by Andrew Gleeson
Late last week British philosopher Kathleen Stock announced on Twitter her resignation from a professorship at the University of Sussex. This followed a long and vicious campaign against her over several years by radical transgender rights’ activists both on and off the university campus.
Stock’s early work focused on aesthetics, but since 2018 she has written extensively on feminism, sex, and gender, and on issues raised by the transgender movement. Her book on these topics Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism was published in May by Fleet. Her position is, roughly, gender critical feminism, a school of thought that sees biological sex — not gender identity or expression — as central to the protection of women’s rights. Gender critical feminists have pushed back against making self-identification a sufficient criterion for changing sex in both law and practice and have raised concerns about transwomen accessing women’s toilets, changing rooms, prisons, refuges, sleeper carriages and other spaces, and being eligible for women-only scholarships and affirmative action programs. They have highlighted the physical dangers and competitive unfairness resulting from the inclusion of transwomen in women’s sport and have strongly opposed the affirmation — as opposed to the more cautious watchful waiting — approach to the medical transitioning of children and teenagers, especially the unprecedented numbers of young teenage girls seeking to transition. They have campaigned to prevent gender or gender identity from being substituted for biological sex in medical, legal, and other contexts.
Stock is one of their most courageous and effective advocates. She has defended the reality and importance of biological sex and the right to speak on the issues free from intimidation. Her tone has generally been civil, humane, and reasoned, though she has apologized for some angry tweets. Many have welcomed her contributions. In 2021, the UK government awarded her an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her work defending academic freedom. But she has also been subjected to vilification, deplatformings, disciplinary investigations at her university and even violent threats. These actions are the work of extremists, who do not necessarily represent trans people in general, many of whom agree with some of Stock’s opinions or are willing to engage with them in a civilized way. The extremists’ efforts recently culminated in a nasty on-campus student campaign demanding her dismissal, exacerbated by the disheartening failure of her union to defend her. This reached the point where Stock was advised by police to stay away from campus and install security devices at her home. Despite the fact that the university supported her, Stock’s enemies have finally driven her out. They have made her working conditions so unpleasant that, perfectly understandably, she has decided to leave. Presumably the activists are pleased with what they have accomplished.
What has the role of philosophers been in all this? As a rule, philosophers are agreeable people, committed to truth, evidence, reason and liberal values. Historically, the discipline has often championed those values. That is perhaps one reason why philosophy has consistently and robustly resisted the politicization that has corrupted some other humanities’ subjects. Most philosophers beaver away at boringly arcane and apolitical questions, such as whether the mind is identical with the brain and whether we can know a world outside ourselves exists.
But for all their intellect and learning, philosophers are not invulnerable to the zeitgeist, which their cleverness makes them especially good at rationalizing. Thus, until the twentieth century, philosophers widely accepted racism, while they now almost universally condemn it. It partly explains why so many applied ethicists now support abortion and euthanasia, just as these have become more generally accepted. They often think that they have reached these conclusions through reason, but it is the world that has shifted, and they have simply followed the spirit of the time, sometimes for good, sometimes not.
In short, too many philosophers are conformists and opportunists. So, when the world shifts in an authoritarian direction, some of them shift that way too. Over the last few years, this has happened on a disturbing scale in a number of other academic disciplines, especially gender studies and race studies and other fields which hubristically declare themselves critical. A critic was once someone from whom to expect discernment, but now the word merely designates someone harsh and adamant in their condemnation of something (the word ‘discrimination’ has suffered a similar fate). This linguistic shift reflects the fact that these fields of study were founded as much for the purpose of political activism as for intellectual understanding.
Now this authoritarian drift is evident among philosophers too. While some have publicly supported Stock by signing open letters, others have enthusiastically attacked her. They have refused to share platforms with her and encouraged others to do the same. Last year she was disinvited as a speaker to a German Zoom-conference because of her opinions. They protested (without success, to the credit of the discipline) against her speaking appearances at the Royal Institute of Philosophy and the Aristotelian Society. Oxford University Press disgracefully cancelled an anthology to which Stock was invited to contribute, at least partly on account of her gender critical opinions. Other gender critical thinkers have been attacked in the same way, including Australian philosopher Holly Lawford-Smith. (Neither Stock, Lawford-Smith, nor, as far as I am aware, any other gender critical philosopher has attempted to get trans-activist colleagues treated in parallel ways.)
Perhaps the most egregious instance was in January this year, when an “Open Letter Concerning Transphobia in Philosophy” was published on-line here. (I signed this response in defense of Stock, organized by Dan Kaufman, editor of the Electric Agora website.) The letter attacked the UK government for awarding Stock her OBE. It made the following allegations.
Her speech contributes to discrimination and violence against trans people, restricts their access to lifesaving medical treatment and encourages harassment of gender non-conforming people.
She uses her academic status to further gender oppression.
Her scholarship is “transphobic fearmongering” and “attacks … marginalized people” under the camouflage of “courageous exercises of free speech.”
The signatories wrote, “we do not say Stock should not be permitted to say the things she does. We believe in the principles of academic freedom.” Permitted by whom? Her employer, Sussex University? Well, we might say that Stock is permitted to say what she does so long as her employer does not penalize her for saying it. But that assumes she is able to say it in the first place. That is as much a function of how she is treated by her fellow philosophers as by her university. If Stock’s work is so offensive and dangerous that no one should share a platform with her, then presumably no one should invite her to speak in the first place. And if that is so, then surely it is equally wrong for journals and academic presses to publish her work. In effect then, she is to be professionally backlisted. But if she cannot speak or publish – the currency of academic reputation and preferment – then how can she achieve appointment or promotion in the academy? And for that matter, if her work is so objectionable, if she so abuses her academic privileges, should not university committees take that bad behavior into account as a strong argument against her appointment and promotion? If the originators and signatories of the open letter think these kinds of exclusionary actions against her are wrong, they should say so. But whatever they think or do, the central problem is that it is hard to see how the conclusions that such actions are warranted and even morally demanded, are avoidable given the claims the letter makes about Stock’s academic work. Those conclusions follow from those claims. If Stock’s work really did make her the Dr. Goebbels of philosophy, then I too would campaign to expel her from speaking and publishing. There would no violation of academic freedom in that. Academic forums do not exist for the purposes of vilification and propaganda.
But of course, Stock’s work is nothing like that: it is perfectly normal and respectable, if very controversial, academic work on a public issue. It is sheer evasion to quibble over whether to call expelling her from normal professional activities a violation of her academic freedom so long as people do not openly call for her job. What would be left of that job’s freedom would not be worth the name. Is Professor Stock supposed to be grateful that the letter’s signatories only wanted to send her to the academic equivalent of a leper colony? And really, we should take the letter’s reassurance about her job implied in the words “we believe in the principles of academic freedom” with due skepticism. The letter’s incendiary and irresponsible accusations only egged on the baying mob which has now managed to hound her out of that job by making her daily life in it insufferable. So, if the philosophers who signed the letter really believe in the freedom the letter spoke of then we should expect a new letter from them deploring what has now been done to Stock.
I do not believe there are two sides to every question. There are not two sides to the “question” of whether it’s OK to drive around the streets running over old-age pensioners for fun. Or whether to push a conveniently placed fat man off a bridge to save other lives he is no threat to (philosophers pretend to take this seriously: I kid you not). Nor whether people should be abused, attacked, denied basic civil rights etc. on account of their race or because they are transgender. But the issues raised by the transgender movement that gender critical feminists contest are not simple analogues of issues like these, and the strong tendency to treat them as such is misleading and closes down thought about them. They are not analogous because there are too many thorny conceptual matters about sex and gender and their practical, ethical consequences; too many matters of fact needing impartial scientific investigation (about physical advantages of males in sports, about the effects of various drugs used in gender transitioning, and so on); too many potential conflicts of legitimate interest between transgender women and natal women, not just over access to intimate women’s spaces but also over various entitlements like those to women-only scholarships, affirmative-action positions etc.; and too many suspiciously blasé reassurances that there are no real conflicts of interest here, and too much associated muck-raking aimed at Stock and other gender critical feminists.
Trans people do of course suffer mistreatment, and no doubt some of it, especially in the anonymous sewers of social media, is hideous. It must be painful to witness one’s form of life at the center of so much toxic, public brawling. But that does not mean activists get to make their position on these matters a test of basic moral literacy: for example, when they demonize defending the reality of biological sex against attempts to deny or obscure it as “debating the very existence” of trans people. A particularly effective strategy for casting their critics beyond the boundary of human decency is for the trans radicals to assume the moral heft of the historic struggles against racism. Earlier this year American Civil Liberties Union attorney Chase Strangio slandered gender critical ideas as “closely aligned with white supremacists.” This is pure guilt by association: white supremacists appealed to biological ideas to defend racism so every appeal to biology is tainted.
Philosophers should discuss trans issues frankly and passionately, respecting all the parties involved and taking their legitimate claims seriously. This can be painful and there is no guarantee of reaching stable agreement, but it is ultimately the only way in which we can truthfully welcome transgender people into an open life in philosophy and in the world. Achieving such a discussion requires standing up against those who would prevent it by persecuting people on either side. It is sad and shameful not just that some philosophers have attacked Kathleen Stock, but also that others have failed to stand up for her.
Andrew Gleeson is a retired Australian philosopher.