Borrowed fragility

Colleen Flaherty at Inside Higher Ed reports on the Daily Nous “does the word ‘TERF’ belong in an academic journal?” post:

TERF is an acronym meaning “trans-exclusionary radical feminist.” While the term has become controversial over time, especially with its often hateful deployment on social media, it originally described a subgroup of feminists who believe that the interests of cisgender women (those who are born with vaginas) don’t necessarily intersect with those of transgender women (primarily those born with penises).

Er, entirely those born with penises, surely.

To some feminists, that notion is obvious: the experience of having lived as male for any period of time matters. But some trans scholars and allies say that notion is in and of itself transphobic, since it means that trans women are somehow different from women, or that they’re not women at all.

That “somehow” is precious. Also, responsible reporters and commentators really ought to stop defining “transphobic” as “stating obvious facts.” Phobia is hatred, and usually unreasonable hatred. Stating obvious facts is not the same thing as hatred, though it can of course be cruel, as in telling people they’re ugly.

It’s interesting, though, that we are so much more primed to see it as cruel (aka phobic for those who insist on that word) to say that “trans women are somehow different from women” than we are to see it as cruel to say the equivalent about trans men. Isn’t that odd? Partly it’s just because trans women do 98% of the shouting about it, which it’s hard not to suspect is because they grew up with classic male feelings of entitlement, but also it’s because they have as it were “appropriated” the subordinate status of women. We’ve been conditioned, weirdly, to think that trans men can take it, but trans women must be shielded at all costs. You can see that all over the comments on the Daily Nous post – it’s all about trans women; trans men barely get a mention.

This month, though, a group of scholars registered a public complaint with Philosophy and Phenomenological Research’s editorial team. In a guest post for the Daily Nous philosophy blog, the scholars said that in a recent issue of the journal, the term “TERF” was lobbed in “ad hominem attacks” rather than in mere discussions.

In question is a symposium on the noted 2015 book How Propaganda Works, by Jason Stanley, Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. In an article called “The Epistemology of Propaganda,” Rachel McKinnon, an assistant professor of philosophy at the College of Charleston, uses Stanley’s work to analyze what she calls “a modern form of propaganda where so-called trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) are engaged in a political project to deny that trans women are women — and thereby to exclude trans women from women-only spaces, services and protections.”

Noting that the phrase “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” was coined by two cisgender radical feminists in 2008, McKinnon argues that “this point is important, since many contemporary feminists accuse trans women of coining the phrase/term — and, ludicrously, claim that ‘TERF’ is a misogynistic slur.”

The scholars who complained — seven feminist philosophers from Britain and Australia — wrote in Daily Nous that TERF “is at worst a slur and at best derogatory. We are extremely concerned about the normalization of this term in academic philosophy, and its effect in reinforcing a hostile climate for debate on an issue of key importance to women.”

TERF “is widely used across online platforms as a way to denigrate and dismiss the women (and some men) who disagree with the dominant narrative on trans issues,” the scholars wrote. Targeted groups include “lesbians who merely maintain that same-sex attraction is not equivalent to transphobia,” and “women who believe that women’s oppression is sex-based, and are concerned about erasing the political importance of female bodies,” they said, citing websites such as as evidence.

A quick search for #TERF on Twitter also turns up references to the “clitterati,” “ignorant, hateful cunt[s],” comparisons to Nazis, and invitations to “go fuck themselves on cactuses.” Trans women of course face brutal discrimination online and in life, but such examples support the idea that “TERF” is not a neutral term.

That’s putting it mildly.

McKinnon forwarded her online talk about why “TERF” is not a slur but declined an interview request. She’s responded on Twitter to what she called a targeted attack against her, however. She’s also said that the writers of the complaint asked the journal’s editor to retract the article.

Which is not true.

The scholars denied ever requesting a retraction, and said it was troublesome that it was being asserted that they had. The journal’s editor in chief, Ernest Sosa, professor emeritus of philosophy at Brown University, said via email that there was no formal request for retraction, just a request for an apology and a correcting. There was some “back and forth” in terms of an informal request for a retraction, Sosa said, adding that he did not have a good record of it.

Numerous supporters of McKinnon also reached out to Inside Higher Ed, asking that it not publish an article about the topic. Several academics declined interview requests, with one citing not having tenure as the reason.

“Please stop your harassment of Dr. Rachel McKinnon,” reads one of many similar emails received by this reporter after requesting comment from McKinnon. “‘TERF’ is not a slur. [McKinnon] needs your support, not your contributing to further hate and violence threats from TERFs.”

“Violence.” They sound like Trump.

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