Dems Waste Capital on Semantics

The left and Democrats are wasting ungodly amounts of political capital on splitting semantic hairs over senseless controversies about things that only a tiny minority of Americans care about.

The most recent case in point is the insane back and forth between Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and UC Berkeley Prof. Khiara Bridges over how to define people who can get pregnant, formerly known as “women”.

The Atlantic had what I thought was a very reasonable assessment of that exchange that is well worth reading here. The take from writer Conor Friedersdorf was that both sides played it to benefit the most ardent activists on their side of the culture wars and that it didn’t shed any light on the subject for anybody else. Somewhat surprisingly, NPR also had what I considered to be a sensible, well-balanced story on the dustup, which you can listen to here.

Below, with my comments in italics, is the exchange.

Senator Hawley: Professor Bridges, you said several times––you’ve used a phrase, I want to make sure I understand what you mean by it. You’ve referred to “people with a capacity for pregnancy.” Would that be women?

Professor Bridges: Many women, cis women, have the capacity for pregnancy. Many cis women do not have the capacity for pregnancy. There are also trans men who are capable of pregnancy, as well as nonbinary people who are capable of pregnancy.

Ok, let’s pause right here. “Cis women”? Maybe 10% of the American public (and I’m being generous) know what “cisgender” means. It means someone who’s gender identity matches the actual plumbing. In other words, it means the vast majority of us. The attempt to force this term into everyday life is a big political loser for liberals and Democrats. It’s one thing to accept someone’s decision to take on the opposite gender or to be “non-binary” but to force the rest of us to literally redefine ourselves vis a vis them is a huge cultural and political mistake. Hawley understands that and that’s exactly why he started this line of questioning. Bridges gave him a gift by starting in with “cis women” right of out the gate.

Hawley: So this isn’t really a women’s-rights issue, it’s a––

Bridges: We can recognize that this impacts women while also recognizing that it impacts other groups. Those things are not mutually exclusive, Senator Hawley.

This is a fair response from Bridges. She’s starting to recover from her “cis” blunder.

Hawley: Alright, so your view is that the core of this right, then, is about what?

Bridges: So, um, I want to recognize that your line of questioning is transphobic and it opens up trans people to violence by not recognizing them.

Bridges could have stayed in the reasonable frame she had started in the last answer, but instead this is where she lost it altogether. When those on the hard-left start to lose an argument they go straight to DEFCON-4. Just challenging their arguments at all is equated with physical violence. In liberal land (which is to say, the Berkeley campus) once you’ve pressed that button all further discussion must end. The offender must apologize, have their apology summarily rejected and be sent to reeducation camp. Hawley’s from Missouri. He didn’t get the memo, so he went in for the kill.

Hawley: Wow, you’re saying that I’m opening up people to violence by asking whether or not women are the folks who can have pregnancies?

Bridges: So I want to note that one out of five transgender persons have attempted sucide, so I think it’s important––

Hawley: Because of my line of questioning? So we can’t talk about it?

Bridges: Because denying that trans people exist and pretending not to know that they exist––

Huh? How is Hawley denying the existence of transgender people by simply trying to put Bridges in a political corner on the semantic issue of women and pregnancy? Bridges is hitting the buttons that work at Berkeley even harder now — Hawley’s very questioning will lead to suicides! — but she’s in a different world, the real political world.

Hawley: I’m denying that trans people exist by asking you––

Bridges: Are you? Are you?

Hawley: ––if you’re talking about women having pregnancies?

Josh Hawley got exactly what he wanted and then some out of Prof. Bridges.

Bridges: Do you believe that men can get pregnant?

Hawley: No, I don’t think men can get pregnant.

Bridges: So you’re denying that trans people exist!

No, of course he’s not denying that trans people exist. He knows they exist and he knows that the language around their existence proffered by academics and activists is at best befuddling and at worst alienating to the bulk of American voters. He’s exploiting a political opening.

Hawley: And that leads to violence? Is this how you run your classroom? Are students allowed to question you or are they also treated like this, where they’re told that they’re opening up people to violence––

Bridges: We have a good time in my class. You should join. You might learn a lot.

Ok, you can’t get much more condescending that than that remark.

Hawley: I would learn a lot. I’ve learned a lot just in this exchange. Extraordinary.

Now, it’s clear what Hawley’s trying to do here and he succeeded beyond what I’m sure were his wildest dreams. Hawley was exploiting the fact that on the hard-left you can no longer make the simple observation that women give birth. That’s because a tiny number of people who still possess the organs that make pregnancy possible identify as men. That’s fine with me. It’s a free country.

But we don’t have to change our language to accommodate these folks any more than we need to state our pronouns or to say “they” when referring to one person. It’s one thing to accept transgender people, to not discriminate against them, to make it clear that physical violence against them will not be tolerated. But it’s quite another thing to ask the majority to change its very language, to stop doing something so fundamental as assuming that mothers are women.

These leftist language games are politically disastrous and they’re never ending. Each month brings some new way in which language is contorted to meet some obscure political agenda of some tiny group of campus activists. “Come to my class. You might learn a lot.” This is not a winning political posture.

Look, I am no fan of Josh Hawley. He did this because he sees the rich political vein to be mined here. The vast majority of Americans hear the kind of things Bridges is saying and throw up their hands. Now I can’t even refer to ‘people who give birth’ as women?! Oh for cryin’ out loud.

And the Democrats allow themselves to be tagged with this stuff. When the Wisconsin State Journal contacted the four leading candidates in the race to take on Sen. Ron Johnson, none would answer the reporter’s simple question: can people other than women get pregnant?

The answer was easy. “Only biological women can get pregnant.” That’s just factually correct.

This would have offended people like Prof. Bridges and a few others, but it would have been refreshingly counter-revolutionary to those of us moderates in the Democratic Party and, more importantly, to the great mass of voters in the general election. There are, of course, people who are biologically women who identify as men and of course they can get pregnant as well, but they are biologically women and that’s what’s relevant to the question at hand. Again, they can be and do whatever they want, but the rest of us do not need to change our language for them.

Now, before I go, let me just anticipate a counter argument you might be formulating. You could say that in the past there have been words used by the majority that were highly negative toward people of different races and ethnic backgrounds (frankly, including my own). Should we not have asked the majority to stop using those words? That’s a good point, but here’s what I think is the difference. Those were aggressively negative words in themselves. They were intended to be offensive and hateful. There’s nothing inherently insulting about “mother” or using a pronoun that agrees in number. It’s a fundamentally different thing.

Nonetheless, times and mores change. Maybe some year we’ll all celebrate People Who Can Give Birth Day on a Sunday in May. But what I know for a fact is that those changes will not come before the first Tuesday in November, and that’s all that matters. Ultimately, Prof. Bridges did her cause no favors.

And on another matter… is something up? This morning the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Dan Bice writes about the Mandela Barnes’ camp going out of its way to attack Tom Nelson over his leadership (or, they allege, lack thereof) on the abortion issue. Why on earth is the frontrunner bothering to hit the guy in last place? Do they have polling that shows Nelson moving up?


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

3 thoughts on “Dems Waste Capital on Semantics

  1. Josh Hawley is a douche and I almost never agree with him, but he’s no idiot. As you point out, a tiny minority of our population actually cares about this stuff. However, when you are berated for using words like “woman” to define people capable of giving birth, Hawley comes across as reasonable. While we’re at it, very few Latinos call themselves “LatinX,” and I still get confused when a few people demand plural pronouns, “they,” “them” or “their” in referring to a singular person. They don’t do that in Spanish, and I don’t think they do it in other languages, either. Grammar matters.
    There are so many things that we should worry about, but this identity stuff serves as a distraction from the things that have made me a card-carrying Democrat.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well said Dave. I would disagree with your point that both sides played to their base. Everyone to the right of the hardest-left position would likely agree with Hawley’s framing.

    Per your Biden 24 post, as Biden seems to be in agreement with this attempt to dramatically alter our cultural foundations, it would be another negative in his column.


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