The Victorian government has delivered an unexpected Christmas present to Australian conservatives: a parting of the ways with Roz Ward, the co-founder of the controversial Safe Schools program. Score one for the cisheteropatriarchy, as the kids call it.
It may not be in the spirit of Tiny Tim to gloat over someone’s misfortune and dismissal at this time of year, and many people would resist the impulse. But I am not among such people. Since her emergence in the public spotlight, the problem with the criticism directed against Roz Ward is that it has not been relentless enough.
Safe Schools, as most Australians have come to realise, combines a praiseworthy anti-bullying component with more than a few of the fashionably crackpot notions of gender and queer theorists. Originally intended for both primary and secondary school students, the program presents ideas like gender fluidity and the social construction of gender as unshakeable facts, rather than postmodern fads.
A few of the program’s pedagogic tools also raised eyebrows. For the four and five year olds, who may have a lingering affection for the gender binary, there is the children’s book The Gender Fairy. In this narrative, the eponymous hero guides two transgender characters along the path of social transition. In my boyhood, back in the distant 1990s, I liked best the cisnormative adventures of Noddy, Big-Ears, and Mr Plod. Today, no doubt, they would be denounced for corrupting the minds of Australian youth.
To the bill of complaint against Safe Schools one might also add the inappropriate role-playing activities, wherein teenagers imagined themselves without genitalia; the advice for teachers, who should refrain from heterosexist terms like ‘boy’ and ‘girl’; and, finally, the infliction of the program upon students without the consent of their parents.
In response to the public backlash and an independent review, the Turnbull government has made a few changes: the weird stuff is out and the anti-bullying emphasis stays in; there is an expiration date for federal funding and the program will ultimately be absorbed into a new government initiative, the Student Wellbeing Hub. Score another one for the cisnormative hegemony, or rather, let us simply call it good sense.
The departure of Roz Ward serves as a fitting denouement of the Safe Schools saga in 2016. What remains startling, though, is how she managed to acquire such extraordinary influence in the first place. This is what I mean when I say that her critics could benefit from a little extra fibre and fervour.
Roz Ward is a useful, if frightening, demonstration of what happens when left-wing academics and their ideas intrude upon wider society. Once upon a time, I have been told, postmodern jargon and critical gender theory were confined to the abstruse and unreadable journals of the academic Left. Now, it’s all available at a school near you.
In recent profiles in the Guardian and the Saturday Paper, Ward downplays the radical elements and bemoans the attention paid to her own Marxist politics. Such a focus, she says, is a distraction from the good work she’s doing. This is nonsense, as she knows very well. In a 2015 lecture at Melbourne’s Marxism conference, Ward argued that:
Marxism offers both the hope and the strategy needed to create a world where human sexuality, gender, and how we relate to our bodies can blossom in extraordinarily new and amazing ways.
As Marx envisioned a world without class and social roles, his successors today want to do away with the constraints of gender. After banging on for a while about how terrific the Russian Revolution was, Ward continued:
It will only be through a revitalised class struggle and revolutionary change that we can hope for the liberation of LGBTI people . . . it’s only the working class that shares the interests of all oppressed groups in society, because we can only meet the needs of everybody by taking collective ownership of everything.
That last part strikes a sinister note, at least among anyone with a sense of history and reality. It should be clear, though, that Ward and her co-thinkers are the real thing: they’re real revolutionaries, and we should do them the courtesy of taking them at their word.
To get an idea of what’s in store for us next, Australians would do well to look at the debate over gender identity in Canada, where things have gotten, shall we say, mind-bogglingly odd.
A video clip of the Ontario panel show The Agenda recently made the global rounds on social media. Nicholas Matte, a professor of Transgender Studies (good grief!), made the following assertion: “Basically, it’s not correct that there is such a thing as biological sex . . . That’s a very popular misconception.”
He spared the audience an explanation of this remark, but assured everyone that the scientific consensus, as well as his credentials as an “historian of medicine,” backed him up.
The context of this discussion was the passage of Bill C-16 in the Canadian House of Commons. This law would “add gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination.” The sticking point, however, has been the expansion of language: an infinite number of gender identities demands an infinite number of invented pronouns, like zie, zir, and hir.
Herein lies the key criticism of the law’s potential reach: misgendering, or referring to someone by unwanted or incorrect pronouns, is not a mere social solecism, but something much more. On The Agenda, Matte argued that the law was necessary, because misgendering amounted to abuse, a hate crime, and an act of violence. He levelled all these accusations against fellow panelist Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor who has become infamous for his refusal to bow to the linguistic demands of campus activists.
Three cheers, and make them rather hearty ones, for Jordan Peterson. Up with whacky gender pronouns he will not put. His stance is based on the classically liberal idea of free speech, as well as — and I don’t think this is too grandiose a way of putting it — a defence of civilisation. In this atmosphere of campus intolerance, of which speech codes are just one part, Peterson finds the totalitarian cast of mind, echoes of the Soviet Union, and an assault on our very notions of reality. Abandoned and denounced by his University of Toronto colleagues, he marches on, a one-man army against the postmodernists, radical leftists, and social justice warriors. I find Peterson persuasive and — this adjective will be outlawed soon, so dash it, here I go — manful.
As I noted, Australians would do well to pay attention. Roz Ward is out and the schools are somewhat safer, but the gender wars, on the Australian front, are just getting started. Things could get a whole lot worse. When they do, the arguments and model of Jordan Peterson will be part of the intellectual weaponry on which we must rely.