performing as esoteric fascist and artist, Julius Evola, in Athens. Miller has, on his public twitter account, also referred to [sic] ‘transsexual’ people as having a “psychotic” relation to the symbolic; defended Richard Spencer as having ‘done nothing wrong’, threatened the young women who run the White Pube (“time is running out for these textbook psychopaths”) and, as I discovered in writing this, had much to say about me, including: “Linda identifies as an iceberg, and her pronoun is ‘Ugh’”, “meet the new curator of the r****d biennale”; and referred to me as “grotesque” etc.

Power has recently also cheerfully appeared with Miller in Youtube videos hosted by Justin Murphey, most well known for being suspended from his academic post at Southampton University for comparing abortion rights to necrophilia, continuing that “"Y'know, you could actually justify necrophilia on grounds of queer politics or even more mainstream feminist politics” and responding to criticisms of ableism from students with, “And there is a difference between ableism and calling r****ds r****ds."

4. Power has herself compared gender dysphoria with eating disorders, and gender affirming medical interventions with self-harm. She has also uncritically attended ‘Woman’s Place’ meetings, a group dedicated to keeping transgender women out of women-only spaces, with a focus on support services for women who have faced violence.  Furthermore, posting on her public Facebook account, Power came out in support of Helen Steel and Venice Allen around the time of the Gender Recognition Act consultation in 2018 when both Steel and Allen were focused on the transphobic bullying of then-teenager Lily Madigan, who had been voted into a Women’s Officer position in the Labour Party.

In Power’s 2019 video with D.C Miller and Justin Murphey2, ‘Hate Speech, Feminism, & Paganism’, Murphey introduces Nina Power by saying she has “gotten into trouble recently” due to a “deviation on some relatively uncontroversial fact of reality”, which Murphey then clarifies as being “around trans issues”. Nina smiles, and does not contest this.

5. In her 2019 video with D.C Miller and Justin Murphey, ‘Hate Speech, Feminism, & Paganism’, Power states, “I do not have an allegiance to any of what is called Feminism today”

6. Megan Nolan has written clearly and eloquently on this here.

7. See Julia Serrano for a useful debunking of some myths around transgender children here.

Linda Stupart is an artist, writer, and educator from Cape Town, South Africa. They completed their PhD at Goldsmiths in 2016, with a project engaged in new considerations of objectification and abjection.