Words

This post is based on recent readings, often on or through Twitter, especially of

  • Lilith Saintcrow on “Domestic abusers, white supremacists, and religious bigots”;

  • C. S. Lewis on gulling the educated, and objectivity as a dubious value;

  • Marilynne Robinson on consensus as concealing the objectively true;

  • Neil deGrasse Tyson on objectivity as a good value;

  • Plato on seeming wise, without being so;

  • Mark Vernon on imagination in William Blake;

  • whoever wrote an “Open Letter Concerning Transphobia in Philosophy,” signed by many professional philosophers;

  • Kathleen Stock, the subject of the “Open Letter”;

  • Agnes Callard on how philosophers shouldn’t be signing petitions;

  • Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, on the incoherence of the notion of gender identity;

  • Aaden Friday, on what’s wrong with Reilly-Cooper and other such women;

  • Brian Earp, on declaring pronouns;

  • John Steinbeck, on being a man;

  • Christa Peterson, on what gender identity might be.

I have edited and augmented this essay since originally posting it on January 9, 2021; the current version is from January 19.


A lot of old PSA’s about drugs are on YouTube and the Web Archive, and sometimes they are linked to by articles that ridicule them. There is one that I have not been able to find, perhaps from around 1970, in which parents confront their teenager with the drug paraphernalia that they have found in his room. The boy storms out of the house, saying, “You don’t understand!”

There’s a lot that I don’t understand. I must not, since it seems childish, but is coming from adults. Some of these adults stormed the US Capitol the other day; others encourage them; still others are professors of philosophy.


“Human egg and sperm cells.”
Asimov’s New Guide to Science (1984), page 600

I encountered a relevant thread of tweets by Lilith Saintcrow; here’s a selection.

[Violently abusive white supremacists] absolutely do not believe their own bullshit, but it’s useful for them to pretend they do.

[One of them] fixed me with his baleful, watery stare, and said, “Obama was born in Kenya, you know.”

Gene absolutely, positively did not believe that Obama was born in Kenya. But he would continue to say he believed it, no matter who asked, to the end of his life.

Because he thought saying he believed it absolved him of responsibility.

Now. There are pollsters asking violent white supremacists and their fellow travelers who was responsible for yesterday’s attack on state and federal Capitol buildings. The people saying “Biden was responsible” absolutely know it’s not true.

Domestic abusers, white supremacists, and religious bigots all operate off the same thin but very useful playbook that exploits other people’s politeness and (I’ve got to say it) “civility.”

The playbook exploits our politeness, our civility, and, perhaps, our education.

“Why you fool, it’s the educated reader who can be gulled.”

I have heard Noam Chomsky say something like that: that the people who are more subject to propaganda are the people who read more. Perhaps one should add, “or watch television more,” and now, “or read Facebook and Twitter more.” In any case, the actual words that I quoted, “Why you fool …,” are from Chapter 5 (out of seventeen), “Elasticity,” of C. S. Lewis’s novel, That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups. The speaker in the novel goes on to ask,

When did you meet a workman who believes the papers? He takes it for granted that they’re all propaganda and skips the leading articles. He buys the paper for the football results and the little paragraphs about girls falling out of windows and corpses found in Mayfair flats.

That was published in 1945. I don’t know what Lewis wants Miss Hardcastle to mean by “paragraphs about girls falling out of windows.” Such paragraphs could themselves serve as propaganda: propaganda of the normalizing kind, gulling you into thinking that a certain kind of horrible event is nothing to be alarmed about.

Şule Çet “fell out of a window” of the 20th floor of a building in Ankara in May of 2018; she was twenty-three. It was suicide, said the two men she had been with. A male judge might accept such a story, and we don’t have jury trials in Turkey. There is still the possibility of public pressure, which mounted in this case, and the two men were ultimately convicted of kidnapping, rape and murder.

There is a Wikipedia article about the case, documented by articles in English and German. Only articles in Turkish – such as one at Bread and Roses, and another at Vikipedi – name the location of the crime. This is said to be Yelken Plaza, although I had remembered it to be Armada Shopping and Business Center, which my wife and I used to pass daily on the commute by bus between home and university; that was in the aughts, before we moved to Istanbul. Since an armada is a fleet of ships, and yelken means sail, and the two complexes are near each other, Yelken and Armada may have a single owner, who or which however is currently unnamed in the Vikipedi article on the latter.

The more you think, the more you may be trapped by thought: thought on questions that can be answered by Wikipedia articles, or thought on what truth is anyway. Here is Marilynne Robinson, in an essay called “The Tyranny of Petty Coercion”:

It is consensus that conceals from us what is objectively true. And it is consensus that creates and supports “truths” that are in fact culturally relative. And, interestingly, it is consensus that is preserved when the objective truth is disallowed on the grounds that “truth” is merely the shared understanding of a specific group or culture.

This makes sense. If all truth is known by consensus, then consensus is what you are bound to accept. However, there is still another kind of truth, which consensus may distract us from: the objective truth.

I am generally suspicious of the word “objective,” which can itself can be used to gull or coerce you into accepting some other people’s consensus. “If you would only consider the matter objectively, you will find that you agree with us”: I can hear this, annoyingly, in my mind’s ear. Why should I be objective?

Neil deGrasse Tyson gives a reason, in “What Science Is, and How and Why It Works,” dated January 23, 2016. The bold emphasis is mine; italic, his:

Science especially enhances our health, wealth and security …

The scientific method, which underpins these achievements, can be summarized in one sentence, which is all about objectivity:

Do whatever it takes to avoid fooling yourself into thinking something is true that is not, or that something is not true that is.

This approach to knowing did not take root until early in the 17th century, shortly after the inventions of both the microscope and the telescope. The astronomer Galileo and philosopher Sir Francis Bacon agreed: conduct experiments to test your hypothesis and allocate your confidence in proportion to the strength of your evidence …

Objective truths exist outside of your perception of reality, such as the value of pi; 𝘌 = 𝘮𝘤²; Earth’s rate of rotation; and that carbon dioxide and methane are greenhouse gases. These statements can be verified by anybody, at any time, and at any place. And they are true, whether or not you believe in them.

Bacon was born in 1561; Galileo, in 1564. However, if doing science in the most basic sense means working not to fool ourselves, then Socrates was engaged in this, two millenia earlier.

According to the words that Plato attributes to Socrates in the Apology. the oracle at Delphi had told Chaerophon that nobody was wiser than Socrates. Socrates didn’t believe it, and so he

approached one of those individuals people suppose to be wise … and as I conversed with him, I formed the conclusion that, while this person seemed wise to lots of other people, and especially to himself, in reality he wasn’t; upon which I made a concerted attempt to demonstrate to him that he only thought he was wise, but really wasn’t. Well, this made him hate me …

Plato has Socrates say that in the Apology (Ἀπολογία), translated by Christopher Rowe as Socrates’ Defence, Penguin Little Black Classics No 52.

A century after the Athenian democracy put Plato’s teacher to death, Euclid worked out a method, which we still use, for not fooling ourselves in mathematics. The deductive method is the reason why I call mathematics pacifist in principle. Like Tyson’s “objective truths,” mathematical truths “exist outside of your perception of reality” and “are true, whether or not you believe in them.” However, the way to resolve a mathematical disagreement is not with microscope, telescope, or other instruments, which we may not all have access to; in mathematics, we can work things out with chalk and slate, or pencil and paper, or even just larynx and air.

Tyson mentions “health, wealth and security,” which he says are “greater today for more people on Earth than at any other time in human history.” Health, wealth, and security are goods, and we have ways of measuring them objectively; nonetheless, I would say, goodness as such has no objective measure. Mark Vernon has some words for this situation in his Aeon essay dated 4 September 2020 called “The Four-fold Imagination”:

In his poetry, [William] Blake describes four states of mind that exhibit distinctive attitudes towards the imagination …

Ulro is the state of single vision. ‘In Ulro, that which can’t be expressed quantitatively does not exist,’ writes the Blake scholar Susanne Sklar. Wisdom is sought in logic and numbers, and debate is met with the cry to gather more evidence. It’s the state of mind experienced by the subterranean Newton, whose devotion to measurement curtails his awareness …

It’s a mentality that has proven highly desirable. During a pandemic, it motivates what it takes to flatten the curve or increase the amount of testing and, more generally, it organises life around metrics such as economic growth and GDP. Only, it’s never quite clear what these seeming goods are for …

I only propose that objectively measurable things may be a proxy for real goods; but sometimes they are counterfeit. Objectivity itself becomes counterfeit in That Hideous Strength, where C. S. Lewis has Miss Hardcastle’s colleague Frost say, in Chapter 12, “Wet and Windy Night”:

The great majority of the human race can be educated only in the sense of being given knowledge: they cannot be trained into the total objectivity of mind which is now necessary. They will always remain animals, looking at the world through the haze of their subjective reactions.

Since the listener, Studdock, believes himself to be educated, he will now want to display his objectivity by accepting what Frost says; at least, that is Frost’s hope.

So I am skeptical around the word “objective,” though Marilynne Robinson may have used it well to distinguish what is true from what is accepted by consensus. The way I think of “objective,” Robinson herself thinks of “bashing”:

To say that the disparity between rich and poor in this country exceeds any previously known in American history (putting aside the marked economic disparity between plantation owners and slaves) is to say something falsifiable – that is, for practical purposes, verifiable, and in any case arguable. But such statements are now routinely called “Bush bashing.”

Harper’s printed that in August of the year, 2004, when George W. Bush would win a second term in the office of US president, despite the crime of invading Iraq.

There is talk that is reasonably dismissed as “bashing.” It’s just hard to stay alert to all of the possibilities, all the time. Even trying to stay alert may be a trap. Robinson has a possible explanation. We are “acculturated to distrust strong emotion”:

Why critics are so flummoxed I can only speculate. Perhaps it is because most of the people in this country who take on public issues are educated and middle class. As is true of their kind anywhere, they are acculturated to distrust strong emotion, so they are effectively rebuked when they are accused of harboring it. Oddly, they seem often to be shamed out of defending the poor and vulnerable on the grounds that they themselves are neither poor nor vulnerable, as if there were properly no abstract issues of justice, only the strategies of interest groups or, more precisely, of self-interest groups. That their education and experience prepare them to think in terms larger than their own immediate advantage makes them an “elite,” and ipso facto they are regarded as a self-interested subgroup of a particularly irksome kind.

As far as I can tell, some trans rights activists are trying to flummox some feminists in a complementary way, by accusing them of not caring for people whom they see as different from themselves.

According to an “Open Letter Concerning Transphobia in Philosophy,” dated this month (January 2021),

We write to affirm our commitment to developing a more inclusive environment, disavowing the use of professional and cultural authority to further gendered oppression.

Declaring themselves to be “professional academic philosophers,” the signers of the letter are thus using their own authority to condemn Kathleen Stock, professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex. She was recently made officer of the Order of the British Empire, which I see is an honor that C. S. Lewis declined. According to the “Open Letter,”

Trans people are already deeply marginalized in society, facing well-documented discrimination, ranging from government policy to physical violence. Discourse like that Stock is producing and amplifying contributes to these harms, serving to restrict trans people’s access to life-saving medical treatments, encourage the harassment of gender-non-conforming people, and otherwise reinforce the patriarchal status quo. We are dismayed that the British government has chosen to honour her for this harmful rhetoric.

I understand blaming Donald Trump for the storming of the Capitol. I do not understand blaming “discourse like that [which] Stock is producing and amplifying” for such harms as are described. The signers hasten to add,

We do not say Stock should not be permitted to say the things she does. We believe in the principles of academic freedom …

However, they go on to say,

Academic freedom comes with responsibility; we should not use that freedom to harm people, particularly the more vulnerable members of our community.

Freedom is indeed connected with responsibility; ultimately, I would say, freedom is responsibility. However, Agnes Callard seems right that, in philosophy at least, the best response to objectionable statements is not signing a petition, but making an argument:

We’d never approach questions such as “Are possible worlds real?” or “Is knowledge justified true belief?” by petition, so why are we tempted to do so in the case of questions around sex, gender and hurtful speech? The answer is that the latter question involves real feelings and real people, and it is about something that is happening now – for all these reasons, it strikes us as being of grave importance. The petition writers are thinking to themselves, this time it really matters. I think it is a mistake for a philosopher to take the importance of a question as a reason to adopt an unphilosophical attitude toward it.

That’s from “Why Philosophers Shouldn’t Sign Petitions” (New York Times, August 13, 2019).

If you need to get people to see something, “Then argue for it!” as Callard says: “If you strip the list of signatures off your petition, you’ll find that you have an argument on your hands.” In that spirit, though not being a professional philosopher, I wrote “Academic Freedom,” March 25, 2016. It so happens that this was in response to the Turkish government’s persecution of academics who had signed a petition.

In many social interactions, we don’t tell truths that hurt; but sometimes we do, as Socrates did. Apparently a lot of professionals may disapprove. I note that one signer of the “Open Letter Concerning Transphobia in Philosophy” is Jason Stanley, whom I respect for his work on and against fascism.

Another philosopher has an essay called “Gender is not a spectrum,” dated 28 June, 2016. It is among the articles that I save in pdf format, and I was reminded of it by a recent tweet of Nigel Warburton, who wrote that the essay had “had the most page views of all the pieces I’ve commissioned/edited for [Aeon].” The subtitle of the essay reads,

The idea that ‘gender is a spectrum’ is supposed to set us free. But it is both illogical and politically troubling.

There are properties measured along a spectrum, while still being described in binary terms. Height is an example, where you can be short or tall. But you are short or tall, only in comparison with others.

If gender, like height, is to be understood as comparative or relative, this would fly in the face of the insistence that individuals are the sole arbiters of their gender … Further … when observing the entire population, only a small minority of people would be accurately described as Tall or Short … if we extend the analogy to gender, we see that being non-binary gendered is actually the norm, not the exception.

In short, if gender is a spectrum, then we are all non-binary.

The philosopher here is Rebecca Reilly-Cooper. When I searched DuckDuckGo for her name, I found a condemnatory essay, “Anti-Trans ‘Feminists’ Are More Dangerous Than Religious Zealots,” dated November 15, 2017.

In place of the word “bashing,” which Marilynne Robinson questioned, the essay about “anti-trans ‘feminists’” uses “fear-mongering.” So does the “Open Letter” about Kathleen Stock:

our concern is that some – apparently including the British government – have a tendency to mistake transphobic fearmongering for valuable scholarship, and attacks on already marginalized people for courageous exercises of free speech.

Be it noted that the “Open Letter” needed a correction:

Erratum: the original version of this letter incorrectly stated that Stock opposes the UK’s Gender Recognition Act. This was an error; it should have said that Stock is well-known for opposing amendments to the Gender Recognition Act that would have made it easier for people to self-identify their gender.

A number of philosophers signed the letter before the correction was made. According to one of the ultimate signers, Christopher Bertram,

some people (particularly philosophers) are more fussy about whether particular details are right than others.

Those words were tweeted in response to Nathan Oseroff-Spicer, who had found it worthwhile to tweet,

After a quick search it’s clear [certain philosophers] are not currently listed as signatories on the open letter concerning transphobia in philosophy.

Bertram began his response to this by saying, “I’ve signed,” without specifying when. I do not see the name of Oseroff-Spicer on the letter; perhaps he did not qualify as one of the “professional academic philosophers” in whose name the letter was written. In any case, I saw his tweet first as an image, included for ridicule in another tweet.

Here are the words of Aaden Friday in the aforementioned essay on “anti-trans ‘feminists’” in general and Rebecca Reilly-Cooper in particular:

Her fearmongering about the elimination of cisgender men and cisgender women is identical to the fearmongering religious zealots use against gay marriage – if marriage isn’t confined to one man and one woman, then the word becomes irrelevant.

It’s not identical. It may be similar. The question then is how deep the similarity lies. Evidently Aaden Friday does not want to take up such a question.

Some people declare their pronouns in their Twitter profiles; other people say they will unfollow people who do this. Declaring pronouns may be harmful to people who are not ready to be out about their own gender, or even to people who are, but don’t think it’s relevant; Brian Earp discusses the possibilities in a recently drafted essay, “On Sharing Pronouns.” Aaden Friday implicitly declares their pronoun to be just that, “they/their.” They give reasons in another essay, “Trans-Exclusionary Feminists Cannot Exclude My Humanity”:

The fluidity of gender is complicated; it is messy and it is beautiful. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I cannot say with any real sense of authenticity or certainty that I know who or what I am – not fully. I lived as a cis heterosexual man for the first 22 years of my life. I then lived as a cis homosexual man for another decade. Today I am something much closer to myself.

I identify as non-binary because at this point in my life – as I deconstruct obstructions that have confined my existence thus far – I understand that there is a deeper truth found within that I have yet to unearth.

As a child, I recognized female empowerment as personal …

Friday’s essays are in The Establishment, which “champions the voices and stories of those who have been marginalized by mainstream media.” The publication was paying its writers, but ran out of money.

Friday seems unable to distinguish argument from attack. This is from “Anti-Trans ‘Feminists’ Are More Dangerous Than Religious Zealots”:

Progressive, socially liberal women who increasingly and persistently attack, dehumanize, and slander trans and gender non-conforming people, are – in my eyes – more dangerous than religious zealots who do the same. The zealots’ views are harmful and put people in danger, there is no question there, but they can be spotted a mile away … These women, on the other hand, claim progressive and feminist values. They fight for the autonomy and agency of individuals, and they vehemently oppose any and all restrictions placed upon women because of their gender. These so-called progressive feminists, who know precisely how reprehensible it is to vilify, attack, and discriminate against a person based on their gender, are doing exactly what has been done to them, all the while claiming to be the victim.

Again I say that the women in question are not doing “exactly what has been done to them.” They may be doing something similar, the way immigrants to America, once established, may fight to keep out new immigrants. Friday continues:

These women have a range of titles and backgrounds: journalist, author, activist, lecturer, scientist, feminist. They are all cisgender, and they all want to debate the identity of transgender people …

Some persons may like debate for its own sake. Others, myself included, want to learn things, such as what “identity” and “transgender” even mean, especially if they are going to be used in actual laws.

I say we want to learn; and yet Aaden Friday is suffering,

because what [Reilly-Cooper] did was erase my existence, and the existence of many others who are neither man nor woman. Her fear is our lived existence, yet our realities aren’t real enough for her to grasp.

On behalf of trans people, one of the signers of the “Open Letter” is suffering; for as Liam Kofi Bright tweeted on January 17,

talking about trans issues (especially in philosophy, closest to home) is incredibly stressful. Trans people are having to put up with a level of vitriol just for being that I honestly don’t think I could take, it’s just so absurd and unfair to them …

… there’s something about how trans people are themselves singled out and targeted for just utterly unfair and oppressive social treatment even in normal conversational contexts, that is especially intense.

I am not sure what Bright means here, perhaps because I am not interacting with people the way Bright is. It is dismaying to learn what Masha Gessen tells about how,

Every night, when I walk my dog, several strangers, similarly tethered, will ask me the same two questions: “Boy or girl?” and “How old?” The pragmatic meaning of these questions escapes me.

That’s from “We Need to Change the Terms of the Debate on Trans Kids,” The New Yorker, January 13, 2021. Gessen observes,

I began my own transition at fifty, long after experiencing the misery of pregnancy and the incomparable joy of breastfeeding. I have no regrets. Had I had the option of transitioning as a teen-ager, I would have chosen to do so – and I am almost certain that I would have had no regrets then, either, because I would have had a different life.

In youth, I was asked whether I was a guy or a girl, presumably because of my long hair, and perhaps also my slight build. I was addressed as “Ma’am” from behind once or twice, but I think the speaker was more embarrassed than I when I turned my head.

The problem of adolescence is being neither child nor adult: thus, in particular, being neither man nor woman. Words in a Steinbeck story, “Flight,” might have unnerved me, had I read them back then:

A boy gets to be a man when a man is needed. Remember this thing. I have known boys forty years old because there was no need for a man …

Yes, thou art a man, my poor little Pepé. Thou art a man. I have seen it coming on thee. I have watched you throwing the knife into the post, and I have been afraid …

Pepé goes on a journey. Pepé is a man now. He has a man’s thing to do.

The “man’s thing to do” is to flee the avengers of the man he has thrown his knife at in anger.

Reilly-Cooper feels herself to be dealing with children:

… if you want to call yourself a genderqueer femme presenting demigirl, you go for it. Express that identity however you like. Have fun with it. A problem emerges only when you start making political claims on the basis of that label – when you start demanding that others call themselves cisgender, because you require there to be a bunch of conventional binary cis people for you to define yourself against; and when you insist that these cis people have structural advantage and political privilege over you, because they are socially read as the conformist binary people, while nobody really understands just how complex and luminous and multifaceted and unique your gender identity is.

Why does she not just let the young people be? Is it really a problem to call herself “cis” out of politeness?

It is a problem, when the notion of “gender identity” gets written into law without being defined. Reilly-Cooper points this out, in the lecture on YouTube that Aaden Friday is actually responding to, called “Critically Examining the Doctrine of Gender Identity.” According to Friday,

Like many other avowed feminists, Reilly-Cooper is bent on “proving” the absurdity of trans identity. More than that, she seeks to reveal how cis, white women like herself are actively harmed by policies and laws which aim to protect transgender individuals from discrimination and ensure their equal access to services.

I may be wrong, but I think Reilly-Cooper is bent on finding the truth. You can ask why this truth and not that. There are people who are keen on sharing the stories of Karen White and Barbie Kardashian for their shock value. Reilly-Cooper is using her training as an analytic philosopher to ask what “gender identity” is. If you can have a penis while being a girl, so that your penis must therefore be a girl’s penis, what is the criterion whereby you are a girl in the first place? If you have a female brain in a male body, what makes the brain female?

Maybe some criterion can be found, but it does not seem to have been found so far. Why would you look for one anyway? It could be like searching for a biological distinction between races.

As far as I understand, while there may be superficial differences between persons originating in different parts of the world, there are no differences such as those between horses and donkeys, which prevent them from having fertile offspring. Genetic variation is as great within any one human population as it is in the species as a whole.

“Yes, but …” some people say. Maybe we can correlate lots of little variations, in order to establish a biological distinction between races. As far as I understand, when people try to do this, they get different numbers of races.

For a long time, there has been no question of how many persons it takes to conceive a child. In the distant past, one person may have been thought sufficient: the mother. Then it was surmised that some unique one of the men she had slept with was the father. I don’t know how scientific this surmise could have been. The notion that the man had “sown the seed” of the child was not too accurate, but it has stuck in the terminology. Ultimately, with the help of the microscope, it was understood that the man had supplied a so-called spermatozoön (from σπέρματ- “seed” and ζῷον “living thing”); and the woman had supplied an ovum. The ovum and spermatozoön together created the seed of the child, and this seed was then planted in the woman’s womb, so to speak.

There’s no reason why the microscopic distinction between egg and sperm should determine your role in society. I understand second-wave feminism to argue this, and I agree with it. To argue against it is traditionalist or conservative or right-wing or reactionary.

That doesn’t make the argument wrong. As Socrates shows in various dialogues, it can be hard to know what we really want. Maybe men and women are mistaken, when we want to take roles traditionally reserved for the other sex.

Maybe it was good to have a “handsome pilot” and “pretty stewardess” in Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever. I enjoyed that book as a child, and I have thought since that Scarry was clever to depict humans as rabbits, foxes, and other beasts, who didn’t need humanoid skin-tones. This was in a day when the big box of crayons included a pink one labelled “flesh.”

Scarry’s book came out in 1963, and Crayola had supposedly “phased out” the “flesh” crayon in 1962; however, I could have sworn using that crayon in my childhood, which did not begin till 1965. My memory could be off; however, CNN commentator Elliot Williams remembers the crayon too, “probably” from a time after Star Wars had come into existence in 1977.

Maybe reinforcement of stereotype would be a good thing, and there is a way that our genes or our gametes can show this. I think some people really want there to be a way.

Other people seem to think that, if you want to be a flight attendant, this may be a sign that you are a woman, regardless of your anatomy. They don’t want to assert, as men such as Boy George have done, that everybody is allowed to wear dresses and make-up; they apparently think that these things are indeed for women. Who then is the conservative?

I may just have given a parody of trans activism. According to Christa Peterson, in a blog post on Kathleen Stock from January 11 that has been tweeted by Jason Stanley and others,

The misportrayal of gender identity as simply how well you align with gender stereotypes turns being trans into a mere anti-feminist confusion that should be easy to “cure” – as though the source of trans people’s identities is a false belief that you have to be a woman to wear makeup and dresses and trans people simply need to be informed that men can in fact be feminine and women masculine.

Peterson describes herself as “a philosophy PhD student working on questions about moral language and thought.” I agree with her that it’s important to get straight what people mean by being a woman. As was mentioned in the question period after Reilly-Cooper’s lecture, there are signs in some women’s bathrooms, telling users not to question anybody else’s right to be there, regardless of appearances. This conflicts with the advice that girls are also given, at least at home: be wary of strange men.

There can be a problem with making that advice public, when it gives men an excuse to abuse women who are not wary. “If only you’d looked after your daughter (Siz de kızınıza sahip çıksaydınız),” said one of Şule Çet’s killers to her parents in court. If society just said, “Hey girls, you’re on your own,” that might at least be honest.

Aaden Friday cites statistics of hate crimes and murders of trans people, then says,

As these statistics show, trans individuals, especially trans women of color, are being targeted simply for existing and living their truths. Their suffering is real; the idea that cis women are being harmed by their identity is not.

I don’t know how mere numbers would show why trans persons are targeted. In any case, nobody causes her own harrassment or murder. This should not need saying, but sometimes it does need saying, and Aaden Friday may be saying it. But then they say something that doesn’t make a lot of sense: that there is real suffering, but an unreal idea.

I don’t know what it would mean for an idea not to be real. If the idea can be expressed, then it exists and is thus real. It may however be mistaken or just absurd.

Friday’s point may be that being the target for violence is real suffering, but merely knowing, as a cis woman, that there are trans women is not real suffering.

Nonetheless, knowledge of the thoughts of Kathleen Stock and Rebecca Reilly-Cooper does seem to cause suffering.

Friday continues:

Cis women aren’t being murdered because trans and gender non-conforming individuals exist and, in some locations, receive protection under the law.

Such an assertion would seem unobjectionable; but why do you make it? How do you know it’s true? If even professional philosophers can assert that what some of their colleagues say causes harm, how do we know that the existence of trans persons is not driving other persons to murder?

In the earlier quotation from their letter, the professionals say that feminist discourse is “serving to restrict trans people’s access to life-saving medical treatments.” I am not sure what this is about. The treatments referred to may involve sex reassignment, which could be considered life-saving in the sense of preventing suicide. In any case, the professional philosophers seem to be saying that the words of one of their colleagues are causing death.

What then is causing the murders of women such as Şule Çet? Could it be words that make light of women’s concerns?

Aaden Friday continues:

Cis women are not being denied entrance or access to restrooms, locker rooms, and changing rooms because trans and gender non-conforming people exist and need access to those same spaces for the same reason cis women need them.

Why do cis women need those spaces? One reason is to get away from men. This may be why trans women need those spaces too. However, by some definitions, those trans women, or at least some of them, are men too. So here is a conflict.

Philosopher Holly Lawford-Smith has an extensive analysis, with the conclusion, stated near the beginning,

Gender neutral bathrooms alongside the standard male and female bathrooms are a very good idea. They work for almost everyone.

Lawford-Smith had the essay on Medium, along with a number of others, including a good one on the mistaken “adoption analogy” proposed by another philosopher, Sophie Grace Chappell. Trans women are not to women as adoptive parents are to parents. Parents have the project of raising children, regardless of how they got the children; but women as such have no project. As Lawford-Smith points out, “There’s no such thing as a bad and a good woman qua woman.”

Some conservative persons would probably disagree there. Let them disagree, and let them post their disagreement on Medium if they want. However, Lawford-Smith’s articles are no longer there. The author was, as she says,

Permanently suspended from Medium for ‘Hate speech’. No details provided, appeal rejected without explanation. I was on the platform from October 2018 – October 2020 and had posted 35 gender critical essays.

By their own standards, the philosophers who signed the “Open Letter Concerning Transphobia in Philosophy” would seem to be fueling misogyny, which tries to silence colleagues such as Lawford-Smith. You can look up her old Medium essays on her own website; but the place where I first learned about her was Twitter, and she has been banned from there as well.

Before then, with Jason Stanley, she had an exchange, which I entered with a question. Twitter has erased Lawford-Smith’s part of that exchange, but Stanley answered me,

we are doomed because different factions of the left are at war, whereas for the most part different factions of the right, eg libertarians, ethno-nationalists, and religious conservatives, are unified despite quite profound differences.

It would seem to me that, by signing the “Open Letter Concerning Transphobia in Philosophy,” Stanley himself is engaging in the factional dispute he decried.

I continue to hope that rising above factionalism is possible. Sophie Grace Chappell’s adoption analogy may be misguided, but I think it is offered in good faith. I proposed an analogy between race and gender identity: they are both hypotheses, made to explain things that appear to be true or that people want to be true.

In earlier era, an hypothesis made to explain why things burned: they were giving off phlogiston. When it transpired that substances like magnesium got heavier when they burned, it was inferred that phlogiston could have, not gravity, but “levity.” Ultimately the hypothesis was dropped.

Perhaps the hypothesis of gender identity can be saved. According to Christa Peterson, in the blog post already mentioned (with my bold emphasis),

Like literally everything in the mind, how exactly gender identity is cognitively realized is theoretically complicated. Trans people do not need a theory of gender cognition to validate that their experiences are real and trustworthy. But because it has been actively mystified, we should return to earth: the idea that people have a cognitively deep representation of their own gender that is not reflectively revisable fits very naturally with modern cognitive science. We aren’t behaviorists anymore. We know that what we and other animals learn from our infinitely complex environment depends on what we’re cognitively set up to take from it, and we take to gender like fish to water. A representation of our own gender being among the deep reference points that orient us in the world would not mean any particular gender norms are innate. It need not contain any substantive content about gender role at all; it could, for example, instead be a means of picking out people as who we are co-gendered with, orienting us to particularly learn social behaviors from them. Or it could be an innate framework that is then environmentally filled in during early childhood, like other innate conceptual structures. (See, for example, Susan Carey’s The Origin of Concepts.)

If I understand correctly, there are various things a gender identity could be, without being something that imposes specific societal roles. That’s fine, let the research continue. Still, the rhetoric here recalls Marilynne Robinson’s criticism of consensus as concealing what is true.

Is it really true that “We aren’t behavorists anymore”? If I may quote Asimov’s New Guide to Science (1984), my source also for the image of egg and sperm near the beginning of this post,

In the early decades of this [the twentieth] century, the American psychologist John Broadus Watson built a whole theory of human behavior, called behaviorism, on the basis of conditioning. Watson went so far as to suggest that people have no deliberate control of the way they behave; it is all determined by conditioning. Although his theory was popular at the time, it never gained wide support among psychologists. In the first place, even if the theory is basically correct … behavorism is not very enlightening on those aspects of human behavior that are of most interest to us, such as creative intelligence, artistic ability, and the sense of right and wrong.

It seems to me that, for philosophers at least, failure to be enlightening is no bar to proposing a theory like physicalism; but I have gone into that in another post. As for behaviorism itself, it would seem to be a version of the denial of free will that some philosophers and physical scientists continue to engage in; but I have looked at that too, in one post and another.

One may recognize that behaviorism cannot explain everything, while continuing to find it useful in some contexts. For some people, as far as I can tell, gender is such a context, since they explain a rash of girl-to-boy transitions as social contagion. Thus I think Christa Peterson begs the question to say, “We aren’t behavorists anymore.”

Also in her blog post, I just don’t understand the point of the first sentence that I bolded (“Trans people do not need a theory of gender cognition to validate that their experiences are real and trustworthy”). Does she mean to deny any responsibility for actually making an argument? Without having a theory of gender identity, we may all somehow know which sex ought to be on our birth certificate and which bathroom we ought to be using. But Peterson seems to be begging the question of whether that knowledge can be in error, or whether it can be confirmed by anybody else.

I first learned about Peterson’s post from a tweet by Simone Webb, a “recent PhD in Mary Astell and the late Foucault.” That tweet was quote-tweeted by Dominic Berry, “Historian & philosopher of science, technology & engineering,” who announced on the first of the year, in reference to the Aeon editor referred to earlier,

As Warburton has consistently platformed philosophers with trans exclusionary views, I am making him part of the social media firewall I have around myself. I’ll be ceasing to follow anyone still following him by end of Monday. That’s about 140 of you.

I don’t know whether Berry carried out the threat, which seems puerile to me. I started following Warburton when I saw it, though he tweets a lot, and I often end up muting the person who does that.

On January 11, Kathleen Stock tweeted her appreciation of an “Open Letter Concerning Academic Freedom.”

Stock went on to write about the campaign against her in “The sinister attempts to silence gender critical academics,” The Spectator, 13 January 2021:

The spectacle of paid thinkers, whose entire training emphasises the importance of sober argumentation, signing a document which wouldn’t look out of place in the Salem Witch Trial archive, makes one question particularly pertinent: what’s actually going on here?

That is indeed what I wonder too.

Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog turns out to have posted, on January 6, “The “Anti-Kathleen Stock” open letter is full of mistakes, fact-free speculation and misleading innuendo,” addressing some points that I did (namely the error in the original “Open Letter Concerning Transphobia in Philosophy,” the question of which “life-saving medical treatments” the letter refers to, the “smear” about “transphobic fearmongering,” and Christopher Bertram’s apparent indifference to getting “particular details” right).

Peterson quotes Brian Leiter of Leiter Reports as calling a critic of Stock “real vile and stupid piece of garbage … If anyone knows who he is, message or e-mail me.” Peterson comments,

This is silencing. Philosophers go to great lengths to avoid becoming a target for Leiter. It is professionally threatening.

That does sound right.

Peterson reports also on how Stock’s use of the expressions “morons,” “dickhead,” and “fuck off” represented the kind of vitriol that she objected to receiving; but when somebody pointed this out, Stock tweeted back, “Fuck off you dickhead moron xxxx.”

Apparently Stock thought better of that tweet, which she deleted later.

More is going on behind the scenes than is clear from popular articles.

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