Discussing law and policy is not discussing an “abstract thought experiment”

Kathleen Stock
Aug 7 · 8 min read

At the end of a fortnight already replete with facile, hyperbolic, and fact-free attempts by academic philosophers to shut gender-critical feminists like me up (see this and this and this and this — and please, kids, whatever you do, don’t take try any of that in actual philosophy classes); and in a week where a top-of-the-pecking-order feminist philosopher* has written to the entire editorial board of the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews to object to my being asked to write this review for them, because.. well, because it’s me, basically — I’m quite tired. Also allegedly on holiday. So I’ll keep this brief.

The APA blog have just published this latest thing, from the closed talking shop that is current academic feminist philosophy. It’s signed by some Names in the field. Here it is reproduced, with some comment from me interjected, and some highlights in bold, also by me.

“The nature of sex and gender and the relationship between them are not forbidden topics of philosophical discussion. Many feminists holding significantly different philosophical views have been respectfully debating them for decades. One easy way to see a quick overview of these different positions is by reading the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on “Feminist Metaphysics” or the entry on “Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender. As feminist philosophers who have, variously, argued for, researched, engaged with, and taught these views, we are well-positioned to claim that there is no established orthodoxy about gender in academic philosophy. There continues to be much lively disagreement on matters of gender without accusations of transphobia.”

Comment:

This is misleading, and that’s a generous way of putting it. A less charitable way of putting it is that this is a bit like saying Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia. There is diversity of viewpoints within feminist philosophy about sex and gender but, crucially, not about whether transwomen are literally members of the category women — this is now taken as axiomatic, and treated as immoral to question; and in fact, self-identification is now taken as the criterion of womanhood by most. What has happened, according to my reconstruction, is that in the past, feminists within the academy — indeed, at least one signatory to this very letter — have endorsed accounts which imply that (self-identifying) transwomen are not women, but not explicitly, as such. (Obvious exceptions include: Sheila Jeffreys; Janice Raymond. These people only ever get discussed in the sorts of shocked tones reserved for war criminals). In recent years, the Overton window has shifted, and it has became commonplace within academic feminist philosophy to take the fact that an account of womanhood is “exclusionary” of (self-identifying) trans women, either inadvertently or deliberately, as fatal to it. This is reflected in the two Stanford Encyclopedia posts cited in the APA post as supposed evidence of the rich diversity of feminist viewpoints. This one mentions trans people once, and the only bibliography items listed which address the issue are by Bettcher, a transwoman who argues that it’s transphobic to disagree that transwomen are women. This one mentions transpeople a lot, but also contains the following paragraph, whose confidence that this could be a reasonable criticism against Theodore Bach’s view tells you everything you need to know about the prevailing attitude:

“Bach’s view, however, has anti-trans implications. After all, trans women who have not undergone female gender socialization won’t count as women on his view (Mikkola [2016] develops this line of critique in detail). More worryingly, trans women will count as men contrary to their self-identification.”

Consider also this passage from the beginning of Jenkins’ paper on gender identity in Ethics, which gives no argument whatsoever for the claim that self-identifying transwomen are women, but assumes it from the start:

“The proposition that trans gender identities are entirely valid — that trans women are women and trans men are men — is a foundational premise of my argument, which I will not discuss further. Failure to respect the gender identifications of trans people is a serious harm and is conceptually linked to forms of transphobic oppression and even violence. It follows from this that an important desideratum of a feminist analysis of gender concepts is that it respect these identifications by including trans people within the gender categories with which they identify and not including them within any categories with which they do not identify”

You might think this makes Jenkins immune from criticism as being “exclusionary” but no — here’s a published critique:

“A theory of gender ought to be compatible with trans-inclusive definitions of gender identity terms, such as ‘woman’ and ‘man’. ..Here, I argue that Jenkins’s dual theory of gender fails to be trans-inclusive for the following reasons: (i) it cannot generate a definition of ‘woman’ that extends to include all trans women, and (ii) it understands transgender gender identity through a cisgender frame.”

You get the idea. So no, feminist philosophers, I don’t think there are ‘significantly different philosophical views’ on the topic at issue in your ranks. I think that in your club, it’s now pro-self-ID or receive-the-open-letter; and very definitely, transwomen are women. And no, even you can’t escape accusations of transphobia, such is the bizarre, heavily moralised form of objection you’ve allowed to become part of the established repertoire in discussing these matters.

The blog post then goes on:

“We do, however, think it is important, when exercising our academic freedom, that we consider how our views may impact others. Academic responsibility requires us to consider differences of power and vulnerability in speaking of and to others and the effects of our words in reinforcing structures of oppression. There are many diverse, contentious views about gender and gender identity that can be–and are–engaged with in ways that do not call into question the integrity and sincerity of trans people nor the validity of their own understanding of who they are. We should conduct our research freely and responsibly, without treating other people’s lives as though they are abstract thought experiments.”

I’ll take these in reverse order. You’ll have to forgive, or at least, deal with, my irritation in what follows. As I say, I’m tired — not least of repeating myself and being ignored.

Comment on point about “abstract thought experiments”:

I and others are engaged in a public conversation about law and policy. I started writing because there was a public government consultation about UK law. Should access to a legal sex change be largely based on self-ID or should there be other signs of commitment plus medical oversight, as there currently is? That “should” isn’t considered in a vacuum — it is considered in light of predicted effects on women. How in the name of God is that an abstract thought experiment? Go and look up “abstract thought experiment”! The other questions we write about are also completely non-abstract: the huge, factually documented, rises in numbers of teenage girls transitioning, a lot of them autistic, gay and/or traumatised (look it up, for once); lesbians, the so-called cotton ceiling, and a ludicrous disregard for the sexual orientation of female homosexuals (you think we just made that up?); the lack of knowledge of the effects of puberty blockers on young bodies (read this); male-bodied transwomen with fully intact genitalia in female prisons; the erosion of social norms around sex-segregated spaces, and what that means for females. What is it about your feminism that makes you completely deaf to these highly specific concerns pertaining to females, such that you dismiss them as “abstract”?

I have absolutely no interest in questioning identities in a vacuum. None. I make that clear in this piece here, for instance. But we are not in a vacuum. Nor are we yet in Utopia, such that we can pretend that radically reconstructing conceptual schemes like those involving “woman” “girl” “female” “lesbian” “mother” etc. will have no bad empirical effects. Who is really doing the abstraction here??

Comment on point on questioning the “integrity and sincerity of trans people”:

If you are claiming that we do this globally, you are lying, egregiously. I have no interest in doing this because I admire and love many trans friends, and I take a generally neutral stance to those I don’t know, as indeed I do to anyone at all I don’t know. That is, I’m not a dick like that, and nor is Holly Lawford-Smith (nor any other gender critical philosopher I know): and fuck you for insinuating differently (particularly those of you who actually know us — cheers, you horrors). If, alternatively, you are highlighting that we point out the capacity of self-ID laws and policies to be abused by bad actors — hell, yes we do! Jessica Yaniv, Karen White, Katie Dolatowski — any thoughts, oh lofty ones? No? Nothing? Ah well. Funny that, I thought you were feminists. And if you think we harp on these examples to “dogwhistle” something about transpeople, rather than to explicitly point out the weakness of the law or policy in question, you are missing the point spectacularly, and I’m starting to think you’re actually quite thick. We harp on these points because if you build a law or policy like self-ID, they — bad actors — will come. You’ve given them a free pass. And that is exactly what we are seeing with Yaniv now. Look, here’s a transwoman that gets it! (By the way, contrary to your incredibly offensive assumption, transpeople aren’t the Borg: they don’t all think the same politically, even about themselves).

Do me a favour. Watch that video interview with Yaniv by Blaire White and then go onto Facebook, or wherever you like to hang out and kvetch about nasty terves, and instead write something about how Yaniv is a predator who has ruined the livelihoods of immigrant women of colour, and more importantly, has been allowed to by extant British Columbian law which makes “gender identity” as well as gender expression, protected as a characteristic. I double dare you.

Comment on point about questioning “the validity of their own understanding of who they are”

What the hell does “validity” mean in this context? Stop writing like you’re on Tumblr, it’s embarrassing. If you mean that we have to take transpeople’s accounts of “who they are” at face value, in every legal and social context, on pain of being horrible and exclusionary, why only them? Why not lesbians who understood themselves as exclusively female-attracted homosexuals, or women who understand themselves, necessarily and sufficiently, as adult human females? And do you mean the British Columbia beauty therapists should do this with regard to Yaniv, and just get on with waxing her female balls? Do you see a problem yet? If on the other hand you mean that transpeople should be respectfully left alone to get on with their lives, free from discrimination, harm, and fear, and to self-describe as they wish in most but not all contexts, then we agree. All of us. And have said so repeatedly. And mean it.

*This person actually wrote a whole book once that entailed that gender identity was irrelevant to womanhood. Apparently, as an expiation, she’s now trying to ruin my career.

Kathleen Stock

Written by

Professor of Philosophy, University of Sussex.

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