Saucers of Mud

July 28, 2019

A Bit More on the Current Transphobia Wars

Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 10:57 pm

(Matt Weiner, University of Vermont)

John Schwenkler, in the course of a sort of semi-apology for calling Jonathan Ichikawa an “utter shit,” has linked with apparent approval to a post in which Brian Leiter attacks Christa Peterson at length.* Peterson is quite rightly upset about this; being targeted by a senior philosopher with an outsized platform is very threatening to her as a graduate student. As Peterson points out in the linked tweet, Schwenkler recognizes this as a concern when the target is another tenured professor (or, hypothetically, himself).

“But,” someone might say, “if Peterson behaved badly she can’t expect not to be criticized for it.” That’s not something I’m sure I’d accept, but the good news is it’s moot anyway–Peterson hasn’t behaved badly. I’ve read her on Twitter for a while, and what she’s been doing is calling out injustice in the philosophy profession, and also pointing out flaws in the arguments of… let’s call them “philosophers opposed to full recognition of trans identity,” or POTFROTIs for short. Also sometimes she swears. Well, sometimes people swear. It’s Twitter.

The below is going to get into some very messy stuff concerning the recent arguments, which are taking place in a lot of Twitter threads going all over the place. My account is going to be very rambling and I apologize for that. The tl;dr is that Peterson has done some careful and valuable work in documenting what looks like very sloppy work by some POTFROTIs. She deserves careful engagement with this, not bile. She is a god damn hero for it. (And it’s understandable if her patience runs short sometimes, given the way so many participants in the discussion ignore her points.)

In particular, it’s worth looking at the interaction that led Schwenkler to call Ishikawa an utter shit–Schwenkler has apologized for the four-letter word, but not for the insult. What Ishikawa had said was that Kathleen Stock, one of the most prominent POTFROTIs right now, is not a serious scholar of gender. Not that she’s not a serious scholar in other fields, but that she hasn’t at the moment established the kind of familiarity with the philosophical literature on gender that you’d expect from someone who was getting invited to address the Aristotelian Society on gender, being invited to review a book about transnational feminism in the premier venue for philosophical book reviews, etc.

Again, Schwenkler got very mad that Ishikawa said Stock wasn’t a serious scholar of gender. But this is a claim that’s worth getting mad about only if Stock is a serious scholar of gender. Schwenkler as far as I can tell offers no defense of this claim except that he expects that Stock has done the reading. Now, I’m not a scholar of gender myself, so I have to look at evidence. Rachel McKinney, an actual scholar of gender, thinks Stock is obviously not a serious scholar of gender. (Schwenkler responded by saying that there’s no specialized knowledge or skill required to be a serious scholar of feminist philosophy, which as McKinney and Nicole Wyatt point out is false, and a pretty astonishing insult to feminist philosophy.) Holly Lawford-Smith, one of the other prominent POTFROTIs right now, says “Most of us only got into this stuff a year ago” (admittedly, Stock may be one of the ones who isn’t part of the “most”).

What’s most convincing to me is this thread (and similar ones from before), where Peterson documents many ways in which the current group of POTFROTIs appear not to have done the reading. Look, for instance, at the discussion of “sex class”–I’m not a scholar of gender, but I can follow links from Shulamith Firestone’s Wikipedia article. And I haven’t seen anything from the POTFROTIs or their defenders that explains why they made these apparent mistakes. The closest response seems to be this from Lawford-Smith claiming that Peterson only includes one recent example, which McKinney and “Bertolt Rekt” point out isn’t very convincing. We do get a bald statement that Peterson is less credible than Stock, without any attempt to address the evidence.

I may have missed something–these threads are messy, and it’d be easy to miss something even spending an unhealthy amount of time on Twitter. But I really haven’t seen a convincing refutation of Peterson’s point that the POTFROTIs don’t seem well grounded in the relevant literature.

Well, as I said, that was big long and messy. But in short: Be very careful when dragging grad students in public. (I’ve tried to stay away from calling out grad students and non-tenure track philosophers; if I’ve slipped up, please let me know.) And really don’t attack graduate students who are correct, making valuable arguments, and doing work that really should be taken on by senior faculty.



*I think this is also the post in which Leiter attacks me, or maybe it’s another similar one? Obviously I’m not too upset about being attacked by Leiter on his blog; if I minded the prospect of Leiter attacking me, I wouldn’t have publicly expressed such a thoroughly negative opinion of him. But, interest declared, if you need it.

Also AFAIK Leiter hasn’t gone after me the way he did Peterson, just included me as one of many names on a list of philosophers who supposedly inspired the 12 Leading Scholars letter. Which honestly I doubt is true as a matter of the actual causal history of the letter, but it’s an honor just to be nominated.–If I didn’t have the privilege of sitting in a tenured position I might feel differently.

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