Philosopher Launches Anti-Trans Website; Colleagues & Others Object


Holly Lawford-Smith, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Melbourne, has created a website that solicits and publishes anonymous complaints about the presence of trans women in typically women-only spaces.

The site, “No Conflict They Said,” contains anti-trans commentary, misgendering, complaints about gender-neutral language and being asked one’s preferred pronouns, conspiratorial worries about “transing”, expressions of disgust at the expectation to be more inclusive towards trans women, and outrage at institutions which have become trans-inclusive. There are also stories of sexual assault and abusive behavior and speech.

“No Conflict They Said” was set up by Professor Lawford-Smith as a site for cis women to highlight “conflicts of interest” between them and trans women. In its few days of existence (it was created this past Tuesday), it has turned into a gallery of transphobia, much in the way that a website that called for white people to anonymously share complaints about black people would turn into a haven for racism. In both cases, the prejudice is in the blueprints—even reasonable complaints about instances of unfairness, or accurate and unquestionably horrifying stories of sexual assault, cannot neutralize the transphobia of the site, any more than analogous racial examples would validate the racist one.

On Thursday, according to The Sydney Morning Herald, a group of academics and students from the University of Melbourne and other institutions published an open letter about Professor Lawford-Smith’s site to the university’s Vice Chancellor, the Dean of Arts, its Office of Research Ethics and Integrity, and its Inclusion and Diversity Steering Committee. (At the time of this post, it had over 600 signatures.) In the letter, the authors express “concern and dismay” over her website, which they say contains “materials that encourage transphobia,” speculate as to whether views she expresses and language she uses in her feminist philosophy course are transphobic, and argue that she may be in violation of university policy.

[Lili Elbe – Poplars along Hobro Fjord]

For example, about the website, they write:

We suggest that the content created and promoted by the staff member represent action that contravenes the Appropriate Workplace Behaviour Policy… Section 7 of the Policy regards “Promoting a diverse and inclusive worlplace” and specifies at 7.3 that: “An individual must not directly or indirectly, or incite others to engage in any of the following behaviours, in any circumstance which may have an impact on the workplace” which includes “(i) vilify an individual or group of individuals.”

While it’s true that Professor Lawford-Smith’s website encourages the vilification of trans people, it does not appear that the website was created as part of her work for the university, so it is unclear how it is subject to a policy about appropriate workplace behavior. Further, the University of Melbourne’s “Academic Freedom of Expression” policy states that “scholars are entitled to express their ideas and opinions even when doing so may cause offence. These principles apply to all activities in which scholars express their views both inside and outside the University.” At the same time, Australia lacks an explicit right to free speech, and the courts have supported public institutions in their firing of employees for things like posting homophobic views on social media (for example). It appears, then, that various relevant institutions, policies, and laws do not speak univocally on this matter.

The authors of the open letter also object that, apparently, no research ethics “approval” for the website had been sought by Professor Lawford-Smith or granted by the university. Anticipating an objection, they write:

Even if the staff member in question does not intend to use the “stories” they are collecting and publishing for their own research, this amounts to collecting and publishing a publicly available dataset that others may use for the purpose of research. A key responsibility of research integrity is to “consider the dual use of their research”… We are concerned about the lack of clarity around whether this website has been established for use in academic research, or whether it may be perceived as such by members of the public.

Again, there is the jurisdictional question here: if the website was not part of Professor Lawford-Smith’s work, to what extent is her university allowed to take it into account in its decisions regarding her? (If you’re familiar with how this issue has been dealt with in Australian instutions of higher education, please let us know about it in the comments.)

Also, the claim that the website is research, such that it would need ethics approval, seems to be a stretch. The authors claim that producing something “that others may use for the purpose of research” should itself be subject to research regulations. Surely not, though: simply living one’s life and posting a lot about it on Twitter is “publishing a publicly available dataset that others may use for the purpose of research,” but we don’t (and shouldn’t) take that as a reason to subject one’s everyday personal life to research regulations.

Near the end of the appendix to the letter, the authors cite student accounts of how Professor Lawford-Smith refers to trans women and trans men in class, calling it “deeply transphobic,” arguing that it conflicts with the inclusive aims of the university and may “constitute gender identity discrimination (‘misgendering’) under the Equal Opportunity Act 2010.” If true, as this is clearly a workplace matter, it seems the university would be within its rights to ask her to stop referring to these groups in disrespectful ways (again the racial analog is instructive; I’ll leave it to you consider it), to investigate any student complaints about this or related issues, or to reconsider her specific teaching responsibilities.

The last thing the authors do is question whether Professor Lawford-Smith should be allowed to teach her views in light of the fact that both Twitter and Medium suspended her accounts because they found her in violation of their “hateful conduct” and “hate speech” policies. I’m sorry, but this is as foolish as “No Conflict, They Said” is transphobic. Are we to take Twitter and Medium as exemplars to follow? Are we to take the decisions of these corporations as precedents for how academia should operate? Should we think their judgments have any relevant evidential value at all? No, no, and no.

So what should we do?

Not being an expert on the Australian context, I’m not in a position to offer a specific recommendation. But I would suggest that we need to be honest about the various aspects of these kinds of cases and the complications that arise from them. Concerns about academic freedom, freedom of speech, transphobia (and racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.), employer control of employees’ personal lives, student welfare, pedagogical effectiveness, professionalism, law, diversity, and other matters grow together into a dense and thorny hedge. If we’re to get through it, we’ll need to be careful.

UPDATE (3/1/21): A petition has been launched to support Professor Lawford-Smith.

Commenters on this post must use their real names (first and last) when commenting.
Comments are moderated and may take some time to appear.
Please see the Comments Policy.

guest
60 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Matt Lister
7 months ago

I teach in a law school in Australia, and want to comment about the “ethics approval” aspect. I am not an expert on the local law here, but do know that Australian universities have a tendency to take a (to my mind) insanely broad reading on this topic. My own university strongly suggested – until the law school fought back vigorously – that mentioning the names of people who were parties in published court decisions in academic publications was a violation of human ethics standards unless the named persons gave their approval to the publication. Of course, this would make huge parts of legal scholarship impossible, and serves no purpose, given that court records are public records. The case noted above is not the same, but I point this out only to suggest that university bureaucrats in Australia often take unreasonably expansive readings of these rules, and that it would not surprise me to see them take them here, too. And also, that we should not be in favor of such unreasonable expansions, even for those who favor the over-all goal.Report

Thomas van Es
Thomas van Es
7 months ago

I don’t know enough about the implications or possible consequences, but it does seem to me that gathering ‘data’ in this manner does less to prove that there is a legitimate conflict of interest between cis and trans women, and more to prove that transphobia is real, and we need to address it.Report

Brad Green
Brad Green
7 months ago

Greetings.

Thank you for this note. I am curious. Since your site is seeking to advance and encourage philosophy, why engage in what seems to be an attempt to shut down someone’s perspective? I would think a philosophy site would want to encourage debate and deliberation. Perhaps I am misreading your e-mail, but the e-mail seems to simply assume that it is completely out of bounds for Professor Lawford-Smith to raise the concerns she does.

What sayest thou?Report

Brad Green
Brad Green
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
7 months ago

Justin:

Thanks for this. When I originally sent an e-mail to ( I assume?) the moderator of the site, I thought I was doing simply that. I did not know it would be a part of a rather interesting thread.

When I read the original post it seemed to be making certain assumptions about some kind of inherent impropriety and even perhaps immorality of Lawford-Smith’s efforts and site. Your original essay/post launched in pretty quickly with a high-octane critique, and with sharp rhetoric (“conspiratorial worries . . . ” “gallery of transphobia, . . .” etc).

So, sorry. I don’t buy it. This is not my first rodeo. Lawford-Smith should be, in general, applauded for being willing to swim against the stream. And everyone in academia knows that she will be hounded and condemned for her efforts.

Carry on,

BradReport

Maria Hutchison
Maria Hutchison
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
7 months ago

To expand on the “unaccountable, unreflective” point with some examples; the site appears moderated with a very light touch so long as the person making the submission reports a negative experience and so there are a number of entries like the following:

female changing-room in gym (noconflicttheysaid.org)
(Clearly incomplete. Why has this been let through?)

online dating (noconflicttheysaid.org)

conflict in bathrooms (noconflicttheysaid.org)
(Holly’s editors note here is a straight up ahistorical interpretation of appearance policing in bathrooms)

female-only book club (noconflicttheysaid.org)
(This is more substantive, but the trans person in the story doesn’t do anything. The objection to a women’s book club reading Stone Butch Blues, one of the most significant fictional representations of lesbian community, is an odd detail)Report

Edward Hall
Edward Hall
7 months ago

This comment does not directly address many of the claims in the above post, but sometimes it’s important we speak out when the motives and character of people we know are being questioned in public. So here goes … 

I taught a course with Holly at the University of Sheffield five or six years ago. At no point did I see her acting in a disrespectful or hostile way towards any students. In fact, she was a fantastic teacher who created a wonderful teaching environment, and I learned a lot from her.

I haven’t been in touch with Holly since she moved to Australia, and it is possible that her teaching practice has changed radically since we taught together. But is also possible that she is still trying to do her best to treat students respectfully while discussing a highly charged topic – that she clearly feels passionately about – in a very difficult political moment.

I just don’t know.

Neither do the vast majority of the readers of this blog who have been invited to comment on this case.

I’m sceptical that we can reliably opine about her conduct as teacher on the slim basis of the material in the open letter alone. So maybe we should reserve judgment on that for now.   Report

Andrew Cochrane
Andrew Cochrane
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
7 months ago

And you should also refrain from implying that her website is somehow parallel to a haven for racists. Racists are racists because they think races other than their own are subhuman or inferior. The women commenting on Dr. Lawford-Smith’s site do not think trans-identified men are subhuman or inferior. They just don’t think that a man’s self-declaration as a woman makes him one and thereby entitles him to female spaces. “Gender identity” is magical thinking, and objecting to it and its increasingly imperious demands is hardly analogous to racist bigotry.Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Andrew Cochrane
7 months ago

To steal an example from Sophie Grace-Chapell: is believing adoptive parents are parents magical thinking? Seems clearly not right? What’s the difference? (Note the point here isn’t meant to be that there are *no* objections to the social practice of accepting trans women as women that don’t apply to the practice of adoption. There are lots, although I personally don’t think they are *good* objections. But I think it is hard to see how treating trans women as women is more denying hard factual reality than is treating adoptive parents as parents.)Report

Simon May
Simon May
Reply to  David Mathers
7 months ago

It may be useful to distinguish two claims:
(1) Trans-women are women.
(2) Trans-women are women simply in virtue of their self-declaration as such.
Lots of people who object to prop (2) as magical thinking may also object to prop (1), but denial of prop (2) obviously does not imply denial of prop (1).

Compare:
(3) Adoptive parents are parents.
(4) Adoptive parents are parents simply in virtue of their self-declaration as such.
Prop (3) is clearly true, but prop (4) is clearly false. Someone who had a deep and abiding desire to be a parent wouldn’t actually become an adoptive parent simply in virtue of their self-declaration as such. We’d think that would be cause for concern about their mental health. Rather:
(5) Adoptive parents are parents in virtue of performing the social function of raising children in just the same way as biological parents commonly do, etc.

I take it that part of the gender critical perspective is that there is no equivalent social function “being a woman” or “womaning” that someone can perform regardless of their biological constitution and history, and that people who think there is such a social function are implicitly reifying patriarchal norms, etc. So there is one very clear reason they have to think prop (1) denies hard factual reality in a way that prop (3) does not.

As it happens, from what I have read about the trans experience (including from people like Sophie Grace-Chappell), it strikes me that the basis for prop (1) [and the equivalent for trans-men] is neither self-declaration nor social function. Rather, it appears to be something much deeper than that, essentially involving how human brains are wired. There’s obviously an epistemic problem here for third parties, since no one else can directly experience how your brain makes you regard your sexed body, so it’s not surprising we revert to self-declaration as a convenient criterion.

But if that self-declaration were, just in itself, all that trans-identity amounted to, with no neurological/physiological basis at all, then criticism of prop (2) as magical thinking would carry over to prop (1) itself. Self-declaration can’t in itself make me rich, funny, fit, biracial, a Member of Parliament, multilingual, a criminal, synesthetic, an expert on ancient Japanese crockery, six foot tall, a lawyer, Polish, the owner of that beautiful red Ferrari over there, John Coltrane’s third cousin, a mermaid, a novelist, an elf, a knight of the realm, Suzy’s boyfriend, Suzy’s girlfriend, an oak tree, a spouse, famous for my meatloaf, or the King of Spain. These cases are all, I take it, very very very very different from trans-identity. But then people should not simply appeal to, or ultimately rely on, any criterion of self-declaration that ends up making the cases equivalent.Report

Vincent Blair
Vincent Blair
Reply to  Simon May
7 months ago

Let me just add to Simon’s very helpful post – it’s not clear that (6) is plausible and I think clear that it is not:

(6) It is possible for someone who does not have biological children to be a parent in virtue of neurological factors.

It’s not any clearer to me why (7) would be plausible either, but I would be interested to hear if anyone could muster a good defence of it.

(7) It is possible for an adult human who does not have a female biology to be a woman in virtue of neurological factors.Report

Last edited 7 months ago by Vincent Blair
Simon May
Simon May
Reply to  Vincent Blair
7 months ago

Just to make clear, I don’t mean to either claim or deny that prop (1) is successfully established by the neurological factors. My own view is that the truth/falsity of prop (1) is a largely irrelevant question of metaphysics. What matters instead is specifying the range of XYZ in the social/political/legal claim:

(8) Trans-women[/men] should be accepted/treated as women[/men] in XYZ contexts.

A commitment to prop (1) supports but does not entail a universal range for XYZ. Denial of prop (1) does not itself support any particular specification of the range of XYZ—it’s compatible with the full range from “no” to “all.” I think people get hung up on the truth/falsity of prop (1) in part because they think it directly correlates with an answer to the appropriate range of XYZ. It doesn’t, and we should get over the addiction to fitting people into neat metaphysical categories for social/political purposes.

The difference between the appeals to self-declaration, social function, and neurology becomes more important when we switch from prop (1) to prop (8) since there I take it that the first two appeals are very bad grounds for anything more than a very minimal specification of XYZ, whereas the third, I believe, supports a much more extensive (albeit non-universal) range.Report

Vincent Blair
Vincent Blair
Reply to  Simon May
7 months ago

I don’t see why the question of whether trans-women are women is a ‘largely irrelevant question of metaphysics’. It seems of central and direct relevance to the question of whether trans-women should be permitted in women’s spaces. Both sides of this disagreement appropriately take an interest in the metaphysical question. It is as much a methodological error to suppose that the metaphysical is independent of the political as it is an error to suppose that the political can be fully explained by the metaphysical.Report

Last edited 7 months ago by Vincent Blair
Simon May
Simon May
Reply to  Vincent Blair
7 months ago

It’s irrelevant because the social/political question can be answered either way, and with more direct reason, without adopting a position on the metaphysics. Lots of people care about the metaphysics. I think it’s a hang-up.Report

Curtis Franks
Curtis Franks
Reply to  Simon May
7 months ago

Wait a minute! Are you the Simon May, from the meatloaf cook-off in Golders Green?!Report

Simon May
Simon May
Reply to  Curtis Franks
7 months ago

Close! I expect you’re thinking of my award-winning Swiss Cottage pie.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
7 months ago

I have zero knowledge regarding answers to the (I agree, real) jurisdictional questions here, but it doesn’t seem right to say that it’s a stretch the website might count as research that’s potentially subject to ethics requirements. In the Sydney Herald article linked above, the creation of the site is explicitly discussed in terms of meeting an existing research gap:

“‘I think it’s outrageous that these changes are being introduced and people aren’t even acknowledging the possibility of a conflict of interest,’ Dr Lawford-Smith said of her motivation for creating the site. ‘No governments are gathering data on this, there’s no place in the world for people to report where creepy things are happening in women’s bathrooms or women’s changing rooms or rape support groups. I’d prefer the data, but in lieu of that we can at least have the stories, and maybe then that will give us what we need to go to governments and say, “Let’s have a more nuanced conversation”.’”Report

Thomas Riggins
Thomas Riggins
7 months ago

I don’t like the term “trans woman” for a woman who was born susceptible to gender dysphoria. This is a medical condition (a “birth defect”) and when treated the woman is a healthy member of our species. She is a woman not a “trans” anything. So, I say fire this professor who is fomenting prejudice against women who have, or have had, a medical condition. Fire her, or educate her to be a real philosopher not a sophist.Report

John Varty
John Varty
Reply to  Thomas Riggins
7 months ago

I say fire everyone I disagree withReport

Thomas Riggins
Thomas Riggins
Reply to  John Varty
7 months ago

You should fire (or re-educate) any philosopher who foments racism, fascism, white supremacy,aggressive wars, male supremacy, or hatred and intolerance for any subgroup of our species whose existence is deprecated simply because of the ignorance or prejudice of the philosopher. Since no one could be a real philosopher who maintained that everyone he or she disagreed with should be fired you and the 57 folk giving you a thumbs up, are immune to my strictures.Report

John Varty
John Varty
Reply to  Thomas Riggins
7 months ago

Given Joe Biden’s recent moves to bomb Syria should every philosopher who voted for him now hand in their notice or should they make their way to the re-education camps?

You may be convinced that Holly Lawford-Smith is expressing hatred and intolerance but as you can see from this discussion though a number of people share your view others do not. I also take it that even some of the people who think that Holly Lawford-Smith is expressing hatred they (Justin for example) do not want her to lose her job.

For me it’s not a good look to go around asking for people whose views you disagree with to be fired.Report

Thomas Riggins
Thomas Riggins
Reply to  John Varty
7 months ago

It always depends on the views. I said fire or educate; anyway my opinion was only about people who understand philosophy as you still seem not to understand the issue (your response was just a repeat in essence of your first comment, and as meaningless without context) my comment was inspired by yours but not directed at you or those agreeing with you. I agree with the universal, but empty, admonition “Don’t fire people just because you disagree with them.” But none of my comments violate that admonition just as none of yours apply to my comments. I think you just wanted to make a quip.Report

Jonathan Ichikawa
7 months ago

The world is a big place. You can make any group look bad by selectively seeking out bad actions by members of that group. I wrote a blog post about the fallacy in a different related (racism instead of transphobia) context here.

Setting the legal and institutional questions aside, this kind of project is both intellectually and morally bankrupt.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Jonathan Ichikawa
7 months ago

Does the same objection apply to What is it like to be a woman in philosophy ?

(It’s a genuine question; I don’t know whether you support that site, and I’m open to there being (non-question-begging) salient differences.)Report

Last edited 7 months ago by David Wallace
Maria Hutchison
Maria Hutchison
Reply to  David Wallace
7 months ago

One difference between this and “What is it like to be a woman in philosophy” is that on the latter there are clear moderators and editors hands a work and a commitment to an editorial policy [Our policies | What is it like to be a woman in philosophy? (wordpress.com)]. Lawford-Smith’s site on the other hand seems to be rubber stamping every negative account it gets.Report

Spencer Jay Case
Spencer Jay Case
Reply to  Maria Hutchison
7 months ago

So are we supposed to believe that if the moderation policy were different, there’d be no substantial difference between What’s it Like to be a Woman in Philosophy? and Lawford-Smith’s site? If Lawford-Smith tinkers with this part of the newly launched site a bit there would be no problems? I find it hard to believe that would be the end of the controversy here.Report

Alejandro Vesga
Alejandro Vesga
Reply to  Jonathan Ichikawa
7 months ago

This is one (very) important worry–and that was a very good post. But it is important to also note that a LOT of the ‘accusations’ in this website do not really involve bad behavior. There are many stories of women feeling distraught because they saw a trans woman in a bathroom. Literally, just being in a bathroom counts as data of bad behavior in the site.

Admittedly, my sample so far is small. But as I read more comments in this site the situations just looks bleaker.Report

Benj Hellie
Reply to  Alejandro Vesga
7 months ago

I think they feel distraught at seeing a *male* in the bathroom: whether that male is a trans woman is of relevance only because they then cannot be thrown out.Report

Tracy Olverson
Tracy Olverson
7 months ago

I would have thought that you would need to define “transphobia” before you allege that it has taken place, no? What legal definition of “transphobia” are you applying here exactly? And, by extension, you appear to be accusing women who post stories about their lived experiences of “transphobia” by default. That’s a lot of unfounded accusations.Report

Moti Gorin
Moti Gorin
7 months ago

I’m also not familiar with the Australian regulatory framework for research ethics, but in the US context at least this clearly would not qualify as research and would therefore not require any IRB approval.

As for the the main thrust of the arguments presented at the top, they mostly beg the question. Professor Lawford-Smith believes that sex is more significant than gender identity, at least in some contexts. This is the central issue, and where one lands on this issue will determine whether one is “transphobic” or, rather, “advocating for the rights of females to have female-only spaces.” Should one’s stated gender identity be sufficient to determine which spaces one is allowed to enter in all cases, or should there be higher bars of entry in some cases (maybe based on sex, maybe based on time lived as someone of that identity, etc.)? Until we answer that question, it’s impossible to judge whether every reservation a person might have about gender identity-based policies is transphobic.

This is why there really is no fair comparison between the site in question and the imagined one that asks white people to complain about sharing spaces with Black people. Gender critical feminists might take this bait if transracialism were gaining steam, such that racial identity was treated like gender identity is treated in the relevant cases–i.e., one’s stated race was taken to be dispositive–then, the GC advocate might concede some parallels. Again, without begging the central question, the comparison doesn’t work.

Needless to say, any cruel or hateful statements on that site about trans people (or anyone else) should be condemned. But if every website that contained cruel or hateful statements, or statements that were construed as such by enough people, or the right people, were thereby itself labeled as hateful, then I fear there would be very few non-hateful websites on the internet.Report

Moti Gorin
Moti Gorin
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
7 months ago

Where is the evidence that the website was designed “to solicit and publish vilifications of trans persons and expressions of disgust at trans persons, or to convey generalizations about trans persons based on unusually egregious behavior…”?Report

Moti Gorin
Moti Gorin
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
7 months ago

Justin, I imagine you might get a few people raising questions about certain affirmative action programs, where there are genuine conflicts (FWIW, I happen to side with advocates of AA), and then you’d get just a massive influx of racist sewage.

The thing is, the comparison does not work, because the question of whether white people have a right to public places where Black people are not allowed to go has been settled. Some white person’s “discomfort” with a Black person’s presence carries no normative weight when it comes to policy. The question at issue, again, is whether or not female-only spaces can be justified only by citing transphobic “reasons” or whether there are genuine conflicts, conflicts to which policies must be sensitive, between the interests of the various parties.

Our answer to that last question will determine whether the case at issue is analogous to your hypothetical. Otherwise we just beg the question against Lawford-Smith.Report

Molly Gardner
Molly Gardner
Reply to  Moti Gorin
7 months ago

Moti and Justin both seem to be assuming that the comparison would be to a site soliciting stories from white people about black people in “white” spaces. But that is not the appropriate comparison.

People are not going to like this, but if we’re going to draw a race analogy, we’re going to have to do it correctly. We first have to imagine a case in which white people start identifying as black people and going into historically black colleges and universities, applying for black scholarships, benefiting from affirmative action, etc. Then we have to imagine a website set up to solicit stories from black people who are affected by the policies that allow white people to be eligible for the black scholarships and other protections. I won’t make any other claims about whether this website would be good or bad or racist or not–it’s just a more parallel case. If you don’t like this analogy, then stop using racial analogies.Report

Moti Gorin
Moti Gorin
Reply to  Molly Gardner
7 months ago

Molly, this is what I hinted at above when I mentioned transracialism and how Justin’s hypothetical might engage with gender critical feminists if transracialism were a significant thing. I had in mind exactly the kind of case you describe.

But, to be fair to Justin, I think this kind of case just begs the question in the opposite direction. Your hypothetical is relevantly analogous only if we assume that transracialism is bunk and that some forms of transgenderism are similarly bunk (e.g., gender identity as a sufficient condition for sex/gender).

As I see it, we cannot really assess the hypotheticals until we sort out the more fundamental question of what role sex or gender identity should play with respect to the policies under discussion (locker rooms, bathrooms, rape shelters, etc.) This will determine which of the race hypotheticals–Justin’s or yours–is the relevant one. At least that’s how I see the dialectic, fully aware as I am that I missed something or am just plain wrong.Report

Molly Gardner
Molly Gardner
Reply to  Moti Gorin
7 months ago

I’m afraid I disagree. The problem with Justin’s analogy is not that it “begs the question.” The problem is that it is built upon the assumption that having spaces and protections for women, in the first place, is as ludicrous as having spaces and protections for white people. Obviously if there were “whites only” spaces, then a website in which whites complained about black people in their spaces would be racist, but that’s because the whole situation is wrong. White people should not be complaining on the internet about black people in their spaces because they shouldn’t have “whites only” spaces to begin with!

Maybe in the end we will decide that it is illiberal for women to have their own spaces, and maybe we will eventually dismantle the policies that protect women from sexism and misogyny. But the fact is that we still have these things now, and we’re not currently debating whether they should continue to exist; we’re debating who should have access to them. As it happens, protections for black people also currently exist. That is why the appropriate analogy is to a website raising questions about who should have access to protections for black people. It makes no sense to instead draw an analogy to a website raising questions about who should have access to “protections for white people,” given that no such protections would be legitimate.

The two analogies are not equally question-begging.Report

Moti Gorin
Moti Gorin
Reply to  Molly Gardner
7 months ago

Molly,

I agree with you about Justin’s analogy. I think it doesn’t work for the reasons you give. But clearly some people think the analogy does work, and this is because they view gender identity as dispositive when it comes to the policies in question. If for the sake of argument we grant them this central point, then the analogy does indeed hold. This is why I think both hypotheticals are question-begging at the early stage of the argument. They work only when we assume that this group is the oppressed one, or the one whose discomfort should govern, in this context, rather than that group. I take it this is one of the points that Lawford-Smith is wanting to make, namely, that there really is a conflict of interest here.Report

Molly Gardner
Molly Gardner
Reply to  Moti Gorin
7 months ago

My point was that we shouldn’t use Justin’s analogy because it conflates the question of (1) whether the website is bad with the question of (2) whether provisions for women are bad. I take your point to be that we shouldn’t use the analogy I suggested above because it conflates the question of (1) whether the website is bad with the question of (3) whether transracial people are justified in using provisions for black people.

So maybe we need an analogy where it is relatively clear that the provisions are permissible and where it is not ostensibly settled that the people in question are not justified in using the provisions. That way we can really isolate the question of whether the website, itself, is bad, apart from these other considerations.

So how about this:  There is a provision for black students. (I take it that this is permissible.) There are some white, poverty-stricken refugees who do not identify as black. Nevertheless, because they are in a tough situation, they apply for and get the provision. (I take it that people feel conflicted about this.) A black student creates a website for black students to report how the situation has affected them. We can now ask: is it permissible for this website to exist?  Report

Moti Gorin
Moti Gorin
Reply to  Molly Gardner
7 months ago

Do the refugees sincerely claim to be Black? If so, then people who endorse a gender identity-like transracialism might say “of course such a site is hateful–the refugees claim to be Black so they are Black and it’s bigoted to complain about them.” Those who do not endorse this kind of transracialism might be fine with the site since it discusses what they might view as a real conflict between the refugees and the Black students.

I don’t know, Molly. Maybe I’m thinking of it all wrong but I’m struggling to see how arguments from analogy can work in this particular case. Maybe it’s that that old “one person’s modus ponens is another person’s modus tollens” rearing it’s head, or maybe this particular debate is especially vulnerable to the modus ponens/modus tollens pattern.Report

Maria Hutchison
Maria Hutchison
Reply to  Moti Gorin
7 months ago

I provided a few examples elsewhere on the comment section http://dailynous.com/2021/02/26/philosopher-launches-anti-trans-website-colleagues-others-object/#comment-422358

There are a lot of “There was a trans woman. They didn’t do anything. I felt uncomfortable” type stories on the site. From a scan of the front two pages of the site at time writing, I spotted:

public bathrooms (noconflicttheysaid.org)
(This quickly moves on from the story itself – which seems like it may also be a case of someone drinking at a bar wandering into the wrong bathroom – and into speculation about the bad way society is going)

shared accommodation on coach trip (noconflicttheysaid.org)

theatre bathrooms (noconflicttheysaid.org)
(this also ends with paragraph of speculation about fetishistic motive – which is not uncommon stories on the site)

The site indicates that Holly vets every submission that makes it to the catalog of accounts. And hostile to trans people or not, her moderation is clearly careless, OKing stories where very little happens, or that are highly speculative, or segue into armchair psychoanalysis, in ways that a lot of #metoo era collections of anonymized stories of cisgender men abusing women largely avoidReport

Moti Gorin
Moti Gorin
Reply to  Maria Hutchison
7 months ago

Maria,

I don’t endorse every comment that has been left on that site (I have not read all of them, though I have read quite a few). Also, as a male I confess I feel a bit awkward wading into topic of how females should or should not feel about the presence of this or that person in the locker room, rape shelter, etc. I lack the experience of being a female in a sexist society and so I try to be very careful.

What I can comfortably say here is that it’s not obvious to me why we should in some a priori fashion discount the testimony of the people posting about their discomfort.

On planet Perfect Earth, everyone goes where they want, when they want, butt naked if they want, and the thought and associated discomfort or trauma associated with sexual violence does not arise, because such things do not exist. Unfortunately, on planet Earth, they do exist, and thus I cannot discount the normative significance of the associated discomfort, at least not a priori. I have been raised and taught to take seriously the discomfort females express around issues of sexual violence, harassment, etc.

In your view, should I take expressions of this discomfort less seriously? Genuine question.Report

Benj Hellie
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
7 months ago

Justin, I don’t think the website is soliciting anything about trans persons “as such”: there is no discussion of trans men; and the remarks on the legitimacy of admitting males into the spaces applies equally to the cis and the trans.

The website is of course soliciting remarks about males, concerning situations which arise because accommodations have been made for the trans-status of those males.

The difference between these two modes of soliciting is not dissimilar to “in-intension” and “in-extension”. The former would of course be disreputable. But it is the latter that is in fact being done.Report

Greg Littmann
Greg Littmann
7 months ago

Is it always wrong to set up a website for anonymous complaints from members of Group A about members of Group B? Or does it depend on the specifics?Report

Benj Hellie
7 months ago

On ‘transphobia’: the attitudes expressed on the website do not appear to be directed at transmen; nor do cis males seem to be exempt from those attitudes. If so, it would seem that those attitudes pertain not to the cis/trans status, but rather to the biological sex, of their objects. I wonder whether this would suggest a certain inappositeness in labeling those attitudes with terminology connoting a stance regarding trans people as such.Report

Chris Kelleher
Chris Kelleher
Reply to  Benj Hellie
7 months ago

The attitudes expressed don’t appear to be directed at trans men because transphobia manifests differently against trans men than it does against trans women (this is hardly surprising or unique to this form of prejudice). Trans women, for example, are often characterized as sexual predators, narcissists and fetishists, while trans men (especially those who are attracted to women) are often characterized as victims whose perceptions of themselves have been warped by sinister trans ideology. Trans women provide a much clearer target for attack, on this approach, since they represent threats to be feared, while trans men represent victims to be paternalized and pitied. If you wanted to be pedantic, you could say the website is transmisogynistic, I suppose, but that’s hardly a point in its favour.Report

Benj Hellie
Reply to  Chris Kelleher
7 months ago

It remains that cis males are not exempt from the complaints on the website. This suggests that insofar as ‘threat to be feared’ status is applied to trans women, this is so (recapitulating a comment on Justin, above) ‘in-extension’ rather than ‘in-intension’’ — namely, because they are males (who in the cases under consideration are being granted accommodation because of trans status).Report

Last edited 7 months ago by Benj Hellie
David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Benj Hellie
7 months ago

‘I don’t oppose sodomy because I’m homophobic, I’m also opposed to heterosexual sodomy’. There may be all sorts of reasons why this is a bad analogy, and it certainly doesn’t do anything at all to show that trans women should be allowed in women’s spaces, but I think it demonstrates rather nicely that just because a rule is facially neutral in the kind of way ‘no biological males in women’s spaces’ is, doesn’t mean that it *can’t* in fact be an expression of bigotry against the minority associated (rightly or wrongly) with the practice being prohibited.Report

Benj Hellie
Reply to  David Mathers
7 months ago

In the present case, the fundamental attitude expressed is quite clearly female discomfort at males in female spaces: this can surely be felt with or without anti trans bigotry (and, I daresay, would deserve respect even when felt by anti trans bigots — by analogy, if members of an ethnic minority fear disproportionate aggression by police, the fear felt by those members who are also homophobic is not nullified: individuals don’t have to be perfect for their sensitivities to be respected!).Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Benj Hellie
7 months ago

I mean, that doesn’t mean it’s not “transphobic”, even if you’re correct. Once again, the analogy with homophobia is telling: someone might genuinely only uphold (one version of) Christian doctrine about the sinfulness of sodomy because of a prior commitment to Christianity, but many people are still going to describe that person as having performed an act of homophobia if they defend and propagate such doctrine-let alone if they founded a website to complain about individuals engaging in sodomy. Why? Well, roughly, because as a matter of fact (many people including me, and I would guess you, think), they are taking a view which a) helps spread prejudice against gay people, and b) can only be taken by someone who is insufficiently attentive to the interests of gay people. To settle whether b) applies in this case, we basically have to settle the first-order questions about whether trans women do have a right to be in women’s spaces. So in that sense, the charge of transphobia just for taking the position that they shouldn’t will of course be unpersuasive to people with gender critical views.

However, there are still reasons to worry about a website like this under the analogue of a), even if we agree that trans women in women’s spaces is bad for cis women, or even that it’s all considered wrong to allow trans women access*. There undoubtedly *are* people who are transphobic, and presumably having a website that collects bad behavior of trans women will encourage them in their views that trans women are bad and dangerous as a group. Given that people who aren’t bigots can become bigots, it presumably also has the potential to help turn people who are not bigoted into bigots (it’s unlikely to make much difference on its own, but it is part of a more general climate in which people express hostility to trans women). Of course, if the gender critical view that allowing trans women into women’s spaces leads to harm to cis women is correct, then any harm of this kind would have to be balanced against the need to speak out against a harm to cis women, so worries of this kind don’t *prove* that creating the website was wrong.

I do think that claiming that it’s *clear* that no one here is motivated by anti-trans bigotry is going rather too far though. Go on the internet, and you will find lots of people, including (though not limited to) gender critical feminists:

characterizing the appearance of trans people as grotesque

claiming that (controversial) work by sexologists on the idea that some trans women’s desire to transition comes from being sexually around at the thought of themselves as women proves that trans women are dangerous perverts.

Furthermore there’s a long history of gender critical feminists expressing very strong hostility to trans women, merely for the act of transitioning, rather than for anything else (i.e. for example, Janice Raymond’s notorious: ‘all transexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves.’ Given that there are people with such hostility out there, they are part of the same gender critical tradition as Lawford-Smith, and this website is, for obvious reasons, the kind of thing such hostility would motivate (even if that’s not the only possible motive.) So I don’t see why we can *dismiss* anti-trans bigotry as the motive of anyone here (which is different from saying we can know it is the motive.) Of course, animus to trans women depends on seeing them as men, but that doesn’t mean it is just animus against men. Rather it’s identifying trans women as an especially bad set of men, in need of special condemnation.Report

Moti Gorin
Moti Gorin
Reply to  David Mathers
7 months ago

There is also a long history of males devaluing and discounting the testimony of females on issues of sexual violence and harassment.

Do we know, in the strong sense of “know” you seem to be after, that criticism of sites like the one moderated by Lawford-Smith never encourage such devaluing and discounting? Might some people who tend already to discount the testimony of females feel more empowered to do so? Might there be some sexists out there who view calls to discount the testimony of females as validation of their existing sexist commitments?Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Moti Gorin
7 months ago

You’re right in theory that some criticism of the site might be badly motivated. However, I am very suspicious of attempts by gender critical feminists to over-masculinize opposition to their views given that this if famously something which feminist women, and even radical feminist women disagree about vociferously amongst themselves.

I suppose all I can say is that it feels at gut level *utterly ludicrous* to me to think that criticism of the site is likely to produce sexism to anything like the degree to which the site itself is capable of producing transphobia, but of course, that is a judgment call, not an argument, and you clearly don’t share it, and there’s no reason my feelings should make you share it. It’s obviously difficult epistemological territory how much either of us should modify our judgments in the face of this. (I mean that genuinely, I’m trying hard here not to be disingenuous, though it’s very hard to succeed at that when discussing politics of course.) If I had to justify my position I’d say something like this (this is all admittedly post hoc though, I came to my judgment first mostly based on intuition):

Firstly, the site is being created to help defend a stance that is directed at *all* trans women: namely that they should *all* be excluded from women’s spaces. In criticizing the website, I’m not making any kind of general claim about how much we should trust women’s testimony, just expressing a doubt about a specific project run by one woman. I think things that target a whole group in this way are likely more triggering of group-level prejudice. (But I don’t have hard data to back that up, so you could certainly reasonably doubt me.) Secondly, and relatedly, I think that calling for the exclusion of people is more likely to trigger prejudice against them than criticizing their ideas, all being equal. (Bit less confident in this one.) Thirdly, the site is likely to collect a lot of stories related to (perceived) sexual deviancy and predation, and I think that those things are particular emotionally grabby and likely to trigger an especially strong emotional reaction, and the formation of irrational belief. Certainly, historically, you often find an impression of these things hanging around in the background when there is genuine bigotry towards a group.Report

Moti Gorin
Moti Gorin
Reply to  David Mathers
7 months ago

I agree with what you say about the difficulty of assessing harms. I’m not claiming that criticism of the site generates as much sexist hate as transphobic content does with respect to generating transphobia. My point only is that it’s not just one side that can be accused of (intentionally or not) generating or encouraging attitudes and actions that everyone can agree is unjust or otherwise wrongful. We have to take seriously these injustices and wrongs on whatever side they happen.

To my mind, this requires that we be rather conservative when throwing accusations of bigotry around, especially when the targets of those accusations are themselves members of the relevant marginalized communities (as Holly Lawford-Smith is). Such accusations are of course sometimes warranted, but I think we’ve gotten too comfortable making them.

Regarding your last point on the “emotionally grabby,” I see on the site in question a lot of testimony that does express and evoke emotions, but I take it that’s part of the point of the site. Representations of (real or imagined) sexual deviancy and predation can indeed trigger strong emotional reactions that lead to unjust outcomes. But testimony regarding histories of rape, assault, abuse, harrasment, and so on can also trigger strong emotional reactions, and these need not lead to unjust outcomes (in fact, they should lead to just outcomes).

Finally, the way I understand it, the site was put up in response to certain laws or regulations in parts of Australia and the UK that make stated gender identity dispositive for questions of entry into certain spaces. This is the target of the website. Some other law or regulation that admitted trans people but on some other basis (e.g., social or medical transition, history of living as that gender, etc.) may not give rise to the kind of complaints we see on the site. In other words, I don’t see the site, as you do, as directed at “all trans women.” It seems to be directed at policies that allow anyone who claims to be a woman, irrespective of any other variables, into spaces reserved for females/women. It remains silent on policies that would allow transwomen who meet the conditions for entry in some other way besides gender identity. Report

Benj Hellie
Reply to  David Mathers
7 months ago

Again, if an individual’s worry about males in female spaces deserves respect at all — as I hope we can agree it does — then (to my mind) it deserves respect regardless of whether it is accompanied by bigotry. If the worry deserves respect, there is some prima facie motive to create a forum for expressing the worry. Some may think that to provide this forum in the present context stokes bigotry. Those who do will be faced with a conflict between the interests of one group and the interests of another (either the worried females will be silenced, or the trans women will face a stoking of bigotry) — certainly not a situation to be treated with facile dismissal of the interests of either side.Report

Harrison Ainsworth
Harrison Ainsworth
7 months ago

The website in question could escape this criticism easily.

Suppose it is changed, or clarified, ever so slightly to collect reports of women’s discomfort with men ‒ in general ‒ in their spaces. They have noticed more men entering in recent years, and have decided to resist this change. Would we find such a website acceptable? It seems almost certainly we would. We definitely would not denounce it as akin to racism.

And so here is your big problem: (let us put this gently) there are very strong arguments that transwomen are a subset of men, so the fact that they would be included too would be covered with the general acceptance. Various, indeed all, minorities would be included, but the discrimination is not on those, so any minority-group aspect is irrelevant, and any arguments therefrom fail.Report

Ben Almassi
Ben Almassi
Reply to  Harrison Ainsworth
7 months ago

Without getting into anything from your last paragraph – if the website in question were organized the way you suggest, it wouldn’t fulfill its ostensible purpose regarding purported conflicts of interest.Report

Last edited 7 months ago by Ben Almassi
Harrison Ainsworth
Harrison Ainsworth
7 months ago

It should be clarified that the criticism is still plausible despite one’s view on the larger question. Whether we think of transwomen as women or as men, either way, the criticism, that a subset of people is singled-out, will work.

Consider: even though we might all grant that *men* should not be in women’s spaces, if a website was set up to collect reports particularly of, say, *foreign* men’s incursion, that seems easily dubious.

But isn’t there still some avenue of mitigation? The singling-out is really done by the topicality of the motivating legal/social question. But we seem to face a bit of a riddle: on one hand the singling-out is already there so that seems exculpatory, but on the other hand we already demonstrated that singling-out is dubious *either way* that question is resolved.

Well, there must be some way that singling-out is acceptable, otherwise we cannot even talk about the underlying question at all ‒ and *this* very web-page commenting on it would be guilty too …Report

Greg Littmann
Greg Littmann
7 months ago

I think that it would be useful to ask the related questions

  1. What, if anything, justifies the exclusion of people of the male gender from women’s changing rooms?
  2. What, if anything, justifies the exclusion of people of one gender from the changing rooms for people of another gender?

We can then ask whether our answers are relevant to the issue of exclusion based on biological sex. I think question 2 is important because it may be a problem for our answer to number 1 if it fails to explain why it is wrong for a person of the female gender to walk through the men’s changing room.Report

Last edited 7 months ago by Justin Weinberg
Evan
Evan
7 months ago

Questions to consider for perspectives: How many cis-women on cis-women violences/abuse are there or have there been? How many cis-women have been or are violent towards trans-women? For example, a lot of cis lesbian and bisexual women have been abused by their cis mothers and other cis women for being a lesbian or bisexual.

So before we are quick to blame *all* trans-women for *some* violence towards cis-women (which the website functions to do), it is rational to consider that INTRA-group violence is also a thing. This is even more evident when the website wrote: “This site is moderated out of Melbourne, Australia by members of the LGB Alliance Australia” excluding trans people and hence trans women.

Second, singling out trans-women while they are already a marginalized group is immoral because it falsely and harmfully stigmatizes them and these stigmatizations often are used to justify unjust and immoral policies against them, which cause them more harm and suffering.

Third, such “singling out” tactic is also harmful to cis-queer women who are *still* being harmed by fellow cis hetero women for the simple reason that their struggles and harm are getting ignored by those who (e.g. Lawford-Smith) supposedly say they care about the well-being of *all* women.

You’d think that a feminist scholar like Lawford-Smith would do well to present issues surrounding the violence and harm against women in a more nuanced and thoughtful way since violence against women are both pervasive AND complex.Report