Derogatory Language in Philosophy Journal Risks Increased Hostility and Diminished Discussion (guest post) (Update: Response from Editors)

The following is a guest post* from Sophie Allen (Keele), Elizabeth Finneron-Burns (Warwick), Jane Clare Jones, Holly Lawford-Smith (Melbourne), Mary Leng (York), Rebecca Reilly-Cooper (Warwick), and Rebecca Simpson, concerning two articles recently published in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.

The articles in question appeared in a symposium in the journal earlier this year (Volume 96, Issue 2) on How Propaganda Works by Jason Stanley (Yale). They are “The Epistemology of Propaganda” by Rachel McKinnon (College of Charleston), and Stanley’s “Replies“.

(UPDATE: The editor of Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Ernest Sosa, responds here.)

Derogatory Language in Philosophy Journal Risks Increased Hostility and Diminished Discussion

by Dr. Sophie Allen, Dr. Elizabeth Finneron-Burns, Dr. Jane Clare Jones, Dr. Holly Lawford-Smith, Dr. Mary Leng, Dr. Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, and Dr. Rebecca Simpson

We write to register in public a complaint with a recent issue of Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (PPR). Two papers in this issue, the first by Rachel McKinnon and the second by Jason Stanley, used the term ‘TERF’, which is at worst a slur and at best derogatory. We are extremely concerned about the normalization of this term in academic philosophy, and its effect in reinforcing a hostile climate for debate on an issue of key importance to women. Furthermore, one of the papers also included a false empirical claim which misrepresents an ongoing disagreement between trans activists and gender critical and radical feminists. Here we’ll stick to those two points; we are currently working on a longer essay that elaborates upon our philosophical concerns with McKinnon’s article. We emphasize that our complaint is with PPR: proper oversight would have seen the term ‘TERF’ replaced with a neutral counterpart, and checked the accuracy of the empirical claims.

“TERF” is widely used across online platforms as a way to denigrate and dismiss the women (and some men) who disagree with the dominant narrative on trans issues. The acronym stands for “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist”, and historically marked a difference within radical feminism. Although its usage is becoming ever broader, one of the groups it targets are lesbians who merely maintain that same-sex attraction is not equivalent to transphobia, another is women who believe that women’s oppression is sex-based, and are concerned about erasing the political importance of female bodies. Anyone who is in any doubt about the way this term is used should consult the following pages, which compile examples from Twitter and other online platforms:

Obviously, whether “TERF” is a slur depends on your preferred theory of slurs. McKinnon’s article provides an account of the origin of the term, and then suggests that because it was coined by “cisgender radical feminists” the idea it is a slur—indeed, a misogynistic slur—is “ludicrous” (p. 484)—although it’s not evident that origin rather than evolved usage should determine the meaning of a term. She also claims that thinking “TERF” is a slur because it is used to denigrate women is “‘absurd”’ and “‘nonsensical”’ (p. 485). However, the linguist Debbie Cameron argues that for “all the criteria that have been proposed for defining a word as a slur, [TERF] does meet most of them at least partially”. She adds:

My personal judgment on the slur question has been particularly influenced by the evidence that TERF is now being used in a kind of discourse which has clear similarities with hate-speech directed at other groups (it makes threats of violence, it includes other slur-terms, it uses metaphors of pollution).[1]

We’re aware, from recent Tweets of McKinnon’s and from other sources, that McKinnon’s paper was contested prior to publication, with people pointing out to PPR’s Editor Ernest Sosa that “TERF” is a slur and suggesting that a more neutral term, for example “gender critical feminists”, be substituted. Sosa and the other editors were given evidence of the offensiveness of the term; fielded complaints from the members of the groups it targets; and yet persisted in publishing the piece regardless. Furthermore, if McKinnon herself didn’t intend it as a slur then it’s hard to see why she would have been so adamant about keeping it given this contestation. We can’t think of another paper published in an academic philosophy journal that deliberately uses a term widely known to be offensive to those it targets, when uncontested alternatives are available.

In addition, the term “TERF” likely doesn’t refer to any existing person, but rather caricatures a wide range of feminist positions and gives opponents an easy way to pigeonhole and dismiss them. Gender critical and radical feminists are not an organized group and do not share a homogeneous set of opinions. The exposition that McKinnon gives of “TERF” beliefs is somewhat unclear, but includes, according to her, the belief that the inclusion of trans women in natal women-only spaces constitutes rape (p. 484), that trans women should be denied medical treatment or protection from discrimination (p. 486), and that trans women are sexual predators (p. 485) None of us hold these beliefs, but we have all been called “TERFs” online, some of us frequently, and indeed, one of us by McKinnon herself in a series of Tweets. Apparently, under the present conditions, holding any of the following beliefs is more than enough to attract the label ‘TERF’: believing that humans are sexually dimorphic; that it is not evident that “self-identification” is a sufficient basis for determining that someone is a woman; and that we should be able to discuss changes to law and social practice which impact women’s sex-based protections.

Whether or not it’s a slur, it is undeniable that”‘TERF” is a term used to harass, shame, dismiss, and denigrate women’s ideas and opinions. The fact that PPR has printed two papers that both deploy, rather than merely discuss, this term is unacceptable. It sets a bad precedent for other journals, and it signals disrespect to members of a group that is already underrepresented in academic philosophy, namely women. The conventions of academic discourse demand that radical and gender critical feminists, like anyone else in our profession, be free to state their professional disagreements and be engaged with in a way that is courteous and respectful. Ad hominem attacks are neither, and there are legitimate concerns about normalizing a term which many women feel is instrumental in creating a hostile and intimidating climate in this debate, and is stifling academic discussion of this issue.[2]

Our second main concern is with a dubious empirical claim made in McKinnon’s paper. On p. 485, in the context of arguing that women’s concerns about sex-segregated space are “unfounded’ and “based only a flawed ideology,” she asserts that “there’s never been a verified reported instance of a trans women [sic] sexually assaulting a cis woman in such spaces”. (Indeed, she insists that the reverse is true, without providing any sources.) The spaces in question are “bathrooms, changing rooms, shelters and rape relief centers, colleges, music festivals, mentorship programs, sports, and so on.” One major issue here is distinguishing a trans woman from someone falsely claiming to be a trans woman, when trans activism is committed to self-identification as the sole criterion of determination. In 2014, for instance, a serial sexual offender “pretending” to be a trans woman was convicted of sexually assaulting women in two women-only homeless shelters in Toronto.[3] In July 2018 it emerged that a trans woman had sexually assaulted four female inmates at a prison in England.[4] If we broaden out to sexual offences more widely: a trans women was charged in Idaho in 2016 for taking secret pictures of an 18 year-old woman in a changing room;[5] a trans woman was segregated for making inappropriate advances to fellow inmates in a UK women’s prison in 2017[6], and in May 2018 a group of nine women brought a suit against a homeless shelter in Fresno, CA, where they were required to shower with “a person who identified as a transgender woman who made lewd and inappropriate comments, and leered at them while they were naked.”[7]

One sex-segregated space that women are particularly concerned about preserving is female prisons. There is increasing pressure for trans women to be housed in the female estate, and yet there are real concerns about doing so. A recent freedom of information request in the UK revealed 48% (60/125) of the known-trans population in UK jails to be sex offenders.[8][See * note below]. This matters for several reasons: first, because sex offenses are disproportionately offenses against women (even if they don’t happen in women-only spaces); second, because only 3% of the female population in UK jails are sex offenders (128/4035), so this is evidence of male- rather than female-pattern crime;[9] and third, because 1/3 women in prison have been sexually abused, usually by males, making it especially traumatic to share space with offenders against women.[10] Women’s prisons have few facilities for segregating sex offenders (unlike men’s prisons), which means that when trans women are housed in women’s prisons, natal women pay a serious cost. Trans women should be provided with safe space in prisons, but housing them with natal women should not be assumed to be the obvious answer.

None of this shows anything about all trans women in general, just as pointing to the prevalence of male violence against women doesn’t show anything about all men in general. But it is to say that McKinnon’s claim is demonstrably false. She implies that it’s unreasonable for natal women to worry about male-pattern violence from people self-identifying as trans women; it’s clear that it isn’t and more empirical research should be done before self-identification is sufficient to gain access to women’s spaces.

Women have legitimate reasons to be worried about male violence, and the analysis of male violence has long been a central plank of feminist political practice. Resistance to male violence is not merely confined to a “radical fringe” of feminist women, nor is it a pretext for an agenda specifically targeting trans women. Women are being asked to accept, as a point of principle, that because a male person identifies as a woman, they immediately cease to belong to the class of persons who exhibit male-pattern violence, and should be allowed into women’s sex-segregated spaces on that basis. We consider that in the interest of proper oversight, this claim should be settled on the basis of thorough empirical analysis, and that it is unreasonable to stipulate that women give up their well-grounded concerns about male violence because it is mandated by a conviction in the power of self-identification. At present there are several documented instances of trans women who have been found committing crimes which are characteristic of male-pattern violence. To underline, this doesn’t give women reason to worry about trans women in particular, but it doesn’t give them any reason not to, either.

The reason this whole debate is so tense at the moment is that the UK and New Zealand are considering a shift to self-identification for gender identity. It follows from the belief in gender identity as the sole and sufficient determinant of whether a person is a man or a woman, that a male person does not have to undergo any form of transition in order to become a woman, but simply has to identify as one. In practice this means that anyone who claims to be a woman, regardless of their appearance, would be able to access women’s spaces, and there would be no basis by which women might question that access. Self-ID would thus undermine women’s ability to question male-presenting people entering women’s space, and also raises issues regarding the possibility of men cross-dressing as women in order to enter such spaces. It is notable that in her article, McKinnon reads a quote expressing concern about “men claiming to be transgender” directly as a claim about “[t]rans women as sexual predators.” (p.485) It is important to underline therefore that our concerns are not directed at transsexual women who have transitioned under medical care and acquired a Gender Recognition Certificate. Rather, the issues are around the intent to change the protocols for trans women to one operating on the basis of self-identification, and the way that could make women’s sex-segregated spaces de facto inoperative.

To conclude: There are many extremely complex theoretical issues raised by the current thinking that underpins the transgender rights movement, and many implications for the safety and rights of women as a class of persons subject to sex-based oppression. It is our experience that the current framing of these issues by the transgender rights movement has sought to restrict the possibility of debate by casting women’s concerns and objections as motivated solely by hatred, and hence as beyond the pale of legitimate democratic discussion. For the reasons outlined above, we wish to register our concern about academic philosophical discourse becoming a forum for legitimizing, reinforcing, and disseminating that framing. No journal should allow the term “TERF” to make it through to the published version of a paper.










[9] Ibid.

[10] Rumgay, J. (2005), Twice Punished: When victims become offenders. Criminal Justice Matters. The centre for crime and justice studies: 16-38

[Note from JW:] A reader has uncovered a possible problem with this statistic. He writes: 

This figure has been called into question by the BBC’s Reality Check Team. The BBC team demonstrates in that article that the 125 transgender prisoners only includes those who are on longer term sentences, and that it’s likely that many fewer than 48% of transgender prisoners are, in fact, sex offenders. This matters because in the original post on Daily Nous, the 48% figure is compared to 3% of the female population in general. The latter figure is taken from the whole prison population, not just those serving longer term sentences. I think that the promotion of this misleading figure without in-text correction, runs the risk of perpetuating harms to the trans community, and, in particular, to those trans people in prisons, who are among the most vulnerable members of that community. It seems very important that the figure be appropriately qualified. 

UPDATE: Reply from Ernest Sosa (Rutgers), editor-in-chief of Philosophy and Phenomenological Research

Some weeks ago, PPR received a letter from Dr. Holly Lawford-Smith that leveled two serious charges about the content of an article published in our journal: Rachel Mckinnon’s ‘The Epistemology of Propaganda’ PPR (Volume 96, Issue 2, 2018). We the editors took it seriously enough to deliberate extensively until we reached consensus. The complaints have now been made public in Daily Nous, and we appreciate the opportunity to make our response correspondingly public, which we would like to do as follows.    — Ernest Sosa

Dear Dr. Lawford-Smith,

Thank you for your letter about Rachel Mckinnon’s ‘The Epistemology of Propaganda’ PPR (Volume 96, Issue 2, 2018).

You have leveled two serious charges about the content of this article, and they deserve to be treated separately. 

The first charge, that we have printed an author’s use of a slur in our pages, is a serious one, if correct.  However, this issue did not escape the attention of the editor responsible for the publication of this article, who consulted with several senior distinguished scholars in the relevant field, whose consensus view was that though the term in question might evolve to become a slur, the denigrating uses that you have exhibited are on a par with denigrating uses of ‘Jew’ and many other terms, and quite compatible with its having a descriptive meaning.  Since in any case the question of whether it is a slur is a controversial one that is a matter of academic disagreement between you and the author of this article, it is not the role of the editors to decide this issue. 

Your second charge, that we have printed an article containing multiple empirical falsehoods, also deserves serious consideration.  It is the position of the editors that empirical falsity of claims in an article published in PPR cannot be a condition of retraction, correction, or apology.  And while we appreciate why you interpret the evidence that you have provided as showing that the author’s claim is empirically false, we are not persuaded that it is inconsistent with the letter of the author’s carefully worded claim, and whether it is turns again on an academic issue – namely, who is to qualify as ‘trans’.  Again, when something turns on an academic issue under dispute, it is not the role of the editors to decide this issue pre-emptively.

Thanks again,

Ernest Sosa

For the Editors [Anil Gupta, Maria Lasonen-Aarnio, Ram Neta, Carolina Sartorio, Mark Schroeder, Ernest Sosa, Daniel Stoljar]

[There has been some controversy over whether any of the authors of this post asked for PPR to retract McKinnon’s article. An article about this post at Inside Higher Ed says “There was some ‘back and forth’ in terms of an informal request for a retraction.” I asked Professor Sosa directly about this. He wrote the following to me: “The request we received at PPR was for correction and apology only, not for retraction.”]

[A comment about why I put up this guest post.]

Art: “Trees Bending” by Lili Elbe

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