Notes and Comment Blog

Unconditional acceptance

Aug 19th, 2015 12:15 pm | By

That post in which Derrick Jensen responded to Oregon State’s no-platforming of a talk of his –

The issue was apparently that he has said cis women shouldn’t have to share “sleeping and bathing” space with males and by “males” he seems to mean trans women.

I’m a founding member of an organization called Deep Green Resistance. Given that gold standard studies show that 25 percent of all women in this culture are raped within their lifetimes, and another 19 percent fend off rape attempts, and given that many members of this organization have themselves been sexually assaulted, and given that the overwhelming majority of sexual assaults are committed by males, the women of this organization decided that when we have conferences, they wanted for their sleeping and bathing spaces to be for females only. That’s it. That’s the beef of those who identify as transgender and their allies. The issue was not mentioned in the book of that same name. This was the sole issue: are women allowed to bathe and sleep and organize and gather free from males?

I of course agree with them. Given that we live in the midst of a rape culture, where at the very least a significant minority of women have had males attempt to sexually assault them, I don’t understand why any group of women should be forced–against their will–to allow males into their most vulnerable spaces.

Quite possibly the issue is more that he says “males” when he means trans women.

Also I don’t understand why it’s an issue, because who shares sleeping and bathing spaces anyway? I don’t want anyone of any gender anywhere near me in my sleeping and bathing spaces. But maybe the DGR does budget conferences and people share rooms. (Ick.)

His larger subject though is no-platforming as such. One of his fundamental themes is the distinction between disrespect and disagreement.

You deplatformed me because you say I disrespect those who identify as transgender. You are both scholars, both at a major university. I respectfully ask both of you to find any place in any of my books or articles where I have disrespected those who identify as transgender, where I have committed the sort of hate speech that would cause one to be deplatformed from a university committed to open discourse and discussing the most difficult issues of our time. This is not a rhetorical request. Please do look, and see what you will find. And let’s be clear: I mean disrespect, not disagreement. I would hope that when speaking to two scholars at an institution of higher education I would not have to detail the difference between disrespect and disagreement. Generally, unless participating in some form of fundamentalism, people understand that disagreement does not equal disrespect. The understanding that disagreement does not equal disrespect is in fact a necessary part of living in a pluralistic society. That understanding should be central to any institution of higher education. Sadly it is not central, and is becoming less central by the day.

To be honest I would say it is disrespect to call trans women “males.” I would say that is disrespect more than disagreement, although it may be based in disagreement about what the criteria are or should be for saying who is male and who isn’t.

But the distinction is still an important one, even if the execution of the distinction-making isn’t always good.

You wrote: “Honestly, we had not been tracking this issue closely. We realize that the issue is a small blip in the entirety of your body of work.”

My response: Approximately 7000 words out of probably 5 million published, or .14 percent, or only 14 words out of every ten thousand (I can guarantee I use swear words more often than that), and even those written only after I began receiving death threats. It’s less than a blip. It would be like disagreeing with eleven words out of this entire missive I’m sending you. And that “blip” is not disrespectful, but simple disagreement. Why am I not allowed to disagree with an ideology? When did slavish agreement with the philosophers Michel Foucault and Judith Butler become a precondition not only for speaking at a university, but for even being considered to be respectful?

You wrote: “But it is a big deal here at OSU, where unconditional acceptance and respect for everyone is a value, and for us this includes transgendered people.”

My response: You are both scholars. Please name one place in any of my books or the two published essays I mentioned where I disrespect those who identify as trans. Once again, not disagree, but disrespect. Once again, this is not rhetorical. Disagreement is not disrespect.

The two can overlap, though. The two can be present together. I understand his point, believe me, but it’s not the case that disagreement precludes disrespect (and vice versa).

I think part of the problem is that a terrible rhetorical coup has taken place in Academia, and that in this case we seem to be confusing “unconditional acceptance” with “adherence to an ideology” and “disrespect” with “political disagreement.” That is a rhetorical coup because it makes discourse impossible. Those who perpetuate or support this confusion have made it–and you are going along with this–impossible to talk about the subject (or, clearly, any subject, including the murder of the planet), because any disagreement on that particular subject is immediately labeled as a lack of acceptance and as disrespect (and the person who disagreed is deluged with rape and death threats, and blacklisting: the irony of the recipient of these threats and blacklisting then being accused of a lack of acceptance and of disrespect does not escape me). As someone to whom honest discourse is as vital as my own heart, I cannot tell you how much I resent the manipulation of discourse such that mere disagreement with an ideology–any ideology—is silenced as disrespect.

Further, what do you mean by “unconditional acceptance”? Can someone skip every class and do no homework without you flunking them? Do you have to unconditionally accept them and pass them? Or can you unconditionally accept them as human beings but still have a specific metric for whether you allow them to pass the class? Can someone attend school without either having a scholarship or paying tuition? Or would they eventually be removed from campus? Is there a metric for whether the school allows someone to take classes and to be called a student? Can everyone be on the basketball team? Or can some students be unconditionally accepted by everyone involved but still be excluded from the basketball team, and not be called members of the varsity basketball team? Can anyone attend graduation and walk across the stage and receive a diploma, or are there some metrics in place such that some people are unconditionally accepted by everyone involved but are excluded from receiving a diploma and being called graduates? Are military veterans allowed to organize with others who share their experience, or can anyone join every one of their organizations? Can military veterans (or African-Americans, or American Indians, or Mexican-Americans, or for that matter physics majors or members of a sorority) unconditionally accept other students as human beings but not allow them into their organizations, or more to the point, their most intimate spaces? And as for yourself, if a student wanted to shower with you, would you have to accept that, else you’d be risking failing to unconditionally accept that student? Or are you allowed to have boundaries? Likewise would a student be forced to shower with you? Or is the student allowed to have that boundary? Why can I not unconditionally accept those males who identify as trans, yet not wish for them to be allowed to shower with women who don’t want to shower with them? Everyone else is allowed to define boundaries: why are these women the only ones who can’t say no? I don’t understand why believing that women are allowed to have boundaries says anything about whether I do or don’t accept people.

How about if all of us get to have the boundary of showering and sleeping alone if that’s what we prefer? That would solve this silly issue at a stroke. Make all restrooms unisex with stalls, give everyone privacy, problem solved.

Cancel all the things

Aug 19th, 2015 10:33 am | By

You read about one no-platforming and learn of another, so you read about that one and learn of another, so –

– it may be that the loop goes on forever.

I was reading Derrick Jensen’s response to his no-platforming, and found a generalized reference to another:

I’m not alone. All over the world women and their male allies routinely get blacklisted and much worse over this issue. An entire conference in the UK had to be canceled after death and rape threats against the owners of the venue–who were bystanders in this: they merely owned the venue–because one of the presenters believes that women should be allowed to have their own spaces.

So I tried Google, and found a story in the Camden New Journal from May 2013:

A COMMUNITY centre has abandoned plans to host a controversial “radical feminism” conference amid fears for public ­safety.

The London Irish Centre, in Camden Town, said it did not have the “manpower” to deal with the RadFem conference after receiving threatening phone calls over its initial decision to accept the booking. It has contacted police and warned activists not to turn up in June.

There have been angry debates online about the nature of the conference, the tone of which has raised alarm.

While RadFem campaigners insist it should go ahead at the Camden Square building, demonstrators, including those who label themselves “men’s rights activists”, say the conference must be stopped.

In one of the more bizarre points of debate, some men’s rights activists claim RadFem wants to reduce the male population of the United Kingdom to just 10 per cent.

But it wasn’t just MRAs, in fact MRAs may have just latched onto the “debate” to hitch a ride.

There have been vociferous debates about RadFem’s decisions not to allow transgender women into their groups, with some members claiming they are men trying to infiltrate their work. The centre said it could not risk being unable to “safeguard the area” around Camden Square.

The centre’s decision follows a controversy at Conway Hall, in Holborn, last year when a booking for the conference was torn up because of “issues around discrimination and equality legislation”.

So then I had to Google for that one. It was July 2012:

In consultation with the organisers of RadFem 2012 and our legal advisors, Conway Hall has decided not to allow the booking in July 2012 to proceed. This is because it does not conform to our Terms and Conditions for hiring rooms at Conway Hall. In addition, we are not satisfied it conforms with the Equality Act (2010), or reflects our ethos regarding issues of discrimination.

We had sought assurances that the organisers would allow access to all, in order to enable the event to proceed at the venue. We also expressed concern that particular speakers would need to be made aware that whilst welcoming progressive thinking and debate, Conway Hall seeks to uphold inclusivity in respect of both legal obligations and as a principle.

In the absence of the assurances we sought, the event in its proposed form could not proceed at Conway Hall*.

That said, we recognise the breadth of debate to be had amongst the feminist and transgender communities and it is our sincere hope that there will be constructive and positive dialogue on these matters going forward.

In response to Sheila Jeffreys’ online Guardian article in their ‘Comment is free’ section, dated 29th May 2012, we would like it to be known that Conway Hall has in the past made clear that speakers / attendees at events for other hirers will not be permitted where we have felt that these individuals have expressed and may express (on our premises) views which conflict with our ethos, principles, and culture; the reference to David Irving was simply one of the examples given.

Related: The Scarlett Alliance in Tasmania has failed in their campaign to have visiting Professor Sheila Jeffreys banned from speaking at a Staff Seminar at the University of Tasmania Law School and a Public Forum at the Friends Meeting House in Hobart.

See what I mean? It could go on forever and ever…

The heroism of Khaled al-Asaad

Aug 19th, 2015 9:40 am | By

The Guardian has more information on the murder of Khaled al-Asaad in Palmyra – it has the why of it. The god-loving murderers killed him because he refused to tell them where the antiquities are buried.

Asaad had been held for over a month before being murdered. Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, said he had learned from a Syrian source that the archaeologist had been interrogated by Isis about the location of treasures from Palmyra and had been executed when he refused to cooperate.

Hell and damn. What a brave man – a lion of Syria. What a brave, hideous sacrifice.

Palmyra-based activists circulated an unverified, gruesome image on social media of Asaad’s beheaded body, tied to a pole on a street in the city.

A board in front of the body set out the charges against him, which accused him of loyalty to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, maintaining contact with senior regime intelligence and security officials and managing Palmyra’s collection of “idols”.

Isis, which follows a puritanical interpretation of Islam, considers maintaining such ancient statues to be apostasy.

According to Syrian state news agency Sana and the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Asaad was beheaded in front of dozens of people on Tuesday in a square outside the town’s museum. His body was then taken to Palmyra’s archaeological site and hung from one of the Roman columns.

He was irreplaceable. Everyone is irreplaceable, and he was irreplaceable in some special ways.

Amr al-Azm, a former Syrian antiquities official who ran the country’s science and conservation labs and knew Asaad personally, said the “irreplaceable” scholar was involved in early excavations of Palmyra and the restoration of parts of the city.

“He was a fixture, you can’t write about Palmyra’s history or anything to do with Palmyrian work without mentioning Khaled Asaad,” he said. “It’s like you can’t talk about Egyptology without talking about Howard Carter.”

He added: “He had a huge repository of knowledge on the site, and that’s going to be missed. He knew every nook and cranny. That kind of knowledge is irreplaceable, you can’t just buy a book and read it and then have that.

“There’s a certain personal dimension to that knowledge that comes from only having lived that and been so closely involved in it and that’s lost to us forever. We don’t have that anymore.”

He played a part in removing the antiquities to protect them from IS, and that made him a marked man.

Historian Tom Holland said the news was distressing. “For anyone interested in the study of the ancient world, it comes as – to put it mildly – a shock to realise that ideologues exist who regard the curating of antiquities and the attendance of international conferences on archaeology as capital offences.”

God hates people who think.

50 years as head of antiquities in Palmyra

Aug 19th, 2015 9:00 am | By

Horrific news from Palmyra.

Islamic State (IS) militants beheaded an antiquities scholar in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra and hung his body on a column in a main square of the historic site, Syria’s antiquities chief said on Tuesday.

IS, whose insurgents control swathes of Syria and Iraq, captured Palmyra in central Syria from government forces in May, but are not known to have damaged its monumental Roman-era ruins despite their reputation for destroying artifacts they view as idolatrous under their puritanical interpretation of Islam.

Syrian state antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim said the family of Khaled Asaad had informed him that the 82-year-old scholar who worked for over 50 years as head of antiquities in Palmyra was executed by Islamic State on Tuesday.

All their murders are horrific, but there’s an extra dimension to it when they murder people for doing good things like preserving and curating antiquities.

Asaad had been detained and interrogated for over a month by the ultra-radical Sunni Muslim militants, he told Reuters.

Abdulkarim said Asaad was known for several scholarly works published in international archaeological journals on Palmyra, which in antiquity flourished as an important trading hub along the Silk Road.

He also worked over the past few decades with U.S., French, German and Swiss archeological missions on excavations and research in Palmyra’s famed 2,000-year-old ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage Site including Roman tombs and the Temple of Bel.

And for that they murdered him and then hung his headless body on a pillar.

These people love their fantasy “god” and they hate human beings.


Guest post: Identity is everything

Aug 19th, 2015 8:43 am | By

Guest post by Josh Spokes

Thoughts on the conversations left-leaning 20-somethings are having lately about what’s being called “identity” and “identifying as”. This is an important conversation, but it’s vastly under-theorized. It’s not at all clear what “identity” and “identifying as” truly means. These are issues that those of us who are decades older struggled with and still struggle with – to the surprise of many younger people, who invented queer theory and social justice back in 2011.

Preemptive note: None of these thoughts imply, or mean to imply, that any class of people  is not “real.” Because of the recent controversy over how we discuss transgender issues, readers will likely take this essay to be primarily about transgender people specifically. It is not. Nor do I believe that transgender people are “less real” or more obligated to justify their existence than any other “identity” category, such as cis, gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc.


  1. Identity is everything. How you feel is what you are.
  2. Feeling that you “identify” as something makes you that something. But it is never explained what it means to be X, Y, or Z. Asking for an explanation is an act of discursive violence.
  3. Other people—say, gay men or lesbians—are obliged to accept you in every way, and to give you the same deference, affirmation, and social capital we would give to any other member of our group. No matter what. If you say you’re queer, even if you’ve lived your entire public life as a straight person, maybe even traded on that power, then you are a queer.
  4. It’s gross and oppressive to allow considerations of a person’s actual experiences to inform how we feel about them. For example, it’s unacceptable to note out loud that some of the shared characteristics of being a butch woman include things like experiencing discrimination and harassment. That might lead a newcomer to believe that members of the group don’t see the newcomer in exactly the same way as they see themselves and others with their shared experience. That is oppressive.
  5. If you feel oppressed, you are oppressed.
  6. If you say you feel oppressed that triggers a social obligation on those around you to accept that without further discussion.
  7. The only reason that older people bristle at these is because we’re venal and we’d rather see others suffer the abuse we’ve received. It’s very shallow of us, and is motivated only by base impulses to see our younger friends go through the hazing we went through.
  8. We have no legitimate epistemic, political, or cultural reasons to fail to completely accept, affirm, and applaud all comers. While newcomers operate from a position of curiosity and good faith, we older people are only self-centered. Our motivations are suspect, and they are entirely focused on preserving our personal status at the cost of others.


Too many pro-choice people are way too quiet

Aug 18th, 2015 5:51 pm | By

Katha Pollitt points out that all those women who’ve had abortions and moved on need to stop being so quiet about it.

We need to say that women have sex, have abortions, are at peace with the decision and move on with their lives. We need to say that is their right, and, moreover, it’s good for everyone that they have this right: The whole society benefits when motherhood is voluntary. When we gloss over these truths we unintentionally promote the very stigma we’re trying to combat. What, you didn’t agonize? You forgot your pill? You just didn’t want to have a baby now? You should be ashamed of yourself.

The stigma is what makes it so vulnerable.

The second reason we’re stuck in a defensive mode is that too many pro-choice people are way too quiet. According to the Guttmacher Institute,nearly one in three women will have had at least one abortion by the time she reaches menopause. I suspect most of those women had someone who helped them, too — a husband or boyfriend, a friend, a parent. Where are those people? The couple who decided two kids were enough, the grad student who didn’t want to be tied for life to an ex-boyfriend, the woman barely getting by on a fast-food job? Why don’t we hear more from them?

Maybe it’s the stigma?

I think I detect a circle here.

It’s not that they think they did something wrong: A recent study published in the journal PLOS One finds that more than 95 percent of women felt the abortion was the right decision, both immediately after the procedure and three years later. They’ve been shamed into silence by stigma. Abortion opponents are delighted to fill that silence with testimony from their own ranks: the tiny minority of women who say they’re plagued by regret, rape victims glad they chose to continue their pregnancies, women who rejected their doctor’s advice to end a pregnancy and — look at these adorable baby pictures! — everything turned out fine.

Make no mistake: Those voices are heard in high places. In his 2007 Supreme Court decision upholding the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy specifically mentioned the “unexceptionable” likelihood that a woman might come to regret her choice. That women need to be protected from decisions they might feel bad about later — not that there was any evidence supporting this notion — is now a legal precedent.

I wonder about the women who regret having that baby they didn’t want to have and couldn’t afford.

It is understandable that women who have ended pregnancies just wanted to move on. Why should they define themselves publicly by one private decision, perhaps made long ago? I’ll tell you why: because the pro-choice movement cannot flourish if the mass of women it serves — that one in three — look on as if the struggle has nothing to do with them. Without the voices and support of millions of ordinary women behind them, providers and advocates can be too easily dismissed as ideologues out of touch with the American people.

Women aren’t the only ones who need to speak up. Where are the men grateful not to be forced into fatherhood? Where are the doctors who object to the way anti-abortion lawmakers are interfering with the practice of medicine?

All hiding from the stigma.

What a mess.


When reading is not complicity

Aug 18th, 2015 4:45 pm | By

I don’t read exclusively things I already agree with. I read a range of things. I read some things I disagree with. I read some things I strongly disagree with.

Reading things one disagrees with isn’t the same thing as complicity with those things one disagrees with. Reading something ≠ complicity.

There are so many reasons for reading – they might even be infinite. One reads for information – for ideas – for inspiration – for pleasure – out of curiosity – for understanding – for getting a sense of different views on a subject.

That’s only a fraction of possible reasons for reading.

There’s something oddly cargo-cultish about thinking reading something is complicity with that something.

I read that site about Christian domestic discipline. That’s not complicity with goddy violence. I read stuff the Duggars write; that’s not complicity with the Duggars. I read press releases by IS; that’s not complicity with IS.

I hope that’s clear enough.

Solidarity and disagreement 2

Aug 18th, 2015 3:51 pm | By

One troublesome fact that feminism has always had to deal with is that not all women are feminists. Some women are apolitical, some women don’t really know from feminism, some women are explicitly anti-feminist, some women are minimalist feminists (votes, good; equal pay, good; tweaking the culture, bad), some women are officially submissive, usually on religious grounds.

So feminism has to accommodate that fact. (The same of course applies, mutatis mutandis, to other movements.) Feminism wants to end the subordination of all women, but that doesn’t mean feminism considers all women feminists for the sake of being inclusive. Feminism can’t help being aware that some women are not feminists.

Here’s a shocker: the same thing applies to trans women. Not all trans women are feminists; some are very hostile to feminism.

So feminism has to accommodate that fact. Feminism wants to end the subordination of all women including trans women, but that doesn’t mean feminism considers all trans women feminists for the sake of being inclusive. Feminism can’t help being aware that some trans women are not feminists.

This is not transphobic or transantagonistic. It’s just reality. Not all trans women are feminists. I’m a feminist. I have a very fundamental political disagreement with trans women who aren’t feminists, just as I do with cis women who aren’t feminists. That’s entirely compatible with wanting trans women (and trans men) to be safe, to live as they want to live, to be able to use whatever restrooms they need to use, to choose their own names.

Supporting people’s rights is not the same thing as agreeing with their politics on every point.

It’s not transphobic to disagree with a particular trans woman’s take on feminism. If you ask me, it would be the transphobia of lowered expectations to do anything else.

All that seems obvious enough, but it apparently isn’t.

Solidarity and disagreement

Aug 18th, 2015 1:06 pm | By

One troublesome fact that feminism has always had to deal with is that not all women are feminists. Some women are apolitical, some women don’t really know from feminism, some women are explicitly anti-feminist, some women are minimalist feminists (votes, good; equal pay, good; tweaking the culture, bad), some women are officially submissive, usually on religious grounds.

So feminism has to accommodate that fact. (The same of course applies, mutatis mutandis, to other movements.) Feminism wants to end the subordination of all women, but that doesn’t mean feminism considers all women feminists for the sake of being inclusive. Feminism can’t help being aware that some women are not feminists.

Here’s a shocker: the same thing applies to trans women. Not all trans women are feminists; some are very hostile to feminism.

So feminism has to accommodate that fact. Feminism wants to end the subordination of all women including trans women, but that doesn’t mean feminism considers all trans women feminists for the sake of being inclusive. Feminism can’t help being aware that some trans women are not feminists.

This is not transphobic or transantagonistic. It’s just reality. Not all trans women are feminists. I’m a feminist. I have a very fundamental political disagreement with trans women who aren’t feminists, just as I do with cis women who aren’t feminists. That’s entirely compatible with wanting trans women (and trans men) to be safe, to live as they want to live, to be able to use whatever restrooms they need to use, to choose their own names.

Supporting people’s rights is not the same thing as agreeing with their politics on every point.

It’s not transphobic to disagree with a particular trans woman’s take on feminism. If you ask me, it would be the transphobia of lowered expectations to do anything else.

All that seems obvious enough, but it apparently isn’t.

Guest post: More dishonest overgeneralizing

Aug 18th, 2015 12:45 pm | By

John Horstman posted this comment at the vacated blog over there yesterday, and I wouldn’t want it to be overlooked here.

From Stephanie Zvan:

Because the answers I’m hearing are that you just shut up for the sake of harmony at your blog network and watch as trans people are once again erroneously painted as bullies targeting heroic feminists who just have questions about gender, a trope used against them any time they advocate for themselves.

Emphasis added. This is more dishonest overgeneralizing. How, exactly, does critique of a particular model of gender identity, one not shared by all trans people, and denunciation of a very specific group of people, trans and not, who are lashing out at one individual over that critique, come to equal labeling all trans people as bullies whenever they advocate for themselves?What of the trans people who agree with Ophelia and disagree with Zvan? Why do supposed allies (and sometimes members) of an oppressed group so often do the same racist/sexist/heterosexist/cissexst/etc. homogenizing of the group in question that they decry as racist/sexist/heterosexist/cissexst/etc. when others do it, resulting in one subset of the group in question being presumed to speak for the entire group?

I really, REALLY wish all of these folks would pick up a copy of David Valentine’s Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category. With its myriad of self-conceptions of people who consider themselves transgender, not-cisgender, genderqueer, contextually gendered, “gay” (in the sense that I might use “queer”), etc., I think it would do so much to disabuse them of what I’m reading as their homogenizing notions concerning both trans people and sex/gender/sexuality generally.

The pseudofeminist mandate to “choose” “choices”

Aug 18th, 2015 11:22 am | By

Josh Spokes just reminded me that Twisty Faster exists and we should all be reading her.

On the performance of femininity for instance.

Author Kat George’s article is titled “Six Things That Definitely Don’t Make You a Bad Feminist.” Like everything published on the internet these days, it is a list.

The gist of her list is that performance of femininity does not conflict with feminist activism. It includes permission for feminists to change their name when they get married, to get waxed, and to let dudes pick up the tab.

The revolution has succeeded at last! All the problems are now solved. Just call everything “feminist” and see the waxy yellow buildup disappear.

But see here: if feminists who do understand feminism keep their traps shut when feminists who don’tunderstand feminism go around explaining feminism wrong, everybody loses.

Good thing I’m on the case!

For the public good it will be necessary to tweak Ms George’s definition of feminism just a smidge. Rather than a lifestyle accessory in the shape of some passive, nebulous, and capriciously applied “belief in gender equality,” feminism is in fact a political movement the goal of which is the liberation of women from patriarchal oppression.

It’s not just Ms George, either. So many of these ladies are flitting about the countryside with the idea that feminism is about believing in equality. Often they embellish the concept with vague notions of “empowerment” and the pseudofeminist mandate to “choose” “choices.” Suggests George, when you’ve got feminism onboard, “you can be whoever you want to be.” Particularly, it seems, when who you want to be is a woman who performs femininity, a set of behaviors specifically engineered to ensure the dehumanization and subjugation of half the global population.

Josh is right, I need to read more.


The Russell conjugation

Aug 17th, 2015 12:38 pm | By

I didn’t know that the technical term for “another one of those irregular verbs” was “emotive conjugations.” Wikipedia has the story:

In rhetoric, emotive or emotional conjugation mimics the form of a grammatical conjugation of an irregular verb to illustrate humans’ tendency to describe their own behavior more charitably than the behavior of others.[1] It is often called the Russell conjugation in honour of philosopher Bertrand Russell who expounded the concept in 1948 on the BBC Radio programme The Brains Trust,[2] citing the examples:[3]

I am firm, You are obstinate, He is a pig-headed fool.

I am righteously indignant, you are annoyed, he is making a fuss over nothing.

I have reconsidered the matter, you have changed your mind, he has gone back on his word.

Used seriously, such loaded language[3] can lend false support to an argument by obscuring a fallacy of meaning. The inherent incongruity also lends itself to humor,[4] as employed by Bernard Woolley in theBBC television series Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister:[5][6]

It’s one of those irregular verbs, isn’t it?
I have an independent mind, You are eccentric, He is round the twist.[6]

That’s another of those irregular verbs, isn’t it?
I give confidential press briefings; you leak; he’s being charged under section 2A of theOfficial Secrets Act.[7]

Thinking as a value

Aug 17th, 2015 9:30 am | By
Thinking as a value

In thinking about the frenzied monstering of me on Freethought Blogs over the past few weeks, I realized I must have been laboring under a misapprehension all the time I was there. I thought it was a network that was partly about thinking – thinking as such, thinking as a value, thinking as a goal and a pursuit and a method. I knew it was about other things too, of course, especially secularism and atheism and also progressive causes, but I did think it put the “thought” part front and center.

Either I was wrong all along, or it’s changed. I don’t really know which. I don’t know much about Freethought Blogs at all, it turns out, despite having been part of it from almost the beginning.

Why do I say that? A lot of reason, but one in particular is this:


101 anteprepro

5 August 2015 at 9:42 am

squarecircle: Yup. It happened. I suck at facebook so it was difficult to get the link, but here it is:


In addition: Ophelia’s earliest post on the group was from late April. (Here:
Many more posts happened around July 1st.

The current argument (involving the “yes or no” question, oolon’s email, and the joke about Dolezal) started around July 20th.
She has not posted on that group since July 24th (as far as I can tell).

Before this kerfuffle, there was an issue about her post about Caitlyn Jenner, which was in early June.

So just for clarity’s sake, it does NOT appear to be the case that Ophelia has been running into the arms of TERFs to get support, running away from FTB. It still isn’t clear WHY she was a member of that group, or why she said the things she said, agreed with the things she agreed with, and what not, but it wasn’t because we were being mean and she needed a shoulder to cry on. At least not as far as I can see, based on the actual timeline of events. Okay?

What about it? The prurience, the staring, the dedication (grubbing through Facebook looking for my earliest post in a group??), the pettiness, the outrage, the meddling, the slicing and dicing of my possible motivations for doing something perfectly ordinary – etc etc etc.

But also, the nature of the Facebook post that is supposed to be so shocking. The post is a link to the Frontline episode about trans children and teenagers, that I posted about on the blog as well. The horror is at what I said in the post sharing the link:

“Being a woman has nothing to do with anatomy or appearance — it has everything to do with how you identify.”

So I can identify as an African-American born in Brazil and educated at Oxford?

That was a real question. I don’t know what it means to say being a woman has everything to do with how you identify. I don’t “identify” as a woman, yet as far as I know I am one, like it or not.

I’m interested in subjects like this. I’m interested in what different people mean by concepts like identifying as something, and in what people understand others to mean by them, and in what implications all those things have.

In short, I’m interested in thinking about it.

Yet that one question was treated as the final conclusive evidence that I’m a pulsating horror from the swamp of doom and simply had to be shunned off the network.

I wasn’t forcibly expelled, as three people have been. I wasn’t officially told to leave. (I saw a blog comment somewhere saying the executive committee should do its job and tell me to leave. Ok but I was on the executive committee, so that might have been tricky.) PZ asked me not to leave. But in every other way, I was told to leave (and worse). MA Melby (who is nothing to do with FTB) was so outraged she did tell me to leave, very emphatically.


M. A. Melby ‏@MAMelby Aug 5
Just saw this. I apologize for any tone policing I’ve done recently. Just GTFO Benson – now – not later. Christ.

Because I asked what it means to say you “identify as” a woman.

There are very high and spiky fences around trans issues right now. The justification given is that asking questions like the one I asked equals transantagonism if not transphobia, and that transantagonism and transphobia get trans people killed, and so asking questions like the one I asked gets trans people killed.

I say my question was not transantagonistic, and has no chance of getting trans people killed.

My question was skeptical of the whole idea of “identifying as” something, and the jargon that goes with it – but the idea and the jargon are widespread and far from exclusive to trans people.

More to the point – I’ve always talked about that kind of thing on my blog, and when I joined FTB in September 2011 I thought that kind of thing would be right at home there. For four years, it was…and then something changed. Or else for four years it wasn’t, but nobody ever told me that. (But then why did they let me join in the first place?)

The short answer is I think Freethought Blogs the network has taken a hard turn to anti-intellectualism for the sake of absolutist political commitment. I think political commitments need to be accompanied by thinking.

Assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise

Aug 17th, 2015 8:12 am | By

Sean Carroll wrote about Ben Barres and Joan Roughgarden on his blog in 2006. (Physicist SC, not biologist SC.)

Barres underwent treatments about ten years ago to go from being female to male, so he has a unique perspective on the different ways that male and female scientists are treated. Not completely unique, of course; the WSJ article also quotes Joan Roughgarden, also at Stanford, who was “Jonathan” up until 1998:

Jonathan Roughgarden’s colleagues and rivals took his intelligence for granted, Joan says. But Joan has had “to establish competence to an extent that men never have to. They’re assumed to be competent until proven otherwise, whereas a woman is assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise. I remember going on a drive with a man. He assumed I couldn’t read a map.”

They seem to be implying that women face obstacles in the world of science that men do not. In other news, the Sun rose in the East this morning.

Assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise – what an enviable status, eh?

Today’s New York Times has an interview with Barres by Cornelia Dean. They get right down to it:

Q. What’s your response to people who say you rely too much on your own experience and should take scientific hypotheses less personally?

A. They should learn that scientific hypotheses require evidence. The bulk of my commentary discusses the actual peer-reviewed data.

That’s not fair! Barres needs to understand that phrases like “scientific hypotheses require evidence” are only to be used by people who believe that the differences between men and women can be traced to variations in innate qualities. The mountains of data pointing to systematic biases are to be ignored.

So who are these unnamed people who think that Barres “should take scientific hypotheses less personally?” That sounds suspiciously like a straw man — most careful scientists would be reluctant to stoop so directly to an ad hominem attack, rather than dealing with the aforementioned mountains of data. Sadly, it’s a direct quote from our old friend Steven Pinker, himself a master of the straw-man technique.

Professor Pinker, if you are reading this, you are a brilliant thinker and an extraordinary writer and lecturer. The Language Instinct was one of the all-time classic books on science for a wide audience. Please do not work to make your public profile identified primarily with the claim that innate differences in capacity are more important than systematic biases in keeping women out of science. It is not only wrong, but wrong in a particularly damaging way.

Sadly, Pinker didn’t take the advice. He’s still doing that work, alongside Dawkins. (Both are big fans of Christina Hoff Sommers.)

The questions “Why are there fewer women in science?” and “What are the innate differences in mental abilities and inclinations between boys and girls?” are just not the same. They may be related, obviously, but they are just not the same. And while the latter question is subtle and extremely hard to answer at the current state of the art, due to the extraordinary difficulty in separating out what is “innate” from what is influenced by the outside world, the answer to the former question is blindingly obvious to anyone who cares to open their eyes. Do you really need Ben Barres or Joan Roughgarden to tell you that men and women are treated differently as scientists? Read the Xie and Shauman book. Read Meg Urry’s article. Just look at what goes on around you. And don’t take reality so personally.

Ironically, that’s exactly why Michael Shermer’s “it’s more of a guy thing” was so irritating, and why Sean Carroll – who was right next to him on that show – would have answered it much better. Shermer jumped right over the blindingly obvious reason atheist women are less visible, which is that people forget they exist, to go for the stale tiresome and wrong innate differences answer.

Update: via Crooked Timber, some interesting stories at Science + Professor + Woman = Me. For example, a question asked by a professor to a female grad student:

Q. So you’re doing a Ph.D.? Couldn’t you find anyone to marry you?

Of course, they are only anecdotes, so you should feel free to pretend that this stuff almost never happens, if that makes you feel better.

But then the awakening will be so much more rude.

Many people think we live in a “post-racial” and “post-sexist” world

Aug 17th, 2015 7:17 am | By

In this post back in November 2010, I quoted from a Wall Street Journal article about Ben Barres, formerly Barbara.

The top science and math student in her New Jersey high school, she was advised by her guidance counselor to go to a local college rather than apply to MIT. She applied anyway and was admitted. As an MIT undergraduate, Barbara was one of the only women in a large math class, and the only student to solve a particularly tough problem. The professor “told me my boyfriend must have solved it for me,” recalls Prof. Barres…

Although Barbara Barres was a top student at MIT, “nearly every lab head I asked refused to let me do my thesis research” with him, Prof. Barres says. “Most of my male friends had their first choice of labs. And I am still disappointed about the prestigious fellowship I lost to a male student when I was a Ph.D. student,” even though the rival had published one prominent paper and she had six.

Then she became Ben, and all was different. Whaddya know.

Some supporters of the Summers Hypothesis suggest that temperament, not ability, holds women back in science: They are innately less competitive. Prof. Barres’s experience suggests that if women are less competitive, it is not because of anything innate but because that trait has been beaten out of them.

“Female scientists who are competitive or assertive are generally ostracized by their male colleagues,” he says.

In addition to being told their boyfriends must have solved that difficult math problem for them.

From May that same year (2010), Shankar Vedantam in the Sydney Morning Herald on Ben Barres and Joan Roughgarden (formerly Jonathan):

MADELINE Heilman at New York University once conducted an experiment in which she told volunteers about a manager. Some were told, “Subordinates have often described Andrea as someone who is tough yet outgoing and personable. She is known to reward individual contributions and has worked hard to maximise employees’ creativity.”

Other volunteers were told, “Subordinates have often described James as someone who is tough yet outgoing and personable. He is known to reward individual contributions and has worked hard to maximise employees’ creativity.”

The only difference between what the groups were told was that some people thought they were hearing about a leader named Andrea while others thought they were hearing about a leader named James. Heilman asked her volunteers to estimate how likeable Andrea and James were as people. Three-quarters thought James was more likeable than Andrea.

Cordelia Fine cites study after study like that in Delusions of Gender.

Bias is much harder to demonstrate scientifically in real life, which may be why large numbers of people do not believe that sexism and other forms of prejudice still exist. Many people think we live in a “post-racial” and “post-sexist” world where egalitarian notions are the norm. Indeed, if you go by what people report, we do live in a bias-free world, because most people report feeling no prejudice whatsoever.

What would be remarkably instructive in real life would be if women in various professions could experience life as men, and vice versa. If the same person got treated differently, we would be sure sexism was at work, because the only thing that changed was the sex of the individual and not his or her skills, talent, knowledge, experience, or interests.

And this is where Roughgarden and Barres come in.

Joan Roughgarden and Ben Barres are biologists at Stanford University. Both are researchers at one of the premier academic institutions in the country; both are tenured professors. Both are transgendered people. Stanford has been a welcoming home for these scientists; if you are going to be a transgendered person anywhere in the United States, it would be difficult to imagine a place more tolerant than Palo Alto and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Ben Barres did not transition to being a man until he was 50. For much of her early life, Barbara Barres was oblivious to questions of sexism. She would hear Gloria Steinem and other feminists talk about discrimination and wonder, “What’s their problem?” She was no activist; all she wanted was to be a scientist. She was an excellent student. When a school guidance counsellor advised her to set her sights lower than MIT, Barbara ignored him, applied to MIT, and got admitted in 1972.

Yay! No sexism apart from the guidance counsellor)! Sexism is so over!

During a particularly difficult maths seminar at MIT, a professor handed out a quiz with five problems. He gave out the test at 9am, and students had to hand in their answers by midnight. The first four problems were easy, and Barbara knocked them off in short order. But the fifth one was a beauty; it involved writing a computer program where the solution required the program to generate a partial answer, and then loop around to the start in a recursive fashion.

“I remember when the professor handed back the exams, he made this announcement that there were five problems but no one had solved the fifth problem and therefore he only scored the class on the four problems,” Ben recalled. “I got an A. I went to the professor and I said, ‘I solved it.’ He looked at me and he had a look of disdain in his eyes, and he said, ‘You must have had your boyfriend solve it.’ To me, the most amazing thing is that I was indignant. I walked away. I didn’t know what to say. He was in essence accusing me of cheating. I was incensed by that. It did not occur to me for years and years that that was sexism.”

And then Barbara became Ben and things changed, and Ben couldn’t help noticing.

Ben also noticed he was treated differently in the everyday world. “When I go into stores, I notice I am much more likely to be attended to. They come up to me and say, ‘Yes, sir? Can I help you, sir?’ I have had the thought a million times, I am taken more seriously.”

When former Harvard president Larry Summers (who went on to become a senior economic adviser to President Barack Obama) set off a firestorm a few years ago after musing about whether there were fewer women professors in the top ranks of science because of innate differences between men and women, Ben wrote an anguished essay in the journal Nature. He asked whether innate differences or subtle biases – from grade school to graduate school – explained the large disparities between men and women in the highest reaches of science.

“When it comes to bias, it seems that the desire to believe in a meritocracy is so powerful that until a person has experienced sufficient career-harming bias themselves they simply do not believe it exists … By far, the main difference that I have noticed is that people who don’t know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect: I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.”

Joan Roughgarden did it in the other direction, and found the reverse difference.

She challenged prevailing views on sexual selection, and was surprised by some of the responses.

THE scientific establishment, Joan said, was livid. But in contrast to the response to her earlier theory about tide pools and marine animals, few scientists engaged with her. At a workshop at Loyola University, a scientist “lost it” and started screaming at her for being irresponsible. “I had never had experiences of anyone trying to coerce me in this physically intimidating way,” she said, as she compared the reactions to her work before and after she became a woman. “You really think this guy is really going to come over and hit you.”

At a meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Minneapolis, Joan said, a prominent expert jumped up on the stage after her talk and started shouting at her. Once every month or two, she said, ”I will have some man shout at me, try to physically coerce me into stopping …When I was doing the marine ecology work, they did not try to physically intimidate me and say, ‘You have not read all the literature.’

“They would not assume they were smarter. The current crop of objectors assumes they are smarter.”

I asked her about interpersonal dynamics before and after her transition. “You get interrupted when you are talking, you can’t command attention, but above all you can’t frame the issues,” she said. With a touch of wistfulness, she compared herself to Ben Barres. “Ben has migrated into the centre whereas I have had to migrate into the periphery.”

Interesting, isn’t it.

At some point, solidarity has to be the key

Aug 16th, 2015 4:51 pm | By

Salty Current said something that caught my attention in a comment on that discussion of whether or not we have to give up our “cherished right to self-expression” if we want to be allies of marginalized groups.

people who want to be allies of marginalized groups

But I’m a member of a marginalized group. We’re talking here about relations between and among marginalized groups. At some point, fucking solidarity has to be the key. And solidarity is not a one-way street.

Yes, that’s true. It’s not a matter of us non-marginalized people keeping silence in order to be allies to marginalized people – it’s marginalized people and other marginalized people. Solidarity is important. It’s far better than being “allies” in my view – there’s something both patronizing and impertinent about claiming to be allies. Solidarity, though, doesn’t need permission and doesn’t condescend. Let’s have less talk of allies and more talk of solidarity.

The not mentioning things idea isn’t working well, as far as I can see. There are a lot of feminists and lesbians (to name two marginalized groups) out there who are choking down what they want to discuss, but they’re not happy about it. I don’t think that will work out well. I think we should be able to talk, while still being in solidarity.

Suddenly funny

Aug 16th, 2015 9:54 am | By

A trans man lists some kinds of privilege he noticed he had after he transitioned – 25 of them to be exact, and he says he could have listed lots more.

I was being treated better by everyday America because people were reading me as a young, white, straight (?!) male. And I recognized many new privileges that came my way because of it.

For the record, this isn’t an article meant for transphobic people to share around and say, “See?! See?! Trans guys are totally reaping all the benefits of patriarchy, and WE MUST HATE THEM!”

If you think this is true, you’re not paying attention. And clearly haven’t educated yourself appropriately on trans issues. Or patriarchal issues. Or feminist issues. Or really any issue that has to do with inequality based upon this toxic culture of ours.

Rather, this article is simply meant to focus on male privilege at large, primarily owned by cis men who think they’re bestowing it only upon other cis men.

Most cultures are toxic in this way.

1. I’m Suddenly Funny

I’ve always been dry, sarcastic, and satirical with my humor.

In Ye Olden Times, I was considered unfunny at best – and a bitch at worst.

Now that I’m a short white guy, people automatically peg me for a comedian and laugh at the bulk of my mouth zings.

And yet…I know so many men who aren’t funny at all. That stereotype seems to have passed me by.

3. I Rarely Get Interrupted

I used to be interrupted so often while presenting as a woman that I in turn started to talk over people as a form of conversational survival.

Unfortunately, because it became so ingrained in me, I still find myself doing it from time to time even though it’s rarely necessary anymore.

Well, you know how it is…women never have anything to say worth listening to, so might as well save time.

11. I’m Not Told by Strangers (Or Anybody Else) to Smile

Not once has it happened since.

Not once.


14. I’m Allowed to Grow Old

And likely will even be considered “handsome” or “sophisticated” because of it.

Ha. Haha. Hahahahahahaha.


19. I Can Be a Gamer Without Worry of Being Threatened, Insulted, or Demeaned

The gaming industry is still very much a man’s world.

Female characters are frequently sexualized, brutalized, and demeaned when they’re represented at all – right along with the female gamers themselves.

One he doesn’t mention – he gets to see people like him (men) in movies and on tv all the time. Women have to search, and settle for the odd character and the rare few minutes.

Having been treated as both a man and a woman, these privileges are glaringly obvious to me. And there are far, far too many to count.

To those of you who aren’t surprised by the stuff on this list, share it with someone who will be. And if you in turn never fathomed these everyday issues before, reflect on why that is.

But most importantly, speak out about it.

Yes do.


The chilly climate for women

Aug 16th, 2015 9:18 am | By

Speaking of things one notices as a woman – Bernice Sandler gave a talk on the subject at CFI’s first Women in Secularism conference in 2012.

A quintessentially female experience

Aug 16th, 2015 7:49 am | By

Lane Florsheim on What Happens When Trans Women Lose Their Male Privilege.

Two months after she transitioned to female, Deirdre McCloskey found herself having a quintessentially female experience. She was chatting with fellow economics professors at Erasmus University in the Netherlands, all of whom happened to be men. She was attempting to make an argument, but no one seemed to be listening. A few minutes later, a male professor articulated the same idea. “What a great point, George!” others exclaimed.

Welcome to the wonderful world of being female.

“A lot of trans women are aware that there is male privilege before we transition–that women are not treated with as much respect as men,” says Julia Serano, author of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. “But there’s a big difference between knowing privilege exists and the literal experience of losing it.”

And there’s a big difference between having privilege and losing it.

The transgender women we spoke with cited a litany of new challenges on the other side of their transition, which will be painfully familiar to the cisgender women reading it: getting talked down to, getting talked over, getting catcalled in the street, getting dismissed in the workplace, and so on.

Dear “and so on.” It covers so much.

With their unique perspective of gender relations, some in the trans community actually find themselves sympathizing with men. “I think there’s a lot of what I’d call female privilege, too,” Dr. Bowers adds. “A man is never trusted like a woman is trusted: by strangers, children. When men deal with each other, there’s a certain distance they keep. There’s a sisterhood and a safety among women, and it’s a very helpful feeling.”

I think that’s true. One thing I’ve gotten from puzzling about gender and how I experience it and whether I would have been or considered being trans if the option had been as visible when I was a child in the 19th century as it is now – one thing I’ve gotten from that is a sharper awareness that I wouldn’t want to be a man. I could put it “I wouldn’t want to be a man either” because I don’t exactly want to be a woman (either) – but anyway, it doesn’t appeal, and what Bowers says makes sense to me. The idea of choosing to be a man feels to me a bit like choosing to be Charles Windsor – like signing up to a whole lot of duty and responsibility you don’t particularly want. That thought has caused me to sympathize with men more, however odd that may sound.

It would seem that the key to all this lies in a less rigid gender binary. Being male doesn’t mean you’re unworthy of trust. Being female doesn’t mean you’re unworthy of speaking. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘You shouldn’t be reinforcing traditional gender roles that hold women back. Why are you encouraging a ‘feminine’ response to certain things?'” says Dr. Bowers. “But the point is that womanhood should be able to express itself in every possible way, not just the pre-defined ways. I think if there were more expressions of what it means to be a woman—in all its forms—the world would be a better place.”

And so should manhood. The whole thing should be much more various and less predictable, so that all the attempts at policing would just become meaningless. “Man up” would stop being a phrase, and “cunt” would stop being the ultimate pejorative. That would be good.

What we must necessarily give up

Aug 15th, 2015 5:43 pm | By
What we must necessarily give up

Do I agree that people who want to be allies of marginalized groups “must necessarily give up some of their cherished right to self-expression, recognizing that some thoughts, even valuable ones, may not be worth expressing in a particular way if that would needlessly cause pain to others”?

No, I don’t. Not put that way at least. But then it’s inconsistent – it’s “must necessarily” at the beginning but then “may not be worth expressing” at the end. It’s definite at the beginning but then has three hedges in a row at the end – may not, in a particular way, if that would. The “must necessarily” gets modified almost as soon as it appears. But hedged or not, I don’t agree with the claim.

Mind you, it isn’t simply a matter of “their cherished right to self-expression,” which is a rather sadly dismissive way of putting it for a writer. I’m pretty sure I’ve never once talked about my cherished right to self-expression, or my right to self-expression at all. That’s not what I’m after, it’s not what I’m interested in, it’s not what I do. Fuck self-expression, frankly. It’s on the same shelf with self-indulgent and self-admiring.

No, this isn’t about me “expressing” my precious self. Who gives a rat’s ass about my precious self? I don’t, so certainly no one else is going to. I think selves are overrated. (That’s not the same as saying I have no ego. Sure I do. But that’s a different thing.)

No, what I’m after is understanding, which tends to be aided by discussion. I want to understand the issues around trans activism, and what is meant by various slogans and claims. I want to write about my questions on my blog. Do I agree that I “must necessarily” give up some of that if I want to be an ally to trans people? No. No, I don’t agree that I must give up asking serious questions on a minor blog. I would agree that I shouldn’t say hateful shit about marginalized groups on my blog; I would agree that no one should do that, including me. But trying to figure out the discourse? I don’t think that should be off-limits – I don’t think it should be a third rail or a “mine field” or anything else we should be afraid to approach.

We’re talking about politics here. What good is a politics that you’re not allowed to discuss? What good is a politics that triggers epic freakouts over minor differences? What good is a politics that silences its own demographic?