To highlight the value of academic responsibility

Oh goody, the blog of the American Philosophical Association has a post on – you’ll never guess – the errors of TERFs. Not that they call it that. It’s a response to the IHE piece, as the APA blog explains:

Editor’s note: The letter below was penned in response to another letter titled “Philosophers Should Not Be Sanctioned Over Their Positions on Sex and Gender” that appeared in Inside Higher Education on July 22, 2019.  On July 30,IHE published a response titled “Taking Trans Lives Seriously” and declined to publish the following letter. The signatories are concerned that the climate in a field of study is being mischaracterized and important voices have been left out of the discussion. 

So, they’re here to clear it up for us.

recent letter in Inside Higher Education argues that philosophers who debate the nature of sex and gender cannot advocate certain positions, for example, skepticism about the concept of gender identity, or they risk being censured. But debates about sex and gender needn’t be conducted in an exclusionary way. Indeed, they usually are not. We are responding here specifically to clarify a potential misperception about the academic climate when it comes to discussions of sex and gender and to highlight the value of academic responsibility as an important aspect of academic freedom.

Wait. What does “in an exclusionary way” mean? To be more precise, how are the authors using it in this post? What do they mean by “debates about sex and gender needn’t be conducted in an exclusionary way”? Since they are philosophers, we expect them to make such things as clear as possible. And yet…they don’t. I have no idea what they mean.

The nature of sex and gender and the relationship between them are not forbidden topics of philosophical discussion. Many feminists holding significantly different philosophical views have been respectfully debating them for decades. One easy way to see a quick overview of these different positions is by reading the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on “Feminist Metaphysics” or the entry on “Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender.”

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.

Wait. Aren’t they relying on some sort of established orthodoxy about what is “exclusionary” in the discussion of gender? So established and so orthodox that they don’t even think they need to spell out what it is? Isn’t what they call “academic responsibility” a reference to the established orthodoxy?Aren’t they insinuating that it’s academically irresponsible to dispute that orthodoxy? Because if they’re not, what they hell are they talking about?

There continues to be much lively disagreement on matters of gender without accusations of transphobia. 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.

Ah. So that’s what they mean by “in an exclusionary way” and “academic responsibility.” They mean believe whatever trans people say and believe their own understanding of who they are.

But that’s not a small or trivial demand. That’s a demand of a kind that would be laughed out of the room in any other academic discipline. In no other part of the university are we ordered to believe what people say about themselves without question, not least because one of the first things we’re taught there is to understand that we can be wrong about anything, very much including ourselves. It’s a recipe for mental death to decide that some people have infallible self-knowledge and we all have to bend the knee to it. It’s utter bullshit, and it never ceases to amaze me that academics can say that with a straight face.

The final sentence:

We should conduct our research freely and responsibly, without treating other people’s lives as though they are abstract thought experiments.

Bollocks. Academics study, inquire into, debate, research other people’s lives all the time. They don’t do so with an understanding that they’re not allowed to question “the validity of their own understanding of who they are,” because that is often just what is in doubt.

The idea is fundamentally unworkable, because we all like to think better of ourselves than the facts warrant. If there’s a rule that we can’t question people’s self-understandings, how can we for instance talk about Trump? His understanding of who he is is off the charts wrong and delusional, but everyone has that tendency to some degree. Should trans people be the one exception to that?

Don’t be ridiculous.

There are many signers.

Updating to add: Kathleen Stock has a blistering response.

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