Again: what do you mean by “identity”?

There was this today:

And there was a piece by Colleen Flaherty at Inside Higher Ed with the subhead

Is philosophy really ignoring important questions about transgender identity, specifically what it means to be a woman?

As last year’s Hypatia debate revealed, writing philosophy about being transgender is tricky. There are outstanding debates about which questions actually matter and who is best situated to philosophize about transgender identity, along with pitfalls to avoid — arguably facile comparisons among them. (As you may recall, Hypatia’s editors and associate editorial board split over an essay comparing being transgender to being transracial).

So Flaherty implies that comparing transgender to transracial is facile, but why is it facile? She doesn’t say.

In a new, talked-about series of essays, Kathleen Stock, a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex, in Britain, brings another set of tricky question to the fore: If there are inherent differences in interests between cisgender women and trans women, why aren’t academics debating them?

“Something is afoot in academic philosophy,” Stock wrote in one essay she published on Medium. “Beyond the academy, there’s a huge and impassioned discussion going on, around the apparent conflict between women-who-are-not-transwomen’s rights and interests, and transwomen’s rights and interests. And yet nearly all academic philosophers – including, surprisingly, feminist philosophers – are ignoring it.”

It’s not surprising at all though. Last year’s Hypatia “debate” revealed why – it’s because of the colossal amount of bullying, shaming, dogpiling, ostracizing, and backstabbing that goes on if a feminist philosopher doesn’t ignore it. It’s not a genuine debate; it’s a highly dogmatic and pugnaciously enforced doctrine.

Stock suggests that part of the problem may be fear of being labeled transphobic for asserting that there are important differences between cisgender women and trans women — what is called the “gender-critical” position.

May be”? Get serious.

Jenny Saul, a professor of philosophy at the University of Sheffield in Britain and a moderator of Feminist Philosophers, borrowed a comment Audrey Yap had posted about another article on “trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” or TERFs, as cisgender women who don’t count trans women among their ranks are sometimes called. Saul said Yap, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Victoria in Canada, did a “great job of explaining why many of us [are] very hesitant to have these discussions.”

Here’s what Yap said: “What I do have a serious problem with are people who are happy to speculate about gender identity, and whether trans women are really women, as though it were an abstract philosophical puzzle to be solved, and not something that is about actual living people. When taking one side of an argument involves the invalidation of a lot of people’s identity and lived experience I think it’s right that we be extremely hesitant to take it.”

These are philosophers, remember. Philosophy as a discipline is generally quite rigorous about defining terms, especially the terms that are at the core of what is being analyzed. Given that fact, I think it’s bizarre that Saul finds Yap’s comment “a great job of explaining.” To make sense of her comment we need to know what she means by “identity” and “lived experience” and how either or both can be “invalidated” by one side of an argument.

That is, after all, the pulsating spitting third rail of the whole thing – you may not try to figure out what all this means and how people back it up because if you do you are doing something very wicked to people’s “identity.” But what does that even mean? And in what sense is it political? Why is it a political absolute that “identity” must be respected? And is it even the case that identity in general must be respected or is it only this one kind, and if so, on what grounds? But don’t ask, because that invalidates…and around the circle we go again.

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