Anonymised responses from other academics to my articles on sex, gender, and philosophy

Here are some responses I’ve received, unsolicited, from fellow academics, since I published this and this. Each is from a different individual, with the discipline area named at the end. They are reproduced here with permission.

“I really don’t have a settled view on any of the many issues here, but the lack of conversation and the hounding and bullying of anyone who expresses a thought (not even opinion!) that isn’t popular . . . all that is depressing and distressing. Predictably enough, I won’t be saying any of that in a public post, because I’m a precariously employed person and a lot of folk who might make significant decisions about my future career prospects have very strong opinions. A little cowardly, but also prudent, sadly.” (Philosophy)

“ I want to follow your lead and I am mustering courage but I got badly burned doing similar in the past. Don’t feel able to handle an onslaught if it comes at me. I at least didn’t want you to think I was ignorant of the great importance of this issue’ (Philosophy)

“The whole thing makes me despair. I genuinely worry I can no longer tell first year students gender is a made up social construct. I just try to use sex where relevant not gender, and correct it in essays, and hope I don’t get into trouble.. last year I was doing gender with first years, and getting them to think about the constructedness of gender etc — and I asked ‘if we had a few years where, for example, the well-behaved girls in primary school weren’t seated next to the challenging boys to ‘socialise’ them, and where women weren’t told by strangers in the street to smile, and knowing a fetus was female didn’t mean a pink ‘gender reveal’ and everything that goes with it…. do you think as many people would feel they were in the wrong body, if your body only meant a) you can get pregnant or b) you can impregnate, and no other signifiers?’ And, genuinely, they went quiet and one of them said ‘I’m really confused now because I thought there was only one way to think about this, but there isn’t’.” (English)

“Two things about the situation really really bother me: (1)Proper debate is being shut down — being (loudly) offended and upset is taking the place of arguments. And I think a lot of us are like — ok I don’t really understand these new rules or how to play by them. And it feels manipulative to try. And most pressingly, no one wants to find themselves being loudly told they’re being offensive and upsetting. So people opt out of the debate.

(2)The whole thing strikes me as just old-fashioned misogyny presented as something new and worthy. Which I think might even make it more pernicious. If the interests of one group clash with the interests of another on some issue, it is usually accepted that we need to take both kinds of interests seriously in debate about how to resolve the clash. But in this case, even entertaining the hypothesis that the interests of (non-trans) women might be negatively affected by some of the proposals that are being put forward is routinely taken to be off-limits. Let alone taking those interests seriously. (e.g. everyone conveniently forgetting that there were ever any arguments for having women-only spaces). What an effective tool for oppression — make it verboten to even entertain the question of how women’s interests might be affected!

There’s something peculiarly sneaky (and peculiarly insulting) about the fact that the tool that’s being used to oppress women in this case is right-on-ness. Like the view is that it’s because we really ought to be caring and considerate and aware of how bad it is to oppress people that women should shut the f*** up and stop getting in the way of what other people want.”(Philosophy)

“I’m really on board with your call for respectfully prosecuted philosophical debate on these issues. In conversation with other ‘woke’ philosophers, I’ve encountered two kinds of attitude. The first is a methodological stance wherein no position is taken on the truth of a particular theory; all the emphasis is on creating a theory that makes the world a better place. Most people who hold this view seem to do so because they find too uneasy the prospect of joining the debate, or of even voicing their theoretical inclinations. But obviously, this won’t work, because the right course of action can’t be assessed without taking a stance on descriptive issues. The second is that a legitimate and important sensitivity to the politics of speech has, rather than buttressing first-order debate, almost entirely replaced it. Specifically, the laudable aim to make heard minority voices has obscured the thought that minority voices can be mistaken about certain things. But if attention is brought to that, it’s fairly common for people to go meta, and accuse this dialectical move of reinforcing a system of oppression. And that may very well be true — but there’s no way of knowing unless the first-order debate is resolved.” (Philosophy)

“ I wanted to thank you for your recent articles on the need for freedom to express GC views in philosophical dialogue. For the past several years, I’ve experienced real frustration (even anger) at the felt inability to disagree with assumptions within trans theory. On the rare occasions I have done so, it’s occurred by assuming a conversational position of “wanting to be educated”; real, robust disagreement is smeared as bigotry. It should be obvious that it is a bad state of affairs for feminist philosophy when blatantly controversial claims about womanhood must be treated as conditions of adequacy on a view, and not as candidates for open dialogue and disagreement. So thank you for writing these articles. It makes me (and I imagine many others) feel a little less lonely in my desire to explore these views and to have these conversations.” (Philosophy)

“It is interesting and awful how this has become such a hot potato. Strange also that it is a much more general problem than just philosophy: it seems to have become a general cultural taboo (e.g. on the question of all women short lists, and I assume you have seen the similarly shocked criticisms of Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie). And as you say, in academic philosophy there is an eery silence. Ironic, given the amount of work that has been done on silencing. It feels to me like the pre-emptive self-silencing (“smothering”) that Mills and Dotson talk about. Of course, it is perfectly appropriate to refuse to countenance actual trans phobia, but we are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We should not be forced into a position where it is impossible to countenance a philosophical argument that has the consequence that there are some relevant differences between trans women and cis women. For what it’s worth, I consider myself both a feminist and a trans ally.”(Philosophy)

“Just a quick word to thank you for your recent writings on gender. It touches on something several women friends have mentioned, a strange sense of being silenced from talking about themselves and their own bodies. I suspect you are right to see the election of Trump and the rise of the “alt right” as playing a significant role in creating a malevolent climate. When surrounded by anti-Semites one is reluctant to join in their criticism of Israel even when it is warranted.”(Philosophy)

“I share your concerns about the erasure of female only space and the erasure of lesbianism particularly. Also I am aware that my own experiences as a non-binary child (identified as a boy for 4 years) means that I would have likely been transitioned — certainly I would have taken the option if it was presented to me aged 12. I’m equally concerned about how TW voices exclude most TM voices.

I really enjoyed your articles and it speaks to a lot of my current concerns. However, I am in an institution in which such discussions can’t/won’t be tolerated. I don’t know exactly what I can do apart from offer tacit solidarity at the moment, but wanted to signal my support for more open debate and training our students (and working with colleagues) in being able to hold contrary positions without being violent or accused of violence”. (English)

“I think that gender critical views have been unfairly maligned and that people who espouse them have been vilified. I also think that the vilification itself is saturated with misogyny: it is not men who are vilified. I would have thought that feminist philosophers of all people would be the last people to participate in shaming and silencing women for speaking about their understanding of sex and gender.” (Philosophy)

“I am a fellow academic without secure employment, so I’m sure you can understand my keeping a low profile. I’ve already had trans students (with whom I get on very well, as an aside – I see no conflict between being critical of the gender essentialism/self-ID nonsense and being supportive of transsexuals) express concerns that I even follow people they recognise as gender critical, so I am well aware of the current state of the debate.

My partner (also an academic) and I discussed this morning what other successful minority single issues transcend the current political left/right divide in the anglosphere, and we came up with a shortlist of three only: US/UK trans activism, esp. in regard of self-ID, US gun rights, and the US pro-life argument. All three also share the support of well-funded pressure groups, as well as majority opposition (an estimated 75% of the general population oppose self-ID, ~80% of the US population allegedly support tighter gun control, and likewise c. 67% of the US population apparently support abortion rights).

With my own sense that these issues are somehow ‘texturally’ connected at the back of my mind, I asked him what else unifies these issues (he is a US national, and arguably has a better intuitive understanding of the US-based movements). He thought for three seconds, and then said “toxic masculinity”, with quiet shock in his voice. For context, I should add that he does not generally take an uncritically feminist stance, but can best be described as a man who arrives consistently, but sometimes grudgingly, at a feminist position in discussions, based on reasoning.

The three are rarely discussed in this light, although their reconfiguration suggests that they are connected by, as my partner put it, a particular expression of male sexuality.

I have no idea what to do or where to go with my concerns in this matter, as I have financial responsibilities and insecure working conditions. I genuinely cannot afford to chip away at my employability at this point in my career. I am unlikely to be quite so shy when I eventually have a secure position, however. And, as you are undoubtedly aware, there are many more of my disposition who keep a low profile for similar reasons.”

Professor of Philosophy, University of Sussex.