Understanding Trans-Exclusionary Rhetoric in Philosophy with Help from J.K. Rowling
An insightful and entertaining video that explains why some of J.K. Rowling’s writings and statements are transphobic, and does so in a way that expresses some sympathy for Rowling, may be very useful to those seeking to understand accusations of transphobia in philosophy (and bigotry more generally).
The video is by Natalie Wynn of ContraPoints, and features her characteristically complicating honesty and occasionally self-deprecating humor.
If there were a way to make watching this video a prerequisite for commenting on trans-related posts here at Daily Nous, I’d consider it.
Here it is:
NOTE: Commenters on this post must use their real name and email address (email addresses are not published).
Jason, I appreciate your posting the video, but I don’t have 90 minutes to devote to that. I’m sure the arguments in the video, if any, can be summarized more briefly (and more forcefully and less distractingly).
I don’t have any principled objection to the “philosophy can be fun!” folks, but I have concluded that I must have an idiosyncratic conception of fun (and I am [still?] a Harry Potter fan).Report
Mitchell, it’s Justin.
As for the length of the video, sure it’s long, but one could break it up into several sections and just substitute it for other viewing you’d do over the course of a week, no?
I considered transcribing excerpts or writing out the arguments, but for a few reasons I decided against it. For one thing, how much time do you think I have? I just fit the watching of a 90 minute video into my week! But more importantly, we’re not mere reasoning machines, and the affective elements of Wynn’s presentation are an important part of her successfully conveying her ideas, especially on this topic which tends to generate highly emotional reactions even among philosophers. The empathy Wynn shows Rowling, for example, is crucial, and it is conveyed in more than just mere words. I think it’s worth making time for.Report
When wanting to post a comment on thread on trans issues, a reader might be directed to an online quiz featuring questions about this video. It would be up to you to decide what score a person would need to get to pass the quiz. When this score is achieved, the person would be allowed to share their thoughts. You could also include a separate question about how convincing the would-be commenter found the video and, again, it would be up to you to decide which score would be sufficient for permission to comment.Report
Even better: let’s just have our ISPs install Wrongthink filters that will keep our offensive thoughts from ever getting into public view, and get the neuroscientists to work on devices that will deliver a tiny electric shock when such thoughts so much as occur to us.Report
Yes, John, thinking it would be a good idea for commenters to be more informed about trans issues, the nature and history of the discourse surrounding them, and how their words might be heard—which might help them make their points more effectively whatever their views happen to be—before they comment about said issues here, is just like using technology to completely censor offensive views and punish people for mere thoughts.
When you’re done on the slopes, maybe just watch the video?Report
John Schwenkler, this would indeed be far better but unfortunately, we just don’t have the technology at this point. This is why I proposed the quiz. Details would need to be worked out, e.g., is the lowest level of agreement with the video “I find this video very plausible” or should “I still have questions” be allowed? I only meant to provide a solution that’s achievable now, or soon, before too many wrong–harmful–ideas begin to appear.Report
It just occurs to me that it might be more helpful to your readership to actually read some of the philosophy papers that discuss some of these issues, like Stock on sexual attraction in the Poc.Aristo, or work by Lawford-Smith, or Mary Leng, or Alex Byrne or Bogardus? Or, indeed, my paper that is explicitly ‘trans-exclusionary’ (not in the sense that it seeks to exclude anyone from sport, but that it explicitly advocates exclusion of trans women from competitive women’s collision sports) in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, which is open access. Just a thought, hope it’s helpful. So why not look at the actual philosophy? I have a preference for spending 90 minutes reading philosophy papers over watching general videos, but I have no idea where that came from.Report
I think that a good number of people see certain writings described as “transphobic” and are sincerely at a loss for why anyone thinks that label applies. One of the things Wynn’s video does quite well is explain these apparently puzzling attributions of transphobia. That is a distinct task from first-order philosophizing about trans issues. So while you seem to frame your suggestion as a substitute for watching Wynn’s video, I think it’s better understood as “here is something else you can also do.”Report
The amount of stuffy gatekeeping in the comments already is depressing. Do philosophical arguments really need to be written out in standard form and found in the pages of a peer-reviewed journal, one that maybe a dozen people will ever read, in order to be worth engaging with? Is philosophy not sufficiently serious unless we’re total bores while doing it? Maybe it’s worth understanding and engaging with a video that in all likelihood, due to its popularity, will have a greater effect in shaping the public discourse and the average person’s thinking on trans issues than any work being done in professional philosophical circles.Report
There is a difference between “explain[ing] these apparently puzzling attributions of transphobia,” on the one hand, and “explain[ing] why some of J.K. Rowling’s writings and statements are transphobic,” which is how the video is described at the top. The former characterization is consistent with it’s being false that Rowling’s writings and statements are transphobic; the latter is not.Report
Just to be clear, my comment above was intended to be a reply to Moti Gorin. (Such is life these days that I can’t tell if Moti’s suggestions are meant tongue-in-cheek or not.) I do, of course, appreciate the important difference between requiring that would-be commenters first watch a 90-minute YouTube video, and literal censorship of certain views. The second thing would be wicked; the first one, only very silly.Report
Could I suggest a (perhaps helpful) counterweight to ContraPoints? Try this interview with the redoubtable Julie Bindel: https://audioboom.com/posts/7739303-the-misogyny-of-trans-activism-with-julie-bindel.
Unlike ContraPoints, Bindel isn’t luxuriating in a rose-petal filled bathtub, but apart from that it’s pretty good.Report
The comments by Justin and Christopher Britton miss the point. I’ve watched most of the video, which was a real grind, and most of the substance is an attempt to encourage bad faith readings. These particularly take the form of “when people say X, they actually mean Y”. So for example (and you just need to look at the screen shots for this) Wynn identifies the articulating of concerns, as in fact, a form of indirect bigotry and the concerns get put into scare quotes. On the contrary, I think, when doing Applied ethics (for example) it’s fine to have concerns, to pursue them, to see whether or not they are well founded. On Wynn’s line if I raise (fairly simple and fairly obvious) concerns about trans-inclusion in women’s collision sport, and I seek to raise an argument about those in a piece of first order philosophy, then the scare quotes come swooping in. Wynn has me as raising “concerns” or “debating” proxy issues or “defending” a group (in this case female players in collision sport) and *thereby* engaging in indirect bigotry. But there are no grounds for those accusations in this case. In endorsing this, then, Justin endorses a (literally) prejudiced approach to first order philosophy in this area. And, if that’s the case, it’s bad news, if as Christopher Britton says, this video will have more influence than work by professional philosophers. Finally, I can’t stop myself form pointing out that my paper has had 4,300 downloads in its first month. Of course, the paper might be a bigoted load of rubbish, despite that. People could just read and decide for themselves – which was my original point. Engagement in good faith, without prejudice, is not really too much to ask of professional colleagues. Encouraging prejudice, not so much.Report
Wynn does not claim that whenever someone engages in the forms of behavior that indirect bigotry can take they are thereby displaying indirect bigotry. Not every instance of raising concerns or defending a group, for example, is an instance of bigotry. Rather, what she is pointing out is that bigotry can be dressed up in a variety of forms that may not seem like bigotry, and that it takes some knowledge of the discourse and its history to recognize it for what it is. She provides examples of indirect racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia to illustrate this, pointing out how we are better recognizing it in these more familiar contexts, and that we acknowledge that literal approaches to much indirect bigotry of these sorts would strike us as naive or disingeuous. There is an interesting question about how we are supposed to apply this lesson to specific statements in discourse about trans issues, and perhaps there are better or worse ways (more or less prejudicial ways?) to do so—more can be said on that of course—but let’s not misrepresent Wynn’s position.Report
Thank you, Justin! This is a terrific video. Admittedly I’ve only watched about sixty minutes – twenty on my phone just before bed and another forty over my first cup of coffee. Many of us have THAT time.
More importantly, Natalie is a very good philosopher who is exceptional in empathic understanding. She almost always considers opposing views with more genuine understanding than about 98% of professors who publish. For that reason I have occasionally recommended her videos to students. They’re simply good philosophy.
And I say all this without being committed to any of her positions on trans issues. That’s how philosophy works.Report
Very interesting video. Thanks for sharing, Justin. I learned a lot.Report
Comments like most (but not all) of those found in this thread demonstrate pretty well why current analytic philosophy is basically bankrupt. Go ahead, tell me why I’m wrong by painstakingly analyzing the notion of bankruptcy in a paper downloaded by 4000 other philosophers.Report
You think those 4300 people were all philosophers?! Blimey. It’s flattering, too, that you think the paper is a painstaking piece of analytic philosophy, analyzing a notion, but it really isn’t, and your comment reveals that you haven’t read it. Which might well be wise, who am I to say? But it is, also, kind of where I came in.Report
This is a reply to Justin’s comment that “The empathy Wynn shows Rowling, for example, is crucial, and it is conveyed in more than just mere words.” I watched the whole video, and what’s strange to me is that I came away with such a different understanding of it. Where Justin saw empathy, I saw a lot of condescension and contempt. I don’t know what to make of this.Report
Molly, Wynn does tease and harshly criticize Rowling, but she also shows a good amount of empathy towards her, too (and also in several instances gives her the benefit of the doubt). I can’t go through every bit of the whole video right now but here are what struck me as some points in regards to which Wynn shows considerable empathy towards Rowling:
– the badness of being on the receiving end of a hateful Twitter mob
– how fame and wealth don’t immunize a person against how bad it feels when people hate on you
– how fame alienates you from others and dehumanizes you in the eyes of the masses
– how a part of Wynn is “traumatized” by watching people hate on Rowling
– Wynn states that her aim is to take Rowling’s pain seriously and treat her like a complex human being
– how some of the case for Rowling’s transphobia has depended on poor “guilt by association” evidence
– Rowling’s trauma regarding her own sexual assault
– how discourse about trans issues triggers Rowling’s PTSD
– how some trans people have been abusive towards Rowling
– how violent threats, even if uncommon, can come to seem representative of the whole wave of online hate crashing upon youReport
Here are some reasons I liked the video and/or didn’t see some of the problems with it that others saw.
1. Sometimes when someone says X, they mean Y. (Or they’re saying X to achieve bigoted goal G or to virtue signal or what have you.) This is undeniable. It’s also important to analyze discourse in this way sometimes, though not always. For example, dog whistles mean more than what’s said. I assume this is obvious enough as to not need argument. I can see how some people might take this kind of analysis and run with it, accusing everyone of meaning something other than what they’ve said. I don’t know whether each use of this kind of analysis in the video was fair; I’m not familiar with much of what she discussed. But I didn’t get the sense that Wynn thought, for example, that philosophical arguments about whether transgender women should be eligible for women’s sports leagues necessarily mean something transphobic. I could be wrong, though.
2. The video clarified how some statements are transphobic in ways I wouldn’t have previously picked up on. For example, Rowlings’ claim “I support your right to wear whatever clothes you want and to call yourself whatever you want.” Now that it’s been explained to me, it seems pretty obvious that this offensively trivializes what it is to be transgender. But if I had quickly glanced over a tweet like that, on a busy day, I probably wouldn’t have noticed and might even have thought that people who complained about the tweet were being hyper-sensitive.
3. Her suggestion that we replace the metaphysical slogan “trans women are women” with a political slogan that I can’t remember offhand (“liberate transgender people”? “transgender rights”?) was interesting. I’m curious what metaphysicians of gender would say about this.
4. I don’t know if the video was “fun,” but I thought the Alanis Morisette joke was funny.Report
To my mind, the most important takeaway from the video is that there’s good reason for trans people and their allies to be suspicious of gender critical feminists and their allies when they claim to be solely concerned with safeguarding cisgender women’s rights and wellbeing. In particular, the analogy with the polite homophobia of the 90s and early 2000s struck me. When I hear a politician express concern for the sanctity or marriage or when someone tries to restrict gay couple’s adoption rights out of a supposed concern for the safety and wellbeing of children, I rightfully don’t believe for a second that they actually care about those things. And I also don’t think that, if given enough political power, they will stop with simply restricting marriage and adoption rights. It’s possible, of course, that they really have nothing against gay people personally, that they really do just strongly believe in safeguarding the institution of marriage and the wellbeing of children. But that’s not where I would I place my bets, especially given that I know that it’s a common tactic to cloak bigoted beliefs in palatable language and to keep one’s ultimate political aims out of the public discourse. I think it is very difficult to read Rowling’s tweets and those of many gender critical feminists and still maintain that have anything but contempt for trans folk, in the same way that I can’t read a philosopher like Swinburne and think he has anything but contempt for homosexuals. And I cannot believe that they will be contented with simply excluding trans women from women’s spaces, in the same way I cannot believe that anti-gay politicians will be content with merely restricting gay couple’s access to wedding cakes. It’s perhaps unfair, and I wouldn’t claim it’s an attitude suitable for a professional setting like an academic conference. But when you’re a member of a marginalized group, trust is hard-earned, and you don’t take people at their word or assume their intentions are benevolent. And when you’re agitating for political change, someone merely saying they are an ally in your political struggle carries little weight.Report
This is a nice video. If there is one take-home message in here, it’s where Natalie says that the problem with TERFs is not that they would be mean or unpleasant (shall we say). The essence of bigotry is *not* that it’s “being mean” (though it often is), rather, “Bigotry is hate that poses a political threat to the target group. The problem with TERFs is not that they’re mean but that they’re reactionary, they want to dial back trans liberation”, she says.
And this is the problem. Notably, in 2020 legislation that allowed people to self-identify by gender identification without medical diagnosis was scrapped by Boris Johnson in the UK.
Wynn also notes that our understanding of bigotry is too narrow: we see it as being mean (see above), or alternatively as mere hate. It becomes a caricature, it’s not mere hate. Problem is: bigots have their own internal logic, and you obscure that bigotry is a deeply human problem.Report
I think that some commenters have been too quick in their judgments about the quality of the content of Wynn’s video, and about the demerits of this format. But I disagree with David’s rather strong suggestion that this indicates ‘bankruptcy’ in analytic philosophy. Many of philosophy’s problems seem irrelevant to this discussion.
For instance, I think that philosophy has a problem with overspecialisation. However, the topic of Wynn’s video is very specialised (many ethically significant topics are). Philosophy also has a problem with the availability of its content. However, that seems largely extraneous to philosophy itself, and many philosophers make draft papers openly available. Then there’s the problem that philosophy can appear unnecessarily technical and jargon-laden. However, my (unlearned) impression is that this is less of an issue here.
There are also fair-minded reasons to be concerned with videos like Wynn’s.
The first is simply put: they’re too cool! They are glossy, extremely well produced, edgy. They are very clickable and Likeable. But that makes their content seem much more persuasive than it would otherwise appear, in a soberer format. (Generally speaking, I think that our epistemic ecosystem would be healthier if prominent actors on social media were less concerned with the popularity of their content.)
The second is that there is no real equivalent to the peer review process, or even to basic journalistic codes and standards, in the world of individual online content creators. Not saying those are in perfect order in the academy and elsewhere, but overall everyone suffers if they go by the wayside.
Public philosophy can be accessible without relying too much on theatre, and whilst ensuring some bias- and quality-control on its content. For instance, the popular YouTube channel Capturing Christianity often hosts long-form discussions between theists and atheists: discussions which, needless to say, touch on highly divisive and impassioned debates. The moderator is on hand to make sure the discussion stays relatively grounded. It would be better, I think, to encourage that sort of online public philosophy.
I don’t think that any of the above is in tension with Justin Weinberg’s favourable presentation of the video. And it shouldn’t qualify as the sort of ‘stuffy gatekeeping’ that Christopher Britton finds so depressing – though maybe this jobless post-grad is too deeply wedded to the system to see beyond it!Report
Very nice video. Coincidentally, I just read an article by Carrie Jenkins about how homophobes often hide their bigotry behind depoliticizing claims such as, ‘it’s just an analytic truth that love is between a man & a woman’ or ‘it’s just a scientific fact that love is for procreation,’ rather than admitting to any prejudice or vested interest in the heteropatriarchal order. Wynn makes a similar claim about transphobes hiding their prejudices behind appeals to ‘unbiased’ truths & facts, and she points to other depoliticizing strategies used to orient the debate away from politics & the culture of compulsory cisheterosexuality, which is really the crux of the debate.
Her point is consistent with feminist philosophy & the idea that everything is political, including scientific inquiry & conceptual analysis, which are influenced by the prevailing cissexist cultural norms.
Thanks for posting.Report
Thanks Justin! Thought it was a great video; watched all of it and learned a lot. If, like Wynn does, more philosophers would situate their thinking culturally and politically , while at the same time keeping the humanity of those they argue against front and centre our discipline would be the better for it.Report
“Generally speaking, I think that our epistemic ecosystem would be healthier if prominent actors on social media were less concerned with the popularity of their content.”
Since by definition prominent actors on social media are the ones with very popular content, this may be difficult to achieve.Report
This is a reply to Justin’s reply to me. For some of those items on your list, Wynn certainly says that she is doing or not doing them, but simply announcing that you are doing or not doing something does not always make it so. In this reply I am not providing you with an example of what I mean.Report
@David Jones Wallace
I guess so. My hope is that it’s possible for some big players to produce popular content, without playing the usual games. But I understand that the design of social media platforms makes that unlikely.Report
How are we to have this discussion without confusion and conflation and conceptual slippage between psychological, sociological, political, and philosophical issues? Right from the outset it seems distorting to make transphobia a philosophical concept. Phobia is psychological and motivational. So, arguably is bigotry. Similarly, to speak of how a trans-person feels about certain concepts or arguments is psychological. And, while such psychological conditions may be empirically true or false for any individual or set of individuals how they relation to philosophical arguments and concepts itself needs philosophical explanation. There are also clearly various sociological facts that can be researched and described regarding the behaviors of groups and subgroups. Some of these might have to do with the effects within groups of certain ways of identifying and behaving, and how it fits or doesn’t fit into the reference group. Issues of alienation, of nonacceptance, even of violence. Theres a lot to discuss and explore here, but the connect of this with philosophy isn’t transparent either. While we may be personally compassionate to suffering whereever we see it, the philosophical argument for the ideal forms of social organization are separable from the empirical facts per se. DIscrimination is a sociological concept in this regard. And, while sociologically we can describe the operation of discrimination within society, and perhaps demonstrate its effects, its rightness or wrongness requires a different sort of argument. Some of this would be political. Politically one has to develop concepts of one’s societies relevant groups, the different interests and rights of such groups, and the methods for balancing and adjudicating between those, groups, interests, and rights. Whether trans- rights are relevant, or are just human rights, nevermind whether they trump the rights of biological women, would need to be established not assumed. Philosophy has a role here again. But, its place it different from the political power of various groups.Report
And to follow up on my comment above: I tried to show that it’s possible to be condescending and contemptuous even while you claim that you are being empathetic. This doesn’t prove that Wynn was being condescending and contemptuous, just as showing that it’s possible to be a bigot even when you have good intentions does not prove that JK Rowling is a bigot. But I don’t have time right now to prove that Wynn was being condescending and contemptuous.Report
@ Mathieu Rees
I may be alone in this, but I really like the kind of frivolity and slickness of much of the content produced for YouTube and the like. To my mind it’s not that far off from at least some professional philosophical writing. The philosopher who sticks out in my mind, perhaps oddly, is Jerry Fodor. Part of why I enjoy reading Fodor in a way I very, very rarely enjoy reading professional philosophy is the constant jokes, the oftentimes bizarre framing of the paper (such as framing it around a children’s story about ontology), the dialogues between Granny and her various interlocuters, and so on. It may well be that I’m more sympathetic to Fodor as a result of him being fun to read (I certainly have read more of him than many other philosophers as a result of it). And maybe I’m less sympathetic to other philosophers of mind that I find a miserable slog to get through for the converse reason. Similar points apply to philosophers who are simply very eloquent and write beautiful prose, such as Martha Nussbaum, who I maybe would not not be as sympathetic to if they wrote in a dry, lawyerly, analytic style. So some of these worries apply, in a more limited form perhaps, even to well known work in professional philosophy. All other things being equal, a philosopher who is actually a good writer, who can inject their own personality into their prose and make engaging with it fun, will always be more persuasive than the philosopher who’s writing is dry, stilted, and unimaginative (the unfortunate norm in analytic philosophy).
Making public and professional philosophy accessible is one thing. I’ve certainly seen longform debates with moderators that a non-specialist could easily follow. Making it actually enjoyable, especially to the kind of person who isn’t deep enough in philosophy to devote their life to it, is another. There’s a reason Wynn can get upwards of four million views on her videos, whereas most philosophical content on YouTube is lucky to break a hundred thousand views (and even then, that’s quite rare). If making philosophy known to the wider public and making it more enjoyable to engage with requires a bit of pageantry and theatre, I personally consider that worth the risk of making some philosophy too rhetorically convincing.Report
That’s interesting, thank you.
I like reading Fodor, for the same reasons you give. But I’m also occasionally suspicious of Fodor, because he is such a stylist. That being said, my suspicions are tempered by the fact that Fodor has to abide by demanding academic standards. And, of course, there is far less of an incentive to meet these standards as a YouTuber – indeed, arguably, there are incentives to flout them.
I appreciate your suggestion that these videos might nonetheless do more good than ill. Perhaps that’s true; neither of us can know from the armchair. But we should be careful not to conclude, from those impressive numbers, that philosophy is itself benefiting from these videos. Consider, for instance, ‘The School of Life’. It’s very popular, but I myself doubt that philosophy gains much from its existence.
Of course, de Botton is no ContraPoints. You might think that Wynn does a much better job of genuinely popularising philosophy, because she’s a much better philosopher, and exemplifies that in her videos. But I think that my concern about academic standards kick in again at this point, as it certainly seems relevant to our appraisal of her philosophy.
I guess a lot of this boils down to the question of what public philosophy is, and what it might be good for. Maybe we disagree about that. But if so, this doesn’t seem the place to discuss the much more general matter!Report
I know I’m a bit late to the game, but I got through the entirety of the video late last night, and I must admit I really do enjoy Natalie trying to bring philosophy to the masses with her videos (I’ve seen a handful of others over the last couple years). I agree with huge portions of the video. I also had no idea that that book (The Transsexual Empire) existed, and it was pretty disturbing to read that it’s reception was largely positive when it first came out.
All that said, there were a few elements to the discussion that I’d push back on:
~ 30:00 (She brings up Wittgenstein and dissolving the question–here in relation to the common statement “trans women are women”–which to her is just more metaphysics and scholasticism…saying at one point “Life is too short for metaphysics”). I had to laugh at that last quip, though I would hope that this is maybe a limited view (perhaps with respect to gender), because if taken globally: it makes things incoherent. We all have metaphysical presuppositions (whether admittedly or not). For instance, in order for me to understand progress in science, there needs to be feedback from an objective external reality. And if I say things like “believe in science”…it can’t just be with respect to vaccine efficacy or global warming resulting from humanity’s machinations. If you believe in science, you realize that this universe has existed for almost 14 billion years, with modern humans appearing about 200,000 years ago. In addition, utilizing Wittgenstein can be risky because he seems to be interpreted in vastly different ways by different people. One of those ways is anti-relativist (and indeed one might say more “metaphysical”). David Wootton, in his fantastic and dense “The Invention of Science”, discusses this at length in some notes at the end, citing several passages that indicate Ludwig’s belief in objective facts.
~1:00:00 (She mentions “Have I got news for Dr. Freud” after discussing his belief that men discovering that women don’t have a penis might be behind crossdressing and similar fetishes) I laughed at this one, and I completely agree with her that his psychosexual analysis of all sorts of things is pretty much complete nonsense. The only thing is, earlier in the video she mentions a book, “The Anatomy of Bigotry” by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl. It seemed very intriguing, so I looked it up and, well, apparently the analysis depends significantly on Freudian psychoanalytic theory. Now I haven’t read it, and I realize that plenty of people could say “One can onboard some elements of Freudian psychoanalysis while jettisoning other parts”. That’s absolutely true, whether it’s a socialist that still thinks Marx was wrong about all sorts of things (historical materialism, labor theory of value, etc.) or a mathematical realist that believes mathematical statements are objectively true statements (without believing in some universe of Platonic Forms). So this may be much ado about nothing, but it could also be a case of “Yea Freud be a jackass…and here’s this really important book I recently read (with no mention of the author’s own intellectual background being steeped in Freudian thought).
1:10:03 (She says “When the target of that aggression is a member of a marginalized community, then it becomes bigotry”) Not related explicity to trans issues, but comments like this remind me of the Critical Race Theory redefinition of racism back in the 1970s. It makes no sense. Natalie should have just said “When any group of any member is targeted”. This is not some “white people have it rough too” whataboutism (although, coming at this from a class perspective, there are indeed a shitload of white people, both in the US and around the world, that currently live a miserable existence). i get that racism against minorities in this country is far worse. What I’m saying is, we don’t teach people “Don’t be bigoted, unless the group has some inordinate power in society. Then be as bigoted as you like! Anyone telling you not to is tone policiing you!” This is nonsense. It only takes a second to look at hate crime statistics in this country and see that about 20% of them are anti-white (a very significant minority). It only takes a little bit of listening to rap lyrics from Jay-Z or members of Wu-Tang or Jay Electronica to hear references to Yakub and other NOI/Five-Percenter nonsense (still love the music though, I’m one of those “its possible in many cases to separate art from artist”). You don’t get a pass from me on this, and funny enough, Natalie gives one of the best retorts to this sort of behavior I can think of (~1:09:35): “You’re not less of a bigot when your bigotry resulted from a tragic backstory”.
Any thoughts from Justin and/or the throng are welcome!Report
‘ Phobia is psychological and motivational’
I’m not sure this is correct in terms of how analogous terms like ‘homophobia’ are used. Yes, the etymological root of ‘phobia’ words is to do with fear, but that is irrelevant. It’s a normal use of the word ‘homophobia’ to refer to attempts to exclude gay people from certain things that the user of ‘homophobia’ believes they are entitled to be right, regardless of the *motivation* of the person doing the excluding. Or at least, that seems a normal use to me. I.e. Suppose in fact the arguments against gay marriage are no good, but someone is against gay marriage not because of any negative feelings about gay people, but because they are super attached to the Catholic Church. It’s totally normal usage to call such a person homophobic! Now, maybe you think this usage is bad and unfair, because it carrier connotations that someone is a ‘hater’. But it is quite standard I think, and it’s roughly what people have in mind when they say ‘transphobia’, at least some of the time. They mean to say that someone is trying to exclude trans people from something trans people are entitled to and to stigmatize this action as unjust, not to speculate about the mental state of the person doing though. Of course *sometimes* they mean to do the latter as well, but definitely not always.) Maybe using ‘phobic’ in this way is bad, and we should stop, but I don’t think it’s just an obvious fact that doesn’t need any defense that ‘phobia is pyschological and motivational.’ (To be clear, I do think it’s obvious that for attributions of ‘X-phobia’ to be true/apt there really does have to be genuine injustice involved, it can’t just be that they are true/apt if the person making them believes an injustice is going on, regardless of whether they’re right about that.)Report
response to dave mathers
thanks for your thoughtful response. I agree that the word phobia has been attached to various other words [x-phobia] and isn’t exclusive to trans discourse. I didn’t mean to imply it isn’t used that way, nor that he categories I was distinguishing weren’t complexly related. What I was trying to say though, and it appears you disagree, is that there are differing sets of considerations and that the shifting meanings and category mistakes often make these discussions impossible to sort out. Phobia even as used in homophobia, is a psychological term. It implies a set of feelings associated with gayness that is stipulated as underlying the acts or assertions of the homophobic person. And, it may be there surely in many cases. I wasn’t trying to suggest that it doesn’t exist. I was however saying that my internal states are at least possibly philosophically separable considerations of politics or my ethics or my ontology. To refer back to transphobia and harry potter [or rowling]. When she says: “I support your right to wear whatever clothes you want and to call yourself whatever you want.”, she is making a point of political philosophy, i.e. the premise of liberal politics that individuals have the right to be left alone and to pursue happiness as the see fit. It says nothing else about her psychological states or motives for making such a political statement and we, all else being equal , should take her word about her psychological state. When she states that [as i understand what she said that got her in trouble here] that people who menstruate are women, or that a women is an adult biological human female, she is making a different sort of statement, perhaps ontological, but again isn’t stating anything about her psychological feelings about people who are trans. Her statement may be true or false regardless of her or anyone else’s feelings. Phobia has little to do with it necessarily, even though it is possible she is phobic, one cannot say unless one had more personal information. To give an analogous case separable from this— if I stated there is no god or that jesus is a man like any other man, would it be obvious that I was godphobic or religiophobic? I could say this while also defending the right of christians to believe and pursue their forms of life. I may have had some hateful experiences connected with religion and possibly do hate or fear such things but there is no way to know from the above statement. And, of course the religious person may feel misunderstood or even invalidated by my denial of god’s reality, but that doesn’t itself indicate anything philosophically. I think progress can be made if we let psychotherapists handle the psychological, engage politically around the political issues here of rights and the balance of rights and interests without making ad hominem assertions about feelings and motives, and separately try to clarify the ontology of natural kinds and social construction and so on. they are surely interrelated but mushing them up only leads to poor psychology, poor politics, and poor philosophy.Report
“@Mathieu Rees You say, “I guess a lot of this boils down to the question of what public philosophy is, and what it might be good for.”
I think that the good of public philosophy lies in helping members of the public to think through philosophical issues for themselves. I don’t think that it is useful as a way to provide the public with definitive answers to philosophical questions, because I don’t think that philosophy deals with questions that have definitive answers. Once a question gets a definitive answer, it moves out of philosophy.
I think that’s perfectly compatible with public philosophers being advocates.Report
‘To give an analogous case separable from this— if I stated there is no god or that jesus is a man like any other man, would it be obvious that I was godphobic or religiophobic?’ You’d be expressing the view that Christianity is false, and in that sense would be taking a stance against Christianity. There’s obviously *a* sensible reading of ‘anti-Christian’ on which such a phrase would be anti-Christian, though there is another sensible reading of ‘anti-Christian’ on which it requires more, some kind of hostility to Christianity. Of course, it sounds silly to call it ‘godphobic’ or ‘religious phobic’, but that is because those are not real words! If people started using them, it would sound less silly. I don’t think we *should* start using them, but that’s because they are pejoratives and I don’t think the attitude their designed to stigmatize is worthy of stigma. It’s not in my view unjust or prejudiced to regard Christianity as false (or in my view, even to regard it as silly).
Now, I actually agree that in order to read at least some of the statements Rowling makes as transphobic, one has to make some guesses at what she was trying to *do* was those assertions, which yes, is, I suppose to make inferences about her psychological state, since there is nothing about their literal content that either denegrates. But actually, this is *totally normal*. Real conversations do not consist simply in people attempting to get other people to update their beliefs to include the literal semantic content of their assertions. We have known this at least since Grice’s work on implicature. To understand what Rowling is implying when she says ‘ people who menstruate are women’ or that ‘women are adult human females’ we need to apply the maxim of relevance. In the first case, this is extremely easy: she said it in the context of mocking the idea that ‘people who menstruate’ should be used in places of women, in order to avoid (allegedly) upsetting trans men or assigned female at birth non-binary people. When people try and stigmatize Rowling as transphobic for saying that, they aren’t making a mistake about her intention, her intention was clearly to argue against the trans inclusive view. They might be making a moral mistake in thinking that being against the trans inclusive view in this case should be stigmatized. But that’s not a mistake about either the meaning of ‘phobia’ words. Nor does it involve them attributing to JKR a mental state that she doesn’t have.
Now ‘women are adult human females’ is a little trickier. I can imagine someone asserting that in a context where it didn’t imply any view about how trans women should be treated at all, and hence couldn’t reasonably be classed as ‘transphobic’. For example, I don’t think that Alex Byrne’s paper on this topic is, in itself, transphobic, since it presents itself as merely an attempt to figure out what is literally true in the metaphysics of gender, and, as Alex himself has said in his reply to Robin Dembroff, trans women only feature as a potential counter-example to his analysis*. There needs to be some kind of space in philosophy for doing purely descriptive metaphysics of social kinds even if some people might not like the answers. Nonetheless, ‘women are adult human females’ is obviously the kind of thing someone *might* cite as an explanation for why trans women shouldn’t be treated as women in a context where they have asked to be. Now, technically, to know that someone had done that, you need to know what their intention was. But again, this at least *can* be obvious.
There is clearly an element on the US identity politics left who delight in a) finding a statement they don’t like and most people consider perfectly acceptable, and b) simply asserting that it implies (is a ‘dogwhistle’) for some much more extreme statement that most people consider unacceptable, and insisting on this interpretation no matter how stretched it seems to everyone else. So the well has kind of been poisoned by bad faith in my view. But the response to this *can’t* be to simply pretend that understanding what someone is trying to implying or recommend or bring about by asserting a sentence is just impossible, and we should focus only on the literal content. That relies on a completely fantastical picture of how human communication actually works.
*I do however think that Alex’s citing of Julie Bindel upthread indicates that he is in fact at least somewhat sympathetic to the trans-exclusive agenda that Robin Dembroff famously accused him of trying to promote. I’m aware that on some level this is ad hominem and question-begging, but it is worth pointing out just how extremist Bindel is. In addition to talking about trans women in the most grossly insulting terms she has also denigrated bisexuality, and fantasized about putting men in concentration camps on the basis of their gender: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julie_Bindel#Gender,_bisexuality
@Gregory Sadler Littmann
Sure! But that can be done whilst adhering to certain important epistemic norms, such as those against excessive rhetorical flourish.
I think that public philosophy, at its best, should provide an accessible window into what academic philosophy is like, at its best. That’s consistent with what you say; with the thought that Wynn does a reasonable job of it; and with its being the case that there might still be important respects in which Wynn and others may do more harm than good.
I was initially motivated to write my comment because I thought that the video was okay. I think that there are epistemically problematic elements to such videos, which can get overinflated by some, and almost entirely downplayed by others. I did think it was worth putting that out there. But perhaps not!Report
This is a response to Alex Byrne’s recommendation of the Julie Bindel interview. This interview didn’t seem helpful to me, someone with limited knowledge of these issues. The main problem I had with (the chunk of) it (that I got through) is its central contention: that trans activism is misogynistic. Bindel paints this picture by, among other things, identifying trans activism with obscure (online?) views about words like ‘menstruator’ as opposed to more mainstream goals on discrimination in housing, work, health care, and basic recognition of dignity. The interview thus works against actual, worthy efforts to improve the lives of transgender people.
It’s a given that transgender activism isn’t above criticism and that some of the specific goals or strategies can be reasonably debated. I’m not an expert on this movement, but this much follows from the platitude that no real-world activism is above criticism. But a goal of this criticism should be to improve trans activism, not oppose it wholesale in defense of the status quo on the treatment of transgender people (or the status quo of years past).
As I suggested parenthetically, I didn’t make it through the whole interview. (Apart from the problems I mentioned, Bindel practices a style of political communication that I just have no appetite for and that I think is harmful. But that’s another story.) Maybe it gets better. But even if it does, the damage is unlikely to be undone for the average listener, not only because this listener might not make it that far, but because of how, once they’re in place, the kinds of attitudes the beginning is intended to elicit are hard to change.
I’ll briefly mention that I’m coming to this debate with, in addition to concern about the treatment of transgender people in its own right, a concern about how anti-woke discourse about transgender people is weaponized by right-wing authoritarianism, particularly in the US. A couple of clear examples of this are Trump tweeting that he’d ban transgender people from the military and Ben Shapiro screaming about Elliott Page while his political party was trying to subvert an election. Again, the point is not that any transgender movement is above criticism, but, in this case, that such criticism should take better care than Bindel does to avoid reinforcing authoritarian propaganda.Report
Jonathan – The merit of ContraPoints’ video is supposed to be that it reveals the ways in which gender critical views can be morally harmful despite masquerading as moral. It seems a bit unfair to then complain of the Bindel interview that its central contention is that trans activism can be morally harmful despite masquerading as moral. The move of scratching around for hidden motives cuts both ways.Report
That’s not my complaint against the Bindel interview. Motives are sometimes hidden and it would be foolish to never try to uncover them. The problem with this interview, as I see it, is that, in it, Bindel opposes the very effort, in and of itself, to improve the lot of an oppressed group. She treats misogyny as the central, driving force of the trans gender movement and, from what I heard, wasn’t about to clarify that improving life for transgender people was nonetheless a worthy goal that should be distinguished from the putative misogyny. (And, as I say, if she did say something to that effect later, it would have been too late.) For example, one could theorize about the motives behind use of the word ‘menstruator’ without painting this kind of general picture of “the” movement for a group of people.
I didn’t pay close attention to the parts of the Contrapoints video on gender critical feminism. And I also don’t know much about gender critical feminism. So, for two reasons, I can’t say whether those parts of the Contrapoints video were fair or not. But even if they were unfair, the disanalogy I just mentioned is why I would have more of an issue with the Bindel video. To reiterate: Bindel, but not Contrapoints, is in effect opposing the attempt to improve the situation of an oppressed group.Report
A problem in these debates is the sharp divergence in political background between the UK and the US on the trans issue. In the UK, the gender critical orientation is firmly left-wing, growing out of working-class grassroots organisations, unions, and the Labour Party. Selina Todd, a prominent gender critical feminist, is probably the best thinker on class in the UK, and from a working-class background. Julie Bindel is not some hateful hack, but a tireless legal activist for women’s rights over the past few decades, especially with regard to rape, prostitution, and incarceration (again, from a working-class background). I could go on. From a UK perspective, when US academics heap scorn on British feminists, it comes over at best as risible high-handed parochialism. Butler was recently asked why there was an ‘anti-trans’ issue on the UK; a response from my cat would have made more sense. That some British academics follow suit involves worse sins than ignorance. A further issue is the legal situation in the UK. The Equality Act 2010 protects trans people from discrimination. The controversy in the UK principally arose from a fudged Conservative proposal to change another piece of legislation (the GRA) that affects the EA without any consultation of groups representing women (Mary Leng explained all this lucidly on the last thread on these matters on this site – perhaps before any philosopher speaks on the trans issue…). This a serious legal matter, and one might have expected philosophers to have something significant to say; unfortunately, the typical response has been embarrassing to the discipline. Louche logorrhoea in a bathtub is last thing that we need.Report
response to dave mathers
Thanks again for your considered response. I think there actually is much we agree on so I will not belabor many of your points. My main stress I think gets lost in the point about contemporary conventional usage. Trans-phobia as an attribution isn’t simply a descriptive term— as I would guess you agree. It is a critical judgement, except not of the point at issue directly but of the person/motives behind the issue at hand. It has in other words a rhetorical function to dismiss the issue raised by pointing to the person making the statement or argument. For example, if a person raises an objection to trans-women within a women’s prison or women’s shelter as a political point having to do with the rights of women, the objection of trans-phobia is supposed to dissolve the political issue having to do with how to balance the rights of various groups into one of the claimant’s psychological state and motive. Relatedly, if someone makes a claim about woman as a natural kind or criticizes the theories of women as a purely socially constructed category, nevermind a self-identification category, then a claim of transphobia diverts the philosophical argument again to an assertion about the claimant. I find such approaches make inquiry difficult and seem defensive and inauthentic. It really seems like the claim that one is perpetrating a war on christmas just because one doesn’t accept jesus as one’s savior.
and in a similar vein, however mocking it may seem, I read Rowlings statement in response to some discussion using intellectual contortions of ‘persons who menstruate’ in a discussion, that we have a word for that, ‘woman’, as akin to—however sarcastically stated– my sons saying ‘duh’ in response to something they feel is obvious. obnoxious, perhaps, phobic, eh?Report
Jonathan – I’m afraid that I just don’t accept the standard ‘in order to address some practice that one believes to be morally harmful, one must first establish that one believes that other practices are morally harmful’. Compare: ‘in order to levy some criticism of the Church, one must first establish one’s underlying commitment to the faith’. The analogy isn’t perfect, but there seem to me structural similarities.Report
I don’t accept that standard either. The propriety of a given criticism of a movement or institution will usually depend on the particular features of the movement or institution, of the person articulating the criticism, and of the audience. A standard like the one you state, which we both reject, is insensitive to all of these particularities and this is one reason it’s absurd. In my view, religious belief is such that, if a non-believer is going to mount a public criticism of a belief, there will be all kinds of pitfalls they should avoid if they want to be helpful. The exact same pitfalls won’t beset criticism of, say, a political party.
In previous comments, I’ve tried to indicate some particular features of the movement for transgender rights that seem to me salient to determining whether and how to criticize it and that seem to make Bindel’s criticisms unhelpful. Here’s an analogy to illustrate. To reject “the black movement” wholesale, as driven by some vicious attitude, without even the slightest hedging, would be , shall we say, unhelpful. And not *just* because it would be false; also because of what it says about the basic need to address racial injustice and the legacies thereof. (You can imagine features of the speaker or their audience that would also affect the degree of unhelpfulness.) For someone to reject an ideology like “sex-negative feminism” wholesale wouldn’t be nearly as unhelpful. That wouldn’t entail any sweeping view about addressing a major kind of group-based injustice. Again, this is because of particular differences between “the black movement” and sex-negative feminism.
I suppose if the mistreatment of and lack of concern for transgender people weren’t significant problems, the Bindel interview wouldn’t be unhelpful in the way I’m claiming. No need to entertain that possibility.Report
Bindel thinks that trans people buy into gender norms and consequently want to change their gender so that they can conform to gender norms that they are more comfortable with. Her solution to the “problem” is to eliminate gender norms. Like most trans people I know, I would love gender norms to disappear, but it wouldn’t untrans me. I don’t feel any obligation to abide by them. I don’t care whether I am gay or straight or bi. I don’t care that, even though I am a trans woman, I like a lot of stereotypically masculine things. And I can assure Bindel that the elimination of gender norms would not turn me into a cis person.
Of course, Bindel’s ignorance about what being trans is like (which is not to say that all trans experience is alike) and the relationship of being trans to gender norms is harmless enough. Some of her other views are more dangerous. She attacks trans people for wanting the right to use drugs and surgery to modify their bodies as they see fit. Her condemning such surgeries as “unnecessary mutilation”, as if she knows what’s best for trans people, is not just cringeworthy—it is a threat to the bodily autonomy of trans people.
The same applies to access to puberty blockers. She and other gender critical armchair psychologists and armchair medical researchers think they know better than the trans teen, the teen’s parents and their healthcare professionals whether the teen should take puberty blockers. And in the UK they have now (pending appeal) successfully rolled back access to puberty blockers. This not to say that there can’t be improvements to standard healthcare practices for trans people. What is dangerous is the effort to deny what most trans people want in terms of healthcare without even a serious critique of current practice to justify such an effort.
Then there is her mocking of trans people, her references to the “madness of transgenderism”, and her unqualified support of people who are openly transphobic. She writes off the whole trans rights movement, saying that “the trans-rights movement is a men’s rights movement underpinned by pernicious misogyny” (forgetting that trans men and nonbinary trans people exist and are often involved in that movement).
And to reiterate something I said on the last related thread, I’d still like to see even one serious discussion by a gender critical feminist of even one of the issues concerning trans people that they always claim to care about. It would help me to take them more seriously. If you know of such a discussion (whether the issue is bathrooms, prisons, SRS, changing rooms, gender conversion therapy, puberty blockers, etc.), please let me know. I have no doubt that gender critical philosophers are capable of producing such a discussion. I just haven’t seen one yet, and I think that is the direction gender critical philosophy should go.Report
That’s helpful, thanks. But try to take your analogy further – what criticism of the civil rights movement do you think would be (or perhaps was) analogous to the criticism that Bindel is pressing against trans activism?
Personally, I agree that criticism of trans activism is best accompanied by concern for the rights and dignity of trans people – since I think that a theory which marginalises biological sex will no more be able to do justice to the experiences of trans people than to the experiences of women. But I’m quite reluctant to say that criticism as severe as Bindel’s must be prefaced with some sort of claim to really be internal criticism. Aren’t radical challenges supposed to be the best ones, by the lights of much of the theory that underpins trans activism?Report
Late to this. Disappointed to see Helen persisting in using the derogatory term ‘TERF’ (as discussed previously on these pages). https://dailynous.com/2018/08/27/derogatory-language-philosophy-journal-hostility-discussion/
I’ve not had a chance to watch Contrapoints yet (home schooling plus teaching plus marking and the rest), but if the concern is that non-bigoted things can be a dogwhistle for bigotry, I address this in my own piece on the Rowling affair, where I try to explain why those of us in the UK have genuine concerns, and not just so-called ‘genuine concerns’, about the interaction between a move to self ID and other equality legislation. https://email@example.com/harry-potter-and-the-reverse-voltaire-4c7f3a07241Report
I know I am extremely late to the party, but I felt compelled to add my 2c worth so here goes!
Helen De Cruz quotes Contrapoints as saying “Bigotry is hate that poses a political threat to the target group. The problem with TERFs is not that they’re mean but that they’re reactionary, they want to dial back trans liberation.”
This quote offers a great illustration of the fundamentally question-begging nature of this whole debate. If we think of female people (a group that includes people who identify as cis women and people who identity as trans men,) as a target group, then we could think of politics and policies that prevent female people from being recognised as a target group as dialling back female people’s liberation. A significant amount of feminists do indeed think that female people are a target group, and that the politics and policies being pursued by the trans movement and its allies do indeed prevent female people from being recognised as a target group. This is why feminists including JK Rowling don’t see themselves as anti trans, rather, they see themselves as pro female person. They see the amelioration of the definition of “woman” to include male people, without having recourse to an alternative noun for female person, along the loss of female only facilities, events, awards, sports leagues, etc, as part and parcel with the denial that female people are a target group.
It all hinges on a) whether we should think of female people as a target group; b) whether preventing female people from being recognised as a target group dials back their liberation; c) whether the politics and policies being pursued by the trans movement and allies does prevent (or at least pose significant barriers for) female people being recognised as a target group. To appraise these questions solely from the vantage point of whether they pose a political threat to trans liberation is to beg the political question at the heart of this debate.Report
Also, a neat trick I learned recently: when watching long youtube videos, you can speed them up. There are a few different speeds to choose from. Especially useful for people who aren’t interested in the entertainment aspect and just want to get to the arguments.Report
(My first comment should say “along WITH the loss of female only facilities, events, awards, sports leagues, etc”)Report
The “reply” buttons don’t work for me, but this is a reply to both Emily Vicendese and Kaila Draper above. Emily points out that from Rowling’s pro-female perspective, the goal is not to prevent liberation of trans people but to achieve the liberation of female people, who deserve recognition as their own class with rights or privileges requiring protection. The problem is, this political effort extends well beyond the attempt to secure liberty for female people. It seeks to interfere with liberty for trans people by objecting to the current medical standards of care, as Kaila points out above. The standards of medical care may change over time as new evidence is uncovered or better understood, but this should be a medical and scientific process rather than a political complaint, and the standard of care for trans people is not associated with any negative effect on female people. In the US at least, these political efforts also seek to prevent access of both trans adults and children to gender-differentiated spaces (where gender should be the primary determinant and the category of female is either less relevant or irrelevant), and other protections for the rights of trans youth in schools. Another serious concern is that physical, material differences are, so far as I can tell from what I’ve read, often ignored by those who seek to promote the greater importance of the category ‘female’. in addition to the already-discounted social and cultural distinctions. One consequence is that even a feminism comfortably aligned with essentialism and materialism is hard-pressed to accept arguments for dominance of ‘female’ as the more important legal category. I am attempting to refer to groups of people in the foregoing comment with the respectful terms they would choose and prefer as descriptors themselves; if this has not occurred, please advise.Report
I wish the gender critical folks would get beyond stating their “genuine concerns” and actually take the business of defending public policy positions seriously. Every public policy or law that has ever been put in place has benefitted some and harmed others. One doesn’t get anywhere with one-sided arguments that, for example, move from the premise that some reproductive females will be hurt by some policy (e.g., a policy that enhances the bodily autonomy of trans men might lead some trans men to regret their decisions later on) to the conclusion that the policy should not be adopted. What I also see way too much of is the anti-trans tail wagging the pro-female dog.Report
@Kaila Draper what makes you think we ‘gender critical folks’ have not been in the business of defending public policy positions seriously? As an example, I paste below my submission to the recent (November 2020) UK Women and Equalities Committee Enquiry on Reform of the Gender Recognition Act.
Some wider issues around the legal recognition of transgender identity and current legislation
Department of Philosophy
University of York
* Sex and gender identity are distinct features of individuals.
* Discrimination can occur both on the basis of sex and on the basis of gender identity.
* Discrimination against transgender individuals typically occurs because their gender identity does not match their sex.
* The 2004 GRA’s solution to the problem of recognising gender identity – to recognise this in law as sex – is an imperfect one as it conflates the separate features of sex and gender identity.
* This creates difficulties for the interaction with the protection of sex in the 2010 Equality Act (requiring exemptions that allow single sex services for females to exclude trans women with a GRC whose acquired sex is female).
* Legal conflation of sex and gender identity also creates difficulties for the collection of statistics that would allow us to monitor discrimination on the basis of sex and of transgender identity.
* There may be good reasons for amending the Equality Act to protect ‘gender identity’ rather than ‘gender reassignment’.
* If the situation continues whereby the means for recognising gender identity legally is to recognise it as sex (rather than as a separate feature) it will remain important to retain Equality Act exemptions that allow for single sex services to be provided on basis of birth sex, not acquired sex.
I am writing this submission in my capacity as a philosopher who is interested in sex and gender.
In her 2016 paper ‘Amelioration and Inclusion: Gender Identity and the Concept of Woman’, the philosopher Katharine Jenkins argues, rightly in my opinion, that the gender term ‘woman’
can and has been used historically in two politically important senses. In the ‘gender as class’ sense, to be a woman is to be perceived as female and to be subordinated on this basis. In the
‘gender as identity’ sense, to be a woman is to have a female gender identity. These two senses of the term ‘woman’ pick out two different classes of individuals. Both classes, Jenkins argues,
are politically important and in need of certain kinds of protections. (‘Women’ in the first sense face discrimination on grounds of sex, ‘women’ in the second sense face discrimination on grounds of gender identity, particularly when their gender identity does not match their sex.)
If Jenkins is right about this (and, broadly at least, I believe she is) this raises the question of how to structure our laws to recognise and protect both classes. The class of individuals ‘perceived as female’ will include most (but not all) females, and some males who ‘pass’ as females. But recognising and protecting as a legal category all and only those people who ‘pass’ as female would be as offensive as it is impractical. In current UK law, inclusion of sex as a protected characteristic in the 2010 Equality Act, together with the prohibition on discrimination on the basis of perceived, as well as actual, possession of a protected characteristic, ensures that those who either are female or who are perceived as such receive protection against discrimination on the basis of that perception. This is an important piece of legislation and, given the unfortunate prevalence of sex discrimination, the protection of women in the ‘gender as class’ sense requires the preservation of sex as a protected characteristic.
The second sense of ‘woman’ Jenkins points to is the identity-based notion, according to which to be a woman is to have a female gender identity. In providing protection for this class of
individuals, we need to consider how ‘having a female gender identity’ is going to be recognised in law. Given the personal nature of one’s sense of gender identity, I am sympathetic to the
view that legal recognition of one’s gender identity should be provided on the basis of (sincere) self-identification. However given the aforementioned separation of gender-as-class from
gender-as-identity, it is unfortunate that in current UK law, our only legal mechanism for recognising an individual’s gender identity is to allow them to record this as their sex. Allowing self-identification of sex would undermine the important protections to females in the Equality Act that are required because of the historic and continuing discrimination against females on the basis of their sex. (It is also notable that recognising gender identity as sex is of no help for individuals whose gender identity falls outside of the sex binary.)
A sensible solution to this issue would be to separate out in law legal sex from legal gender identity, and allow individuals to self-identify their legal gender identity which may differ from their sex. Indeed, separating out these characteristics and protecting them separately should help with the legal protection of transgender individuals, who are typically discriminated against because their gender identity does not match their sex. Separate collection of information on sex and gender identity e.g. in census data would also help to monitor discrimination against transgender individuals as well as sex based discrimination against females. And the unfortunate prevalence of discrimination against those whose gender identity does not match their sex speaks strongly in favour of placing gender identity (as opposed to gender reassignment) as a protected characteristic in an amended Equality Act.
If the current system remains whereby an individual’s gender identity is recognised in law as sex, then to ensure that we have adequate protection for females against discrimination on grounds of sex, and for transgender individuals against discrimination on the grounds of a gender identity that does not match their sex, it will be important in any updated Equality Act to retain a distinction between birth sex and acquired sex for the purposes of appropriate exemptions.
Katharine Jenkins, ‘Amelioration and Inclusion’, Ethics 126 (2):394-421 (2016)Report
Stating the broad outlines of a position falls far short of providing a serious defense of that position. Maybe my expectations as someone who does work in normative ethics and political philosophy are too high, but this does not even come close to meeting them.Report
Kaila, I agree both that we need specifics if proposed policy is to be evaluated, and that evidence of “any” potential harm or difficulty is insufficient to demonstrate a conclusion in situations where multiple people could be harmed by the policy, or different needs are in tension.
Is the proper goal of policy the liberation and equity of women (or liberty and equity for all people, in general), such that expansion of freedom for all women should be highly prized in decisions about policy? Or is it a more important goal of policy to protect women from certain kinds of harm? Or to protect from harm only those people who meet some definition (which one?) of what it is to be female? I prefer the path focused on maximizing liberation, with some exceptions. Thus I appreciated the point in the video about “liberation” as a political slogan.
An important issue neglected in these policy debates is the material reality of women’s lives. I took this to be one of the most crucial concerns for feminism, yet arguments about sex and gender in public policy lately seem more concerned about facts like “sex at birth” than the embodied experiences of women. The latter do not map neatly onto the distinction between male and female, though policy disputes are sometimes animated by the faulty assumption that they must. (I’ve heard this frequently since Biden recently signed the Executive Order on Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation). Put another way, even if one believes there is a “natural joint” between male and female kinds, that does not mean it is the relevant or proper distinction for purposes of crafting public policy responsive to the material and physical needs of women, much less for policy that seeks to preserve liberty and equity.
For example, one does not often hear hotly contested debates about the natural distinction between those who are more vulnerable to osteoporosis due to reduced bone mass and a greater proportion of fat mass relative to muscle, and those who are not, but both cis and trans women tend to be in the former category together as women, facing important material decisions about estrogen therapy and preservation of bone health in aging. Whether it grabs as much attention as worries about “bathrooms”, osteoporosis affects millions of people and results in tens of billions in costs per year in the US alone, not to mention the serious human suffering involved. Public health policy on this has an enormous impact on screening, prevention, and patient care, so it is important that women are a group are the focus, and the effects of other policy choices about sex and gender are relevant here.Report
Wow that’s me told @kaila Draper. I’m sorry to disappoint. I will of course defer to your greater wisdom and experience on what an appropriate level of detail is in a submission of brief evidence to a UK parliamentary select committee. (Tbh I thought I was pushing it by sticking in a reference to the literature.)Report
Mary Leng, what you submitted has the perfectly appropriate level of detail for that sort of submission, afaik. But in my earlier post, to which you responded by providing that submission, I wasn’t complaining about the failure of gender critical philosophers to file well-packaged submissions of brief evidence to UK parliamentary select committees. I was complaining about their failure to produce serious arguments in defense of policies concerning bathrooms, prisons, puberty blockers, changing rooms, conversion therapy, etc.Report
My apologies. My reading of the interaction was as follows:
You: “look these gender critical philosophers are just using talk of ‘genuine concerns’ as a transphobic dogwhistle. If they really did have genuine concerns they’d be making serious policy proposals that address them, rather than playing to the gallery of transphobic bigots.”
Me: “what you mean like this one?”
You: “well that’s not a peer reviewed journal article is it?”
Maybe you can see why I bristled. It felt very much like an accusation of bad faith in response to my first post on this discussion. Sorry if I’ve read you wrong.Report
Mary Leng, I certainly wasn’t accusing you personally of bad faith. I have no idea what you say about these various issues.Report
Fair enough. After all, Justin hasn’t yet made ‘reading what gender critical philosophers actually say’ a requirement on posting on discussions of what awful transphobes we all are 🙂Report
Well, I certainly never claimed that all gender critical philosophers are awful transphobes. Some clearly are. I have never accused you of being one, though. Again, I haven’t read your writings, but you shouldn’t infer from that that I haven’t read plenty of what other gender critical philosophers have said. Mostly what I have read is propaganda. Moreover, I have read enough of what gender critical people have to say to recognize that some gender critical philosophers, and loads of gender critical non-philosophers, are clearly transphobic. For example, one gender critical philosopher mocked an autistic trans woman’s selfie and also referred to her own little collection of GhastlyPhotos of transwomen with a little ‘tm’ for ‘trademark’ beside the label GhastlyPhotos. All the while, she professes to be only concerned about female sex-based rights and not in any way hateful or transphobic. Mostly, though, what bothers me is the propaganda. I confess that I hate propaganda on any side of any important issue. When philosophers engage in propaganda, it bothers me even more because, maybe naively, I think they should know better.Report
@Kaila Draper: just to be absolutely clear, I think the behaviour you describe (pasted below) is horrific and I would in no way wish to be associated with it.
“ For example, one gender critical philosopher mocked an autistic trans woman’s selfie and also referred to her own little collection of GhastlyPhotos of transwomen with a little ‘tm’ for ‘trademark’ beside the label GhastlyPhotos. All the while, she professes to be only concerned about female sex-based rights and not in any way hateful or transphobic. ”Report
In his reply to me above, Justin praises Wynn for acknowledging “how some of the case for Rowling’s transphobia has depended on poor ‘guilt by association’ evidence.” I have seen an abundance of ‘guilt by association’ arguments made in this particular discussion, and now I have a question about Justin’s comment. What makes for a good ‘guilt by association’ argument, and what makes for a poor one? If J.K. Rowling says something that reminds you of something Janice Raymond wrote, is this sufficient for labeling J.K. Rowling a transphobe? That seems to be sufficient in Wynn’s view, but I’d be hesitant to set the threshold for transphobia that low. Maybe if J. K. Rowling said, “I endorse everything Janice Raymond ever wrote,” then it would be legitimate to target Rowling with the same criticism you would direct against Raymond. But in the actual case, Rowling has never even mentioned Raymond’s name at all (as far as I know), so it seems wrong to hold Rowling responsible for Raymond’s beliefs.Report