Leibniz-Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft (ZAS), a publicly-funded research institute in Berlin that is holding a series of conferences on oppressive speech between now and May, has removed a philosopher from its program after complaints about her planned talk.
The philosopher, Kathleen Stock (Sussex), had been invited to particpate in the session taking place in April, 2021, the theme of which is “Gendered Speech Acts, Practices, and Norms.” Stock’s planned talk was of a piece with the trans-exclusionary position she has advocated for over the past few years on social media and in Medium posts, Quillette, The Economist, and elsewhere:
According to Leiter Reports, which first reported on this story, another philosopher taking part in a different session complained about Stock’s participation in the conference, and because of this, says Stock in a tweet, she was “told to withdraw.”
ZAS itself said in a tweet:
ZAS had to retract the abstract because it did not fit to the scientific theme of the workshop (oppressive speech & communication) and contained language that was inconsistent with the values of the ZAS. We regret that the abstract went online.
What to make of these two reasons?
Regarding the first: As advocates of the trans-exclusionary view like to note, their view is the dominant one in the broader culture. So in simply reinforcing the hegemonic trans-exclusionary conception of “woman,” Stock’s paper could be seen as closer to exemplifying what some take to be “oppressive speech,” rather than taking up oppressive speech as a topic. That said, it is highly unusual for such a degree of scrutiny to be applied to invited talks, after the speaker has been invited, with a consequence of such scrutiny being that the speaker is disinvited. Though still unusual, it would have been much more respectful and sensible to consult with the speaker about revising her paper or giving a different one if the proposed one really did not fit the conference at which the speaker was invited to speak.
Regarding the second: This seems more straightforward. Stock is arguing for a trans-exclusionary view, and ZAS presumably takes that to be inconsistent with its values.
OK, ZAS, you’re within your rights to not want to be identified with trans-exclusionary views. And sure, you’re within your rights to disinvite a speaker. But you didn’t have to. This is because, for one thing, inclusion needn’t imply endorsement (though see here, too).
For another, if you oppose trans-exclusionary views, and you would like others in the academy to oppose them, too, then sometimes we’re going to have to hear such views. As I wrote last year:
The more I have learned about the philosophical and policy arguments regarding transgender issues, and in particular trans women, the closer I have come to a fairly strong trans-inclusive view. Like most philosophers, I’m not the kind of person who, on controversial matters, just takes others’ words for it. I want to hold the view of the matter that I believe is most justified, and to do that I need to understand the issues and to be moved by reasons and arguments, and to do that well, I need to make sure I’m getting a good accounting of the relevant considerations and opposing arguments. How can I do that? By engaging with the best work those with competing views have to offer.
If the institutions of philosophy prohibit the defense of trans-exclusionary views, what then? Do the views disappear? No. Rather, their best defenses go elsewhere, to less reliable, less seriously-vetted venues (think, for example, of Quillette, or blogs), where argumentative errors, rhetorical nudges, strategic omissions, and polemical sleights-of-hand are more likely.
Furthermore, the absence of trans-exclusionary views from academic venues under such conditions does not thereby signal their weakness to philosophers who’ve yet to form considered opinions on the matter. It signals instead a kind of dogmatism that threatens to alienate allies…
In short, if your interest is in more philosophers coming to reject trans-exclusionary views, then we have to talk about trans-exclusionary views, and to do that well, we have to let those with trans-exclusionary views talk to us through the institutions we’ve found valuable for pursuing the truth. This argument doesn’t depend on prioritizing philosophical questioning above all else, or on the idea that as philosophers we question everything. It is based on a confidence in the justifiability of a more trans-inclusive view, and a belief that Millian considerations regarding the expression of ideas are not unrealistic for the philosophical community.
Additionally, to say that we have to let those with trans-exclusionary views talk to us is not to say that everything goes…
Or, as Elizabeth Barnes (Virginia) said last year:
I think we need to take seriously the pain and harm that can be caused to individuals by philosophical arguments. What is a purely hypothetical thought experiment for one person is a discussion of someone else’s personal suffering, and I think that discrepancy matters. Nor do I think all arguments are worth taking seriously—sometimes the moral awfulness of an argument’s conclusion can make me think that it’s not worth engaging, no matter how clever or interesting the premises might be. The question then is when to engage, and for me that is just a hard question with no clear answers.
At least for my own decisions, one thing I think about a lot is whether the argument is taken seriously in wider public discourse. (I know people worry that engaging with offensive arguments will ‘legitimize’ them, but in a lot of cases the arguments already have widespread currency, and whether I pay attention to them won’t change that.) I’m the elite among disabled people—I have great health insurance and a full-time job with great job security. And I also, in an important sense, make my living and my reputation from talking about the experiences and the oppression of people less fortunate than I am. So if I then turn around and say, in response to an argument that has wide public currency, that it’s too offensive for me to engage with, that doesn’t strike me as fair. What am I here for if not to philosophically engage with arguments that are hurting people who are subject to the type of oppression I study (the study of which gets me a nice paycheck and invitations to fancy universities and etc)?…
Another thing that matters to me a great deal, when thinking through these issues, is what happens to philosophical discourse if we repeatedly say that arguments or positions ought not to be entertained because they are offensive or politically unacceptable. I should caveat by saying that I think that a lot of complaining about free speech and no-platforming is overblown, especially because in many cases we adopt a ‘teach the controversy’ mindset in which arguments are given prominence not because they are particularly interesting or challenging, but simply because their conclusitons are controversial. And then the same people are asked, over and over, to engage with these arguments in a way that can feel more like public theater than genuine philosophical engagement. And I can understand getting sick of that. That being said, I am genuinely concerned about issues of political censorship in philosophy.
And I’m concerned not because I think we have to make sure we protect the rights of obnoxious people to say obnoxious things (although I do think that.) I’m concerned because academia, like most any other social setting, has embedded hierarchies and power structures. If I was confident that the progressive elite of academia would always be on the side of right, then I wouldn’t be too worried about a norm of discourse that says you can shout down views that you ﬁnd oﬀensive or that you are politically opposed to. But I’m not conﬁdent of that. In fact I’m very confident of the opposite. And so I think it’s imperative, if we want to protect the ability of the truly vulnerable to be heard and to question consensus, that we have a norm of allowing views that go against the political grain. This will, of course, involve having a norm that allows for shitty and offensive views. But I think that’s a price worth paying.
Whether it’s justifiable or not, we take there to be a difference between not being invited to an academic event and having one’s invitation to it rescinded—no one will notice the former but people will make noise about the latter. If Stock wasn’t the right fit for your conference, or you weren’t prepared to responsibly put on a talk by someone whose views you think are at odds with your values, then you ought not to have invited her in the first place. But you did, and now you’ve disinvited her, you handled it badly, and now there is, reasonably, some noise.
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Readers, I’m going to try to leave comments open on this. If you want to comment on this thread, you’ll have to use your real name to do so. Please be patient. Comments may take a while to appear (I have grading to do and a few meetings today).
It would be great if the discussion were useful, say, by focusing on ways events can include views the organizers reject without endorsing those views, or what steps, if any, event organizers could usefully take besides disinviting a speaker when they find themselves in a position like ZAS’s, or ways speakers could effectively and respectfully present offensive ideas, etc. And of course readers are welcome to disagree with my views about speech presented here. But here’s what I don’t want comments on:
- Why I call Stock’s view “trans-exclusionary,” and whether I should call it that (see here)
- Whether Stock’s view is correct or not.
- What kind of person you think Stock is.
- Whether trans women are women, whether trans men are men, and generalizations about people who are trans.
- Outing specific people as trans.
- How I’m censoring you.
- If 2+2 = 4
- The supposed irony of this list on a post about someone losing an opportunity to speak.
Thank you for your cooperation.
UPDATE (12/18/20): Comments on this post are now closed.