When Philosophers Fail to Do Their Job

Can they think critically about gender?

A small number of zealous activists, among them some philosophers, are striving to purge universities of views contrary to their own. They demonize critics as “transphobes” and try to convince university administrators that criticism of the transgender-rights movement is dangerous. Administrators can then resort to somewhat-more-than-social force to protect students from naughty ideas.

Exhibit A is the Germaine Greer incident. In case you missed that kerfuffle: Greer, a 76-year-old feminist activist and writer, was slated to speak at Cardiff University, in Wales, last November. But she had defended the heresy that “trans women are not women.” In response, Rachael Melhuish, a 20-year-old literature major and “women’s officer,” circulated a petition demanding that Greer’s talk be canceled. Although the university didn’t cave, Greer initially withdrew, citing safety concerns. Eventually the event did take place as scheduled, under heavy security.

This controversy spilled over into the philosophy Twitterverse. Justin Weinberg, who edits the Daily Nous blog, tweeted a link to a blog post that defended some of Greer’s controversial remarks. The text that Weinberg highlighted didn’t concern Greer’s views, but some readers were nonetheless outraged that Weinberg would endorse any part of a post that contained “transphobic” ideas. Philosopher Rachel McKinnon, in a volley of tweets, invective-filled yet grotesquely self-pitying, “called out” Weinberg as a false ally of the transgender cause.

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The outburst may seem silly, but it sends a message that should be — and is — taken quite seriously: “If you don’t want trouble, then don’t say anything out of line.” Philosophers worry about their reputations. Many are introverts. They enjoy debate, but draw the line at making a scene. And so they generally give wide clearance to topics whose discussion might lead to such unpleasantness. The result is a professional echo chamber.

Even at the well-regarded Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the echoes reverberate. SEP includes an article called “Feminist Perspectives on Trans Issues” but no general entry that addresses non-feminist perspectives on the topic. Nor does the article devoted to feminist perspectives engage non-feminist views in the way that might be expected. This reflects a climate in which the only intellectually respectable criticisms of the trans movement come from within left-wing identity politics.

#share#The following points deserve more consideration by philosophers than they have so far received:

‐The idea that genders are social roles — or “performances,” to use Judith Butler’s terminology — makes some sense within the traditional gender binary. There are, after all, long-established roles and expectations for men and women. But many in the trans movement want to liberate us from this constraining duality (see for a more inclusive list of gender options). It’s fair to ask whether each item on the extended list really corresponds to some social role, or performance, that exists not only in some tiny subculture but in the broader society. What should be the criterion for whether something constitutes a gender role? Is it possible to be wrong about whether a gender role exists?

‐ If there’s one idea that proponents of the trans movement uniformly reject, it’s gender essentialism, the “gross” idea, according to the digital magazine Everyday Feminism, “that men and women have inherent, unique, and natural attributes that qualify them as their separate genders.” Many, however, embrace the idea that one’s gender identity qualifies one as belonging to that gender — and that gender identity is an essential part of everyone’s personal identity. Is that a form of gender essentialism? If so, why is it less objectionable than the traditional view?

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‐In her talk “Critically Examining the Doctrine of Gender Identity,” Rebecca Reilly-Cooper observes that “gender” tends to remain undefined in definitions of “gender identity.” This is true of definitions accepted in U.K. and U.S. law and used by medical and professional organizations. All that anyone seems to be able to say for sure is that “gender identity” is a deeply held feeling that relates to . . . well, gender. In order for the claims of transgender-rights activists to be consistent, Reilly-Cooper shows, the deeply held feeling must be innate, universal, unalterable, and the sole determinant of one’s gender. Suffice it to say that it’s far from obvious that anything answers to that description.

‐When one’s gender identity is “man,” what, precisely, is one identifying as? Typical answer: the occupant of the social role normally assigned to people with male genitalia. Now suppose that, despite being biologically male, I identify with the female role. I enjoy hosting imaginary tea parties for my dolls — fill in whatever details you like. I nonetheless insist that I am a man. Am I necessarily wrong about that? If not, then being a man isn’t the same as identifying with the conventional male role, because I don’t do that. If so, then we’re conceding that people can be wrong about their own genders; so why is it me, rather than the self-identified male with a vagina, who is wrong?

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Perhaps we should say that either having male biology or occupying the male role is sufficient for manhood. That complicates the story, and barely relocates the bump in the rug. If a feminine male identifies as a woman, then she is one. Well and good. Again, though, what exactly is she identifying as? It’s apparently not as the occupant of a social role, since a man — we’ve decided — can occupy the female role. Nor is it biology, since “her” biology is male. So it’s hard to see what her identifying as a woman could amount to. If a person like this were indifferent to what his or her gender was, then what would determine the truth of the matter? Would he or she be genderless?

#related#The transgender-rights movement relies on the concept of gender identity and requires that one’s identification as a man or a woman (or some other option) have some specifiable content. Without firm theoretical foundations for these claims, there is no basis for claiming that one’s gender identity places obligations on others, such as the obligation to allow somebody into a shower room ordinarily reserved for members of the opposite biological sex.

There are, of course, things to be said in response to these (sometimes implied) criticisms. In philosophy, though, few rejoinders silence all rational critics. The best explanation for why there aren’t more philosophers criticizing the transgender movement is not that all criticisms have been decisively rebutted, but that few are willing to take the heat for doing so. If more gadflies don’t step up to the plate, the range of views deemed non-heretical in the discipline will narrow further. The biggest victims may turn out to be those who want to hear the most rigorous defenses of the trans movement and its underlying ideas.

Spencer CaseMr. Case is a freelance writer and an international research fellow in the Wuhan University school of philosophy.


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