To paraphrase Thomas Nagel: consciousness is what makes engaging with online philosophers so intractable. You seek solace in alcohol. You long for oblivion: the sweet release of chemically-induced sleep, or failing that, a mercifully swift death. It’s a constant round of assaults to your eyeballs, mind, blood pressure, and rapidly-vanishing faith in the practice of philosophy as a secure route to wisdom. Never mind wisdom - hell, occasional glimpses of understanding would do. Or even randomly acquired, accidentally true beliefs. Stopped clocks tell the right time twice a day; some philosophical commentators can’t even seem to manage that.
I say ‘online philosophers’ because the professional philosophers I meet offline continue to be what they always were: mostly reasonable, intellectually careful, fair, and in many cases, terrifyingly clever. There are some humungous, intimidatingly clever brains in academic philosophy. Admittedly, much of this brain power is spent writing in mysterious codes, saturated with arcane references and decipherable only to special initiates, on questions to which empirical evidence could make absolutely no difference either way. But still. The one thing you can usually rely on with offline philosophers is that they will give your emerging thoughts a fair and sensible hearing. If they have objections (which — let’s face it — they always, always will), those objections will often be interesting, constructive, and charitable, even if a bit bruising to receive at the time.
That word ‘charitable’ just there has a special meaning in philosophy (see? codes!). We urge our students to extend a ‘principle of charity’ to those with whom they disagree philosophically. This principle says, roughly: as you attack an opponent’s argument, make your target the best possible version of that argument, and not the worst. More succinctly: don’t treat your opponent like an idiot. Note that this isn’t necessarily about tone — philosophers in discussion can often be abrupt and forceful; impolite by normal conversational standards, even. It’s about content: rationally reconstructing your opponent’s argument, carefully and fairly, in a way that’s consistent with what they’re actually saying.
Observing this principle serves some useful functions. For one, it means the quality of the discussion is enhanced, and progress can be made: you don’t waste time exploding points that were never serious threats in the first place, which allows you both to focus on the hard stuff. It puts you, the extender of the principle, in a usefully open and flexible frame of mind, since it forces you to think seriously, not just about the attractions of your position, but also about the attractions of your opponent’s. And it means your opponent is less likely to be left in a furious, dribbling, murderous ball of rage, listening to someone wilfully misrepresenting her as an idiot — no matter how ostensibly ‘nicely’ — to her peer group and the wider world. It keeps the discussion from degenerating into a war of words, aimed only at retaliation for the last slight.
Not so online, apparently. In a year’s worth of skirmishes in the gender wars, I’ve literally lost count of the number of half-arsed takedown attempts of my arguments, launched into the philosophy blogosphere (see Appendix below for a small selection). It’s hard to distinguish these in memory because they all look so similar. As I recall, the main points, boiled down, seem to be: A) she’s a moron B) she’s a bigot C) she deserves all the crap she gets because she’s unkind D) she’s not exactly evil but her work is, and she really ought to try much harder to understand why everyone hates her E) she hasn’t read THE LITERATURE F) she thinks that black women aren’t women G) she thinks you need a womb to be a woman H) she thinks people with wombs should do all the housework I) she is a womb fetishist J) she’s just like someone who hates immigrants/ a white separatist/ Nigel Farage K) she thinks people are sexually attracted to chromosomes L) WHY IS SHE STILL BEING ALLOWED TO WRITE, WHY HASN’T SHE BEEN DRUMMED OUT OF THE PROFESSION YET?
For many of the uncharitable, snarky or passive-aggressive pieces that have been written about me specifically, or about so-called ‘TERFS’ in general, philosopher Justin Weinberg has been there, ready and willing to post a link to it in his Heap of Links at the Daily Nous. (In fact, he also commissioned one specially: see the piece by Bettcher in the Appendix). Along with Brian Leiter’s site, the Daily Nous is one of the two main sites for ‘information and news for and about the philosophy profession’. In his published editorial policy Weinberg invites academics to send him things he might have missed. And he is very clear that he doesn’t endorse what he links to.
Imagine my surprise, then, on discovering that, when asked by a fellow academic to post a link to my recent Quillette piece on the relationship between feminism and trans activism, Weinberg refused to do so! No, not really — I wasn’t really surprised. It was utterly, depressingly predictable. But still, what the hell, I decided to challenge him on Twitter about it, and now he has (I think I’m supposed to say ‘to his credit’ here, or some such disingenuous bollocks) published a defence of his decision on a backroom area of his site.
In the course of that defence, minus the fake-civility, Weinberg reveals the many supposed errors in my article which, according to him, mean that my piece does not meet his high editorial standards . I could spend a lot more time, unpacking and engaging with each of these, one by one, but I know it’s pointless: the mind who produced that decision, and that defence of it, isn’t likely to suddenly start listening now. So in a nutshell, and to get it over with:
1/Weinberg says that I’m ‘scaremongering’ that ‘that there is a popular movement to stop academics and statisticians from tracking facts about sex, but there isn’t’. He cites in evidence, the claim that the Scottish Census, presented as a piece of evidence by me, will ‘actually remain put in binary terms’. Yet the matter remains wholly undecided, as the last paragraphs of this recent BBC article make clear. Additionally, the fact that those activists who would seek to change the Scottish Census have had any public pushback at all is due to the hard work of many feminists, including academic philosophers, and including me specifically. See for instance this Glasgow Herald article which describes part of my own contribution.
More generally, I maintain that it is correct to say that there is a popular movement to eliminate talk of sex from public discourse. Further evidence cited in my article included the approach recommended by the Crown Prosecution Service and GLAAD to reporting of crime data, in line with gender identity, not sex; and the move, on multiple fronts, to make gender identity not sex the criteria of entry into ‘woman-only’ public spaces. I could have also cited the documented attempts by Stonewall and other influential LGBT charities to petition the UK government to remove single-Sex exemptions from the UK Equality Act; or the currently proposed changes to the US Equality Act as detailed here. (Of course, Weinberg will doubtless disagree with much of the analysis in that last link — as do I — but still, if the claim that talk of sex is being eliminated can get past the editors at New York Magazine, maybe — just maybe — it’s good enough for a link in the Daily Nous.)
2/ Weinberg says that ‘The rhetorical implication’ of my point above, about the Crown Prosecution and crime data, ‘is that the police and court are no longer gathering data about sex. This implication is false, as the very document to which your essay links makes clear’.
He justifies this claim by pointing out that the document I linked to ‘stresses the need for accurate information (‘as much information as possible’). Well, agreed — it does say that; but what counts as ‘accurate’, according to the authors of that document, is of course the question! When we look again, it turns out that on p.20, we find this: ‘Steps the CPS can take to avoid all unnecessary reference to gender history: Checking that all relevant papers regarding prosecutions involving transgender victims, witnesses or defendants make reference to the correct presented gender status.”
3/In my article, I wrote that “Lobbying organizations such as GLAAD advise the U.S. media to report crimes by trans people in a manner consonant with the criminals’ and victims’ preferred self-identification. This practice thwarts the reasonable aim of getting a clear statistical picture of certain types of crime according to sex category, both in terms of perpetrators and victims.” Weinberg complains that ‘the second sentence of this quote would only be true if crime statistics were gathered by tracking what various media outlets say. That is not how crime statistics are gathered.’
Ok. I should have said ‘informational’ picture. Newspapers are a source of information. He got me there.
4/Weinberg says that my ‘ discussion of the need for “protection for females” suggests to readers that trans women pose a violent threat to other women’ and yet I present no evidence of this.
What I actually wrote was: ‘Sex-separated spaces are an imperfect but useful form of protection for females in places where they are vulnerable to sexual aggression and invasions of privacy, such as bathrooms, changing rooms, dormitories, refuges and prisons.’ I went on: “making self-ID the legitimate means of accessing women-only spaces puts females in those spaces at risk — occasionally from transwomen, but also from predatory males who are not trans, but who now cannot be confidently challenged in such spaces. The inclusive language of “gender-neutrality” tends to obscure the fact that a policy of self-ID effectively makes spaces mixed-sex by stealth”.
So: the point I was making did NOT depend on the claim that ‘trans women pose a violent threat to other women’. At all. I genuinely don’t know what more I can do to make this clear to people — if you make self-IDing as a woman the socially acceptable criteria of entry into women-only spaces, then after a while, when that norm has become sufficiently well-known, ANY AGGRESSIVE MALE AT ALL CAN GET IN, LEGITIMATELY, TO DO HARM WITHOUT CHALLENGE, BECAUSE HOW ARE WE SUPPOSED TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE UNTIL IT’S TOO LATE? I also emphasised, as I have done repeatedly, that when it comes to dismantling social norms, historically in place for generations— it will TAKE TIME to see the real impact; ESPECIALLY in a context where women generally don’t tend to report violence against them (let alone where it might also make them look ‘transphobic’ in the eyes of people like Weinberg).
It would be a sign of good faith of my opponents if they ever engaged with these points, instead of constantly attributing to me the straw man that I think all trans women are generally violent. I do not. I’m tired of repeating it.
5/Weinberg says that ‘ we have good reason to believe that the facts regarding statistical male violence are not representative of the facts regarding violence by transwomen — that there are relevant differences between the larger population and the much smaller “subset”.
Ok, show me. Good evidence, remember? According to the normal epistemic standards of what counts as good evidence? Or even better: congruently with the incredibly high standards of evidence and argumentation you are currently exerting on me? I’ll wait.
6/Weinberg says I misleadingly describe the policy of getting a sex change via self-ID as ‘as easy as saying Hey folks, I’m a woman now’.
Happy to correct this. Getting a legal sex change via self-ID is as easy as filling in a form, paying some money (and perhaps taking an oath though I believe not every system requires this). That’s harder than saying ‘Hey folks I’m a woman now’. On the other hand, that’s much easier than living for two years in your preferred gender, and getting two diagnoses of medical dysphoria, as the law currently requires in the UK.
7/ Weinberg says that I ‘criticize trans women for appearing in stereotypically feminine ways instead of challenging those stereotypes, without acknowledging that a reason often cited for them doing so is avoiding problematic, uncomfortable, or even violent encounters with others who’d otherwise give them trouble.’
Er.. no I don’t. First: I am not criticising anyone for appearing in stereotypically feminine ways. In the passage in question, I am criticising the idea that appearing in stereotypically feminine ways MAKES YOU A WOMAN.
Second, I am criticising the IDEA, not the people who hold it. I don’t blame them at all for accepting narratives handed to them by society and academics, which they think will help them. I blame the society, and the academics.
(I know it’s tempting to constantly position me as ‘attacking trans people’ but I am not and do not- I attack the arguments of trans activists in the public domain, and I make social criticism of commonly received views, but I don’t blame ordinary people for holding commonly received views. And by the way, I also say in the article that “Transition may be effective for many. And it is commonly claimed that it reduces overall suicide risk in dysphoric individuals. But it can also have severe personal costs. Where stark differences are promoted between the sexes, those perceived to sit uncomfortably between gendered worlds are vulnerable to projected ridicule, harassment or even disgust. All trans people recognized as such — whether through self-declaration or because they don’t “pass” — are vulnerable in this regard. Arguably, then, gender can doubly harm trans people: by helping to induce their dysphoria in the first place, then punishing them for their survival strategy.”)
ANYHOO — yada yada, etc. etc. Really, all this is beside the point. We aren’t talking about a guest post on his site. We aren’t even talking about any kind of endorsement. We are talking about a link — one line amongst many others. In a ‘heap’. A heap that includes — and unless you’re prepared to trawl through, you’ll have to take my word for this — links to some good stuff, but also to quite a lot of self-indulgent, pompous, lazy and unfact-checked crap. Anyone with half a brain can see that the reasons that my article didn’t get posted have absolutely nothing to do with the quality, or otherwise, of the argumentation of the essay, which may well be low (though I don’t think it is), but is certainly no lower than much of the stuff already linked to.
A more likely explanation, to my mind — is that — no matter how concessive my arguments, how sympathetic my tone, or how much I sincerely strive to meet others half-way — I am now officially a Nasty Witch with the Wrong Views. And everyone knows that the only sane thing to do to Nasty Witches with the Wrong Views is shun them or shame them, for fear that someone thinks you might be a Nasty Witch too*.
I know, I know: in academic Philosophy, you’re not supposed to attribute illicit psychological motivations to your opponents. You’re not supposed to get rhetorical, or emotional (particularly not if you’re a woman with the Wrong Views. That makes you Scary and Bitter too). You’re not supposed to resort to puerile insults. You’re just supposed to deal dispassionately and rationally with the arguments in front of you, no matter what the provocation. But here’s the problem: with some people, this strategy apparently doesn’t work. They just won’t play according to the rules you thought you were both co-operatively following. To make an arcane reference that philosophers will like: it’s like an iterated prisoner’s dilemma, and I’m the mug who keeps playing the Always Cooperate strategy. Sometimes it’s better to go Tit-for-Tat.
Philosophers online like to say that things are ‘exhausting’ for them. Cf: ‘it’s EXHAUSTING having to do emotional labour explaining why your arguments offend me!’. ‘It’s EXHAUSTING constantly having to be confronted with arguments that trigger me!’. Etc. But I’ll tell you what genuinely IS exhausting. Watching both my own personal reputation, and the philosophical tradition I normally try to cherish and respect, being flushed down the toilet in public, inch by passive-aggressive inch, by narcissistic lazy half-wits who have stolen the mike. It’s so exhausting that sometimes — just sometimes — I forget to be polite about them, or to them. After all, by now, what have I now got to lose?
*An alternative explanation, of course, is that Leiter publishes me a lot, and Weinberg hates Leiter. I’m open to that explanation. Or maybe it’s a bit of both.
(For my responses written at the time, though not to all of them, see my Medium profile page)