Women shouldn’t have sex unless they want to get pregnant. Too many men have lost their jobs because they want to fuck their co-workers. Drag queens are more dangerous than guns. “White privilege” is extremist language. Trans people are a threat to women’s rights and may attack you in a toilet. Asylum seekers need to be relocated to Rwanda or, ideally, a distant galaxy photographed by the James Webb telescope.
The logic here is, of course, questionable to say the least. But historically, backlashes, whether against women’s rights or LGBTQ+ rights, anti-racism statutes, government policies or even the European Union, don’t need to be propelled by facts to gain momentum. They rely on feelings. And as we head into the daylight-shortening, gloom-deepening portion of the year, it seems like there’s a lot more of those feelings – wild-eyed, limb- flailing, finger-pointing, fist-shaking feelings – than ever before. All this begs the question: how did we get here?
Popular wisdom has it that the word “backlash” first came into use during the US civil rights movement, earning the title of 1964’s “word of the year in American politics”. That was the same year the Civil Rights Act was passed, outlawing discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex and national origin.
White people fell into panic, consumed with anxiety about ethnic minorities and women having more rights. Some even warped the movement’s demands for equality, framing the move towards what Americans call affirmative action (giving opportunities to the disenfranchised) as “special help” and fearing “inverse discrimination”. As author and academic William Lee Miller wrote in the New York Times in 1964: “The ‘backlasher’ feels that it is he […] who must bear the disadvantages of the correction of this national injustice to the Negro.”
The emotional reasoning behind it is, in a way, understandable: to give one group more privileges in society, a small amount of power has to be displaced from the majority group and handed over. The people who hold that power feel threatened, especially when they might feel that they don’t actually have that much of it in the first place. That’s why the term “white privilege” hits a nerve for some. If you’re poor, white and see no tangible signs of privilege around you, the thought of giving up this thing that’s invisible to you, but is also probably the reason you’ve never been stopped and searched, might sound preposterous.
It’s this fear that helps steer fringe thought into the mainstream. It’s there in conversations about trans equality, when “gender critical” feminists argue that campaigns for trans rights undermine women’s rights. It’s there in criticism of the #MeToo movement, when the could-have-been careers of abusive young sportsmen or actors are mourned and men lament that they “can’t say anything anymore” (while very much thinking – or saying – it). It was there in the campaign around Brexit (“Take Back Control”) as well as Trump’s presidential drive (“Make America Great Again”).
When the public psyche shifts, we will often search for tangible, straightforward reasons behind this sudden change of heart. Maybe a Black president was a step too far for casual racists who’d been happy with the 43 previous white presidents, prompting them to elect an orange one instead. Perhaps the UK’s 2015 parliamentary inquiry into transgender equality, which proposed reforms of the 2004 Gender Recognition Act and NHS gender identity services, aroused a tribe of dormant transphobes.
But as the academic and law expert Karen J Alter says, these are triggers, not causes. A Professor of International Relations at Northwestern University in Illinois, she’s been working on issues relating to political backlash for 20 years.
“A backlash narrative [focused on triggers] assumes that you’re actually responding to the thing you say you’re responding to,” Alter says, pointing to the American pro-life lobby’s long-simmering opposition to 1973’s Roe v Wade ruling, until its overturning by the US Supreme Court in June. At the time of writing, abortion is banned (or will be banned) in 22 states.
“The thing is, [identifying that trigger] never answers the question: why now?” Adler continues. “Because there were many other things that could have triggered it in the past, and they didn’t.”
That’s why scouring recent history for answers to the eternal question of “Why is everything so terrible?” doesn’t typically lead to a satisfying conclusion. It might feel nice and neat to pin everything that’s bad on a few specific events. But the trouble is, putting too much emphasis on the trigger over the root cause paradoxically leans into the politics of blame – the same blame that backlash thrives off.
“[It’s like] something went wrong, they overreached, they went too far, they went too fast, as if to blame the women’s movement, or the gay rights movement,” Alter says. “It’s their fault that you’re having this backlash.”
The backlash against the women’s rights movements of the 1960s and ’70s took this narrative and ran with it. After second-wave feminists fought to legalise abortion and increase opportunities in the workplace and education, certain sectors of both the media and academia came up with a crafty way to derail progress: simply tell women that the injustices they’re still facing are their own fault. Pursuing a career over being a wife and mother condemned women to “great emotional depression” and “burnout”. Research in 1985, conducted by Harvard and Yale, even claimed that white, single, university-educated women over 30 would only have a 20 per cent chance of finding a husband – a figure that plummeted to 1.3 per cent once they reached 40.
In short, feminists were apparently engineering their own misery by wanting more from life. And it worked. “Look around and you’ll see some happy women, and then you’ll see these bitter, bitter women. The unhappy women are all feminists,” one woman told the New York Times in 1982. “Feminists are really tortured people.”
This is all laid out in Susan Faludi’s landmark 1991 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. “Identifying feminism as women’s enemy only furthers the ends of a backlash against women’s equality, simultaneously deflecting attention from the backlash’s central role and recruiting women to attack their own cause,” wrote the Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist and author. Today, the notion that “feminism has done more harm than good”, as suggested by a recent poll conducted by Alabama-based legal organisation the Southern Poverty Law Center, still exists – on both sides of the political spectrum. Case in point: the so-called feminist response to the Heard v Depp civil trial in the US, which, in the name of equality, decided that women can be evil, too. Most of Depp’s online defenders are female.
“The emotions that really mobilise people are grievance and resentment, as opposed to anger that doesn’t have a target. I can be angry that the climate is so hot, but unless I know that there’s someone to blame and it’s their fault, it doesn’t necessarily go anywhere,” Alter says. “Resentment politics has to have a narrative arc where someone caused this worse situation. And you have to reverse them, undermine them, marginalise them, stop them, in order to get back to the world that you want to get back to. That resentment narrative is a divide-and-conquer narrative. It’s also really politically potent.”
The trouble is, whether you’re on the right or left, or neither, whether your way of life or your actual life is in jeopardy, just about everyone is looking for someone to blame. Because just about everyone feels under threat. In the UK, we’re facing the biggest drop in living standards since 1956, as wages fail to keep up with inflation, the cost of living skyrockets and people fight over petrol in public. Of course people are furious. It’s only natural we want change.
When you have rose-tinted memories of a time when supermarkets didn’t security-tag blocks of cheddar to keep those who can’t afford to eat from stealing, it’s probably quite comforting to wish everything would just go back to the “good old days”.
And it’s even easier to believe that’s the solution when the people you trust, the ones you voted for in the last election, are (mis)directing you to that conclusion. Retrograde rhetoric is pretty persuasive when the present is so undeniably shit.
Take the backlash against LGBTQ+ rights in the late Eighties, for instance. As the Aids epidemic tore through the gay community and stole tens of thousands of lives, Margaret Thatcher’s government responded callously by introducing Section 28, legislation that prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools and by local authorities (ie removing “gay” books from public libraries).
“The choices made by the government were to isolate and abandon the LGBT community, rather than take responsibility for their healthcare,” says Cleo Madeleine, a communications officer at British gender inclusivity charity Gendered Intelligence. “But around that, there’s also the numerous economic catastrophes of the 1980s and an enormous loss of faith in the government.” By 1986, two years before Section 28 was introduced, more than 3 million people were unemployed. That’s 10.6 per cent of the workforce. “So LGBT rights – or gay rights, as they’d have called it back then – provided a really helpful political football for the Conservative government to appear strong on something, and to draw fire.”
We’re now seeing many of the arguments currently used to villainise the trans community echo those which proliferated around Section 28 only 35 years ago. “The implied threat to public health, the idea that [trans rights and people are] something that should be kept away from young people, as well as being foundational Conservative arguments, are also very reminiscent [of coverage of Section 28 in the Eighties and Nineties],” says Madeleine.
A prime example is a 1987 Conservative Party poster that criticised Labour’s support for LGBTQ+ education. “Is this Labour’s idea of comprehensive education?” it read, above images of textbooks such as The Playbook for Kids About Sex and Young, Gay and Proud. More than three decades later, MPs are still arguing that inclusive sex education is “actively contributing to the sexualisation and adultification of children”, as Conservative MP Miriam Cates said in a June debate at Westminster Hall.
When you come face to face with views like this, the instinct is to recoil in horror before going in for battle, armed with an artillery of facts and reason. But those fights rarely crown a winner. Why? Because backlash is designed to divide.
“When you’re into normal politics” – that is, politicians following democratic rules and procedures – “you don’t villainise people,” Alter says. “You disagree with ideas, but you don’t say: ‘These people are bad people, they’re dangerous to society.’ Politics should be more on the substance and on reality. But when you play into emotional politics that’s framed around going back to a world that is ‘not woke’ or that is ‘better’, it’s very divisive. And that is because that’s the political tool that these groups are using to organise for their own political power.”
Look at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Alter says. “Putin has tried to say that his war against Ukraine is because of Nato expansion. That argument is, on its face, ridiculous. There’s nothing that would explain the ‘Why now?’ [But] when you hear Putin get unhinged and off-message, you hear it’s all about empire and his aspiration to being [a new] Peter the Great. None of it is about Nato expansion. That didn’t cause this war. That didn’t cause insecurity. But that is exactly the kind of framing that you use to distort it.
“So when I’m thinking about backlash, of course it’s entirely intentional,” she continues. “Putin’s trying to say: ‘Pay no attention to me! Be upset at these other people!’ He’s trying to get completely disinterested people fighting amongst themselves in order to deflect what [the Russian state] is intentionally doing. So, yes, I think backlash is an intentional strategy by the orchestrators of it – which is not to say that many people who go out there and protest on the street are necessarily part of the intentional strategy. They’re the ones who are getting caught up in the fake politics of it.”
That’s also not to say that discriminatory thought – racism, sexism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, anti- Semitism – doesn’t persist in society without the input of some opportunist politician pulling its strings. But when you look at the bigger picture, beyond parliamentary debates, newspaper headlines and Twitter rows, you often find that the general public isn’t as shit as “they” would have you believe. In the UK, surveys have found that 83 per cent of people say they’re “not prejudiced at all” towards transgender people, while only 20 per cent of the population opposes the Black Lives Matter movement – far less than certain tabloids would have you believe. Meanwhile, a 2019 survey found that 61 per cent of Americans believe “abortion should be legal in all or most cases”. Countering false narratives and finding commonality is crucial.
“There’s a huge amount to be obtained from intersectionality, there’s a huge amount to be obtained from solidarity,” Madeleine says. “Conservative political interests stand to benefit considerably by driving a wedge between cis women and trans people. Because it means that we end up fighting to defend ourselves from these groups – who, in the name of women’s rights, start doing the work of the oppressive political machine, rather than what we ought to be doing, which is pushing for the same gains.
“I think it’s really telling that, in recent weeks, we’ve even started to see some of the American-style discourses around abortion access,” she notes of the rhetoric by Tory MP Danny Kruger, an evangelical Christian, who stated in the House of Commons that women do not have “an absolute right to bodily autonomy”. [Kruger claimed to be “misunderstood”, saying in a later clarification that there are current legal limits on abortion and that was all he meant.] Meanwhile, trans “‘grooming’ accusations made their way into parliament, too, particularly among the Tory party. More often than not, they’re piggybacking on [what are seen as] the more acceptable criticisms of trans people.”
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that most of the candidates railed against gender-neutral language as they launched their Tory leadership campaigns following Boris Johnson’s resignation as leader in July. In relentless daily discourse, cis women and trans women are being pitted against each other by politicians and public figures, despite the fact that, when trans rights are diminished or up for debate, it opens the doors for women’s rights to also be taken away. The struggles of the white working class are used to undermine efforts to uplift underprivileged ethnic minorities, while the poorest households from all backgrounds are pushed into poverty. Everyone who feels under threat is not necessarily wrong. It’s just hard, when you’re oppressed, to see that each threat is coming from the same place.
The superfine, need-a-magnifying-glass-to-see-it silver lining? Backlashes are usually pre-emptive. As Faludi wrote three decades ago: “The anti-feminism backlash has been set off not by women’s achievement of full equality but by the increased possibility that they might win it.”
That is: backlashes, whatever they may be in response to, are designed to squash hope at the most crucial point, to quickly reverse progress before too many people take a slice of that pie.
And, ultimately, if you can see past the hatred, hurt and resentment that clouds debate, we’re not really going backwards. Because in a civilised, democratic society, that’s impossible, surely? Progress is slow, sometimes shuffling two steps forward, one step back, but it’s also inevitable. That’s precisely why the backlashers are kicking up such a fuss.
And that’s precisely why The Big Backlash Backlash starts now.