Even thinking about trans people is wrong Hugo Rifkind in the Times 24.09.18

The original article is here.

Everybody knows the adage that undergraduate politics are vicious because the stakes are so low. When student spats make it on to the news pages, the context is often lost — that a seemingly huge existential issue with broad ramifications for the future of British society may actually be about four people who haven’t ever really had jobs and aren’t beyond cooking pasta in a kettle.

Something like this may well be going on with last week’s kerfuffle in Durham University’s philosophy department. To summarise, Angelos Sofocleous, a philosopher, was sacked from his post at Critique, a philosophy journal, for tweeting that people with penises were not women. This, he was told, “belittled trans experiences”. He then got kicked off another student newspaper, too.

With Sofocleous being an undergraduate writing for student publications, this clearly wasn’t a sacking in the usual sense. You may feel it matters not at all. Still, when I read that both the president of the university’s philosophy society and the new editor of Critique had subsequently declared that “trans exclusionary” discourse was something they would not “tolerate”, I started to feel it maybe did. Even if, as must be at least possible, they were both doing so while sharing the same Pot Noodle.

Back in May, Kathleen Stock, a professor of philosophy from Sussex University, wrote of her consternation that philosophy departments appeared to be ignoring nationwide debates about transgenderism. With issues of competing rights and first-principle semantics, she noted, “all this looks like grist for the philosophers’ mill, you might think, and a great arena for them to exercise their particular skill set”. Having been targeted frequently for her own radical feminist philosophy, deemed by some to be trans-unfriendly, she put this reluctance down to fear.

The censorious junior philosophers of Durham, though, do not sound afraid. Rather, they sound positively proud, and perhaps even self-righteous, that this is a topic of discussion they are not prepared to tolerate. They appear to have, in other words, an absolute moral conviction that this is something not to be thought about.

This is a shame because, if one tried, one could have a decent stab at a philosophical justification for eschewing philosophy about trans issues. One could, for example, draw inspiration from John Stuart Mill’s harm principle which, in trite abbreviation, held that people should not be allowed to harm other people. Mill himself was firm about the distinction between actual harm and mere offence, but I suppose one could extend the former by contending that even discussion in this area could lead to actual, physical harm being caused to vulnerable people, either by their own hands or at the hands of others.

Even if such an argument could be intellectually advanced, however, could it be acceptably debated afterwards? Or would that also be “belittling trans experiences”? Indeed, am I doing that now? Fundamentally, if it is not morally OK to discuss this stuff, is it morally OK to even discuss discussing it? Look, don’t roll your eyes at me, this is what philosophers do. Or, as Stock says, it used to be.

Sofocleous’s offence, with the penis thing, was to deny that “trans women are women”, a maxim regarded by many as close to gospel. Penny Mordaunt, the Conservative minister for women, said those words recently in parliament, Jeremy Corbyn appears to agree, and put on the spot, most prominent politicians would, too. Yet what does the phrase actually mean? If it means, “society should behave as if trans women are women” then that is very different, and far less contentious, from it meaning literally that the two are the same.

Does everybody who says this phrase mean the same thing? Do they even know what they mean? Is the idea that we are expanding the definition of women to include people who were not formerly in it, or is it that we are recognising that this definition, already, is broader than many assume? What, basically, is everybody on about? On a purely theoretical, analytical basis, can it really be a hate crime to try to figure it out?

There are those, I know, who will already hate me for the above paragraph. Typical aloof white, cis man, they’ll say, stroking his chin while others suffer. Don’t I know that almost half of trans schoolchildren have attempted suicide, and that the vast majority have self-harmed? Don’t I care about the assaults, the murders, the misery, the struggle? To which there is, of course, no answer, which is rather the point. All I can say is that, once upon a time, philosophy used to pride itself on its aloof chin-stroking. When I was an undergraduate 20 long years ago, these would simply have been different conversations. Seek to combine them, and you would be told you were confused.

Well, times change, and who’s confused now? There’s a meme that does the rounds on Twitter when older people (like me) write about younger people (like them). It features Principal Skinner from The Simpsons saying “Am I out of touch? No, it’s the children who are wrong!” and it is devastating because it is true. Actually the children are always right, even when they are ludicrous, because they take over the world and redefine what “right” means.

Today it means feel more, think less, watch your back, and stay on the right side of history. Obviously, it is not just trans debates that work like this. Increasingly, it is all debates. A morass of identity politics and social media has changed how we think and, in many respects, discouraged us from thinking at all.

That this should now be happening even in philosophy departments, though, seems to me a particular tragedy, old git that I now am. What, I wonder, do they even think philosophy is? Or ought we not to ask that any more, either?

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