Humanist Voices
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Humanist Voices

Who decides what’s transphobic?

How free speech and open dialogue can help minorities

Richard Dawkins sitting on a chair with a bookshelf in the background.
Source: The Times

Radical honesty

Over the last few years I have become a huge fan of radical honesty, a philosophy that promotes being open about what you feel and believe, no matter how scary or embarrassing, without ever telling white lies or lying by omission. I think this is an extremely powerful tool in conflict resolution. It is in fact one of the principles of nonviolent communication, and I believe this is something that the Humanist movements really needs in this moment.

  • At first, I honestly and truly didn’t understand how Dawkins’ tweet could possibly be construed as transphobic. I understand it a bit more now but I still find “transphobic” too strong a word.
  • I never really understood what people meat when they said “a trans woman is really a woman”. I thought this was only a consequence of defining “woman” by identification and not biology. I now know there are arguments claiming that trans women really are women in some sort of biological sense, but I find those arguments problematic.
  • Cancel culture for me is not simply a culture that cancels people sometimes. It is a culture that cancels people too easily. I don’t think it’s always wrong to cancel somebody no matter what they say. I think this a overly simplistic and black and white interpretation of what free-speech enthusiasts promote. I just think that in the last few years this has been done too often, and for too little reason.
  • Perhaps we shouldn’t treat Dawkins as an individual, but as the representative of his followers. You may say all you want that Dawkins is a public figure and should have known better, but his followers who also don’t know better will see him as a symbol of themselves. Dawkins’ words are something that I could have said myself with no malicious intent, and when I see him being attacked for it, I feel to some degree personally attacked.
  • Dawkins supporters see his tweet not as a gratuitous provocation against trans people, but as an invitation for open debate. An invitation to question ideological dogma and think rationally and honestly about a divisive, difficult, but important issue of our time.
  • Although I think offending people gratuitously is bad, I believe there are values that are worth upholding even if they cause some level of discomfort as an unavoidable side-effect. I am always willing to adapt my discourse so as not to offend people, but only to the extent that it’s possible to do it without mischaracterizing my own beliefs.
  • I believe offense is a response to taboo violations, and I believe taboos are often, if not always, extremely cultural. I believe it is possible to learn and also to unlearn them.
  • When I express my beliefs sincerely, trying to be as polite and inclusive as I can without mischaracterizing my own views, and I am met with hostility, it is impossible to overstate how profoundly disturbing this experience is and how uncannily similar it is to the experience of coming out as an atheist in a Christian family. This, I believe, is why so many atheists resent linguistic taboos and cancel culture.

Interpreting charitably

Any statement is open to interpretation. In philosophy and rhetoric, the principle of charity states that we should always try to be as charitable as possible when interpreting our interlocutor. In other words, we should never assume that our interlocutor is being a dumb asshole when he could reasonably be interpreted as saying something sensible and harmless. My first problem with AHA’s statement is that it is too vague and open to interpretation. I can interpret it in at least four ways.

Guilty of intentional harm

When the AHA claims that Dawkins’ latest statement “implies that the identities of transgender people are fraudulent”, they seem to be interpreting what was originally phrased as a statement of fact as a blanket accusation against trans people. If they think Dawkins intentionally meant to dismiss trans people as fraudulent, this is not at all a charitable interpretation. Worse still, they are formulating their own interpretation as a statement of fact, as if it is something indisputable. But it is very much disputable. Dawkins himself explicitly stated in his subsequent tweet that he didn’t mean to disparage trans people. What else do we want from him?

Guilty of harm by neglect

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m the one interpreting the AHA uncharitably. Perhaps they do concede that Dawkins didn’t mean to accuse, but they think that his tweets are still harmful because it will inevitably be interpreted like this by most, which is hurtful for trans people and fuels conservative narratives that further harm them. In that case, their argument would be that no matter what Dawkins meant in his heart, his reckless use of language causes so much harm that he must be held accountable for his negligent behavior. But is it really true that most people would interpret Dawkins like this? And by framing their own interpretation as a statement of fact, isn’t the AHA actually encouraging other people to interpret it as hurtful, and actually causing harm themselves in a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Guilty of potential harm by neglect

Some people go even further, and say that it doesn’t matter if Dawkins’ tweets would be interpreted in a negative way by most people or not. If even a single trans person feels hurt, he did something wrong and must be held accountable. But isn’t this an impossible standard? If we would let ourselves be paralyzed by the risk of perhaps offending even a single person, wouldn’t we be forced to abandon many constructive activities, such as creating a culture of free inquiry and peaceful exchange of ideas?

Guilty of breaking inviolable rules

Finally, some could perhaps go as far as saying that Dawkins acted immorally because he violated the rules that define what language we should use to talk about trans people. These rules, they might argue, are to be respected regardless of whether breaking them is harmful or not. But if that’s the case, who defines these rules and why should we respect them? This type of deontological thinking is dogmatic, a relic inherited from the work of Christian philosopher Emmanuel Kant. It is antithetical to the scientific values of epistemic humility and falsifiability.

A common moral ground

Before I respond to these possible interpretations, it is worth briefly discussing what it means to say that something is right or wrong. It is often taken for granted that deep down we all know what is right and wrong, and this gives us an impression that whenever somebody does something that seems wrong to us, they are just assholes. Perhaps it would be simple if things were this way, but they are not. There is such a thing as legitimate moral disagreement. If there wasn’t, there would be no such thing as moral philosophy. As I have argued before, any secular moral system ultimately boils down to the following axiom:

The best action is always the one we have most reason to believe will maximize the total long-term quality of sentient life.

Because we can never know for sure which action will most contribute to the long-term improvement of well-being, we are forced to use heuristics in order to minimize error. It could be true, for example, that in a certain situation killing a patient in order to harvest their organs and save five others would actually contribute to the long-term well-being of sentient life. However, this is such an unnatural way for humans to behave that it is easy to imagine ways in which this action could backfire and ultimately cause more harm than good. If this became a common practice, doctors would inevitably start making mistakes, killing patients when this wasn’t necessary, which would lead to people fearing the health system, avoiding checkups, seeking revenge against doctors who killed their family members, etc.

Offense, cancel culture, and cult behavior

There are many factors that define cult behavior, but none are as evident to me as the violent enforcement of strict rules that are at the same time poorly defined and undebatable. This allows cult leaders to act capriciously, choosing on a whim what is a taboo violation and what isn’t. The withdrawal of Richard Dawkins’ 1996 title of Humanist of the Year illustrates this perfectly. The AHA claims that Dawkins’ tweets “demean marginalized groups” and “[attack] Black identity as one that can be assumed when convenient”. These are not facts. These are personal interpretations. Not everybody feels demeaned by the same things.

Defining rules together

So far I have mostly criticized the anti-dialogue narrative of cancel culture apologists. But even though this narrative is becoming mainstream in some progressive circles, it is not the only one. It is possible to be progressive, to support trans rights, and to be rational and open to dialogue. So are there rational arguments to be made in favor of socially enforcing clear rules regarding what constitutes trans-inclusive language?

Rachel Dolezal

The first mistake made by Dawkins, according to his critics, was to compare transgender people with transracial ones. According to their interpretation, this is a way to mock trans people by comparing them with a group that is generally perceived as “ridiculous”. This comparison is therefore seen as Dawkins’ way to make a slippery slope argument. Men are asking to be called women now, next think you know white people will call themselves black. But is this really what Dawkins meant?


One of the passages from Dawkins’ tweet that seems to have triggered many progressives was “Some men choose to identify as women”. They might say, for example, that if a man develops gender dysphoria, she will simply identify as a woman, period. It is an involuntary process. If I wake up tomorrow and discover that I actually have a female body, and that my memories of being a cis man are false, I will still feel and identify as a man. It may be a choice for me to publicly identify as a man, but not to simply identify as a man. That is beyond my control. No matter how much I may want to identify as a woman, I can’t. Personally, I find this a reasonable use a language. Having seen how sensitive people feel about this, I will avoid this language in the future and I encourage Dawkins and others to do the same.

Literally a woman

Another passage people seem to have taken issue with is “You will be vilified if you deny that they literally are what they identify as”. To some supporters of trans rights, this suggests that to be literally a woman is to be a biological woman with XX chromosomes. And yes, I know sex is more complicated than XX and XY, but just because not everybody fits the male/female binary, it doesn’t mean that nobody does. Most of us do.


The limits of avoiding offense

Perhaps Dawkins would also agree to adapt and use language differently, if somebody explained it to him. Some may say that he has received plenty of explanations, and that if he won’t listen it’s his problem. But what if he disagrees? What if he simply doesn’t find this a reasonable use of language? What if he thinks it’s fair enough to say “some men choose to identify as women even though they’re not literally women”, and that it shouldn’t be interpreted as suggesting that their identities are any less legitimate?


Trans people are human and they deserve happiness as much as any other sentient being. Perhaps Richard Dawkins could have been more careful with his language. It was difficult for me to see what was so hurtful about what he said initially, but I am not trans and I am not a public figure. As somebody with a large platform, perhaps it would have been more responsible of him to be more aware of the sensibilities of minorities. That could have avoided unnecessary harm. On the other hand, I believe holding Dawkins to a higher standard than we hold his followers might be a problem because it will cause his followers to be defensive. I believe the ideal response would have been to invite Dawkins to discuss this issue in a public online dialogue.



Official Secular-Humanist publication by Humanist Voices

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