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  Holly Lawford-Smith’s work in its entirety because it so precisely encapsulates what is going in the gender debates.

 

Earlier this year, the Institute of Art and Ideas invited scholars and activists to consider the question, How Can Philosophy Help Us Understand Transgender Experiences? Following the publication of this article, three of the authors withdrew their contributions and issued a statement of retraction outlining their reasons for doing so. In this third article, one of the original contributors Holly Lawford-Smith responds to arguments raised in the retraction with her own perspective on the debate around gender.

Radical and gender critical feminists think the best way to understand gender is as a set of harmful norms, which are applied to people on the basis of their sex. A female person, for example, is subjected to norms that tell her to take great care over her appearance, to be helpful, kind, caring, and warm. A male person is subjected to different norms, for example telling him to be strong, bold, clever, and stoic, to not care much about his appearance. What’s key here is the subjection part: norms are applied to us by others, throughout our early childhood socialisation, both inside the family and in school and by peers and extended family members, and all the way through our lives. Some kinds of violations of the norms are tolerated; people are not generally too bothered about a kind boy. Other kinds of violations are policed: a boy likes to play with dolls, and his uncle berates him for being ‘gay’ or a ‘sissy’; a girl is full of ideas for play and takes the lead with other kids, the parents of the other kids call her ‘bossy’ or ‘too big for her boots’. Understanding gender as a set of harmful norms has a lot of explanatory power. It accounts for why particular male or female people are subject to bullying, social sanctioning, or victimisation—namely because they fail to conform to the norms applied to their sex. Feminists have for a long time preferred to understand gender in this way, and to advance the claim that those norms are pernicious and constraining. There’s nothing that one has to be like simply because one is female, or because one is male, they say. Be whatever you want to be.

Recently, this view of gender, and this ‘advice’ dispensed to male and female people, has become contested. Some insist now that gender is not harmful norms but rather is identity. Gender-as-identity is the view that everyone has an internal, subjective sense of their own gender, and that this—rather than their sex—is what determines how they should be treated by other people, and by the law. In the state of Australia where I live, the parliament has just passed a law that replaces sex with gender identity on birth certificates, in a way that is likely to be authoritative for other parts of the law which deal with what was previously sex discrimination. So gender-as-harmful-norms is not only contested, but its contestation has had serious social uptake in some places.

You might think this is a reasonable disagreement. And if it is, there’s a lot for both sides to discuss. Do we need both of these concepts? Does it make sense to get rid of the concept of gender as harmful norms while the norms are still in operation and harming people, in particular female people? Can both concepts exist side-by-side, or will the contestation have to be settled with only one victor? How exactly can the concept of a gender identity be made coherent? (See also this piece, where I say more on the topic of gender identity).

What is peculiar about this issue is that one side, radical and gender critical feminists, approach it as a reasonable disagreement. They argue for their views in popular and accessible venues, and defend the views on social media. They are willing to debate with their opponents, and they are willing to read what their opponents have to say. They are able to articulate what the concerns of their opponents are, accurately, and give responses to those concerns.

The other side, however, approach it as an unreasonable disagreement. For them, radical and gender critical feminist speech is hateful speech or harmful speech. Those who utter it are reprehensible humans and should be treated as such. Engaging with such speech only dignifies it, which makes engagement into a kind of complicity. People with this view will tend to block on social media rather than engage; and will tend to refuse to read what the other side has to say because they believe it to be beyond the pale. The inevitable result is mischaracterisation and straw-(wo)manning. If you don’t read what a person has to say, you cannot be in a position to give an accurate reconstruction of it, let alone to be charitable to it, to ‘steel-(wo)man’ it (to make it into the strongest possible version of itself before responding to it).

There was an example of this clash of perspectives recently, with a retraction statement authored by several academics on the side of gender-as-identity. The Institute of Art and Ideas had asked academics and activists to contribute to a forum, giving 200-word answers to the question “How can philosophy change the way we understand the transgender experience and identity?” The forum featured contributions from Kathleen Stock, Julie Bindel, and myself, on the gender-as-harmful-norms side, and Robin Dembroff, Rebecca Kukla, and Susan Stryker, on the gender-as-identity side. As soon as they found out they were “co-platformed” alongside (which, note, merely means appearing on the same page as) us, Dembroff, Kukla, and Stryker called for their contributions to be withdrawn, and made statements on social media to this effect. In their co-authored statement they went a lot further, accusing the gender-as-harmful-norms side of speech acts that are “acts of violence”, as well as comparing engagement with us to participation in conversation with holocaust deniers, white supremacists, and over the question of “whether corrective rape should be used to cure lesbianism”.

If this is not hate speech, then it’s something awfully close to it. Stock, Bindel, and I are all lesbians. The choice to use that example was obviously intended to target us with violent, lesbophobic, and degrading imagery; to put us in our place. Our conception of gender-as-harmful-norms helps to explain it: we have violated the gender norm “be accommodating of males” by refusing to accept the claim that when a male asserts that he is a woman, he is in fact a woman. We are being subject to misogynistic policing (in this case, even more disappointingly, by two female people) in the form of a reminder of what male people can do to female people who don’t conform to the norms. This kind of policing is completely unacceptable in any context, and certainly in a disagreement between academics over what the right conception of gender is.

It’s also completely unacceptable to appropriate other social groups’ genuine and horrific suffering, including the genocide of the Jewish people, slavery and colonization of people of colour, and rape of lesbians, for political point-scoring against people who hold a philosophical position you don’t like. In making the last move against lesbians, Dembroff, Kukla, and Stryker use speech that is more hateful than that they accuse us of using. Buried underneath the hyperbolic and incendiary rhetoric, there is a reasonable disagreement over what the correct conception of gender both is and should be. Kathleen, Julie, and I will continue to articulate our side of that disagreement in accordance with the norms of our respective professions. We look forward to Dembroff, Kukla, and Stryker doing the same in the future. If not, we request that they at least leave the rape talk out of it.

It isn’t just on Twitter where transactivists go blithely on ignoring arguments, nope.  Parallels exist in academia as well.  Holly Lawford-Smith writing at the Quillette illustrates the divide between gender critical and establishment (woke) philosophers.

 

“Perhaps another reason why things have gotten ugly is that the underlying disagreement is not one that can be settled by reason alone. Perhaps there is simply a fundamental moral disagreement over the extent to which a person’s internally experienced identity matters, and should be respected and affirmed by others. If you can’t settle things with reason, yet you think they must be settled somehow, you’ll have to deploy other tactics. Is this the explanation we’ve been looking for?

Let’s start with the idea that identity matters. In almost all the cases of identity we’re familiar with, there’s some fact that underwrites the corresponding identity. A white-appearing person who identifies as indigenous is accepted as indigenous because of her ancestry (and perhaps her cultural ties, acceptance by indigenous communities, and so forth). There are facts that make her identification true (and that, if absent, would lead to her identification being rejected). But when a male-born person asserts that they are a woman, what are the facts at issue? There are many answers we could give here, such as that the person has dysmorphia about their sexed body, or has dysphoria in regard to gender roles, or has lived life “passing” as a female person for some length of time, or is accepted as female by other members of the community. Unfortunately, establishment feminist philosophers—following trans activists in the wider society—tend to reject all such answers, and assert that subjective identity is all that matters: If someone asserts with apparent sincerity that they feel like a woman—or is a woman—then the person is a woman. But that’s like saying that a person is indigenous if she says she is, and that any questions about ancestry are tantamount to the denial of one’s humanity.

But we can supplement the claim that identity matters, and thereby get closer to fully explaining the ugliness of this debate.

Add to it the claim that trans people are one of the most vulnerable social groups in society; and that one of the most humane and effective means we have for lessening their vulnerability is to affirm their gender identity, and thereby lessen the suicide risk associated with dysmorphia and dysphoria. To the extent that questioning the veracity of gender identities may be said to interfere with the social acceptance of transgender people, such questioning may be cast as morally reprehensible, uncaring and dangerous.

If true, this would explain the abusiveness of establishment feminist philosophers—and the wider trans-rights activist community. This view presumes such high stakes that it can be invoked to justify even the most uncivil and abusive forms of discourse. But it also undermines the very idea of truth-seeking, since embedded within the argument is the idea that it doesn’t really matter whether transwomen are women: All that matters is that we act as though they are women, because the focus is on the instrumental value of assertions supplying trans women with a certain kind of emotional and moral support, not determining the existence of an objectively real truth.

Under this analysis, when gender critical feminists show up and argue that transwomen are not actually women, or that they shouldn’t be treated as women for all social and legal purposes, they miss the point and talk past the establishment feminist philosophers. The point of the discussion, as the establishment feminist philosophers see it, isn’t to determine the truth of the underlying claims, but to provide succour to a vulnerable community. They are doing politics and calling it philosophy.

Adding to the frustration and anger of the establishment feminist philosophers is the fact that there’s literally no way they can communicate their real argument—namely that we should act as if trans women are truly women, even if we know they are not—because if this argument were said out loud (or, worse, stated in print or online), the whole project would collapse. Transwomen would know what even their most vocal allies secretly believe. The only possible strategy is instead to yell out conclusory slogans and then protect them from contradiction with all available methods—insults, attempts to deplatform, social ostracism, reputational damage, complaints to employers, online harassment, the lot.”

Well it’s good to know that bullshite still flows downhill, I suppose.

 

Catch the rest of the article here.

“In the past several years ‘gender’ has been radically re-defined by a reactionary movement that has transformed it from a set of conventions and constraints on what men and women can be or do, to an interior mental state. Chrissie Daz is right in saying that something fundamental has changed in the way in which gender is understood in the twenty first century, with the new transgender warriors representing a major paradigm shift in gender thinking over the last forty years. An idea once wielded by the liberal left against conservative sexist and heterosexist social norms, gender has now been retooled as a weapon in the armoury of a regressive politics that is not only sexist but homophobic. Today’s transgender movement reinforces the myth that ‘men’ and ‘women’ are altogether different species of human beings, not just reproductively, but mentally — with different desires, different needs, different aptitudes, and different minds. Now transgender spokespersons support the traditionally conservative naturalisation of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ as innate psychological states, intrinsic in the human subject from birth and arising from brain chemistry or other hormonal interactions of the body. The progressive idea that there is no uniform way that all boys as such (or all girls as such) necessarily ‘feel’ or ‘think’ has been scrapped.
Instead of railing against a rigid heterosexist gender binary (as their rhetoric would suggest) the new Trans warriors assume that their innate sense of self (‘identity’) is inherently ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ prior to any socialisation. Apparently, the influence of cultural indoctrination is negligible. Gender has been de-politicised, naturalised and medicalised in the same stroke.”

 

The take away is that trans-ideology is sexist and homophobic excluding it from any reasonable sort of feminism. :)

 

 

The claims of trans-ideology, when examined, often fall short of being persuasive. The confusion between sex and gender and the terminology involved almost always plays a large role in making their arguments functionally opaque to the lay person. In this conversation Auntie Wanda, a gender critical feminist, wades through the confusion and gets to the heart of the issue – biological sex is an immutable fact, and that a better argument to displace this notion has not been made.

 

 

The argument depicted below seems to sum up the problematic nature of the truth claims that trans-activists make. To analyze these claims precisely and coherently and refute them seems to get one labelled as a ‘transphobe’ (for disagreeing with worldview of someone else). Sorry, but that just doesn’t wash.

If we are to maintain any dedication to reasonable argumentation and reliance on evidence based decision making then there should be nothing wrong with the position Auntie Wanda takes. Win people over with strong arguments, not strong pejorative labels meant to silence them.

There is a controversy in Canada going on with with regards to the issue of free speech, Bill C-16, and the refusal of a Professor at the U of T to use the alternate pronouns people choose for themselves.  This is the video that started it all (1h).

Three viewing options depending on your time frame.  A long panel debate (1h), a dual format interview (15m), and a one on one interview with Peterson alone (4m).

Also see the transcript to his interview on CBC radio here, and a look from an alt-right publication here, and from a local Toronto publication.   This is by no means a comprehensive list of all the sources available – just a sample and please bear that in mind while thinking about the issues being raised.   I’ll quote Peterson describing his position:

“This week, University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson released a video online criticizing political correctness on campus. He also said he doesn’t recognize a person’s right to be addressed using genderless pronouns like “they” instead of “he” or “she.”

Under the proposed Federal law Bill C-16, it will become illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender identity or expression. As It Happens host Carol Off spoke with Peterson about his position.

Carol Off: Professor Peterson, why have you said you don’t recognize another person’s right to determine what pronouns you use to address them?

Jordan Peterson: That’s right. I don’t recognize that. I don’t recognize another person’s right to decide what words I’m going to use, especially when the words they want me to use, first of all, are non-standard elements of the English language and they are constructs of a small coterie of ideologically motivated people. They might have a point but I’m not going to say their words for them.

CO: There are a lot of words that you can’t say even though you may want to, that may be considered, not just offensive, but even illegal. So you’re not entirely free to use whatever words you want in any context…

JP: No, that’s certainly true. I’m not claiming that a person is free to use any words, in any context. But what I’m saying is that I’m not willing to mouth words that I think have been created for ideological purposes.

CO: Even if it’s the law that says you should do that?

JP: Well, I guess we’re going to find out exactly what the law says and it’s one of the reasons that I don’t like Bill C-16. I think that it’s loosely written enough that the kinds of things that I’m talking about could be transformed into hate speech almost immediately.

CO: You have said that you don’t believe that there is enough evidence that non-binary gender identities even exist?

JP: No. I didn’t say that actually. If I’m going to be accused of saying things I have to be accused of exactly what I said. There’s not enough evidence to make the case that gender identity and biological sexuality are independently varying constructs. In fact, all the evidence suggests that they’re not independently varying constructs. I can tell you that transgender people make the same argument. They make the argument that a man can be born in a woman’s body and that’s actually an argument that specifies a biological linkage between gender identity and biological sex. I’m also not objecting to transgender people. I’m objecting to poorly written legislation and the foisting of ideological motivated legislation on a population that’s not ready for it.

CO: Well, transgender people are ready for it and they have been feeling a great deal of discrimination and that’s why they were seeking this type of redress in the law. Do you appreciate that?

JP: I don’t believe that the redress that they’re seeking in the law is going to actually improve their status materially. I think, in fact, it will have the opposite effect. I believe that the principles on which the legislation is predicated are sufficiently incoherent and vague to cause endless legal trouble in a matter that will not benefit transgender people.”

[from the CBC interview on As It Happens]

   The core of Peterson’s argument is this: “I don’t recognize another person’s right to decide what words I’m going to use, especially when the words they want me to use, first of all, are non-standard elements of the English language and they are constructs of a small coterie of ideologically motivated people.

    An important distinction to be noted here is that Peterson is not arguing against the exclusion of certain words (n*****) for example, but rather the mandatory and legislated inclusion of words.

gendernutral

    Here is a conversation gleaned from the comment sections of the article entitled – “Non-Binary Students React to the U of T Prof Who Won’t Acknowledge Their Pronouns”:

obj1mike1obj2mike2

The comment thread is some 500 responses long and there are several instances of exchanges between Micheal H and other people.  Several of the arguments present mirror how this debate often unfolds and the positions taken on the free-speech/discrimination issue.  If you have time, the article and comment section is a worthy use of your time.

Summarizing Micheal H’s position:

“Using someone’s preferred name doesn’t place an obligation on me to deny my appreciation of objective reality and affirm someone else’s.

What I find ‘somewhat wrong’ is someone expecting that his completely subjective, idiosyncratic self-conception should be validated by other people at the expense of their own foundational conception of reality.”

Micheal certainly has the arguments working for him.  What seems to be missing is the social realization that each person experiences society differently and that sometimes mere arguments cannot adequately capture all of the nuance of the interactions that take place in society – consider his phrasing here ‘And the hypocrisy here is to conceive of the dynamic between two autonomous individuals […]’

Once in society the phrase ‘two autonomous individuals’ becomes a less useful term because all of the social encumbrances and dynamics at play (race,class,sex,).  Not appreciating, or accounting for the ‘societal noise’ makes the arguments seem very clear cut and straightforward.  Perhaps a bit too easy.

Let’s take a look at some raw footage at Peterson’s gathering.  The interactions are haphazard at best, but the video gives some background onto what both sides are saying in the argument.

 

 

 

Vice – weighs in on the topic essentially saying that the entire Peterson episode is quite like a tempest in a teapot:

“The bill would do nothing to restrict people’s freedom to their own beliefs or to teach their own children,” Garrison told Albrecht during the debate. “What it would do is try to protect the expression of hatred and the kind of discrimination in public that takes place each and every day against transgender Canadians.”

C-16 will also update Canada’s Criminal Code, criminalizing “advocating genocide” and the “public incitement of hatred” based on gender identity or gender expression—adding those two classes to the current list of protected classes: colour, race, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, and mental or physical ability.

“The use of pronouns is not about advocating genocide,” said Cossman.

The bill also means that assault or murder, motivated by bias, prejudice, or hate against people with a certain gender identity or expression, could come with a stricter sentence.

“It’s not creating a new offense,” said Cossman. “It’s saying if there’s a hate crime, if there’s an assault, and you find that it was motivated by hatred on the basis of gender identity and expression, that could affect your sentencing in the same way that race or ethnicity or sexual orientation already do.”

It’s also highly unlikely that the failure to use gender-neutral pronouns will rise to the level of hate speech in Canada, Cossman said.

“The way hate speech has been interpreted by the courts is that it’s only applied to very extreme speech,” she said. “[The misuse of pronouns] is nowhere close.”

Cossman, who says reasonable people can disagree on whether or not hate speech laws are a good thing, says adding one ground to the list of identifiable groups isn’t a major change.

“It’s significant for the trans community, but it’s such a small addition that the idea that this is the most egregious just doesn’t add up.”

I’d have to agree this debate is a tempest for sure – the grist for the mill is how big the teapot happens to be.  It would seem, if the Vice analysis is correct, that we have little to worry about with regards to Free Speech.  Drawing the line between what is hate speech and what is a difference of opinion, will as always be the next contentious issue.

All members of Canadian society have the right to be free of discrimination.  At the very same time though, we all have the right to disagree with people’s opinions and evaluate them on the truth value they carry.  As the situation stands, it looks like both camps are still protected under the legislation as it stands.

Further reading:  A critique of Peterson’s CBC interview can be found here.  Also, another professor against the alleged PC culture on campus.

—–

 

“Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson

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