Saucers of Mud

July 23, 2019

Is It Ever Correct To Describe A Philosopher As Transphobic? Yes.

Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 4:49 pm

Twelve Leading Scholars (hereinafter 12LS) have written an opinion piece in Inside Higher Education about philosophers’ position on sex and gender. I think the piece badly mischaracterizes the state of philosophy’s transphobia problem.

The title and much of the argument of the 12LS suggest that the issue is that people are proposing to punish academics for making philosophical arguments about sex and gender. When they say “traction” has been given “to proposals to censure or silence colleagues who advocate certain positions in these discussions” I honestly don’t know what they’re talking about–they don’t link to any such proposals, and I haven’t seen any. (Perhaps 12LS are using a broad definition of “silencing” to include protests against giving these academics heightened platforms, in which case, they should be clear about that, and they certainly shouldn’t run that together with “censure” and “silencing.”)

There’s more to be said about publishing trans-exclusionary philosophical arguments. See Lisa Miracchi’s argument here that publishing transphobic philosophy is bad, and Talia Mae Bettcher on why “[t]o invite me to a philosophical forum in which I prove my womanhood is to do something far different from inviting me to share my views on mathematical Platonism.” But that’s not the part of the 12LS piece I want to focus on.

At the end of their piece, 12LS give four bullet points, the third of which is:

We condemn the too frequently cruel and abusive rhetoric, including accusations of hatred or transphobia, directed at these philosophers in response to their arguments and advocacy.

Is it cruel and abusive to accuse certain philosophers of transphobia? That depends on whether those philosophers have been transphobic. One thing that will surely make rational dialogue on sex and gender impossible is completely ruling out the possibility that anything a philosopher says is transphobic and condemning anyone who says so. (See Amy Marvin / Billingsley.)

And we can find many examples of philosophers being transphobic outside the context of academic papers. For instance:

Germaine Greer is brutally transphobic. I’m not even going to quote what she said about Caitlyn Jenner there. Given what she’s said, headlining a blog post “Germaine Greer is right about trans-women [sic]” is also transphobic. (I discussed that post earlier here.)

Misgendering trans people is transphobic. Deliberately using a male emoji to refer to a trans woman is misgendering, and therefore transphobic. So is using a zip-mouthed emoji to signify that one would like to use male pronouns to refer to her but that it is against the rules to do so. So is accusing a trans woman of “misogyny and a desire to dominate females.” So is cheering on anything in this thread.

(Thanks to Christa Peterson for documenting much of the above.)

Furthermore, saying without evidence that trans women are more likely to be violent than other women (and consequently should be excluded from women only spaces) is transmisogynist. As I discussed here, some philosophers have done that–and demanded that evidence be presented against the claim, rather than providing evidence for it. As Grace Lavery discusses here (scroll down to the phrase “outrageous and offensive”), this burden shifting is no better when phrased in the form of a question. For any other marginalized group, the demand for evidence that members of the group are not more violent than other groups would be recognized as offensive. (And arguments that relied on that claim, but did not provide evidence, wouldn’t pass muster with any reviewer–at least, I hope not.)

Claiming that trans women are a threat because of anecdotes about a tiny number of trans women is transphobic. (Leaving aside the relevance of the anecdotes, you can find five anecdotes about members of just about any group.) Citing, as evidence that accommodations for trans people will lead to assaults on women, this nightmare of anecdotal scare stories, misgendering, and the sentence (about a trans woman acquitted of sexual assault) “Still, the fact that he had consensual sex with a woman, while claiming to identify as female, is troubling.” If the claim that it is troubling for a trans woman to have consensual sex with a woman who knows she is trans is not transphobic, what is?

(The link to the last-cited document appears in the May versions of the linked post, in the sentence “Indeed, there is evidence that this is already happening elsewhere in the world.” By August the sentence and link had been deleted.)

If the behavior documented above is transphobic, and I think it’s hard to make a case that it isn’t, then it’s not “cruel and abusive rhetoric” to describe it as transphobic. Much of the rhetoric used by these philosophers is cruel and abusive itself. This is not to mention the frequent cruel and abusive rhetoric deployed by the philosophers who’ve exhibited transphobia against their non-trans critics, such as this, this, this, and many more examples. (A small sample of the reasons I don’t like Leiter.) [EDITED TO ADD: Though as far as I know nobody has directed any of this at me on the occasions where I’ve criticized transphobia in various blog comment sections, except that one time that Brian Leiter (or someone with his first name, anyway) accused me of “silly rationalization.” Perhaps not incidentally I’m tenured, male, cis, and heterosexual.]

There’s also this, which targets gender non-conforming cis women as well as trans women.

To sum up: we should not, as the 12LS piece does, pretend that the debate about transphobia in philosophy is simply about people objecting to trans-exclusionary philosophical arguments. (Again: That’s not to say that it’s OK to make trans-exclusionary philosophical arguments.) There’s a lot of transphobia in philosophy that is very difficult to defend as a proper exercise of academic freedom or an attempt to investigate controversial issues in good faith. We should not sweep it under the rug.

UPDATE: John Schwenkler, one of the signatories of the 12LS letter (and I believe the organizer, though presumably he speaks only for himself), has responded to a question from Christa Peterson that raises one of the points I made above, about the zip-mouthed emoji.

I find Schwenkler’s response unsatisfactory on many levels.

First, the 12LS piece said that it was “cruel and abusive rhetoric” to call other philosophers transphobic. Here Schwenkler seems to be conceding, at least, that the zipped-emoji stuff is not obviously not transphobic. That seems hard to reconcile with the claim that it’s cruel and abusive to call it transphobic.

Second, even if it doesn’t convey some “disposition” the zipped-emoji was cruel and abusive toward Rachel McKinnon. (I’ve tried to avoid naming most of the philosophers being discussed, but it’s going to be difficult to discuss this without saying that the philosopher who tweeted the zipped emoji was Holly Lawford-Smith.) The 12LS statement didn’t address cruel and abusive rhetoric toward trans philosophers and critics of transphobia in philosophy at all, and it seems flippant of Schwenkler not to consider it here. Notably he considers the zipped-emoji only from the point of view of what it reveals about Lawford-Smith, not about its effects on McKinnon; entirely the opposite of the 12LS statement’s treatment of philosophers accused of transphobia, which are entirely about the effects that the criticism has on them, and not about whether the people making those accusations might consider themselves to be doing so in good faith.

Third, it’s awfully incurious to point to the wider context and dismiss this as “just a few remarks” without looking into the wider context, and whether it was just a few remarks. In fact the context is that Lawford-Smith made it clear that she was using the zipped-emoji as a deliberate policy, and she used it on several occasions. (That twitter account has now been suspended, so it’s impossible to see exactly how many times the zipped-emoji was used, but I trust the testimony that it was more than was displayed–and anyway, doing it four times over a week is enough to take it beyond isolated remarks.) If I had said that it was cruel and abusive to accuse someone of X, and someone pointed out to me a case where it prima facie looked like they had done X, and I thought that perhaps more context was required to establish that it was X–then I like to think I’d actually try to find out the context, so I wouldn’t be at risk of falsely accusing someone of being cruel and abusive. Saying that it depends on context and moving on is not an epistemically responsible move here! And it is pretty epistemically irresponsible to publish a statement in Inside Higher Education before you know about the context.

Fourth, the remark about “phobia is dispositional” is confusing. Perhaps the idea is that phobia is a fear, and fear is dispositional? But the word “transphobia,” like “homophobia” and “Islamophobia,” is used not for fear but for bigotry and oppression, and that isn’t dispositional. In fact Schwenkler in response to another challenge says “What would be transphobic would be to fail to treat trans people w the respect due to any human being qua h.b.,” which has nothing dispositional about it. The zipped-emoji seems like a clear case of transphobia by this definition. Is it open and polite to talk about someone like that?

To say that a philosopher has done transphobic things, but you require more evidence of some sort of inner transphobic disposition, is a climbdown from saying that the accusation of transphobia is cruel and abusive rhetoric.

Fifth, the point about judging Lawford-Smith by her worst moments has at least two issues. As in the first point above, it’s conceding that there’s some truth to the accusation of transphobia, which is very far from the 12LS statement that the accusation is cruel and abusive. Furthermore, it’s not appropriate to wave away these emoji as Lawford-Smith’s worst moment when, as far as I know, she has never disavowed them. (This is also why I cited a link that Kathleen Stock later deleted from one of her essays; as far as I know she never disavowed the link and has continued to argue in the same anecdotal style exemplified by the link.)

Sixth and last, turning the “worst moment” point back on Christa Peterson was cruel and hurtful as well as terrible argument. Christa Peterson swore about something she feels strongly about while in the midst of a personal tragedy which is still ongoing. Her swears were not directed at any one individual, and she deleted the tweets with an explanation. Lawford-Smith mocked the gender identity of a particular named colleague on several occasions, has not apologized so far as I know, and–well, her life is none of my business, but she doesn’t seem particularly stressed out in those tweets. These cases are no way analogous, and to throw Peterson’s tragedy back in her face is causing her great distress and comes across as punishing her personally for daring to participate in this discussion. It seems like if you want “sensitive and controversial issues [to be] investigated with patience, care and insight” (12LS statement)–and if you want to treat other people decently–the minimal thing to do would be not to use your interlocutor’s personal tragediy to score points. We should be very careful not to do that!

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