“When Tables Speak”: On the Existence of Trans Philosophy (guest post by Talia Mae Bettcher)
“Once we ask the question of what a woman is, things immediately become more complicated philosophically… I am actually quite willing to have a discussion with gender critical feminists about these issues. I would love a genuine conversation to determine whether bridge-building is possible. After all, non-trans and trans women alike face oppression. Sometimes the oppressions are the same, and sometimes they are different. But this is just the “nature of the beast”…
The following is a guest post* by Talia Mae Bettcher, Professor and Chair of Philosophy at California State University, Los Angeles.
“When Tables Speak”: On the Existence of Trans Philosophy*
by Talia Mae Bettcher
A few days ago, when I was frantically grading, I received the following request from Daily Nous:
As you may be aware, a series of posts by Kathleen Stock (Sussex) on issues regarding transgender women has been getting a fair amount of attention from the philosophical community. These posts have raised philosophical questions about transgender women from a “gender critical” perspective and have also commented on the perceived difficulty of raising such questions (that is, some people feel they are too riskily “politically incorrect” to discuss). The latest of these is here.
The reception of Stock’s posts appears to be largely of three kinds: (a) triumphalism about Stock breaking through a Stalinesque, anti-philosophical, PC ban on raising “common sense” questions about transgender persons; (b) surprised disappointment or anger that Stock’s lines of argument and questioning seem to ignore relevant but unnamed/unexplained literature that either refutes her points or conclusively answers her questions; (c) appreciative curiosity, mainly from non-specialists who are interested in learning more about the subject but who are genuinely worried about making harmful missteps.
I think that what’s missing is informed, substantive, and sincere engagement with Stock, and what I’d like to be able to do is put some of that in front of the philosophical community. An argument about these issues could be a useful learning experience. Would you be willing to write something that fits that bill?
My first response was “Ugh.” I needed to get my grades in. And then I wanted to get back to working on my book. More importantly, I had deep political and philosophical reservations about responding in the way that Daily Nous had requested (i.e., a sincere engagement with Stock). If these concerns aren’t evident to you now, I hope they will be by the end of this essay.
I finally decided to write something for two reasons. First, I am an educator and I do think that this is a good opportunity to educate. You see, I’m “old school trans”—and that means I’m willing to go to really painful places, even though I don’t really need to: I suspect I lack the self-respect that the young trans and genderqueer scholars possess. (I’m both envious and proud of them!) Second, and most importantly, I think this is an excellent opportunity to raise uncomfortable questions about the profession of philosophy. I guess that’s what really sold me on the idea of writing this post. So there are two parts. The first constitutes my engagement with Stock. In the second part I dive into the actual issues that are of deep concern to me.
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Part One: An Engagement with Stock
As I was pondering Stock’s arguments, I couldn’t help reflect on the grading I had just completed for the course “Trans Feminist Philosophy.” I wondered whether her essay would have received a passing grade in it.
In this course, we paid particular attention to (non-trans) feminist engagements with trans people, issues, and theory. We used my Stanford Encyclopedia entry “Feminist Perspectives on Trans Issues” as a guide. It served as the starting point for my lectures and our inquiries. I’ll note that this entry is almost like a little book, coming in at 23,000 words. It also has an extensive and, in my humble opinion, highly useful bibliography that includes literature from the late 1800s until around 2014.
In our discussion of feminist/trans interactions, we began with the expulsion of Beth Elliott (a trans woman, lesbian feminist) from the Daughters of Bilitis San Francisco chapter in late 1972 and then considered the infamous West Coast Lesbian Conference (1973) during which Elliott survived a vote that would have expelled her from the conference. We examined all of the feminist perspectives that were at play at the time—including the pro-trans ones. We then went on to examine Janice Raymond’s Transsexual Empire (1979), easily the most important work in “gender critical feminism” (although it wasn’t called that at the time). We looked at the emergence of trans studies through the work of Sandy Stone (1991), Kate Bornstein (1994), and Leslie Feinberg (1992). We examined the development of Queer Theory—especially the work of Judith Butler (1990, 1993) and its relation to trans studies and politics. We looked at trans phenomenology (Rubin 1998) and we looked at the FTM/Butch border wars of the nineties (Halberstam 1998, Hale 1998). We looked at more recent feminist perspectives on trans issues (e.g. Cressida Heyes 2003, Gayle Salamon 2010) by non-trans women, and we discussed the development of trans feminism through the work of Emi Koyama (2003, 2006) and Julia Serano (2007). Unfortunately, we ran out of time. We were going to look at some of the more recent debates with regard to gender critical feminism (e.g. Lori Watson 2016, Sara Ahmed 2016, myself). But we had to stop.
In considering Stock’s essay in relation to this course, I have to say that it wouldn’t have received a very good grade. Unfortunately, her work fails to display any sensitivity to the existence of a robust literature on these issues, it makes highly dubious assumptions that undermine much of the discussion, and, finally, it simply does not seem to be thought through very well.
Let’s see why.
Stock invites trans women to prove that we’re women. She sees this as a “metaphysical” issue distinct from the moral issue of whether trans people should be treated in accordance with our identities. Unfortunately, I’m unclear what I’m supposed to be proving. It’s hard to hit the target when there are multiple targets to choose from!
I’ll be more explicit. Once we ask the question of what a woman is, things immediately become more complicated philosophically. Are we supposed to be proving we’re women according to the ordinary meaning of the term ‘woman’? Or are we defining ‘woman’ amelioratively? That is, rather than giving an analysis of the concept attached to the ordinary meaning of ‘woman,’ are we trying to get clear on what concept we should use—for the purposes of promoting a feminist project? A third way of approaching the question is to recognize that dominant meanings of political terms are contested “on the ground” through practices that give them different, resistant meanings. For example, given that the ordinary meaning of ‘woman’ includes sexist content, feminists have tried to redeploy the term in resistant, empowering ways. (This is similar to the idea that the originally pejorative ‘queer’ has been taken up with a new, resistant significance.) Indeed, one of Janice Raymond’s most interesting arguments is precisely that trans women can’t take up the term ‘woman’ or ‘feminist’ or ‘lesbian’ in any way that would be resistant to sexism (1979, 116). I actually spent a lot of time on this argument in my class much to the annoyance of my students, who felt that the argument should be taken less seriously. Beyond these three options, I’m not entirely sure what Stock might be inviting us to prove.
If Stock’s interested in any of these three options, I’d like to suggest that she read some of the literature. For example, with respect to analyzing the ordinary meaning of ‘woman’, there are different positions to consider. One is that ‘woman’ is a cluster (family-resemblance) concept (for discussion see Hale 1996, Heyes 2000, McKitrick 2007, for critique see Kapusta 2016, Bettcher 2012, 2017, etc.). Another is “semantic contextualism”—the view that the extension of ‘woman’ changes according to context in a rule-governed way (see Saul 2012, Diaz-Leon 2016, see Bettcher 2017ab, for critique). If Stock’s interested in the ameliorative approach, then she had better read Sally Haslanger (2012). She should also read Jennifer Saul (2012), and Katharine Jenkins (2016). If she’s interested in the third option, I would propose that she read some of my work (Bettcher 2016, 2017ab). And I would strongly recommend that she read Lori Watson’s excellent “The Woman-Question” (2016).
Now, to be fair, Stock, merely means to offer us “an attempt to work through some of these arguments, and get them out of the way.” “With this done,” she boasts, “the field will be clear to have a proper adult discussion that, wherever it ends up, will with a bit of luck fully acknowledge and attempt to accommodate both sets of interests at stake in redefining the concept of woman.” What Stock fails to appreciate, apparently, is that this adult discussion has actually been going on now for almost fifty years! With respect to philosophy specifically, it has been going on for at least twenty. Stock’s certainly welcome to the conversation. But she does have some catching up to do. And she surely needs to check her breathtaking hubris before she makes a contribution.
I don’t mean to be mean (I’m Canadian). I do, however, wish to hold Stock accountable for her philosophically questionable strategies of engagement. And I wish to do this starkly, possibly harshly. Let me be clear, then, that I am actually quite willing to have a discussion with gender critical feminists about these issues. I would love a genuine conversation to determine whether bridge-building is possible. After all, non-trans and trans women alike face oppression. Sometimes the oppressions are the same, and sometimes they are different. But this is just the “nature of the beast” when it comes to coalition building. Sexisms are complex, interblended with other oppressions such as racism, homophobia, ableism, and transphobia. That said, I can’t have an in-depth discussion with somebody who shows no signs of familiarity with the literature, no familiarity with the complex, nuanced issues at stake.
That said, perhaps she’s isn’t really interested in engaging with us philosophers in the first place. It may be that she’s only taking issue with the mainstream trans discourse that seems to her dogmatic, political, and unquestioned, and the trans activists who promote it. If so, it seems a little unfair to expect all trans people to do the theoretical work. Philosophical work seems better allocated to those of us who get into that stuff. More importantly, she can’t bring “philosophical” and specifically, “metaphysical” concerns against mainstream trans discourse, as if she were bringing new philosophical enlightenment to issues that had never been thought about before. She can’t trot out her philosophical views entirely abstracted from, and apparently oblivious to, the deep theoretical work that has been going on now for half a century—as if she’s the sole philosopher to shed light on these questions, finally clearing away the dogmatism that has no philosophical depth to it. This strategy of hers lacks philosophical integrity.
Stock then proceeds to pit the interests of trans and non-trans women against each other, claiming that there is much to be lost by non-trans women in the legal recognition of trans women as women. Here, I’d simply like to point to three presuppositions that undermine her analysis from the get go.
First, Stock gives the impression that the only reason for letting trans women use female designated restrooms and so forth, is to help alleviate our gender “dysphoria.” Our needs then appear frivolous in light of the many bad consequences she enumerates for non-trans women. However, one of the reasons I prefer to use the women’s restroom is that if I used the men’s restroom, the men would either laugh at me, yell at me, or go to the mall cop (or, my Dean). Not only would I be at risk of sexual harassment (the same harassment any woman would), I’d be at risk for trans bashing. Crucially, the dangers faced by trans and genderqueer people (and even non-trans women who pass as men) in using the restroom are bizarrely ignored. Try being a (non-trans) woman who passes as a man! What restroom to use? Try being gender “unreadable.” Good luck! Consider being a trans woman placed in a men’s prison. That sounds like fun! Surely you see what I’m getting at here.
Second, many of the things that non-trans women are supposed to lose through the legal recognition of trans women as women, are also things that trans women themselves sacrifice. For example, if we exclusively used gender-neutral restrooms, no woman would be able to go pee without some worry about a guy being around. No woman. Why would this be any less disconcerting to me than it would a non-trans woman? Worried about men trying to pass themselves off as women to hurt us? Well, guess what? I’m worried about that too. Even the concern that on-line dating sites for lesbians don’t or won’t provide information about whether a potential date has a penis or a vagina, can be of equal concern (or lack thereof) to both trans and non-trans women alike. (As an aside, I think the forced advertisement of our genital status is abuse—but that’s for another time).
The final assumption, apparently, is that trans men do not exist. Consider: She wants a private space for “female-bodied people” where this refers “to a body that has XX chromosomes, and for which the norm is to be born with female genitalia (vagina, labia, clitoris), and a female reproductive system (ovaries, uterus, vagina).” She complains, “WNT are losing access to some formerly female-body-only spaces, where they get naked or sleep.” Stock’s okay with a big, hairy trans guy using “female body-only spaces”? Even if he’s had phalloplasty and a hysterectomy? Just so long as he’s got xx chromosomes? The problem, of course, is that the very existence of trans men has been erased from the discussion altogether. Once they are brought into existence, however, the absurdity of some of Stock’s claims become apparent. Obviously, we don’t see each other’s chromosomes (any more than we see each other’s “brain sex”—as she herself notes). So the concern around private spaces has a lot more to do with our intimate appearances than it does anything else. In any event, her erasure of trans men infects much of her discussion—particularly around her “female body experience.” I’d like to see the whole thing re-written in such a way that recognizes the existence of trans men.
Of course, even once we’ve rejected her false assumptions, we could still proceed with her proposed adversarial approach. For example, now that we understand that many of the harms that non-trans women face are also faced by trans women, we could argue that since trans women are going to be vulnerable regardless of whether we broaden the legal definition, we might as well just kick them to the curb.
Alternatively, we could recognize that what trans women are subject to is a “double-bind.” We could also remember that, as Marilyn Frye argued, the double-bind is a hallmark of oppression. By recognizing our common interests as feminists, we women could then work together to find the best solution for all. And we would do this, of course, by taking seriously the interests of trans men, genderqueer and other non-binary people. I honestly don’t understand an approach that starts off in such an adversarial way, pitting the alleged interests of non-trans women against everybody else. It just doesn’t seem very feminist to me.
I could go on. For, example, I could address Stock’s allegation that trans women often exhibit male energy while in a lesbian space. This allegation is old as dirt. And it’s been discussed by a slew of trans writers. Now at this point, I suppose you’ll want the references. Another strategy, however, would be for you to actually explore the literature on your own. Typically philosophers aren’t so disempowered about learning something new! We go ahead and search! For example, how hard is it to go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy? Okay. I’ll give you a hint: Pat Califia (1997), Julia Serano (2007), Talia Bettcher (2009/2014), Lori Watson (2016). Just a few examples!
To segue into the next section, I’ll conclude this one with some reflections on the burden of proof. Why is it, exactly, that trans people have the burden of establishing who we say we are? It seems to me that we’re already in highly controversial philosophical territory. Certainly in my everyday life, it’s generally taken for granted that I’m a woman. I would go so far as to say that it constitutes a bit of “common sense” knowledge. Now, I’m guessing that in the worlds Stock inhabits, this isn’t the case. But I’m not clear why I can’t proceed from the common-sense assumptions that operate within my “everyday.” Why should I have to proceed from hers? Why should I have to proceed from yours?
This is an important methodological issue. We philosophers (especially analytic ones) rely quite a lot on folk intuitions and on what we take to be common-sense. But once we get into a politically charged discussion, we must recognize that these folk intuitions vary across subcultures. Now what? Well, to settle on mainstream intuitions and common-sense is to make a political decision to further marginalize what Kristie Dotson called “diverse practitioners” in the field. I await the argument that this is a good way to go.
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Part Two: The Moral of the Story
How did it come to pass that Stock’s blog-posts should be so widely discussed in philosophy? In order for her work to be taken seriously, it would have to be the case that most people involved in the discussion were not familiar with the extant literature. I suspect that lurking behind this lack of familiarity was the suspicion that there wasn’t even a literature in the first place (people didn’t know that they didn’t know). Otherwise, wouldn’t folks ask about it? What could be at the basis of the assumption that there was no literature (or, perhaps, that the literature was of poor quality)? Why didn’t people look? Or why assume that the literature just doesn’t matter? I don’t know. But there’s clearly a disturbing intellectual laziness at work here.
And I suspect there’s a deeper assumption that says that trans issues (and perhaps gender issues more generally) are philosophically “light weight.” I suspect the same is true with respect to race and disability. The stuff is easy to think about, once we bother to turn our minds to it! Ah, there’s the rub. Once we turn our minds to it! But trans philosophers (and other trans thinkers) turn our minds to it a lot more often. We have to. Our existence depends upon it. Some of us have thought about this stuff a lot. And it’s more than a little heartbreaking to find an entire literature, a rich domain of philosophy, all of one’s own hard work, completely erased—due to nothing but arrogance, dismissiveness, and laziness. Ironically, by paying attention to substandard work—by making it matter—folks only perpetuate the idea that these issues have never been discussed before. Folks can then turn around and accuse trans people of being PC, of not wanting to engage in discussion, and so forth. Our own refusal to engage is then taken as a lack of arguments (“aha, the emperor has no clothes!”), when it may simply be sheer exhaustion coupled with the unwillingness to risk further erasure by participating in the discussion of a substandard paper and by further enabling philosophers who suddenly want all the answers spoon-fed to them.
I conclude my reflections by pointing to the painful performative contradiction in Stock’s posts. On the one hand, she claims to respect the right of trans women to self-identify, to be treated as women, in most spaces (save restrooms and other private environments, etc.). On the other hand, she invites trans women to prove that we’re women. Of course, inviting a woman to prove that she’s a woman isn’t a great way to treat her as one. Oddly, she fails to notice that her posts and any engagement with it constitute a social space in which trans women are precisely not treated like women. Or perhaps she’s forgotten that we’re still in the room. The fact is, the so-called metaphysical question Stock raises can’t be abstracted from very real social contexts in which we philosophize.
I’m afraid there’s a tendency among some philosophers to suppose that philosophical investigations into race, gender, disability, trans issues, and so forth are no different methodologically from investigations into the question whether tables really exist. One difference, however, is that while tables aren’t part of the philosophical conversation, trans people, disabled people, people of color, are part of the conversation. Or at least, we think we are. We’re here. In the room. And we’ve suffered from life-long abuse. I’ve helped a friend die of AIDS, fending off the nurses who misgendered her, watching in horror as the priest invalidated her entire life at her funeral by reducing her to a man. I’ve been personally assaulted in public to prove that I was a man. I’ve had a friend trans-bashed. And as this beating was gang-related, she then lost her home. I’ve had a friend stripped by police-officers, forced to parade back and forth while they ridiculed and harassed her. So please understand that this is a little bit personal.
When we battered tables show up and start philosophizing, only to find these same erasures and invalidations perpetuated within a philosophical context, we can become more than a little upset. To repeat, as philosophers, we simply cannot assume that the methodology must be the same across the board. To 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. Do you understand the risks? It’s one thing to spout views about the composition problem with both arrogance and ignorance. It happens. It’s annoying. But it’s quite another thing to do this when we’re talking about people—people who are in the room, people trying (and succeeding) to philosophize themselves.
For the longest time, I was one of the few trans scholars working in the profession. But times are changing. There’s a young crop of trans and genderqueer scholars doing the work. But they’re also in precarious situations. Some are still in grad school, some are looking for work, some are trying to get tenure. Nothing is helped by perpetuating such a hostile environment for them. Surely this is an issue we need to take seriously. Philosophers need to start taking responsibility for themselves, for their beliefs, for their intellectual laziness, for their lack of care, and for their simple unwillingness to pursue the truth. The search for truth surely requires a modicum of intellectual humility. It’s time to recognize the literature, recognize the possibility of different starting points, recognize the high stakes for those of us who dare to speak back.
I conclude by acknowledging that nothing I say here is at all original. What I share are simply thoughts that have already been shared by many trans theorists and philosophers. It’s just that I was given the opportunity to speak on a blog that could reach more philosophers than usual: somebody handed me a microphone (thanks, Justin!). With that in mind I want to sign-off with something old and something new. The old is C. Jacob Hale’s “Suggested Rules for Non-Transsexuals Writing about Transsexuals, Transsexuality, Transsexualism, or Trans” (1997). It’s from the nineties, but it’s still horribly relevant. The new is from Amy Marvin’s comment on a recent post at Feminist Philosophers. I’ll leave the closing remarks to her:
Asking people who want to do critical scholarship on this subject to “read the literature” seems to often get dismissed as a near-ad hominem, or as a tactic for uncritical dismissal without any engagement (and thus intellectually shallow)… I worry that the difficulty of having a conversation about whether or not trans women are women (it stands out to me, by the way, that this yet again focuses on trans women rather than trans men) amounts to a suggestion that the conversation should not include our scholarly and personal voices, and continue to cast us as people who scholarship should be about rather than with. In a way, I wish that I could remain silent about this as well… but I have no choice in having my existence debated, with unavoidable consequences for me, both before I was born and likely after I am dead.
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*Thanks to Mark Balaguer, Ann Garry, Amy Marvin, and Perry Zurn for their helpful comments.
References (not included in my Stanford Encyclopedia entry “Feminist Perspectives on Trans Issues”)
Bettcher, Talia. “Trans Feminism: Recent Philosophical Developments,” Philosophy Compass (2017):1-11.
—–. “Through the Looking Glass: Transgender Theory Meets Feminist Philosophy” in Routledge Handbook of Feminist Philosophy (eds. Ann Garry, Serene Khader, Allison Stone) Routledge, 2017: 393-404.
—–. “Intersexuality, Transsexuality, Transgender,” in Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theory (eds. Lisa Jane Disch and Mary Hawkesworth) Oxford University Press, 2016: 407-427.
Diaz-Leon, Esa. “‘Woman’ as a Politically Significant Term: A Solution to the Puzzle,” Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 31:2 (2016): 245-256.
Haslanger, Sally. Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Jenkins, Katharine. “Amelioration and Inclusion: Gender Identity and the Concept of Woman,” Ethics 126: 2 (2016): 394-421.
Kapusta, Stephanie. “Misgendering and Its Moral Contestability,” Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 31:3 (2016): 502-519.
Saul, Jennifer. ‘Politically Significant Terms and the Philosophy of Language: Methodological Issues.’ Out from the Shadows: Analytical Feminist Contributions to Traditional Philosophy. Eds. S. L. Crasnow and A. M. Superson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Stryker, Susan and Talia M. Bettcher. ‘Editors’ Introduction.’ Transgender Studies Quarterly 3.1-2 (2016): 5–14.
Watson, Lori. “The Woman Question,” Transgender Studies Quarterly 3:1-2 (2016): 248-255.
Also by Jennifer McKitrick
“A Dispositional Account of Gender” Philosophical Studies, 2015, 172: 2575-2589
This is terrific and helpful but I have to note: I never see the criticism that someone didn’t engage with the literature when the critic agrees with the writer’s position. For example, I see no one attacking L. Mollica (who wrote a critical response to Stock) for being naive about the literature on trans and gender issues (as it seems to me she is, just as Stock appears to be). I also think it’s a little odd to insist that people read a ton of very complicated literature on these matters before taking a position. That would exclude 99.9% of people from discussing these things, which are so central to us all. Surely it’s not up to elites to figure out gender and then tell the masses what they should think. Granted, Stock and Mollica are philosophers (the former a professor and the latter a grad student) so it might seem they have some special duty to study before opining. But perhaps they were really opining qua citizens, and not qua philosophers. Experts can certainly say “go read this” but giving citizens a low grade for not writing like experts isn’t really holding them to appropriate standards.Report
“That said, perhaps she’s isn’t really interested in engaging with us philosophers in the first place. It may be that she’s only taking issue with the mainstream trans discourse that seems to her dogmatic, political, and unquestioned, and the trans activists who promote it. If so, it seems a little unfair to expect all trans people to do the theoretical work. Philosophical work seems better allocated to those of us who get into that stuff. More importantly, she can’t bring “philosophical” and specifically, “metaphysical” concerns against mainstream trans discourse, as if she were bringing new philosophical enlightenment to issues that had never been thought about before. She can’t trot out her philosophical views entirely abstracted from, and apparently oblivious to, the deep theoretical work that has been going on now for half a century—as if she’s the sole philosopher to shed light on these questions, finally clearing away the dogmatism that has no philosophical depth to it. This strategy of hers lacks philosophical integrity.”
-Talia Mae Bettcher, May 30th 2018, above.Report
Ahh, you beat me to it, Josh.Report
I agree with Jean.
I like many aspects of this post, mainly the bits where the author engages on the merits with Stock’s arguments. It is also personal for me to some extent because I am a trans person who is often misgendered (in some cases in deliberate and abusive ways, involving explicit references to my private parts, misogynist claims about what my place in society is as a woman [I’m trans masculine], etc.) and subjected to poor quality reasoning that presents itself as superior rationality, reasoning whose aim is to show that it is morally justified for people to knowingly misgender me because they’re using the gender terms according to my ‘biological gender’.
That being said, I still hate anything of the kind: ‘you haven’t read all the literature, you loser’, which this post has plenty of. And strangely this accusation is only ever made in response to politically charged positions that the accuser disagrees with. This is not only elitist, it is also just a wrong standard. People have the right to comment on issues without first doing a ton of frankly boring and bad reading, and such commentary is not in my experience much or at all worse than the commentary of those who do ‘engage’. ‘Engagement’ usually means useless citation and exposition that is gotten out of the way before the proper philosophy begins, and that proper philosophy is left entirely unimpacted (and correctly so) by the ‘engagement’ done to prove oneself worthy of an opinion. When it comes down to the arguments themselves, even the most ‘engaged’ articles have blatant logical fallacies; meanwhile the thought of a sincere and intelligent philosopher formed without having read 1000 articles first will often have more insight to it than the articles that hide poverty of philosophical ability behind plentifulness of ‘research’.
In any case, despite the presence of some articles on the subject, there is definitely a lack of open and high-quality discussion on the topic. In contexts such as conferences, reading groups, etc. (where there is face-to-face interaction), bringing up the circularity of defining, for example, a woman as anyone who identifies as a woman immediately elicits anxiety and silencing instead of proper philosophical engagement. The level of anxiety around this issue is higher than that around any other philosophical issue I have come across so far, and I don’t think it’s just because it’s personal for people (because it’s not only when trans people are invalidated that the anxiety comes up). Whatever the reason, we need to have more discussions on this topic without ‘you haven’t done enough reading’ being the bulk of one side’s refutation.
This is why I appreciate articles like Stock’s, even though I disagree with much of their content. I am happy to have a discussion or debate with Stock (or Reilly-Cooper), or any other radical feminist philosopher on the relevant topics, as long as they do not misgender any trans person during the discussion (I consider deliberate misgendering a form of psychic violence and draw the line there). I will probably write a response to Stock as well, or make a video response.Report
 Much (though not all) of the literature here appears to take as axiomatic that transwomen are women or that we have all-in moral or political reasons to count transwomen as women. Those who reject the axiomatic status of such claims will then have reasons to doubt the resulting accounts of gender. I think Stock is one such.
 An interesting and useful discussion of some issues here can be found in a discussion of Jenkins (2016), introduced by Bettcher:
One interesting feature is the discussion of Tuvel-type issues without the resulting vitriol.Report
I very much appreciate this thoughtful and informative post.
In case it’s of interest to anyone, my own reaction to Stock’s essays was to go and read both Bettcher’s SEP on trans issues, as well as Mikkola’s SEP on sex and gender. Since my own impression after reading (as a philosopher but a layperson in the relevant subfields) was that there is already a robust discussion of these issues, I had decided to ask Stock about these articles on Twitter, and here’s the reply thread:
Thanks for this, Talia. While there is a lot of interesting points to respond to here, I just want to hone in on one small part.
You said “Stock gives the impression that the only reason for letting trans women use female designated restrooms and so forth, is to help alleviate our gender ‘dysphoria.’ Our needs then appear frivolous in light of the many bad consequences she enumerates for non-trans women”. Then you went on to argue that the needs of trans women are not frivolous at all, because their comfort and safety is seriously at stake. I agree with you that the needs of trans women are not frivolous, in the ways you state. Being able to safely and comfortably access public facilities is important for mundane practical needs, the fulfilment of which is necessary for participating in social life with dignity as an equal.
However, you imply that using public facilities to alleviate gender dysphoria, that is, to validate or affirm gender identity, IS frivolous. But it seems to me that affirmation of gender identity is actually an important factor for many in terms of access to gender segregated facilities. I think the argument for that, briefly put, could look something like this:
1) Misgendering, or the failure to respect trans identities, causes direct and severe psychological harm to victims, as well as indirect harms related to the persistence of transphobic social conditions through the perpetuation of trans exclusive gender concepts.
2) Being barred from facilities that correspond to one’s gender is a misgendering or failure to respect trans identities.
3) Therefore being barred from facilities that correspond to one’s gender can cause direct psychological harm as well as indirectly contribute to transphobic social conditions.
If affirmation of gender identity weren’t an important aspect in this dispute, then it seems to me that provision of extra options (for example individual gender bathrooms or changing rooms, or options specifically for trans and gender diverse people) would be a more popular policy goal than it is. If there were no threats to comfort and safety related to using public facilities, surely the argument for many would still be that trans people should have access to the facilities that correspond to their gender, and that to provide alternative options is to fail to properly respect trans identities (albeit with less urgency).
I agree that comfort and safety is important, and that securing the safety of trans people is urgent. But it appears to me that there are possible solutions that could provide comfort and safety for everyone, including non trans women who do not feel comfortable or safe in public facilities that are open to people they rightly or wrongly perceive as male. And given what you said above about the risk to comfort and safety posed by men to women, it is not unreasonable for women, whether trans or not, to feel uncomfortable and unsafe with people they perceive as male in certain situations. If comfort and safety while using public facilities is the primary goal, then provision of safe alternatives (such as individual gender neutral bathrooms or changing rooms, or options specifically for trans and gender diverse people) should be a viable possibility.
However, this still leaves the argument that being barred from facilities that correspond to one’s gender can cause psychological and social harms. I think of the three points I posited above, it’s (2) that can be pushed back on. The provision of alternatives need not be understood as a failure of respect, rather, it can be understood as a mutually respectful practical compromise aimed at meeting a range of related but different needs. It can be understood as a compromise that will hopefully help toward the achievement of more long term political and social goals. And one of those long term goals should surely be to make it the case that is no longer reasonable for women to feel uncomfortable and unsafe with people they perceive as male in certain situations.Report
This reply is very uncharitable. Amongst other things, it seems odd to complain that an online piece which clearly sets out to respond to some specific claims groups of people on the internet make (i.e. who also don’t engage with relevant literature before they “trot out” their ideas) as if it were “expect(ing) all trans people to do the theoretical work” and criticizing them for not having done so at a high level of philosophical debate. The two are completely different things and I see none of the latter in the medium piece. Stock is writing regarding arguments around the UK Gender Recognition Act. If she started talking about ameliorative projects and high level metaphysics no-one would follow it and those bad arguments and false assumptions would stand. Her piece should be judged on whether it advances this particular public debate using reason that can be understood by people who can influence legislation, and I think it does.
As a broader observation, many people complain that philosophers don’t focus enough on a relevant literature, issue, or argument and wish the work was taken more seriously. It seems like a large part of the explanation for this is that any time people do try their hand at such things, positions of reasonable disagreement get deemed ‘arrogant, dismissive, lazy’ or the result of ‘hubris’ and the stakes for acceptable argument quality raised unfairly. Which makes those original requests to be take things more seriously actually look like demands to toe the line and speak only if you come to the ‘right’ conclusion. Some of us have read the literature. We think the arguments are found wanting, and this conclusion is not the product of laziness. But we won’t change our mind or get on board if every time someone makes a reasonable point they’re decried as lazy by fiat with the implication they have a duty to just keep silent.Report
As an outsider to this field: The first section where the literature is included is obviously fantastic and useful, but the “three presuppositions that undermine [Stock’s] analysis from the get go” were unpersuasive since it completely ignored the real question Stock was asking (whether a policy that would be trans-inclusive would inadvertently harm non-trans women), and the general philosophical methodology argued for seems at best shaky (eg: the author is right to ask “Why should I have to proceed from yours?”, but people unconvinced can ask the same question right back, and we’re suddenly in a circus).
And that isn’t good, because if a deep familiarity with the literature doesn’t let you come up with better arguments than the average pop pro-trans piece (as far as I can judge), it doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence in the legitimacy of the field to outsiders.Report
I have a rather specific comment on a narrow part of this that vaguely falls into my philosopher-of-science familiarity. (And since it doesn’t fall *that* far into it, it’s also a request for literature references if they’re out there – I’ve hunted a bit, but it can be difficult making your way around a literature you don’t know at all, without a really large investment of time.)
One of the points that perennially comes up in these discussions is that biological sex is a problematic category, not just in the moral-philosophy sense that we shouldn’t use it as a basis for action, nor the philosophy-of-language sense that it’s not the referent of gender terms, but in the scientific/metaphysical sense that it’s not a well-defined category. Here’s a typical example from Professor Bettcher’s (very helpful) SEP article:
“Instead, in Butler’s view, biological sex is culturally instituted and in this sense “gender all along.” Prima facie this view seems counter-intuitive. One way to motivate it is to recognize that contrary to the natural attitude about sex (discussed above), human beings cannot always be neatly divided into male and female. Indeed, once we recognize various features which go into sex determination (chromosomal sex, gonadal sex, genital sex, etc.) we see that sex is not a single, unitary, easily-determined feature.”
My concern is that this would invalidate pretty much any special-science category you like. It’s pretty much impossible to think of a scientific category that doesn’t have awkward special cases and blurred boundaries. (“Liquid” and “particle” in physics have that feature, for instance.) But that doesn’t make the categories arbitrary (it doesn’t even make them into cluster concepts) provided (roughly) that (a) most things fall into one category or another, (b) the category does important scientific work, and perhaps (c) you can characterize the category in some kind of functionalist way.
In the case of sex for *non*human animals, so far as I know there’s no reason why some of the special-case factors that apply to humans (failure of genotype to express in the phenotype, intersex characteristics) shouldn’t apply to them too. But in zoology, that doesn’t stop biological sex being a crucially important category that does lots of scientific work.
So if “biological sex” is supposed to be ill-defined as a category for humans, that seems to imply either (i) a skepticism about special-science kinds in general, and about biological sex in nonhuman animals in particular, or (ii) something very special about human *biology*. (i) looks really problematic on philosophy-of-science grounds and (ii) looks prima facie scientifically implausible (and I’ve had conversations with, and read comments from, medics and zoologists that support that prima facie hunch, though I’d be happy to get literature references if it’s wrong).
None of that really settles the higher-level issues, either as philosophy of language or as ethics. But since the gender-critical position partly turns on the relevance of biological sex (and since the *non*-feminist position that the referent of gender terms is biological sex is very widely held outside the academic humanities, and presumably ought to be engaged with if only on political grounds) I think it’s important to see if there are better arguments against “biological sex” as a scientifically valid classification.Report
I’m having a hard time finding people who endorse your claim that “the gender-critical position partly turns on the relevance of biological sex … as a scientifically valid classification” other than Butler. I’m also having a hard time finding it on the SEP article. Do you (or anyone else reading this) know others who are critical of biological sex because it is susceptible to vagueness?Report
For the relevance of biological sex to the gender critical position, I’m just quoting advocates of that position: I had in mind Rebecca Reilly-Cooper mostly, though I think Kathleen Stock also mentions it.
For advocates in academia, other than Butler, of skepticism of biological sex as a category, you’re asking the wrong person – this isn’t my field. It’s something I’ve come across a lot in conversation and in non-academic writings, but I was prompted to discuss it here because it was cited, and discussed sympathetically, in the SEP article by the OP. If it’s nonetheless widely rejected in academic feminism that would be interesting to learn.Report
Is it not necessary to deny that DNA/anatomy is relevant to biological sex if trans-women are to be considered women? If gender (i.e., gender roles, expectations and so on) is not something socially constructed but rather innately given to one’s own introspection and if that is then supposed to determine whether one is, insofar as their (biological) sex is concerned, male or female, then although biological sex is not constructed (since it is, after all, given innately) but it is independent of DNA/anatomy. Or is this reasoning wrong?Report
This is one of the things that confuses me about about these discussions, if we take biological sex to be dimorphic and gender to be independent of sex. It’s just not clear to me what it means to ‘feel like a man’ or ‘feel like a woman’. It could mean that one feels masculine or feminine, in a way that is ‘opposite’ from what is expected on the basis of sex. So a trans man feels masculine in a way that is ‘inappropriate’ for their biological sex, which is female. But this isn’t enough for the conclusion that one is a man or woman — no one thinks that being a man or woman is reducible to masculinity or femininity. But then to ‘feel like a man’ or woman would just mean that one feels *male* or *female* and I guess I’m suspicious of the claim that there is anything it feels like to be male or female, outside of the masculinity/femininity thing, or wanting to occupy a particular social role.
On top of this, informally I have seen people say that they are trans* because they reject the *gender* they were assigned at birth. But of course, we aren’t assigned genders at birth. So I really lose track of the issues.Report
”So a trans man feels masculine in a way that is ‘inappropriate’ for their biological sex, which is female. But this isn’t enough for the conclusion that one is a man or woman — no one thinks that being a man or woman is reducible to masculinity or femininity.”
Are you saying that nobody thinks that feeling like a man is not sufficient for being a man? Because I’m pretty certain that a lot of people think that *identifying* like a man is sufficient for being a man. And I take ”identifying” to be very similar to ”feeling”Report
krell, I’m saying that feeling *masculine* is not sufficient (nor necessary) for being a man. Some women feel masculine, some men feel feminine. One critique of the ever-expanding concept of ‘trans*’ is that masculine women and feminine men might feel pressured to identify as trans* or even to take steps to physically transition. I take it that one of the goals of second-wave feminism was to be liberatory, so people didn’t feel the need to change themselves to fit in with repressive gender norms. Hence the occasional labelling of trans* “ideology” as “regressive”.Report
For advocates in academia, other than Butler, of skepticism of biological sex as a category…
Her reasoning is different from Butler’s (*), at least to a large degree, and the skepticism is somewhat modest, but people might find something relevant and useful in the work of Anne Fausto Sterling, perhaps especially her essay “The Five Sexes”, available to at least some people here: https://nyaspubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/j.2326-1951.1993.tb03081.x
(*) When I first read Butler a long time ago, I was surprised how much her account was similar to extreme forms of varificationism, at least in terms of sex and some other categories. The ideas were not clearly presented, but the upshot seemed to me to be very much like a strong form of positivism that has largely been rejected. I’m not sure if others have had a similar impression or not, and I’ve not re-read _Bodies that Matter_ or _Gender Trouble_ for a long time, so perhaps it would seem different to me now.Report
biological sex is a useful and powerful (if I’ll defined) tool for biological inquiry. Discussions about rights are not questions of biological inquiry. Discussions of what words mean are not questions of biological inquiry. You would be hard pressed to find biologically useful distinctions playing a part in any area of philosophy other than philosophy of biology. Why should discussions of gender and patriarchy be any different?
The point is not that biological sex is unfounded as a category. The point is that the ways in which it is I’ll-defined make it an irrelevant distinction in discussions of gender, but not in discussions of biology. It turns out, we can discuss any topics related to biological sex in non-human species just fine as is, because it is useful biologically and has negligible side effects. There is no reason to believe this is the case for humans just because it works for other animals though. We don’t criticize philosophers of language for not studying the way whales and ants communicate, nor political philosophers for ignoring the way bees form colonies. Likewise, discussions of gender shouldn’t be beholden to how some biological species are distinguishes by sex. No need to infer any specialness to human biology. Just because humans are biological beings doesn’t mean the biological method of inquiry is useful for doing philosophy about how humans live.Report
Well, I take it that this question (how much is biological sex relevant to the debate) is one of the big loci of disagreement. But in any case I didn’t comment on that question – only on the logically prior question of whether biological sex is a coherent category.Report
“None of that really settles the higher-level issues, either as philosophy of language or as ethics.”Report
“Why should discussions of gender and patriarchy be any different?” I thought the answer to this question would be because gender is understood in terms of its relation to biological sex. Some people, including me, think that the two are importantly different. Others think that there is no difference between the two (i.e., your biological sex = your gender). There would be no way of making progress on this disagreement if we didn’t think about what biological sex is.
Your analogy to philosophy of language and political philosophy is interesting, but I’m not sure it’s apt. Philosophers of language do discuss the communication systems of other animals. They do so specifically when addressing the question of what language is, and the question of what kinds of things have language. And they would be rightly criticized if, in attempting to address these questions, they failed to discuss both humans and non-humans. Similarly, anyone who is interested in the question of what biological sex is, and what kinds of things have biological sex, would be rightly criticized if they failed to discuss both humans and non-humans. Or so it seems to me.
Although I do philosophy of language, I don’t know much political philosophy. It seems to me that classical political philosophy is not very concerned with the question of what a society is. Rather they seem more concerned with when a certain type of society (organized in a certain way, with power and authority allocated in a certain way) is justified. But if someone were to ask the fundamental question of what a society is, then it seems to me appropriate to discuss, for example, bee colonies.Report
For what it’s worth, there’s interesting comparisons between animal society and human society in lots of political philosophy – in Hobbes, Rousseau (perhaps most importantly), in Mandeville, Hume, and surely others. There are lots of interesting questions here, relating to natural equality, different forms of cooperation, what counts as law, rules, or government, etc. It’s not necessary that political philosophers discuss this stuff, of course, but it’s certainly relevant to large parts of political philosophy and sometimes discussed. In that, it seems fairly similar to the situation in philosophy of language.Report
I’ve also sometimes encountered the claim that the biological male/female distinction is philosophically problematic or incoherent. Typically when talking with people from other disciplines, such as English. Their reasoning does tend to be similar to Butler’s: some people don’t fall neatly into either category, for various reasons.
But doesn’t this form of reasoning commit a fallacy (I think maybe it’s called “the continuum fallacy” or something)? Just because there are unclear cases of something, it does not follow that there no clear cases. So, just because there are unclear cases in which someone isn’t straightforwardly male or female, it does not follow that there are no clear cases in which someone is straightforwardly male or female. So I see no reason to conclude that the distinction is philosophically problematic or incoherent. I also see no reason to conclude that biological sex is ultimately a cultural thing somehow.
But I do see reason to say that sex is not in every case “a single, unitary, easily-determined feature,” to quote Bettcher. It seems to me that some people are straightforwardly male/not female, some are straightforwardly female/not male, some are both, and some are neither, depending on certain biological factors. So sex is more complicated than some might think, but it’s not as if we should be suspicious of the notion of biological sex.Report
I swear I am not trolling, and maybe I am just being lazy for not figuring this out myself, but I’d be interested to hear whether you (David Wallace) think the male/female distinction is more robust or scientific than the organism/non-organism distinction. It seemed like you were arguing in the other thread that the latter distinction was problematic or not scientifically robust or something, and here you seem to be defending the former distinction. Both seem equally legit to me, for the reasons you give here.Report
I’m not David Wallace, but I read both comments and don’t see the prima facie tension. In both cases, his point is that a biological distinction or category can be legitimate even though it admits of vague or borderline cases. In the abortion thread his opponents argue from the legitimacy of the distinction to the absence of vague or borderline cases. In this case is presumed opponents argue from the presence of vague or borderline cases to the illegitimate see of the distinction/category. In both cases his opponents accept the same conditional that he rejects–it’s just that they differ in whether they use it to ponens or tollens.Report
Sorry, *his* presumed opponents. And*illegitimacy*, not *illegitimate see*. Talk-to-text, free.Report
Yes, exactly this. (This is a fairly core theme in some of my research, though I’m mostly concerned there with physics not biology).Report
Hmm, maybe I’ve lost the dialectic, but I don’t think abortion opponents deny that the boundaries of what’s an organism can be vague–conception itself takes time, so even if you think that we get a new organism at conception there will still be borderline cases of “new organism”. And of course one might hold that really a new organism comes into existence only after implantation (16 days: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12715281), or after the development of a central nervous system, or whatever. The argument for “fetal rights” we were discussing just claimed that we are organisms, that we have our fundamental rights essentially, and that we were once fetuses–e.g., the organism that I am was once a fetus. Indeed, the thing that I thought was sophistical was basically the kind of reasoning that you (David/Daniel) now seem to be arguing *against*: it’s vague when we get a new organism, so there’s no real difference between something that is clearly an organism (a 9 week old fetus) and something that (I maintain) clearly isn’t: a sperm and an egg 14cm from each other. But again, maybe I’ve lost the dialectic. Still, this passage seems to suggest that the distinction between organism/non-organism is illegitimate, or at least not scientifically load-bearing:
“You could try saying (perhaps your post suggests this) that what matters is that a “living thing” has the DNA, so that the distinction between (sperm-and-egg-separately) and (fertilized-egg) is that one doesn’t “count” as a living thing and the other does. But then you need an argument as to why you’ve decided that that’s true, and why the distinction you’ve drawn is ethically load-bearing. It’s not scientifically-load-bearing: natural-selection-derived biology just doesn’t care about precise definitions in that way. “Organism” is a useful theory term in biology but only because it has clear applications in most cases, not because it has a unique extension to something precise and significant.”
If the distinction between male/female can be vague yet legitimate and scientifically load-bearing, I’m not sure why the distinction between organism/non-organism can’t be legitimate and scientifically load-bearing as well.Report
I’m not going to derail this thread; re-make this point on the other thread if you like.Report
Ok, that’s sensible.Report
I found the following book, by a feminist biologist, to be very interesting for thinking about this question:
Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. NY: Basic Books, 2000.
Briefly, AFS adopts a “developmental systems” approach to the question, arguing that sex is a product of a complex developmental process. This way of thinking about sex has many consequences, but one very important one is that it breaks down the traditional nature / nurture distinction in what I take to be a very powerful way that is different, though not incompatible, with the kind of thing that Butler was arguing.
The development of a human (as well as non-human) body is a complex and dynamic process, with many many contributing factors. These include but are crucially not limited to e.g. karyotype (xx or xy chromosomes) and hormones. Moreover, none of the factors, on their own, determine the organism’s developmental trajectory. Most factors aren’t even difference makers in the sense that the outcome of the process does not counterfactually depend on them. For example, a developing embryo with a heterogametic karyotype (xy) may well develop a typically female-identified anatomy depending, for example, on facts about its endocrine system.
Apart from their causal complexity, a crucial point about the developmental systems approach is that it stresses the fact that development never stops. Senescence is a part of the developmental process as much as embryogenesis. So sex (to say nothing of gender) can change over the course of a lifetime. How this may happen depends a lot on the species of the organism in question. In some cases, a chemical change in the organism’s ecological context can trigger a change in sex. Or a change in temperature may do so. The development of an adolescent human will certainly depend on chemical features in its environment. Is a surgical intervention *fundamentally* different?
One final point: I think the biological category of sex is not only vague, and socially / politically loaded, it also collapses a complex multi-dimensional space onto a single binary or spectrum. When evolutionary biologists talk about sex they usually mean gamete size. Does that mean that sterile organisms are asexual? Perhaps so, but certainly the conventional sex / gender distinction lumps many additional features in with gamete size, including anatomical, hormonal, and genetic facts about an individual. The question is whether it is really useful to lump all these together (exceptions be damned!) or if it does not make more sense to dis-aggregate them and speak in more precise terms that also don’t happen to make it more difficult to acknowledge the full, multi-dimensional, spectrum of human diversity?Report
David, you are quite correct. The accepted view amongst trans activists and allies is that biological sex must be denied because it is thought to be in conflict with trans gender identities. For some, the claim that biological sex is real, and / or that one’s biological sex matters, is properly considered hate speech. “Sex”, however, is not denied: instead, it is thought to be determined by gender identity rather than features related to role in reproduction. So, according to this line of thought, if you have the features related to the role in reproduction formerly known as “male”, and you identify as a woman, those features are actually “female”, not “male”. To define the features as “male”, or to define “male” with reference to those features, is considered “cissexist”. Mutatis mutandis for “female”.
Here are two examples of people denying biological sex:
Bettcher herself, as far as I understand her, argues that claims about biological sex are really just claims about what genitals people have. If I say “S is a female” and I am using the folk concept of “female”, for Bettcher this is to say “S has a vagina”. As alluded to above, for Bettcher this is a linguistic practice that amounts to an abuse of privacy. She believes that genital status should not be encoded in language or social practices such as gendered clothing: instead, we should respect people’s authority over their own gender and use language accordingly (using correct pronouns, modifying our gender concepts, etc). For Bettcher and others who hold this view, it is therefore abusive for lesbians (such as Kathleen Stock) to discern potential partners based on their genitals. This view is consistent with the view expressed in less academic circles that lesbians who do not consider trans women as potential sexual partners are weird and gross “vagina fetishists”. Strikingly, it seems to be the case that it is lesbians who attract the most ire for their sexual preferences, rather than gay men and straight people. Perhaps this is because many radical feminists are also lesbians, which means they are more outspoken and defensive of their understanding of their sex and their sexual preferences. Or perhaps it is because the trans movement has been largely spearheaded by trans women who are sexually attracted to women. Perhaps it is both.
I think, however, that Bettcher’s view of sex is too reductive. I don’t think sex is simply genital status. Rather, genital status is taken to be indicative of sex, and sex is, as you say, related to role in reproduction. Genitals are part of reproductive role, and when we are born they are really the only way for most people tell which reproductive role we can take (there are rare exceptions, such as chromosomally determined intersex conditions, but a baby’s genitals remain a very accurate but not failsafe way to determine potential reproductive role). When we mature, the development of secondary sexual characteristics means it is usually fairly obvious to most people which role in reproduction other people can take, without having to look at their genitals. Given our biological imperative to mate with each other and produce offspring, it’s not surprising that we tend to advertise our potential role in reproduction to others, through the use of gendered clothing, etc.
However, none of this shows that we should continue implicating folk sex concepts in our linguistic and social practices in this way. Perhaps Bettcher is right that we should ameliorate our sex concepts so that they reflect gender identity rather that potential reproductive role. But you are right that this is an important locus of tension between the so-called gender critical view and the trans activist view. To be “gender critical” is to believe that biological sex is real and that it matters. For many trans activists and allies, however, the idea that biological sex is real and that it matters is an impediment to the more important goal of full acceptance of trans gender identities.Report
Thanks, that’s helpful.Report
I thought that was really helpful too. I think I mostly agree with Bettcher, and I think your second to last paragraph is a bit too “socio-biological” for me. I do think the world would be a mostly better place if people’s biological sex were less implicated in social life. And i certainly agree that it ought to be open to me to maintain privacy about what kind of genitals I have. (Here the borderline cases can do a fair bit of work for me. I think most of us would agree that if I were intersex, I would not be required to advertise this to the whole world. So why should I just because I have a clear biological sex.) But I do wonder about a couple of points related to the issue of sex partners.
1. There are lots of things that it would normally be a violation of privacy to advertise about another person that I am normally taken to be allowed to want to know I choose them as a sex partner: what diseases they have, what kinks they do or don’t enjoy, whether they are really bald but wearing a wig, etc etc. In fact I can think of certain cases where I would regard *deliberately* withholding information about yourself that would ordinary be regarded as private in order to get someone else to have sex with you as a form of non-consensuality.
2. I found this line super weird: “lesbians who do not consider trans women as potential sexual partners are weird and gross “vagina fetishists”. are there many other examples where generally “politically correct” people go around labeling sexual preferences as “weird and gross fetishes”? (I realize this was probably your expression and not Bettcher’s, but I assume it captures some aspect of the view correctly.) Am I a bad person if I like vulvas with a particular sort of appearance? Or is the idea that sexual desire is private and free somehow out the window all of a sudden? And if so, why is not *also* a weird fetish for me to prefer partners of a particular *gender*. I mean, do all the usual rules of say, employment fairness, apply when i am choosing a sexual partner, or am I allowed to be *discriminating* (in precisely the sense that would be pejorative were I making an employment decision or making a loan decision for a bank) when I choose a sex partner. If the latter, what’s so special about genitals that they are out of bounds?Report
There’s a thin sense in which anyone is allowed whatever sexual preferences they like. But for some sexual preferences we are fine with putting social structures in place to facilitate them; for others, we aren’t. So dating scenes and online apps aimed at gay men, or at people who like the outdoors, are fine; aimed at non-Jews, or people with a low BMI, they’re not.
The best I can do (as an outsider to the academic debate, but an interested citizen- input from the more informed is welcome) to make sense of what’s at stake is that it’s about whether a sexual preference for people of a given biological sex (or possibly: a given genital morphology) is legitimate in this second, thicker sense.Report
I think your BMI example shows well that the “dating app” criterion is not adequate. A “low BMI” app would probably garner opprobrium, as you say. But if I admitted in public that I liked thinner sexual partners, nobody would call me a “gross and weird fetishist.” I think that’s true for almost any physical characteristic I cant think of. So I think the second thicker sense is too thick to do the work people in this debate want it to do. I am “allowed” to have these preferences not just in the sense that it shouldn’t be illegal or whatever, but in the relatively thick sense that its not politically correct to try to shame me for having them.Report
Hi Eric, I am sorry this reply is so late, but I have been otherwise occupied. I would just like to clarify that those words (“lesbians who do not consider trans women as potential sexual partners are weird and gross ‘vagina fetishists'”) are not mine in the sense that I endorse them, but they are mine in the sense that they are not Bettcher’s. I was reporting a common attitude I have seen expressed in certain communities, namely, that lesbians who do not consider trans women as partners are transphobic, and therefore deserving of shame and censure. I think that this view is consistent with Bettcher’s (more elegantly expressed) implication that dating sites that require one reveal one’s trans status are abusive in that it effectively requires one reveal one’s current or past genital status (if you are a trans woman, then you either have, or have had, a penis).
I personally am of the view that when it comes to sexual preferences, the sex (and by “sex”, contra Bettcher, I do not merely mean “genital status”) of one’s partner can be highly relevant and is not like race, etc. I partly agree with Bettcher in that I think that most of the time, our sex is not relevant, yet it is constantly, perhaps even obsessively, alluded to in language, fashion, etc. But where I disagree with Bettcher is that sex is never relevant: I think there are various legitimate purposes for which we can justifiably distinguish people according to sex.Report
You make a tremendous leap here: “lesbians are abusive for not discerning their sexual partners with reference to genitals” does not follow from the conviction that “my genital status is private [outside of specifically sexual contexts, presumably]”.Report
*for discerning their sexual partnersReport
This is a great comment.
The idea that it is abusive to have a sexual orientation where you are only attracted to people of one sex (e.g. AFAB) is itself homophobic and specifically lesbophobic in the case of that form of lesbian orientation. Just as Stock’s views are personal to trans people, such a view (whether it’s Bettcher’s or not I’ll leave aside for now) is personal to gay and lesbian people, who have had their fair share of being told that their orientation is a perversion and don’t need to hear it from their supposed allies in the LGBT community.
“… whether a sexual preference for people of a given biological sex (or possibly: a given genital morphology) is legitimate in this second, thicker sense.”
That’s called sexual orientation, but anyway, yes it’s entirely legitimate and I honestly don’t believe we’re even having this debate.
Anyway not disclosing one’s sex/gender before getting sexual with someone is a violation of informed consent, but that seems to be all the rage these days in trans activist circles.Report
So basically, the trans community wants to eliminate the folk meaning of ”man” and ”woman” (which is biological), in order to help the trans cause (helping trans people to integrate seamlessly in society).
But going off of Eric’s comment down in this thread, wouldn’t such a semantic change seriously collide with the strong interest of many people to be able to determine with relative ease and reliability the genitals of the people they’re interacting with? Namely, for purposes of navigating potential sexual and romantic relationships. And from even a minimally utilitarian position, wouldn’t the interest of that latter group, let’s call them cis-people, outweight he interest of trans people, just by the sheer numbers (and the fact that their interest in being able to determine the genitals of other people is reasonable)?Report
There’s a middle ground, which is for trans people to do their duty of not violating informed consent by informing potential partners of their sex/gender before anything sexual (including kissing) commences.Report
Yes. Exactly. Lots of things that are normally private stop being private if you want to have sex with me. Keep the stuff in your underwear private if you like, but only up until then.Report
The central questions in Stock’s online article/blog post are 1) whether the interests of transwomen are (at least in some cases) in conflict with the interests of non-trans women 2) why it is so difficult for non-trans women to even voice such a concern. Unfortunately, this piece doesn’t squarely respond to either question. In fact, it seems to imply that transwomen’s interests are simply more important (see: the discussion of sex-segregated bathrooms), which is one of the arguments Stock challenges in the original post. I do hope someone takes Stocks arguments/questions on and genuinely responds to the concern raised. Based on my reading if the piece, I think the central concern is related to ensuring measures that have been put in place to address female inequality are not undermined. This seems like an entirely reasonable issue to discuss. Finally, I think many gender critical positions actually do rely on the category of biological sex, or at least see discussions of gender as inseparable from sex. A central premise of GC arguments is that females are oppressed under patriarchy and that gender is a symbolic system/set of norms that reinforces that oppression. It is not femininity that is oppressed under patriarchy but females, and “gender” (the marking of certain traits and behaviors as masculine or feminine) is a means of that oppression.Report
On Stock’s argument that trans women’s interests in conflict with cis women’s interests? Stock claims that the Gender Recognition Act will lead to “unscrupulous men” accessing women-only spaces in order to commit sex crimes against women. As R.A. Briggs pointed out in a discussion thread at Feminist Philosophers, this is a transmisogynistic myth; in other places, state recognition of trans women’s gender identity has not led to an increase in such assaults.
The document Stock links to support her contention here is profoundly unimpressive and is, as Stock elsewhere acknowledges, not a systematic survey by any means.
As R.A. said at Feminist Philosophers, that particular claim just isn’t a good starting point for a discussion of trans women’s interests and cis women’s interests.Report
Matt, there is already state recognition of gender identity in the UK. What the GRA proposes to change, however, is the conditions for having one’s gender identity recognised or changed. The GRA is about removing any kind of medical or social gatekeeping, in favour of purely self-determined gender identity claims. If the GRA is accepted, it seems plausible to me that it would be easy to mendaciously or frivolously change one’s gender whenever one feels like, and there would be no grounds to dispute suspected cases of mendacious or frivolous gender change.
Moreover, I am not sure about the statistics on crime (including but not limited to bathroom voyeurism and assaults). If crimes are recorded according to gender identity rather than assigned sex at birth, it will be hard to get a full picture of what is actually going on on the ground.
Here is one study related to this question: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0016885
And here is a critique of interpretations of that study: https://medium.com/@notCursedE/do-trans-women-retain-male-pattern-violence-df67954373fd
I think, however, what it really comes down to is this: do people who identify as female on the basis of their anatomy, etc, have the right to do so? Are there any conditions under which it might be justified for people who identity in this way to organise on that basis? Who should decide what those conditions are: people who identify in this way, or others who do not identity in this way?Report
The reply to the study is flawed for a number of reasons and the data in the study DO show that post-op trans women retain male patterns of criminality.
This does not even address the question of “what is trans?” Trans women are born and raised in male bodies and socialised like other males. Later they come to want to reject the gendered norms surrounding maleness, which is fine. But how is it we believe that they mystically shed this socialisation (that feminists of all stripes agree exists) the moment they declare themselves trans? Trans woman these days can mean anything: 1) a person who has had top and bottom surgery; 2) a male who has top surgery and hormones only; 3) a male who has hormones only; 4) a male who has done no medical transition but dresses in a feminine way; 5) a male who has done none of the above; 6) a male who says on some days he is male and some days he is female.
It is implausible to imagine that groups 1-6 are all ‘the same’ and none of them retain male patterns of violence, harassment, and attitudes towards women. Indeed the level of discourse in the debate is often decidedly masculine and aggressive. Yet all qualify as trans women and under the current culture, if not law, must not be treated differently from female-bodied women, not only in changing rooms, but also on all-women shortlists, quotas, and other programmes designed to ameliorate the oppression females face, despite the fact that many/most of these people will not experience any of this oppression.
It’s also not true to say that there have not been examples of men pretending to be trans to access women’s spaces and opportunities. Indeed it has happened countless times as detailed on the Woman Means Something website and with a simple google search. What is harder to find, however, are incidents of trans women being targeted in men’s spaces.Report
“the data in the study DO show that post-op trans women retain male patterns of criminality.”
Only in the earlier cohort (pre-1989). There is no male pattern of criminality in the latter cohort. Its author, Dr. Cecilia Dhejne, has clarified this point on more than one occasion.Report
“it seems plausible to me that it would be easy to mendaciously or frivolously change one’s gender”
“I am not sure about the statistics on crime”
“it will be hard to get a full picture of what is actually going on on the ground”
None of this is evidence. So let’s look at the evidence that’s been presented:
“Here is one study related to this question…. And here is a critique of interpretations of that study.”
To be clear, the critique of the interpretations of that study is in part by the author of the study. The full interview with her is here (linked in the critique). She specifically denies that “male pattern of criminality,” as Elizabeth puts it, refers to rape. (“As to the criminality metric itself, we were measuring and comparing the total number of convictions, not conviction type…. we were certainly not saying that we found that trans women were a rape risk.”) She also says that the later 1989-2003 group of trans women did not exhibit similar levels of criminal convictions to cis men, and she attributes this to better trans health and psychological care and decreased social stigma, as opposed to the 1973-88 cohort.
Whatever we have here, it does not seem to provide evidence that the GRA will lead to increased crime against women.
“I think, however, what it really comes down to is this: do people who identify as female on the basis of their anatomy, etc, have the right to do so?”
I think this is a good question! Pulling a comment that Audrey made at the Feminist Philosophers thread I mentioned:
“On the other hand, I agree that there are important discussions to be had about how we organize ourselves in a society in which gender has the complexities that it does. So what about alternative framings which presuppose something like Talia Bettcher’s view that people have first person authority over their gender, but acknowledge the real complexity over our social identities even beyond gender. I take the point that some cis women might worry about trans women speaking to women’s experience generally, if they are people who have transitioned later in life. But this is just one instance of a far more general phenomenon by which there really is no such thing as a universal experience of being a woman. Many BIPOC women worry about being represented by white women. Many disabled women worry about being represented by non-disabled women. And so on. And many trans women worry about being represented by cis women.”
I would love for there to be a discussion about these complexities. But I don’t think that discussion can possibly start from scaremongering myths about sex crimes by trans women or by men pretending to be trans women, as Stock perpetuated. Just as though I think there are interesting discussions to be had about the level of immigration the U.S. should allow (I think that the borders should be completely open, but many people disagree!), but those discussons shouldn’t start from myths about how immigrants are more likely to commit crimes and anecdotes about the some crimes committed by immigrants.Report
I think I’m losing my grip on the dialectic.
There are two empirical questions here:
(1) given that there are substantial differences in criminal behavior propensity between men and women, is the criminal-behavior propensity pattern of trans women that of men, or that of women, or something in between, or something else entirely?
(2) To what extent will various policy shifts that treat trans women as women create exploitable opportunities for criminal action on the part of men?
As far as I can see, there’s no really solid empirical evidence on either question, just a lot of dualling anecdotes, not-very-scientific self-report questionnaires, and theorizing.
But I don’t see any (non-question-begging) reason why the null hypothesis in (1) is “trans women have the same criminal-behavior propensities as women”, or why the null hypothesis in (2) is “it will create no, or only trivially many, new opportunities”.
And if that’s the case, it’s just as much a “myth” that the null hypothesis is true, as it is a “myth” that it’s false. The right thing to say is “we don’t have any really solid idea, though here are some arguments and anecdotes”. And the right thing to do is either go and commission the empirical research (if you think the case for doing a given thing depends on it), or argue that the empirical evidence isn’t relevant (if you’ve got, say, a rights-based argument that trumps harm considerations).
I think there’s a sharp contrast with the immigration case. At least as I understand it, the argument for saying increased crime among immigrants is a myth goes something like “here are a bunch of impeccably-controlled studies by different groups that show no significant differences in crime levels”.Report
No. In order to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate under the GRA, you would have to make a statutory declaration that you intend to live the rest of your life as that gender. There’s nothing frivolous about it.Report
Do you happen to know, is it possiblle to make only one such statutory declaration during a lifetime?Report
I’m not sure. I guess there are exceptions that could be made for people who genuinely regret making the change.
At any rate, it’s not something you could do “frivolously”, “whenever one feels like”.Report
@ beauvoir’s baby: I appreciate your thoughtful commentary throughout. However, I think the framing of your concluding remarks is already a bit questionable. These are the remarks: “do people who identify as female on the basis of their anatomy, etc, have the right to do so? Are there any conditions under which it might be justified for people who identity in this way to organise on that basis? Who should decide what those conditions are: people who identify in this way, or others who do not identity in this way?”
And here’s my small beef: people don’t necessarily “identify as” female. Saying they identify this way is close to suggesting that their sex is their choice, which to my ear has a decided neo-lib connotation, and doesn’t square well with the fact that they didn’t choose their sex-based oppression.Report
Hi AAM, by “identify as” here I just meant “understand themselves as”. Many people, probably most people, understand themselves to be the sex or gender they are in virtue of their observable anatomical and physiological features. Trans people, however, understand themselves as the sex or gender they are in spite of their observable anatomical and physiological features. Can we demand of non trans people that they stop understanding themselves to be the sex or gender they are in virtue of their observable anatomical and physiological features in order to accomodate trans people’s understanding of their sex and gender?Report
Matt, another point is that for many, the safety of non trans women is beside the point. On this view, even if opening all women-only spaces on the basis of self identity demonstrably increased risks to non trans women, it would still be an illegitimate move because it would deny trans women’s gender identities, which is thought to be related to psychological and social harms as outlined in my first comment above. I think the thinking is that trans women are oppressed by cisgender women, and are in general more vulnerable than cisgender women, so their interests should be prioritised both politically and morally speaking.
Here is trans activist Zinnia Jones making precisely that point:
acte manqué said that they* hoped that someone would take Stock’s questions/concerns seriously and respond to the concern raised about whether the interests of trans women and cis women are in conflict.
I responded with an argument that the evidence Stock gave to support that concern was bad.
Now you’re responding to me by saying that “for many, the safety of non trans women is beside the point.” But my point, and the specific question act manqué called for addressing, was that there is no evidence for a threat to the safety of trans women! So the point you’re making is irrelevant to the debate over the concerns Stock raised.
Putting it in a proofs that p form:
X says: “p, and therefore q.”
Y says “X’s argument that p is bad.”
Z says “Some people think q doesn’t follow from p! That requires extreme view r.”
Z isn’t really being responsive to Y here, are they? (And forgive me if you didn’t mean to characterize your r here as extreme; that was how I interpreted your comment.)
I also think you are distorting what Jones said, and that it would be better to link to her essay rather than the provocative tweet she made about it, but I don’t want to get into a debate about that; people who want to know more about what she said ought to read her essay.
*I’m using a “they” pronoun because I don’t know the poster’s gender.Report
I should say, when I say I don’t want to have the discussion, it’s mostly because what Jones says seems like kind of a complicated issue worth an extensive discussion that I don’t have the time to do justice to now, especially because I have technical problems with the comments here.Report
Thanks for your reply Matt and I am sorry I took so long to respond. I think the form you proposed is inaccurate: my point is more that questions about whether q follows from p might be a wild goose chase. In that article you linked to, there is the subheading: “Why safety is the wrong argument”. I think that it is clear that Jones thinks the safety argument is a wild goose chase. The section under that subheading can be boiled down to the argument that if being safe for other women is not a condition of access for non trans women’s access of women’s spaces, it should not be a condition of access for trans women. If an individual woman’s propensity to commit violence against women is not a reason to bar her from women’s spaces, why should a suspected group propensity to commit violence against women be a reason to bar individual trans women from women’s spaces?
So, if Jones is right about all this, why are you bothering to argue that non trans women’s safety is not compromised by allowing trans women access to women’s spaces? There is insufficient data to make the case, and nothing turns on it anyway.Report
“I honestly don’t understand an approach that starts off in such an adversarial way, pitting the alleged interests of non-trans women against everybody else. It just doesn’t seem very feminist to me.”
There’s a clear difference between stating that there is an inherent conflict between the interests of trans women and women who are not trans, and pointing out that certain strategies for promoting the interests of one group could easily set back the interests of the other (or perhaps, as you suggest, the interests of both!). The latter is her point, and it’s an important one that, in debates informing strategy, is actively labeled as transphobic or bigoted. Her approach is adversarial only if you think that the interests of “WNTs” in these debates are frivolous or are not worthy of moral consideration.Report
Just quickly chiming in to say thanks for taking the time to write the excellent first half of the post. I have many other reservations, especially regarding the second half, but some of them have been raised by others. Will try to engage a bit later.Report
So, twice in this commentary, we are advised to read “Lori Watson’s excellent “The Woman-Question” (2016).” So I read it, and here’s what I see:
“If subordination on the basis of one’s sex is central to the social and political meaning of “woman,” and it is, then what can possibly be the response to denying that trans women are precisely in this position? That they were born with a penis? I thought we were past biological essentialism, at least since Simone de Beauvoir.”
I am no expert on this topic, and the point I wish to make is not meant to have wide implications for the debate. But surely Stock will say that this passage represents the problem she sees in the literature: according to the Gender Critical view, having/being born with a penis is a *seriously* important fact wrt to gender, because such a person cannot be oppressed for having, for example, a womb. If this publication treats casual references to De Beauvoir as sufficient to dismiss this “Essentialism”, then the publication is subject to the very biases that Stock was complaining about in the original piece.Report
“If subordination on the basis of one’s sex is central to the social and political meaning of ‘woman’, and it is”
Honest question: What does that mean? I’m not sure what a “social and political meaning” of a word is.Report
Does it imply that if subordination on the basis of one’s sex stopped, there would be no women? I guess I think that seems bad.Report
If you’re interested in this objection, which has been substantially discussed in the literature, a good place to start is Haslanger’s “Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them To Be?” which presented the ameliorative approach and which is thus vulnerable to this objection, which you can then trace through the various replies and Haslanger’s own replies and so on.Report
Thank you. I’ll look at this. So, is the reference to a “social and political meaning” a way of signaling that it’s the ameliorative question we’re concerned with here?Report
I don’t think so. In that article Watson is not really pushing an ameliorative analysis of the concept of ‘woman,’ or really any particular concept. Her argument as I understand it is that any sensible concept of ‘woman’ is one according to which trans women are women. This would encompass an ameliorative concept of ‘woman’ insofar as such an approach in sensible, but I think her target is broader, and it aims to encompass non-ameliorative concepts of ‘woman’ that are instead purely (or at least largely) descriptive, as opposed to normative. (And ameliorative concepts are of course fundamentally normative.)
The “social and political meaning” part, I take it, is meant to signal that the concept of ‘woman’ being discussed is not a biological concept, which is not really much of an ask, given that the whole reason we came up with the sex/gender distinction in the first place was to talk about the social and political stuff (gender) as divorced from the biological stuff (sex). Many people trace the genesis of this rejection of essentialism (a rejection that sex just straightforwardly determines gender) to de Beauvoir, as Watson notes.
So, Watson is saying (I think) that if we admit that ‘woman’ is a social and political concept (because it’s a gender term), then clearly trans women are women (because they are oppressed on the basis of their sex, their place in the gender/sex hierarchy, and so on). And to deny this would be to fall back into biological essentialism.Report
Thanks. This is really helpful. I’m interested in (and relatively naïve) about this stuff. I appreciate the engagement.
So, if we have an ameliorative project, then I understand how the sort of worry I raised above (which I have no doubt has been raised and thoroughly discussed in the literature) is not terribly worrisome. If we’re revising our language or concepts for reasons having to do with justice, or even theoretical reasons, we might get all sorts of consequences associated with the revised word or concept that we would not have followed from the original word or concept.
You’re suggesting, I think, that Watson is attempting to analyze our actual, ordinary language term ‘woman’, though. Her view, I guess, is that that term applies to something only if (if and only if?) it is something that is oppressed on the basis of its sex. So, her view entails that if oppression on the basis of sex stopped, then, there would be no woman, in the ordinary language sense of ‘woman’. Isn’t that just obviously false?
“The ‘social and political meaning’ part, I take it, is meant to signal that the concept of ‘woman’ being discussed is not a biological concept, which is not really much of an ask, given that the whole reason we came up with the sex/gender distinction in the first place was to talk about the social and political stuff (gender) as divorced from the biological stuff (sex).”
I’m not sure who the “we” is here that came up with the sex/gender distinction. Philosophers? If so, why think that it has much of (any) bearing on the project of understand the actual, ordinary language meaning of ‘woman’?Report
Sorry, I should have been more specific. There are a number of projects one might engage in when doing conceptual analysis (there’s some discussion of this in the Haslanger article I cited). One would be a purely descriptive task, which would be reporting on what lay people have in mind when they use the word or words that refer to the concept. This is a bit of a non-starter for a lot of topics philosophers might be interested in, simply because there’s a lot of variation in what lay people think, lay people don’t regulate their usage of terms in ways that lend themselves to coherent conceptual analysis, and so on and so forth. This is certainly the case for something like gender terms (‘woman,’ ‘man’).
So, typically when someone is doing a conceptual analysis of gender in philosophy, they’re starting with a more highfalutin goal: given that, unlike lay people, we understand certain things about the topic, like the sex/gender division that we get starting with de Beauvoir and ending up today (where things are again horrendously complicated and messy, actually, but we’ll put that to the side). And so we take as a basic unit of analysis the idea that, whatever our conceptual analysis turns up, it’s going to be with an eye towards explaining how gender (a social and political notion) works.
This gets us to the point Watson is responding to, which is that because trans women haven’t lived the sorts of lives women have lived, they can’t be women. But, as Watson points out, they have lived the sorts of lives women have lived. They’ve been subordinated on the basis of their sex, etc. Surely WHATEVER one thinks about the proper concept of ‘woman,’ one ought to be able to say that being subordinated on the basis of their sex is something that happens to women. Watson is crossing off one argument against thinking trans women are not women, namely, the argument that, unlike women, trans women aren’t subordinated on the basis of their sex.
Watson could go further and say that it’s an essential property of women that they are subordinated on the basis of their sex (or something like this), which is what Haslanger says. That would lead to the objection that someone who is not oppressed is not a woman. I don’t think Watson says that, though. She’s got a more limited argument, namely, if your analysis of gender entails that women are oppressed (which, I take it, is a premise shared by every side in the debate, because everyone is a feminist), then this does not license saying that trans women are not women unless you fall back on biological essentialism. And we don’t want to fall back on biological essentialism because that’s ignoring the whole point of the sex/gender distinction in the first place.
So, yes, “our” conception of ‘woman’ is the conception of philosophers. You ask what relevance this has to the project of understanding the actual, ordinary language meaning of ‘woman.’ There are lots of things to say about this (and Haslanger, among others, has written quite a bit on the topic). I think for the purposes of this conversation, though, it’s not particularly relevant. Everyone who is a party to the present debate is trying to say that, whatever ordinary language might have to say about things, ‘woman’ really ought to be understood conceptually as XYZ. I think ordinary language, for instance, doesn’t come down one way or another on whether trans women are women, because ordinary language is very confused on this topic. Some ordinary speakers clearly take trans women to be women, others don’t. The ordinary language concept of ‘woman’ isn’t unitary or coherent. But no matter: all the parties in the debate take themselves to have sorted out whether trans women are women, so we can simply tell ordinary speakers how they ought to use the term (if they want to keep from using incoherent or contradictory concepts, at least).Report
Alright. Let me see if I’m following:
There’s a word ‘woman’ floating around in ordinary language (call it “ordinary ‘woman'”). It’s meaningful, but it’s meaning doesn’t determine one way or another whether trans-women are women. At some point (maybe around the time of de Beauvoir) some philosophers (probably including de Beauvoir) started to think that ordinary ‘woman’ was deficient. In particular, its meaning failed to track a distinction between sex and gender that those philosophers had come to think was morally and theoretically important. In fact, the meaning of ordinary ‘woman’ is so disunified and confused that it’s a waste of time for philosophers to think about ordinary ‘woman’ and its meaning. So, they concluded, we should revise and/or extend ordinary ‘woman’ to track the distinction between gender and biological sex. That was a sort of ameliorative project, the result of which was sophisticated ‘woman’, a new, semi-technical use of the term ‘woman’, on which it is obvious (maybe analytic?) that trans-women are women. Sophisticated ‘woman’ is always in use when philosophers in this area are discussing the topic, but probably isn’t in use when ordinary people say the word ‘woman’. So, when philosophers are talking about the meaning of ‘woman’, they’re using sophisticated ‘woman’ and arguing about its meaning, which is guaranteed to track a distinction between gender and biological sex, and virtually guarantees that trans-women are women. According to Watson, sophisticated ‘woman’ somehow importantly involves the notion of oppression on the basis of sex. But, what’s clear is that everyone involved in this literature has decided that the meaning of sophisticated ‘women’ has as a consequence that trans-women are women. All that’s left to do is to persuade ordinary English speakers to drop ordinary ‘woman’ and adopt sophisticated ‘woman’.
And, all of this is also consensus amongst the people involved in this literature?Report
I think I’d characterize things in a number of different ways compared to the way you’ve put them.
First, I don’t think that historically the idea was that ordinary ‘woman’ was deficient. Rather, people started to become live to the fact that biology isn’t destiny when it comes to women: what makes someone a woman is not a matter of genitalia or whatever but rather a matter of social forces. De Beauvoir’s famous quote “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” is often taken to be one of the first strong statements of this sort of sentiment. In light of this fact, philosophers (and others) eventually came up with a way to talk about this: we drew the sex/gender distinction, put the biological stuff on the side of sex and the social stuff on the side of gender, and decided to use terms like ‘female’ and ‘male’ for sex and ‘man’ and ‘woman’ for gender. Of course, most of society has yet to catch on, and even when they do catch on it’s often in a confused way, so when lay people talk they are liable to use sex and gender terms in an intermixed way, they’ll fail to realize there is such a distinction, etc. But at least philosophy has a way to talk that avoids running together the distinction.
When it comes to deciding whether trans women are or aren’t something, I take it the fight is typically about whether they’re women (that is, what gender people are) rather than about whether they’re female (that is, what sex people are). So, that’s why we end up fighting about what the term ‘woman’ means and whether trans women are women: it’s a shorthand for fighting about what gender is, and how transgender people fit into gender.
Choosing ‘woman’ (and ‘man’ and so on) as our gender terms, or more generally recognizing a sex/gender distinction, does not commit us to the ameliorative project. The ameliorative project is a very specific project, which is coming up with a conceptual analysis of ‘woman’ (and more generally gender) that has a specific purpose: remedying ills (typically the ills of gender and sex discrimination). There are other ways to engage in conceptual analysis beyond committing oneself to the ameliorative project, at least insofar as the ameliorative project describes the relatively narrow approach that Haslanger takes. I think most people in the debate are not engaged in the ameliorative project that Haslanger is, although my knowledge of the literature is not encyclopedic enough for me to say that with any sort of confidence. (I also think Haslanger is sometimes not as clear as I would like her to be about how the ameliorative project is different from other sorts of conceptual analysis projects. This is a very complicated issue, and it brings in a number of issues – the one I’ll mention [because it’s my favorite] is what we want to say about the normativity of concepts. But others, or at least Haslanger, probably think she is clearer on this topic than I do.)
The starting point for philosophy discussion is typically what you call “sophisticated ‘woman,'” but only because the sex/gender distinction is typically the default, given the success of that whole framework. We do see some people reject the sex/gender distinction, or at least some people who complicate it (Butler is easily the most famous example). And of course this is philosophy, where anything is up for debate. So it’s not that, by fiat, trans women are women, but rather, given the way we tend to understand these terms, it’s not blindingly obvious how one would deny that trans women are women without reverting to biological essentialism (this is Watson’s point). There may be other ways (I suspect the people Bettcher is arguing against take themselves to be more sophisticated than old-fashioned biological essentialists, for instance, although sometimes it can be hard to tell) but that’s an argument that requires making, especially since it flies in the face of a lot of existing work. This is one of the things Bettcher’s post here points out.
So, it’s not that “all that’s left to do is to persuade ordinary English speakers to drop ordinary ‘woman’ and adopt sophisticated ‘woman’.” There’s quite a bit more to do: one needs to persuade people convinced by Bettcher’s interlocutors, for instance, to become unconvinced. One needs to sort out how one wants to do conceptual analysis. Etc. And I don’t think adopting sophisticated ‘woman’ would really solve very much, although it would probably wipe out some bigotry that’s rather low-hanging fruit, theoretically speaking. But insofar as that’s the fight that we’re having in this context, yes: the goal would be to get people to realize that trans women are in fact women.Report
Everything Danny Weltman points out here is good stuff. The only caveat I’d add is that (at least as I understand her) de Beauvoir is not arguing in favor of sophisticated ‘woman’ vs ordinary ‘woman’ – she is arguing that ordinary ‘woman,’ properly understood, is sophisticated ‘woman.’ For example, her argument that “woman” =/= “biologically female” is (in part) that ‘woman’ is prescriptive and ‘biologically female’ is descriptive.
True story (and one I tell my students every time I teach this subject): when I was in grade school a classmate brought in a pet bunny rabbit. I thought the bunny rabbit was super cute, and said “awww.” The boy standing next to me informed me that “boys don’t say awww.” If ‘boy’ meant ‘male human child’ he just said something laughably stupid – a male human child just said “awww” in front of him. But what he was saying is that ‘proper’ male human children don’t say “awww.” Gender, on its ordinary usage, tells us how we ought to behave.Report
I’m glad that these issues are being discussed here in an open manner.
I have a couple of doubts about the legitimacy of some modes of argumentation that are used here. I don’t mean to pick on the author of this guest editorial, though. These are general concerns with argumentative moves made across several domains. But since they often come up in this and related conversations, they seem to be worth noting.
I’ll limit myself here to just commenting on one of these moves. It goes as follows: a big cluster of people, usually driven by a similar underlying ideology, have a series of discussions in which everyone seems to take for granted that P. Then some outsider suggests that perhaps not-P, or at least that it’s not at all obvious that P, and asks for an argument for P, assuming that if there is such an argument, someone in the cluster can provide it. Those in the cluster, rather than providing an argument for P, say, “Uh, it’s really not our job to summarize the vast literature out there for P. I highly recommend that you undertake a serious course of study and read the following ten books and articles. These will almost definitely convince you that P. But the way that you asked the question, and the fact that you did so at all, make it painfully evident that you haven’t bothered to read the literature, and I have no wish to talk with you until you repair your ignorance.”
Is this a legitimate reply? I think it definitely isn’t, for a number of reasons. First, just because a bunch of people have written on an issue doesn’t mean that that body of writing is any good. It depends, among other things, on the way in which the literature was produced. Were people of all viewpoints represented in those contributing to and assessing the literature? When certain views were abandoned, was that purely because of the strength of arguments and evidence on one side, or partly because of social or psychological pressure used to silence or block out certain views, or to write them out of the literature? Is there any reason to believe that some people would be more comfortable contributing to the literature than others? Is there any chance of a loss of reputation or status for accepting or advocating an unpopular view?
A second reason is that it is, for all practical purposes, a falsification evasion. Suppose I go and read the ten books and articles that argue for P, and then come back and say that I still am not convinced. I explain my reasons. But then, my interolcutor can use the same trick again, and say, “Your reaction to Book 8 for P shows that you are also not up on the relevant background literature on that book. You will need to read twenty more books and articles to get clear on the background of just Book 8.” At this point, especially if I think the literature so far has been very poor and unrewarding, I’m almost certain to back out of the conversation. If I don’t, I’ll waste even more time and probably be told the same thing yet again. This would be like a young earth creationist saying, “You aren’t even ready for this conversation until you’ve read this whole bookshelf of technical creationist literature, and in the meantime you should just accept a 6,000 year old earth or at least shut up about it”, or a neo-Nazi insisting that anti-racists read thousands of pages of neo-Nazi literature sympathetically. But if we approach such people, we would never comply with such requests, nor should we. It’s entirely legitimate for us to ask them to produce arguments for a young earth or for the moral legitimacy of their view. If they want a chance to show that their view is correct, they should take it. If there are great arguments in the literature, then they should summarize those arguments for us. If they can’t or won’t, we do no epistemic wrong by not being convinced (and not just in the case of young earthers and neo-Nazis).
A third reason is that even in clearly technical matters, serious scholars and others do better. Historians, mathematicians and scientists have no difficulty answering questions parallel the sort Stock asks, even when they’re asked by laypeople and some of the matters are quite technical. I’ve seen many technical experts do quite well explaining Godel’s incompleteness theorem, quantum entanglement, etc. to laypeople who are initially skeptical. I’ve seen climate scientists rebut laypeople’s arguments against global warming by explaining the details of the hockey stick graph. I have never heard one of these people say, “What an ignorant objection! But I won’t tell you why: you have to go read the literature.” That really seems to be a bogus move.
I’ve got more to say on other things, but I’ll leave it at that.Report
Strangely enough, it’s now a joke about Jordan Peterson supporters – the constant – but you took him out of context/have not read his books…if you did, you would not ask these questions about his claims…Report
I’ve heard that that’s so, JJ. I think the move is made by all sorts of people in all sorts of conversations.
I’m trying to think of whether it falls under one of the well-known fallacies, or whether it’s a new one.Report
We could call it the Referee Fallacy. It seems to be an outgrowth of too many people who have had their papers rejected for being “unfamiliar with the literature”. (Yes, I’m in that boat too). The response is overused by referees, but it’s certainly sometimes a good suggestion. But when you’re doing ordinary philosophical conversation, the hand-wavey appeal to a bevy of literature that mysteriously supports your view is pretty vacuous.Report
The new atheist PZ Myers called this “The Courtier’s Reply.” Here’s my version of it:
Theist claims X.
Atheist argues ~X.
Theist says, “I’m not going to respond to your argument for ~X. If you read the literature, you’d realize that your argument isn’t any good.”
In my online experience reading new atheists and their critics, here are my observations about the Courtier’s Reply (I should note, I’m pretty familiar with contemporary analytic philosophy of religion):
1. Sometimes it’s much easier to make a criticism than it is to respond to a criticism. E.g., the response to the logical problem of evil is long and involved, and takes a lot more time to present than the logical problem of evil itself. Consequently, it’s not surprising the many theists will respond to invocations of it by saying, “read Plantinga on the logical problem of evil, then get back to me.”
2. Presenting Plantinga’s response to the logical problem of evil in a manner that is both succinct, understandable, and plausible is extremely difficult. Doing so well takes a lot of time and effort, and such effort is not only completely uncompensated, it’s often completely ignored or massively misunderstood. (I note this from bitter, personal experience.)
3. Often, the atheist who makes the criticism isn’t arguing in good faith. So, they’ll raise the objection and then, when you spend literally 100 times longer than they have on your response, they’ll just raise another, independent objection and not really respond to what you’ve said.
This is why I don’t think the Courtier’s Reply is really a fallacy at all. Indeed, I think it’s often used to valorize ignorance of whole fields.
A. Sometimes it really *doesn’t* take that much time to respond to an argument.
B. Sometimes your interlocutor really is arguing in good faith.
C. Sometimes there are silent onlookers who appreciate what you do but never tell you and, even if your interlocutor just moves on like you never said anything to begin with, making the effort might make a real difference anyway, to some people.Report
I’m not sure how this shows it isn’t a fallacy. It’s quite possible, for all I’ve seen, that Plantinga’s reply just fails, and that the only reason anyone is persuaded by it is that it’s so long and convoluted, the reader can’t keep his or her attention on the matter and says, “Okay, maybe” just to get it over with.
Suppose, though, that Plantinga really has an adequate reply to the problem of evil. Then that reply could presumably be broken down into premises and subpremises and then presented in a logical order, with an invitation to reply after each premise if the interlocutor has an objection.Report
It can be — but understanding it involves things like understanding modality (for instance: people find it difficult to understand the claim, “if possibly necessarily p, then actually p”), so even if you break it down to a syllogistic form, there’s still work to be done.
Personally, I don’t think the Courtier’s Reply is a fallacy, though it can be annoying if it turns out that your interlocutor didn’t really need to refer you to oodles of books.Report
Wait, doesn’t basically everyone agree that the logical argument from evil is a failure, basically for the reasons Plantinga gives? (By everyone, I mean more or less all philosophers of religion, including atheists of course, who know the literature.)
I think this is an important issue: I really sympathize with both Justin and Robert. Justin, you *have* to admit that there are cases where the true is more complicated and less intuitive than the false. Right?
Anyhow, at the very least I think it’s important to distinguish between cases where the outsiders/insiders are defined by their attitude towards P, and cases where they are defined by expertise. “All trans-activists find P compelling” is very different than “All philosophers of religion find P compelling”, since (plausibly) there aren’t any propositions acceptance of which is a necessary condition for being a philosopher of religion, but there are propositions acceptance of which is necessary for being a trans-activist.Report
I think there’s something to that but it’s not fully persuasive. Your antecedent belief in god is at least relevant to whether you get into philosophy of religion. (I don’t think I know any theistic philosopher who’s not at least somewhat interested in philosophy of religion; I know a lot of atheistic philosophers who aren’t interested at all.) To stick with this example, one fairly uncontentious solution to the Problem of Evil is to deny the existence of God. So if you’re a philosopher who is antecedently confident that God doesn’t exist, you’re much less likely to be professionally interested in the Problem of Evil than if you have the opposite starting view.
(On similar lines, consider http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2010/09/philosopher-of-religion-keith-parsons-calls-it-quits.html )Report
Well, I think now *this* subthread is in danger of being hijacked, but:
1) There are a decent number of very intelligent and established and respected atheists who are philosophers of religion. Maybe it’s not a completely pure case–but what is?–but being a philosopher of religion just doesn’t involve a commitment to any interesting propositions about religion, perhaps except that religion is interesting. (Even there, I guess someone could just do philosophy of religion for the money, with Templeton and all.) This seems to be rather starkly different than feminist philosophy, trans-activism, etc.
2) I am *really* trying to restrain myself with the Parsons thing, but hey, if you don’t want to teach crappy arguments, then pick a better text! I actually agree that the quality of argumentation in philosophy of religion is relatively bad, on average. But so what? By definition, lots of sub-fields will be below average. There’s still plenty of very high quality philosophy of religion being done.Report
Brief answer only, given the derailing concern: (1) I’m not defending Parsons, just advancing it as evidence that people’s participation in the field correlates with their views on first-order questions; (2) I think the interesting question (given, as you say, that there are no pure cases) is whether (and to what extent) philosophy of race/gender is really anomalous in requiring, quasi-requiring, or encouraging participants to hold certain views, rather than being at one end of a fairly smooth spectrum; (3) perhaps the comparison between philosophy of religion and trans *activism* isn’t quite right; it should be between philosophers of religion and philosophers of gender.Report
This comment is deeply, perhaps even ostentatiously, wise.Report
Totally agree with Justin. Being an expert on a subject not only involves being able to point to relevant literature, but also to explain what summary answer we’ll get from reading that literature. Bettcher’s article fails to do that.Report
I should say that one thing that worries, even about this blog post, is the way in presents the issues. For example, there are not women and trans-women, but trans-women and non-trans-women, as if the basic category was trans-women. It’s subtle, but it’s present throughout – the more pressing and harder problems arise for trans-women – you think non-trans-women have problems? look at trans-women, it’s the same plus much worse. And so on. How far are we from asserting that, ultimately, only men who identify as women (and perhaps women who agree with them) are to speak for women since only they really know what being a woman is and, in fact, are really women? The author’s tactic is similar – she would love to discuss this rationally and calmly and all, but well – the Stock would not even get a good grade in her undergrad course (damn it, how is she qualified to be a professional philosopher, then?).Report
Um, so it was Stock’s essay in the first place that was using “trans women” and “women who are not trans” as the distinction. So it’s weird to hold Bettcher responsible for that framing.
Also, really, “men who identify as women”? That kind of trans-women-are-really-men assumption doesn’t help anybody, does it? Particularly when nothing about this (I think) really excellent and valuable article claims exclusive ownership over knowing what it’s like to be a woman. I don’t know why people get so defensive when it’s pointed out that they don’t have as high a stake in an issue as another party, and so they should be more careful when talking about it.Report
Well, how about people with male dna and anatomy who identify as women?Report
“male dna”: what is that supposed to be?Report
The problem with using women and trans women to make the distinction is that trans women are women. It just isn’t making the distinction we want. Somehow we want to be able to talk about the experiences of trans women and the experience of cis or non trans women.Report
As a general rule I agree with your worry, but Stock’s aim is to speak to a very specific group of people with specific claims, and I think it’s a good tactic to ensure you’re not going to be dismissed by your audience right away when they’ll interpret certain terms as necessarily credibility undermining. It’s what politicians do when they same some platitude like ‘I’m all in favour of free speech’ or ‘I believe in equality’ right before they present some argument which may be interpreted as anti-free speech or anti-equality, regardless of whether the argument is in fact those things. What’s effective ain’t always what’s 100% right.Report
The question “what does the word ‘woman’ refer to?” is a question in metaphysics and philosophy of language. Yet the literature on reference and meaning is largely ignored and the issue is handled by political philosophers. Further, whether a commenter identifies as a woman is often taken as far more important than whether she’s studied philosophy of language or metaphysics! While we might think that political philosophy should influence metaphysics and philosophy of language, it’s absurd to try to do metaphysics and philosophy of language without the metaphysics and philosophy of langauge.Report
I am not sure if you meant your comment to be a response to Bettcher’s post and to the sorts of arguments it makes, but if you did, I think it’s worth keeping in mind that many of the people this post cites are metaphysicians and philosophers of language. Sally Haslanger, Esa Díaz León, and Jennifer Saul, for instance, are one or both. So, granting for the sake of the argument that questions of metaphysics and philosophy of language should be answered by people who have studied philosophy of language or metaphysics, I think we’re probably good to go.
I am also not sure it would be fair to characterize the political philosophers who work on this topic as trying to “do metaphysics and philosophy of language without the metaphysics and philosophy of language” – I think sometimes it’s quite possible for someone who works in one subfield to write on a topic in a way that is informed by work in another subfield. There is nothing stopping political philosophers from reading and understanding metaphysics or philosophy of language. Again, I am not sure if you meant for your comment to be relevant to anything in this discussion, so I apologize if I’m objecting to implications you did not mean to engender, but to the extent that you were trying to cast doubts on the sorts of conclusions that Bettcher and others are arguing for by calling into doubt the competence of the people offering these conclusions, I am not sure we should take your efforts here to be successful.Report
There are three things said in part two that I don’t agree with, and think aren’t very helpful to say.
The first: TMB says “inviting a woman to prove that she’s a woman isn’t a great way to treat her as one.” Well, sure. And telling a woman what time it is isn’t treating her *as* a woman, either. What matters is whether this is a context where trans women are not treated like women, but other women are treated like women. And it is not. Even women who aren’t trans are invited to prove that they are women. For example, some people are skeptics about gender in general. Arguing against them means showing that you are a woman. In the same way, when people debate what the extension of ‘woman’ is, women who aren’t trans who are party to the debate are invited to offer criteria that count them as women.
The second: TMB suggests that trans people “find these same erasures and invalidations perpetuated within a philosophical context,” referring to being abused, assaulted, and stripped. But those things do not happen within philosophical contexts, or in any case asking whether trans women are women is not doing these things. She continues: “To 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. Do you understand the risks?” I confess that I don’t understand the risks. What are they? I’d be very surprised to hear that inviting trans women to philosophical fora where they prove their womanhood has a lot of causal impact on the abuse, assault, etc. that trans women suffer outside of philosophical fora. I’d be even more surprised to hear that any causal link had been established by empirical inquiry.
The third: Amy Marvin describes herself as “having my existence debated, with unavoidable consequences for me, both before I was born and likely after I am dead.” But nobody is debating whether trans women exist. People are debating whether they have a property they think they have. Hey, though, you might object: this is an *essential* property of those people; they only exist if they have that property. Not relevant. You might debate whether Queen Elizabeth is a human or a robot. Even if she’s a human, and that’s essential to her, saying that she is a robot is not saying that she does not exist.
Why say false things like this? Who benefits? I like having dispassionate debates about things, including what our gender categories are like and ought to be like. If there is empirical evidence that my engaging in such dispassionate debates makes bad things happen to trans people, I’ll stop doing so. But misrepresenting what goes on in those debates doesn’t help anybody. So I’m not really convinced that philosophical methodology in these debates needs to be different than in philosophical debates that are less politically charged.Report
Here’s another concern that seems to fit in with those you raise here: the passages you point to in the original post seem, if anything, to undermine the force of the ‘you ought to read a big chunk of the literature first’ part of the post.
Since I’ve seen very similar moves many times elsewhere, I’ll try to illustrate the problem with a simplified general model of the dialogues I keep seeing. If I’m missing a point that makes this importantly unfair in this case, I’d be glad to have that pointed out.
First philosopher: “All As are Bs.”
Second philosopher: “Wait: why, exactly? Here are some plausible counterexamples. Why don’t they work?”
First philosopher: “You seriously don’t know why not? There’s a vast literature out there containing great arguments that clearly establish that all As are Bs. There are also adequate replies to every objection you have against all As being Bs, and then some.”
Second philosopher: “Great. Could you please tell me one of those arguments?”
First philosopher: “No. Don’t be a lazy jerk. Here’s an extensive bibliography to get you started, Read those works. They will, in turn, lead you to other readings, and as you wend your way through the trail over the next few hundred or thousand hours of careful study, you will come to find all the arguments you seek. Finding them is your job, not mine. Come back when you’ve completed your task, and then we’ll talk.”
Second philosopher: “I would have thought that, if the arguments are so great, and you know this through your own familiarity with them, you could at least tell me one of them…”
First philosopher: “Well, your ongoing skepticism is getting angry, because this is a personal issue for those of us who hold that all As are Bs. I’m an A, and I can tell you, the suggestion that I might not be a B is not only personally insulting, it’s tantamount to asserting that I don’t exist. And, worse even than that, I’ve undergone horrible things as a result of being an A, and other As have gone through even worse. Why? Because of people who don’t feel it’s self-evident that all As are Bs. And when a philosopher like you publicly questions whether all As really are Bs, it leads to very real, and severe, downstream effects for As like myself, even to the point of extreme violence. Does this help you see why I’m hardly in the mood to sit around and respond to your questioning of the ‘All As are Bs’ claim? This is personal for me, and it is for most of the rest of those who have produced the great ‘All As are Bs’ arguments in the literature. It’s not just some abstract issue we discuss objectively.”
I hope I haven’t mischaracterized the dialectic here and in the many other cases I’ve seen it, but First Philosopher’s tactics seem self-undermining in a conversation with a practitioner of disciplined argumentation. Second Philosopher wants to know whether there really is a good philosophical argument for the conclusion that all As are Bs, and is requesting this argument from someone who claims to know of one. What makes an argument good is, precisely, the fact that it moves fairly from some plausible initial premises to its conclusion through good reasoning, rather than committing fallacies (like the fallacies consisting of irrelevant emotional appeals, like ‘You’d better believe P because if you don’t, you’ll not only offend me but likely cause me or others to undergo personal violence or hardship, and only a heartless bastard would do that.’) But First Philosopher, instead of providing the objective argument Second Philosopher is looking for, actually admits to being not very objective about the matter, and to the fact that others who have contributed to the literature have not been in much of a position to think about the matter very objectively, either, and in fact pulls, right then, what could be seen as a kind of emotional blackmail that Second Philosopher will have a hard time avoiding unless she or he openly declares that all As are Bs despite her or his initial doubts.
This hardly serves First Philosopher’s purpose of establishing that the literature out there is rife with powerful arguments showing that all As are Bs. Quite the contrary, it undermines it. It seems unlikely that First Philosopher would have engaged in this appeal to emotion unless First Philosopher’s intellectual environment is one in which such emotional appeals are taken as effective ways of eliminating doubts about a favored proposition. That in turn, especially when combined with a directive to read the literature rather than a solid argument from that literature, suggests that the literature produced by that philosophical subcommunity is unlikely meet the standards of argumentative rigor or objectivity. Since Second Philosopher may well have neglected to delve into this literature in the first place precisely because of fears that it might generally take its strength more from emotional force than philosophical merit, this kind of reply is just the sort of advertisement the literature needs the least.Report
Amen again! Isn’t this burden-shifting at its worst?Report
I’m not using the definition of “exist” you are attributing to me, but rather a more complex understanding of how I exist in the world, both related to my self-understanding, my situatedness beyond this (I may be wrong about many things after all), and my relationship to structures of power that I navigate (I often think of this subject along the lines of Beauvoir rather than the 19th-20th c. individualist construction by sexologists and other doctors called “gender identity”). So to call into question whether or not I am a woman is also to call into question my existence in this way rather than a more distilled, distant conversation about static properties.
Perhaps the wise philosophers will decide that I am mistaken to understand my existence in this way, but I don’t want the stakes for me to get lost in the discussion even if it is to happen about me and without any of my terms. I don’t think I have a choice for this conversation to be dispassionate for me at all, but I also am not convinced by some frameworks associating “my side” with overly-passionate closed-in (maybe even elitist) politics versus some kind of neutral distilled discussion that somehow floats free of the world and political stakes (Professor Stock admits this has political stakes too in her latest Medium response, after all).Report
So to call into question whether or not I am a woman is also to call into question my existence in this way rather than a more distilled, distant conversation about static properties.
= = =
So someone who has a philosophical problem with the concept of Gender Identity is “calling into question your existence”?
And let’s say, for the sake of argument, that such a person is doing just that. So what? People can “call into question” anything they like. Doesn’t mean a whole lot, in and of itself.Report
I’m not saying anything about what people are allowed or not allowed to do or debate. I don’t really think I would be able to stop this conversation if I wanted to, and asking for it to stop would probably be a good way to ensure it happens forever. I’m just trying to emphasize the stakes of this conversation for me as Professor Bettcher’s original post did, which may inspire sympathy and humility from others or may not.
I generally don’t see this as a dispassionate debate for anyone involved (Professor Stock also expressed a political investment in this question in her latest Medium post). So I’m not convinced by some of the critiques (not Daniel’s but further down this line) that claim some sort of unbiased stance in relation to mine. I’m just trying to admit my own humility as a philosopher living in a social world, which others may choose to also do or not do (I must admit my specialization is feminist philosophy, where we are typically skeptical of framing one “group” as neutral/objective vs. another that seems to somehow occupy the space of unmotivated objectivity).
It also seems strange to say I’m against people critiquing the concept of “gender identity” in response to a post where I expressed disfavor for it myself!
I apologize for not having enough time to address every point that will be made in response to mine, and I am sure there will be many thoughtful ones, but I am hoping to publish more articles (and hopefully a book after I get my first book out of the way) soon! Thank you for your patience!
All the best,
My bad, meant to type “where we are typically skeptical of framing one ‘group’ as biased/emotional vs. another that seems to somehow occupy the space of unmotivated objectivity).” Writing this on the bus!Report
It also seems strange to say I’m against people critiquing the concept of “gender identity” in response to a post where I expressed disfavor for it myself!
= = =
My point just was that if gender identity is a philosophically unsustainable concept — which I am inclined to think it is — and we are left with sexual identity and gender expression/presentation — which is what I think we are left with — then a trans woman is not *a woman*, but rather a male who presents and expresses as women commonly present and express. (Which, in a free society, one should be able to do without harassment or discrimination.)Report
I think I’m not sure if our only options are “individualist gender identity is a totally coherent position” or “I’m a male who presents and expresses as women commonly present and express.” Gayle Salamon’s Assuming a Body has an interesting phenomenological approach to this that I think differs significantly (she often focuses on trans men in several chapters too, which is missing from this discussion and the focus that Professor Stock chose to start it off with), and I hope to articulate my own position when I have time (I apologize for not yet having it fully worked out). I’ve found teaching Transgender Studies this term very useful for thinking through my own skepticism about individualist gender identity in a way that also may not need to cast my life and self-understanding as inauthentic or false, but I admittedly need more time to explain this so please feel free to be skeptical. If I remember correctly, Sandy Stone’s “The Empire Strikes Back” and Susan Stryker’s “My Words to Victor Frankenstein” don’t seem to totally fit individualist gender identity frameworks, but are admittedly a bit too Harawayan for my taste.
I think “presents and expresses as women commonly present and express” is also perhaps a bit vague. Personally I could probably roll out of bed in the morning, go outside wearing men’s clothes and a baseball cap, and would probably still be perceived by most people as a woman unless I said anything otherwise. Perhaps you mean “perceived as a woman when I am really a male?” If so, Professor Bettcher’s “Evil Deceivers and Make-Believers” is a classic on this subject, and perhaps you would disagree with it in interesting ways.
I am happy that you think I should be able to live my life without harassment or discrimination, thank you.
Unfortunately, I really do have to grade now 🙁 so it looks like I will have to leave the conversation here!
”I don’t think I have a choice for this conversation to be dispassionate for me at all”
But doesn’t that mean that you can’t really be objective, minimally, in this discussion? And isn’t that a problem?
What I have in mind is not whether you care about the answer to these questions. I care about the answer to a lot of philosophical questions. For some of them, I care about the answer out of simple curiositi and strong conviction; for others, I care about them for psychological reasons – there are philosophical questions such that, if I believed certain answers to those, my ability to function would be seriously impaired.
But, crucially, that doesn’t mean that I can’t debate those answers, and try to find replies to them, and try to show how the arguments in favor of those answers are defective. Being passionate about a philosophical question is one thing; trying to forbid people to debate a possible answer to that question is something else.Report
To say that one can’t be objective about something is fine, and perhaps laudably honest. But it’s really a bit like a proud Texan atlas maker announcing that he lacks the objectivity to assess whether Alaska is a larger state. Such things do not amount to philosophy or cartography: rather, they’re excuses for being unable to do the philosophical or map- making work in question.Report
I’m unconvinced that my inability to be dispassionate and the specific investment I have in this conversation makes me any less potentially credible (or ‘objective’) than someone who is totally dispassionate. Someone could be engaging in this conversation who is totally bored and disconnected with it and could still make potentially bad arguments, or misunderstand the points of other interlocutors. Overall this seems to subscribe to a contrast between emotions and arguments that I do not find convincing, or at the very least seems to have been overstated.
I have an essay forthcoming in the Curiosity Studies anthology where I go into more detail about this, but I think I’m interested in the many biases, stakes, and assumptions (including my own but not limited to my own) that people bring to this discussion! For example, I think the complexity of trans experience and trans/gender nonconforming history often gets flattened in these conversations, as well as the difference in positionality and stakes between, say, a tenured non-trans professor and a junior trans scholar who is unsure if she will make it into the field. I think we are all coming to this conversation from somewhere, which is perhaps one reason I wish I could discuss this with more people over coffee rather than through impersonal Daily Nous comments.
I’m admittedly from neither Texas nor Alaska but from Pennsylvania, and I’m sorry to say I’m not sure how it sizes up with those other states!Report
”Someone could be engaging in this conversation who is totally bored and disconnected with it and could still make potentially bad arguments, or misunderstand the points of other interlocutors.”
Absolutely. Just as someone with a very keen interest in the conversation could make bad arguments, or misunderstand the points of other interlocutors.
What kind of bothers me with some people who use the whole standpoint epistomology/lived experience approach to these issues is that they seem to bestow unchallengable and indiscriminate authority to first-person experience, but refuse to acknowledge the biases and distortions that such experience can generate.Report
I admitted precisely this above by suggesting there are many things I am potentially unaware of! I don’t think standpoint means infallible knowledge at all, but it also means that more than just one especially biased “group” is arriving at a conversation from some location and some sort of investment or set of assumptions. And the knowledge or ways of understanding the world that people do have from their standpoint can be missed by others, even if it isn’t perfect or if it is susceptible to error and so forth. I also don’t want to suggest that standpoints are little isolated cells that leave people in total disconnection from the experience of other people (I argue in a forthcoming essay that I think media often overstates the disconnection between trans/non-trans experience and bodies and self-understanding, for example).Report
”I like having dispassionate debates about things, including what our gender categories are like and ought to be like.”
Philosophers debate about whether anything exists, whether anything can be known, or let’s say, whether other minds exist. Imagine if we all too offense at the other minds debate and said that even posing that question erases the fact that we are persons.
The problem is that some people want to turn philosophy into activism.Report
Thank you for the list of several things philosophers discuss, it seems accurate!
I would hope that everyone in this discussion might be willing to consider the place they are approaching it from and the stakes involved (as both I and Professor Stock have done). But of course I have no control over what you decide to write!
Also not sure where I mentioned being “offended” rather than pointing out that this conversation does seem to be political (as, again, Professor Stock has suggested). I assure you I’m not feeling offended at all, but rather curious about the responses!
Thank you for your contribution,
Thanks so much to Talia Mae Bettcher for this excellent, important post! I echo Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa’s observation above: it’s a service to the profession that she invested the time and labor to write this, and a decidedly supererogatory one at that. (Thanks also to Daily Nous for sharing it.)
I hope that it will help many of our colleagues to see (or see more clearly) something that has been going badly wrong in recent discussions about trans people among philosophers, notably including Stock’s essay. At the very least, I hope that most of those who read it will do so with the same degree of carefulness philosophers aim to employ in avoiding uncharitable misinterpretations of philosophical writing on other topics.Report
“I hope that it will help many of our colleagues to see (or see more clearly) something that has been going badly wrong in recent discussions about trans people among philosophers, notably including Stock’s essay.”
Is it possible to explain what the “something” is that has been going badly wrong?
The fact is that these discussions are not only about transwomen. The definition of “woman,” particularly for the purposes of legal inclusion based on self-declaration in female spaces like prisons and shelters, female sports, programs and scholarships created for women to address their systemic inequality, etc. is something non-trans women are equally implicated in. They have as much right to participate in the discussions, articulate their concerns, and have them responded to/taken seriously. The lack of recognition of the stake that non-trans women have in these conversation is something I think been going badly wrong in recent discussions. Fortunately, Stock and others are trying to change that.Report
I hope that it will help many of our colleagues to see (or see more clearly) something that has been going badly wrong in recent discussions about trans people among philosophers…
= = =
It has. But not in the direction you’re hoping for. I thought the critique was pretty weak, in fact, and in some ways confirmed Stock’s view rather than contradicted it.Report
Stock opens her most recent post as follows:
“The Gender Critical (GC) position is a metaphysical position about what a woman is. It is a position held by many radical feminists. It holds that what it is to be a woman is to have a certain biological and reproductive nature, involving female sex organs and a female reproductive system, and to be economically, socially, politically, and sexually oppressed on that basis.”
I think the term “metaphysical position” is vexed and unhelpful. What would be lost if the presupposition that there is a metaphysical truth in the offing here was dropped or bracketed? Why not simply ask whether all things considered, in some legislative or rule-making contexts it makes sense to employ a concept that includes only persons with sex organs and reproductive systems of the type that Stock refers to with the term “female.” This way the question would not be raised whether trans-woman are, in some metaphysical sense [whatever that might come to], women.
As an aside, I’d be very interested in hearing from anyone a methodology that both (a) supplied a coherent account of how to go about adjudicating such a metaphysical question and (b) one that would yield a result that anyone should be worried about.
In summary, It seems to me that the real issue is whether the application of a concept in certain legislative and rule-making concept that includes non-trans women and excludes trans women is unjust–the metaphysical claims are a distraction.Report
Last paragraph of my post immediately above should read as follows (wrote concepts above when meant to write contexts]:
In summary, It seems to me that the real issue is whether the application of a concept in certain legislative and rule-making *contexts* that includes non-trans women and excludes trans women is unjust–the metaphysical claims are a distraction.Report
If there’s a distinction, it’s not an injustice to have a word that tracks it. What may be an injustice is having policies or laws that do. I agree that it’s a distraction (morally speaking) to fight over the word ‘woman’. The solution isn’t linguistic revision, but policy revision.Report
Part of what is so difficult about this debate is that if we accept self-identification as a sufficient (and necessary?) condition for belonging to gender X, then it changes the definition of gender itself FOR ALL. That is, it becomes impossible to disagree about what gender is when you take it as a (metaphysical) fact that gender is *self-identified gender identity* because it becomes unfalsifiable. (That is why first-person authority about gender cannot work.)
(McKitrick 2007 (cited/recommended by Bettcher above) attempts to address this, but then winds up saying “I suspect that the phenomenon of cross-gender identification has more to do with a broad range of personality types trying to cope with a rigid two-gender system than it does with “crossed wires” or souls that end up in the wrong kind of body. Hence, I suggest that so called “GID” [gender identity disorder] is primarily a conflict between the individual and her society, and only derivatively a conflict between the individual and her body.” Ironically, this actually seems to undermine self-identification as defining of one’s gender, and has much in common with the “gender critical” perspective.)
And if the most marginalized/oppressed have epistemic authority over this matter (see: standpoint theory, favored by many trans theorists), and if trans people are the most oppressed in terms of gender, and if it is harmful thus unethical not to honor someone’s self-identification (see Kapusta 2016, cited by Bettcher above), then by disagreeing about what gender is, we are committing a wrong/acting unethically.
But this is unacceptable. A relevant analog here is the way we (we in liberal Western society) treat sincerely held religious beliefs. We “honor” the beliefs of others to a point… but not all the way up to and including accepting those beliefs ourselves. If someone sincerely believes that God created him or her, then we can believe that person in the sense that we believe that they believe this sincerely, and we are not doing that person an injustice/not enacting epistemic marginalization or violence by simply not believing that God created *us.*
It may be argued that the distinction between the metaphysics and the politics/ethics operates differently in different contexts. In the context of academic debate we have the luxury of splitting hairs. But in this case, in the context of policy, the metaphysics of gender amounts to policy. That is why the academic metaphysics is germane, and questions of metaphysics cannot be collapsed into ethical questions (which Bettcher more or less suggests in Trans Identities and First Person Authority (2009).
“Gender critical” feminists are right to worry that losing even imperfect/problematic objectivity in definitions of gender will undermine their ability to articulate countless and profound injustices–for instance who is and who isn’t subject to female genital mutilation or who is and who isn’t subject to economically debilitating opportunity costs associated with gestation/birth/lactation/menstruation (or *presumed* gestation/birth/lactation as occurs in the context of child marriage/child brides/forced marriage).
Lastly, for a concern from a black feminist perspective, see: http://www.crunkfeministcollective.com/2017/01/23/pussy-dont-fail-me-now-the-place-of-vaginas-in-black-feminist-theory-organizing/ A basic take-away is this: if reproductive biology is unhooked from the definition of gender, then the ability to theorize black women’s forced reproductive labor under slavery and the abhorrent oppression that it represents may be lost. Black women under slavery were oppressed on the basis of–LITERALLY–their reproductive capacity in that they were forced to reproduce slaves and thus slavery. Such a phenomenon cannot be comprehended if self-identified gender identity is what gender IS.Report
On your last point: That is not AT ALL the point that Brittney Cooper makes in the piece you linked. Just two quotes:
“I also believe that as cisgender Black women one of the reasons that we cannot continue these inane beefs about what a “real woman” is with our trans sistren, is because cis Black women know frfr that we have never inhabited categories of womanhood uncritically. (…) This should be grounds for solidarity with transwomen. What we look like fighting other people for access to some shit we have barely procured for ourselves? That’s called punching down, and if we fighting, surely we know that we need to punch up.”
“The shit I’m talking about here has little to nothing to do with cis white women and the ways the femmes among them experience white femininity as a vaunted and protected social category. So don’t even come over here and try it.”Report
You’re right. That was a bad way to frame Cooper’s post. I regret framing it that way, and I apologize.
However, I do think that a biologically-informed conception of gender allows us to account for many problems/oppression that are reproduction-based, which, if we look outside of the Western liberal context, fall in *some way* or *to some extent* on the gray-scale of modern day sexual slavery. And this has nothing to do with “white femininity” or white Western women’s interests. In fact it stands in opposition to such interests, in the case of, for instance, surrogacy tourism.Report
Why can’t we do what Cooper is doing? Recognize that many women, in particular women of color, have been oppressed and exploited because of or by way of their vaginas and wombs. And that, quoting Cooper, „[h]aving autonomy of our vaginas and wombs“ has been central for many women to articulating freedom. But without denying that trans women are women? I don’t see why we can only comprehend the harms and wrongs of rape, sexual slavery, surrogacy tourism etc if we deny that.Report
@ TM: We don’t necessarily have to deny that. But then we’d have to say that there are women whose freedom rests in articulating facts about their sexed bodies, and women whose freedom rests in articulating their gender identity. This, in effect, creates two types of women (something that trans theorists specifically argue against, as the slogan “trans women are women” suggests). But having two types of women is rendered impossible if we say that self-identified gender identity is what gender IS. This, in effect, means that women who find freedom in articulating facts about their sexed bodies are not talking about womanhood.
As far as articulating oppression: it would work just fine to say that there are multiple types of gendered oppression. And in fact theorists on all “sides” of the debate have said this. Some types of gendered oppression flow along the axis of having/being presumed to have a functional womb. Other types of gendered oppression flow along the axis of not having one’s appearance match one’s sexed body. But attempts at alleviating these oppressions seem to result in conflicts of interest depending on which is prioritized as the most protected class.
And the discussions about conflicts of interest are what seems to be verboten.Report
AAM–the Katharine Jenkins paper “Amelioration and Inclusion” which Bettcher cites (available ungated here) proposes a dual analysis of gender that seems somewhat like what you say. From Jenkins’s conclusion:
“Working within this model, I have identified two senses of gender, gender as class and gender as identity, that give rise to twin target concepts. These twin concepts are the concept of being classed as a woman, which is defined as ‘being targeted for subordination on the basis of actual or imagined bodily features presumed to be evidence of a female’s role in biological reproduction’, and the concept of having a female gender identity, which is defined as ‘having an inner map that is formed to guide someone classed as a woman through the social and material realities of someone who is so classed’. For pragmatic reasons, I advocate using the term ‘woman’ to express the concept of having a female gender identity and not using it to express the concept of being classed as a woman.”
This doesn’t create two types of woman (both for the pragmatic reason and because gender-as-class and gender-as-identity aren’t exclusive) but it is a trans-inclusive analysis that does not erase the distinction you’re discussing.
(I don’t mean to hold myself as an expert on the literature, but I had just read that paper and it struck me as relevant to your comment.)Report
@ Matt: I will read the Jenkins paper shortly. But in regard to your quote of Jenkins, which reads, “For pragmatic reasons, I advocate using the term ‘woman’ to express the concept of having a female gender identity and not using it to express the concept of being classed as a woman,” I must say: I find this problematic, as there are “pragmatic reasons” on both “sides” of this debate.Report
@ Matt: read the Jenkins paper. She raises important points, two of which were new to me, and which have broad and important applications for social philosophy generally. However, she starts with the premise that she explicitly does not justify: “The proposition that trans gender identities are entirely valid—that trans women are women and trans men are men—is a foundational premise of my argument, which I will not discuss further.”
Is there any literature justifying this premise? All I have found is Bettcher’s 2009, which I don’f find convincing, and I can’t seem to find anything else. Can you recommend any other literature that deals with this specifically?
I think there is such a thing as “gender.” But I am not convinced that there is any such thing as “gender identity” (for anyone). I find this to grant way too much agency to individuals, to put way too much faith in an individual’s ability to objectively know one’s self, to take identity to be disembodied, and to be arrogant in the sense that one presumes to be able to float outside of the gender matrix by one’s gender “choices.” This is all too neo-lib for me.
I find psychologistic accounts of personal identity in general problematic for similar reasons.Report
I’m pretty convinced that gender identity is not a philosophically sustainable concept.
There are sexes. They are real (and are how we reproduce). Historically, those sexes have been “gendered” in terms of expression, presentation, and other things, and have been so in a way that conceived of the female gendering as subordinate.
The relevant arguments, then, as far as I’m concerned, have to do with civil liberties. In a liberal society — which is what we should aspire to be — individual peoples’ expression, presentation, and all other manner of social engagement, should be vigorously protected, both legally and morally, so long as they do not harm anyone (in the Millian sense, not the endlessly expansive sense of “harm” being peddled today).
But instead of those arguments, which would unite all the members of the traditional civil rights coalition, what we’re doing instead is having a huge fight over identities, which is dividing members of the civil rights coalition.
It’s a tragedy and a shame and completely unnecessary and grounded in an argument over a concept that probably isn’t even coherent, at the end of the day.
For anyone who’s interested, here’s my own single contribution on the subject. (I am not inclined to make any others.)
@ Daniel Kaufman: problems arise when it turns out that the “traditional civil rights coalition” is racist, sexist, able-ist, classist, etc. Historically we have seen how this is so, for instance the racism of the suffragettes and of second-wave feminists, and the sexism of the black civil rights movement (and in an international context, the neo-imperialism of democratization). What is one to do when one finds one’s “allies” to be perpetuating one of the “isms”? Calling others out on this provokes knee-jerk defensiveness in almost all cases. In turn, the defensiveness provokes knee-jerk identity politics in almost all cases.Report
“I’m pretty convinced that gender identity is not a philosophically sustainable concept.”
Why is that? That’s an odd position, since gender identity is at least partly introspectable. I offer a preliminary analysis of gender identity here:
I give a sketch of some reasons why in the essay I linked. As for introspectability, I don’t think something as socially constructed as gender is introspectable, nor is it determinable by oneself. Like all socially constructed things they are matters of public negotiation.Report
I’m not impressed with Bettcher’s answer. As others have noted, a good answer would tell us the basics of what we would learn by reading all that literature, and how that would invalidate Stock’s questions. The simple appeal to “go read the literature” seems very similar to me to religious people who tell me I would know God exists if I studied the Bible. I don’t want to study the Bible, as it is a time-consuming activity which I suspect will consist mostly of ingesting nonsense. I would much rather have an outline the decisive proof contained in the Bible than have to read the whole thing simply because I’m told the answers “are there”.
You studied the Bible, you have read the proofs. Why don’t you tell me ?
Also, here is quote from Bettcher : “[Stock] invites trans women to prove that we’re women. Of course, inviting a woman to prove that she’s a woman isn’t a great way to treat her as one.”
Here we are again. Asking the question is deemed disrespectful. And since the question can’t be asked, the debate can’t be had.Report
I wasn’t very impressed either. Indeed, I thought it was incredibly weak: part misrepresentation, part accusation, part hand waving at “the literature.” My favorite thing about the last one is that if one *did* read all the literature suggested and found it unpersuasive and thereupon reaffirmed one’s commitment to one’s position, what chance do you think there is that this would be accepted, any more than when one committed to the position *prior* to doing it.
Unlike virtually every other area of philosophy, this seems to be one area where people simply assume that every competent reader will have the same reaction to “the literature.” What that tells me is that they are functioning more as partisans and activists than as philosophers.Report
Agreed, Vincent and Daniel.
However, I want to be clear that — though I’m no more persuaded by Bettcher’s reply than either of you are, and for about the same reasons — that reply is far and away the strongest case I’ve seen in favor of the position in question. I very much appreciate Bettcher’s willingness to open up a discussion about Stock rather than just condemn her without inviting discussion, as others have done. I feel that this conversation has already been quite helpful.Report
I agree with that. It was a genuine, serious response. I just didn’t think it a very strong one.Report
Stock has replied to this article :
Challenge: Provide rough definitions (not citations to definitions) of the following terms that aren’t grossly circular in a way that is consistent with popular transgender claims. All jargon must be explained. You have roughly 300 words.
male / female
man / woman
boy / girlReport
If you are feeling really ambitious, you could try to define “penis” and “puberty” too.Report
Follow-up challenge: provide rough definitions (not citations to definitions) of the following terms that aren’t grossly circular in a way that is consistent with modern physics. All jargon must be explained. You have roughly 300 words.
Sometimes, things are too complicated for 300 words.Report
Sorry, you get an F on the assignment. You didn’t answer even part of the question.
I’ll let you try again, minus a letter grade penalty.
It’s not that difficult to provide rough, workable definitions of “penis,” “puberty,” and “pregnancy,” and all the others on my list that most competent speakers of the language would agree to.
I’m not sure that this is the case if you accept (I’m not sure what else to call it, so forgive me) the “trans ideology”. The point here is that the trans position is likely radically revisionary for a host of basic concepts. I’d like to understand just how radical the view is.
I’m genuinely curious. I haven’t seen a coherent statement of the view. I did see a bibliography. Surely this isn’t’ that difficult of an assignment.Report
For the record, I was only noting that externalism about word meanings seems to be assumed in many of these discussions. I left open the possibility that I was wrong here. I don’t see how my grader’s comments here address this observation, or answer the question as to whether or not it’s correct. (That one can provide a rough definition of ‘water’ does not mean that ‘water’ is not polysemous. That we might want to revise some of the concepts associated with ‘water’ does not mean that ‘water’ is not polysemous.)Report
Apologies: It would appear that I misperceived Itisa’s reply to David as a reply to my comment about polysemy below. Ignore my previous comment as a non sequitur.Report
OK, you can have 500 words.
The comparison to fundamental concepts in theoretical physics is inapt. Come on. That should be clear.
My 300 word limit was just to force a basic statement of the position. It was clearly inadequate for a robust analysis. (Did you really think that I though otherwise?
This isn’t Twitter. We can do there if you’d like and play ping pong. . . .) Hence the “rough” in the request for a rough definition.
Recall, we are supposed to be dealing with claims about the status of trans people that are so obvious that they should be enshrined in law, so obvious that long standing basic societal norms should be overturned, so obvious that to question them is a form of hate.
The basic platform and its core justifications should be clear enough that they could be summarized in 500 words. If not, if I’ve got to spend a semester reading the literature to grasp some ineffable insight, then I have no reason to think that there is a plausible view here. Hell, the entire thing might simply be incoherent. The burden here is clearly on the trans philosophy to make their case.
New essay topic: Is trans philosophy the new Derrida?
You have 7,500 words.Report
If it’s correct to think that the meaning of ‘woman’ is relevant here, then it seems reasonable to point out that ‘woman’ is probably polysemous, i.e., it’s a single word that can be used to token distinct-but-related senses or concepts on different occasions of use. If that’s true, then the word doesn’t have a stable extension, so arguing about who is included in its extension is surely not to argue about a fact of the matter.
Maybe that’s just reason to think that the meaning discussion isn’t the relevant one here. I’m genuinely unsure, being unfamiliar with the philosophical scholarship on gender. But it seems worth nothing that a lot of people having this discussion on the blogs implicitly assume that Putnam was right about ‘water.’Report
My impression is that ‘woman’ here is a term of art: it refers to a specific gender in Western society. So what we’re fighting about is not whether trans women are women in the diaphanous sense you’re talking about when you note the word’s polysemy (which is easily answered: of course trans WOMEN are WOMEN, it’s right there in the term) or in the “let’s take Putnam for granted” sense, but rather in the “it’s a term of art” sense. Of course, that doesn’t settle matters, because knowing ‘woman’ refers to a specific gender just pushes the question back to “what is gender” and thus we can ask “what are women” where ‘woman’ isn’t the polysemous term but the term of art, and some people DO give a Putnam-style answer to the question, but I don’t think the approach is as unsophisticated as you’ve suggested it might be here.Report
“Certainly in my everyday life, it’s generally taken for granted that I’m a woman. I would go so far as to say that it constitutes a bit of “common sense” knowledge.”
That’s because Bettcher is what is sometimes known as a ‘cis passing’ trans woman, i.e. she resembles the prototype of female/woman to enough of a degree that she is likely to be treated as one.* But the self-identification position that Stock is criticizing or raising questions about says that anyone who claims to be a woman whatsoever, even if they look like Robert Downey Jr, is in fact a woman and should never be distinguished from cis women ever, and the same for anyone who claims to be a man, even if they look like Nicole Kidman.
It is true that the radfem position is anti-common sense — indeed this is one of the things I dislike about it — but so is the self-identification position, possibly even more so. The common sense approach is to treat as a woman anyone who sufficiently resembles the prototype of femaleness/womanhood, and as a man anyone who resembles the prototype of maleness/manhood.Report
* I apologize for the personal-sounding nature of this. I’m not trying to be rude to Bettcher (I’m also Canadian), but am just stating this due to the relevance of it to the issues at hand.Report
I take it Bettcher’s point there was not to establish that the self-identification position is correct or the default choice, but rather that there is a complicated methodological question about whose intuitions to rely on, and why. I’m not sure if you took yourself to be contesting that point (and if you did, I’m not sure anything you’ve said is relevant). But if you weren’t, I’m not sure your point adds anything super helpful in terms of evaluating Bettcher’s argument, because like I said, the passage you’re citing is just meant to establish one very particular point, which is that we need to be live to a certain methodological consideration.
Incidentally, if you’re interested in discussion of the topic in your second paragraph, about treating people as women only insofar as they resemble certain prototypes, the Watson 2016 piece that Bettcher cites is super relevant (and I think it tells rather strongly against your proposal).Report
I don’t really see why an extensive engagement with the literature is really necessary to ask “are trans women women?” Are trans women reading all this literature before they come out as trans women? For the large majority, obviously not. And the same goes for female women.
So what we’re really asking is: “how do you know you’re a woman?”
For females, the answer is easy. I know I am a woman because I have a vagina. My ownership of female genitalia has placed me in the social category of girl/woman where I have spent my entire life.
But what is trans women’s answer? That they read a bunch of philosophical literature on what it means to be a woman and from there decided that they must be women? Surely not.
When asking the perfectly legitimate question “how do we know that trans women are women” we are really just asking “how do trans women know they are women?”Report
That assumes an extraordinarily individualistic notion of gender, and ignores the feminist insight that it is, to a large extent, socially assigned. “How do trans women know they are women” begs several questions about how anyone “knows they’re a woman”, or what the content of such knowledge might be, but also attempts to evade the other, highly salient question of “how do other people know trans women are women”? When it comes to access to spaces where women are vulnerable, the latter is important, as it is when attempting to identify axes of oppression, which rely on other people’s perception of one.Report
Stock isn’t asking “are trans women actually women?” That question has no real answer.
The question is really much more practical: “given that our society has developed a bunch of gender-exclusionary rules based on a sense of two gender groups, what should we do? Specifically, how should we choose between
1) eliminating those exclusions entirely;
2) modifying / eliminating the old ways of assigning people to groups; and
3) introducing one or more new groups?
When we make those choices, how will this harm/help society overall, and how will it harm/help specific groups or individuals?
Stock;’s article takes the simple perspective that the above question requires analysis of the effects on EVERYONE: this means we need a lot of data. Stock also admits that this opens up the difficult balance of [widespread, but small, effects] versus [rare, but large, effects].
Bettcher’s article appears to be based on the assumption that this extraordinarily complex question has already been answered. But Bettcher doesn’t provide the analysis, which is, I think, because it has not been done yet. And frankly a lot of the work in this area appears to be highly focused on the costs/benefits of the minority (trans) group. This is admirable and interesting, but it doesn’t do enough to answer the “balance” question.
To use an example, it is considered absolute anathema to refer to Chelsea Manning by her pre-transtition name. That obviously benefits Chelsea. But this is, also obviously, a minor but definitely non-zero cost on the however-many millions of people who were following the story and who must expend mental effort to adapt to a new name. Or the cost to those who might read pre-transition records and who would fail to make the connection to Chelsea. Etc. Those costs are individually minimal but widely distributed; any argument which entirely disregards them is pretty suspect, in my view.
Of the two, I am much more convinced by Stock.Report
“… “are trans women actually women?” That question has no real answer.”
Exactly. This is my view as well. ‘Are trans women women?’ is a pseudo-question, and sentences such as ‘trans women are women’ are pseudo-declarative-sentences that do not express propositions. We are only expected to affirm them as a kind of recitation of creed, to show that we’re on ‘the right side of history’. But we can be on the right side of history by respecting gender identity, which only requires not misgendering people. That does not require any pseudo-ontological commitments.Report