If only the goat would relax

I’m not a big fan of Quillette, but there’s a section of this piece by Spencer Case on philosophy and pressure to shut up about trans issues that I want to share.

He asks whether or not there is any such pressure, and quotes people who say there is not.

A more even-tempered response, another open letter, appeared at the American Philosophical Association blog August 7, 2019. The 33 signatories deny that a climate of fear surrounds the topic of gender identity. They write:

As feminist philosophers who have, variously, argued for, researched, engaged with, and taught these views, we are well-positioned to claim that there is no established orthodoxy about gender in academic philosophy. There continues to be much lively disagreement on matters of gender without accusations of transphobia.

We might fairly ask if feminist philosophers are really in the best position to authoritatively declare that there are no orthodoxies about gender in philosophy. If orthodoxies about gender beset feminist philosophy in particular, then they might be the last to know. What the signatories say next, at the letter’s conclusion, qualifies their commitment to open inquiry almost to the point of nullifying it:

We do, however, think it is important, when exercising our academic freedom, that we consider how our views may impact others. Academic responsibility requires us to consider differences of power and vulnerability in speaking of and to others and the effects of our words in reinforcing structures of oppression. There are many diverse, contentious views about gender and gender identity that can be–and are–engaged with in ways that do not call into question the integrity and sincerity of trans people nor the validity of their own understanding of who they are.  We should conduct our research freely and responsibly, without treating other people’s lives as though they are abstract thought experiments. [emphasis added]

The italicized portion gives the game away. The signatories know that the acceptability of views contrary to the self-understandings of trans people is the sole issue that motivated the letter to which they are responding. It’s as if someone said, in response to concerns that Copernican views about the solar system were being suppressed, that there is no orthodoxy in astronomy—after all, you’re free to defend any view consistent with geocentric cosmology.

Any color you want as long as it’s black, as Henry Ford is reputed to have said.

(Case doesn’t address this part, and I think I probably did when the APA letter was published, but I’ll just mention it again: there is no broad rule that we have to accept “the validity of people’s own understanding of who they are.” There can’t be. These days we even have a one-word explanation for why. That word is: Trump. People’s own understandings of who they are can be wildly wrong.)

But this is the bit for which I wanted to share the post:

Mormon Sunday school teachers used to encourage obedience with a parable. Allegedly, a tethered goat will move as far away from the post as it can, so that the rope remains taut and never touches the ground. If only the goat would relax, the story goes, it could be content in the space it was given, which contains all the grass it needs. The moral is supposed to be that you can be happy within the church’s strictures, but the analogy backfires—who wants to be a goat on a rope in the first place?

Or a Mormon. Or a trans-centric feminist-philosopher.

These feminist philosophers are a good deal more like Mormon Sunday school teachers than they realize. They seem to be saying: “We’ve given you enough intellectual space in which to dwell, and plenty of grass to munch on (in the form of trans-inclusive feminist views to consider). Now be a good goat and don’t strain at the end of the rope.”

And we say fuck your rope, we’re off to the brook and the woods and the wild blue yonder.

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