Why Has Transphobia Gone Mainstream in Philosophy?

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Over the last couple of years we have had a transphobia crisis in philosophy. It began with the 2017 publication of Rebecca Tuvel’s “In Defense of Transracialism,” which argued that if one can identify as another gender, one can also identify as another race. This article provoked a wide-ranging controversy, including an open letter calling for the article to be retracted, outcry against the open letter, and a series of musings by Kathleen Stock on the nature of gender and race. Stock’s posts prompted a strongly-worded response from Talia Mae Bettcher, who argued that Stock and others were ignoring a long history of feminist and queer scholarship on the subject. The backlash to Bettcher’s article raised a number of transphobic philosophers to prominence, most famously Kathleen Stock but also Sophie Allen, Jane Clare Jones, Holly Lawford-Smith, Mary Leng, and Rebecca Reilly-Cooper.[efn_note]Rebecca Tuvel, “In Defense of Transracialism,” Hypatia 32 (Spring 2017): 263–78; “Open Letter to Hypatia,” Google Doc last modified April 2017; Kathleen Stock, “Academic Philosophy and the UK Gender Recognition Act,” Medium, May 7, 2018; Kathleen Stock, “What I Believe About Sex and Gender and What I Don’t,” Medium, May 13, 2018, archived at Wayback Machine; Kathleen Stock, “Arguing about Feminism and Transgenderism: An Opinionated Guide for the Perplexed,” Medium, May 18, 2018, archived at Wayback Machine; Talia Mae Bettcher, “‘When Tables Speak’: On the Existence of Trans Philosophy,” Daily Nous, May 30, 2018; Sophie Allen et al., “Doing Better in Arguments about Sex, Gender, and Trans Rights,” Medium, May 23, 2019.[/efn_note]

At first this appeared to be merely an overlap between the discipline of philosophy and the right-wing British hate movement known as gender-critical feminism or trans-exclusionary radical feminism. But with the publication of the Twelve Leading Scholars’ open letter and the increasing disciplinary acceptance of Stock and her allies, it appears that transphobia has gone mainstream.[efn_note]Katelyn Burns, “The rise of anti-trans ‘radical’ feminists, explained,” Vox, Sept. 5, 2019; 12 Leading Scholars, “Philosophers Should Not Be Sanctioned Over Their Positions on Sex and Gender,” Inside Higher Ed, July 22, 2019; Aristotelian Society, 2018–2019 program; Brian Leiter, “Professor Stock Replies to Professor Bettcher,” Leiter Reports, May 31, 2018.[/efn_note]

Honestly, what the hell? Why did a collection of bigoted lies and conspiracy theories suddenly catch fire in a discipline that prides itself on cool logic and objective impartiality? Is there something about philosophy that makes it particularly hostile to trans people?

No. Rather, philosophy in the anglophone (English-speaking) world has been consistently hostile to marginalized persons and perspectives in general, not just trans people. Feminism, queer theory, and critical race theory are all regarded with a sort of benevolent disdain, but this conservative bent is largely submerged beneath respectable “liberal” politics. Unlike other forms of bigotry, it remains socially acceptable to spread lies and fear about trans people, and thus philosophy’s general conservatism has erupted in this area with particular virulence. Transphobia is simply the tip of that reactionary iceberg.[efn_note]See these Twitter threads from John Schwenkler, July 25–26, 2019; and Jennifer Foster, Aug. 10, 2019.[/efn_note]

Let’s take a step back. The school that dominates anglophone philosophy departments is analytic philosophy, begun in the early 20th century by Bertrand Russell and others in Britain, and further developed by the Vienna Circle in Austria, who in turn spread their ideas through the Anglosphere after fleeing Nazi Europe. These philosophers married ancient concerns about truth, knowledge, and reason with new mathematical techniques, a fruitful union that produced the modern fields of analytic philosophy, semantics, and symbolic logic.[efn_note]See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entries on Russell and the Vienna Circle.[/efn_note]

For many of these early analytic philosophers, their formal concerns were tied to a clear moral vision. Bertrand Russell was an outspoken atheist and pacifist, positions which he saw as flowing naturally from his rationalism. In their 1929 manifesto “The Scientific Conception of the World,” the Vienna Circle declared their intention to develop intellectual tools which would allow for the destruction of old, oppressive dogmas (including capitalism, anti-Semitism, and Christianity) and “a rational transformation of the social and economic order.”[efn_note]Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not A Christian (London: Watts, 1927); Bertrand Russell, Justice in War-Time (Chicago: Open Court Press, 1916); Rudolf Carnap, Hans Hahn, and Otto Neurath, Wissenschaftliche Weltauffassung – Der Wiener Kreis (Vienna: Wolf, 1929).[/efn_note]

But then the Cold War came, and these political concerns were pushed to the side. To avoid being labeled communists and risk losing their jobs, analytic philosophers increasingly identified themselves with the “value-free” sciences and claimed their discipline was one of pure reason and logic. Like the idealized scientist, the analytic philosopher is supposed to pursue truth without regard to “political” concerns.[efn_note]George Reisch, How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science: To the Icy Slopes of Logic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).[/efn_note]

This association persisted long after the Red Scare. With the humanities constantly under threat from predatory administrators, philosophy has associated itself with the hard sciences, hoping that the prestige and funding of STEM will rub off on them.[efn_note]For example, see L.A. Paul’s argument that analytic metaphysics is contiguous with science and proceeds according to the same methods; “Metaphysics as Modeling: The Handmaiden’s Tale,” Philosophical Studies 160 (Aug. 2012): 1–29.[/efn_note]

As such, the inheritance of analytic philosophy is primarily a set of formal tools and methods. First-order (or “predicate”) logic was developed to solve certain mathematical problems but can be used to schematize natural-language reasoning and determine whether an inference is valid. Conceptual analysis is another tool, used to grind the messiness of thought into determinate forms with determinate consequences. These tools and others, including set theory, partial belief frameworks, and Bayesian updating, comprise what philosophers call rigor: framing a system of thought so as to make the inferential relations between its parts and with other theories precise and determinate.

Since the other humanities have been much less concerned with these tools, fields like history and literary criticism are often treated by philosophers with disdain. Philosophers are exasperated by what they consider unrigorous thought, with unclear premises and conclusions and inconsistent uses of terms. And this contempt for the methods of the humanities has spilled over into contempt for subject matter, particularly when it comes to fields that have been developed to interrogate the experiences of marginalized groups.[efn_note]Two paradigmatic examples are Martha S. Nussbaum’s attack on Judith Butler; “The Professor of Parody,” New Republic, Feb. 22, 1999; Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian, “Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship,” Areo, Oct. 2, 2018. For more on the “Grievance Studies” affair, see Daniel Engber, “What the ‘Grievance Studies’ Hoax Actually Reveals,” Slate, Oct. 5, 2018. Not all philosophers are so disdainful, of course; for examples of philosophers dealing seriously with race, gender, and power, see Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997); Jason Stanley, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them (New York: Random House, 2018); and Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).[/efn_note] As a result, only 11% of U.S. philosophy faculty jobs during the last job season called for research specialization in feminism, gender theory, or critical race theory.[efn_note]Job ad data from PhilJobs.[/efn_note]

In other words, philosophers are a bit blinded by the (genuine) power of their formal methods. A syllogism might be perfect, but the light of that perfection blinds philosophers to everything beyond that syllogism: its place in a tradition of thought, its role in the world we live in, the social position of its author. But since none of that is necessary to adjudicate the syllogism’s formal validity, none of it “matters.” The sexism and racism rampant in academia is thereby reproduced not only materially in philosophy but in that discipline’s intellectual life — in its disdain for the very tools and resources needed to recognize, explain, and redress those inequities.

We can see this dynamic at work explicitly in the current crisis of transphobia. In their published writings, Stock and her allies have utilized the trademark methods of analytic philosophy: necessary and sufficient conditions, cluster concepts, nested definitions, etc. This flurry of rigor has been effective at convincing other philosophers that Stock et al. are serious, and has managed to obscure a series of important extrasyllogistic (that is, outside the bounds laid out by analytic philosophy) facts.[efn_note]Luke Roelofs, “Dear Philosophers, You Can Trust the Feminist Consensus: Gender-Critical Radical Feminism is Bogus,” Majestic Equality, July 25, 2019.[/efn_note]

One is that the transphobic philosophers’ ideas are not new. They were developed fifty years ago by the original radical feminist movement, which (as historian Alice Echols has documented) imploded precisely because its intellectual core was exclusionary. Indeed, part of why modern feminist and queer movements embrace intersectionality and oppose trans exclusion is so they can avoid the schisms and infighting that tore apart the earlier movement.[efn_note]Alice Echols, Daring to Be Bad (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989); Samantha Hancox-Li and Leif Hancox-Li, “Defining the Terms of Our Struggle,” hosted at Samantha Hancox-Li’s website.[/efn_note]

It is also worth considering the history of the gender-critical philosophers’ definition of “woman”: “adult human female.” This definition is central to their thesis, and a philosopher might want to treat it as if it fell straight down from Plato’s heaven. But in truth, it first gained currency on the transphobic internet forum Mumsnet Towers in 2015; and it was popularized in 2018 by the right-wing activist Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, a.k.a. Posie Parker, who began a public campaign centered on the phrase. She and others paid for “adult human female” billboards, draped “adult human female” t-shirts over the statues of famous women, and harassed trans people by stickering their houses. And where did Parker get the money for all this? American evangelicals; the Heritage Foundation; money laundered through massive anonymous crowdfunding donations.[efn_note]For a wealth of receipts, see Ella Braidwood, “Trans campaigner Sarah McBride harassed by anti-trans feminists on video,” PinkNews, Jan. 31, 2019; this Twitter thread by @CaseyExplosion, Oct. 5, 2018; and R. Totale, “Bonzo goes to Oslo: Christian fundamentalists and the far-right strike a new pose,” Libcom, Feb. 26, 2019.[/efn_note] Kathleen Stock and her fellow travelers are merely putting a respectable face on a right-wing hate movement, like the “race realists” who make white supremacy sound polite. We should give their ideas about as much credence as we give modern-day phrenologists.[efn_note]Angela Saini, Superior: The Return of Race Science (Boston: Beacon Press, 2019.[/efn_note]

So is it any surprise that a discipline which has systematically disarmed itself of the tools necessary to identify and respond to systems of injustice, racism, and sexism — a discipline which has been rocked by a series of high-profile cases of sexual harassment, which sees women and minorities attrit at atrocious rates, and whose hiring practices invariably revolve around the latest golden boy with the gleam of genius in his eye — is currently exploding with transphobia?[efn_note]Rebecca Schuman, “Nasty and Brutish,” Slate, Feb. 3, 2014; Jennifer Schuessler, “A Star Philosopher Falls, and a Debate Over Sexism Is Set Off,” New York Times, Aug. 2, 2013; Colleen Flaherty, “Separating the Philosophy From the Philosopher,” Inside Higher Ed, Aug. 3, 2016; Eric Schwitzgebel, “Percentages of U.S. Doctorates in Philosophy Given to Women and to Minorities, 1973–2014,” The Splintered Mind, Jan. 13, 2016; Myisha Cherry and Eric Schwitzgebel, “Like the Oscars, #PhilosophySoWhite,” Los Angeles Times, March 4, 2016.[/efn_note]

No. It’s not a surprise at all.


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