First trans philosopher

Julian Baggini talks to fellow philosopher Sophie Grace Chappell at Prospect:

Eight years ago, Sophie Grace Chappell came out as the UK’s first trans philosopher.

Well, not trans philosopher. Real philosopher in the sense of having the right academic credentials; no “identifying as” required. Trans woman, i.e. man who identifies as a woman. His self-renaming is interesting. He started out as Timothy David John Chappell, which is a lot of male names to have to deal with. For his transformation he chose two female names that are also flattery names – I wonder if he and Sophie LaBelle are friends or rivals. (If you’re wondering why “Sophie” is flattering, it’s because “sophia” in Greek means wisdom. Philosophers of course are well aware of the etymology.)

I think this is kind of relevant. It’s almost as if he’s signaling. “I’m a trans woman, and I like to flatter myself.” Am I crazy for thinking that’s true of a lot of trans women? That the fad for being a trans women tends to attract self-flattering men and/or men who seek attention?

“We have a society at large where a lot of frankly very transphobic stuff has been normalised,” says Chappell. “It’s also a problem that a lot of the time people see this as a debate with two sides in a way that they wouldn’t see debates that are comparable about race or being gay.”

There’s a reason for that. Here’s the reason: it’s because they’re not comparable. Being trans isn’t like being Of Color or gay. It’s very different in several important ways. Sophie Grace Chappell is not like John Lewis or Alan Turing.

Chappell and her allies consider many gender-critical views to be transphobic. Nonetheless, she insists that “there are no questions that I refuse to engage with.” It’s the questioners she avoids, when she judges that they’re not “in good faith” or “getting it.” 

Back atcha, pal.

So what are the things that gender-critical feminists say which Chappell believes shows they’re not listening? “I’ll give you three examples. First of all, trans women—they don’t normally talk about trans men in this context—are sexual predators, a threat to women’s safety. Secondly, there’s no such thing as a trans kid, and thirdly, trans people are delusional.”

The first one is dishonest. We don’t say trans women in general are sexual predators, we say we don’t know who is and the trans label is a perfect cover for men who are sexual predators.

The second one – how does Chappell know there is such a thing as a trans kid? How does he know, beyond a reasonable doubt, that kids who call themselves trans know they are trans and are not simply joining a trend aka a fashion?

The third one – does Chappell know for certain that all trans people really are the sex they say they are, which is the opposite of the one their bodies indicate? If so, how does he know that? The way I see it is that sex just is what the body indicates and that it’s absurd to insist that one is literally in every sense the Other sex. I’m not sure I would say “trans people are delusional” just like that, but I do think they’ve bought into a mass delusion. Once a mass delusion has taken hold, it’s not exactly delusional to buy into it, because buying into what other people have bought into is how we function in the social world. It’s more that they’re conforming to a delusion.

Julian points out that the more serious gender critical feminists don’t say such things.

“There can sometimes be inconsistencies between people’s comments on social media and what they put in their books, and often it’s not actually very clear which of two conflicting positions people really take,” she responds, at pains to avoid naming names. “You also find prominent people in that ideological neck of the woods who are quite happy, for example, to give approbation to people on social media who one would think of as much more violent activists, who say things like: ‘We should have guards with guns in women’s loos to keep the “transes” out.’”

More violent activists? The violence hasn’t been coming from the feminists. And anyone can make up stupid “say things like” pseudo-quotations, but I haven’t seen much if any talk of guards with guns.

Chappell would prefer to be on the same side as the gender-critical feminists, fighting for women’s rights against the patriarchy. “I don’t see why we shouldn’t agree some targets and work together towards those targets,” she says, such as resisting the attack on bodily autonomy represented by the overturning of Roe v Wade. Given the mistrust and animosity on both sides, however, such a united front looks distant.

For the same reason that BLM activists don’t always want to work together with white people. We don’t have skin in the game in the same way, so sometimes we just need to step back. It’s the same with men, however they identify: we don’t always want to work together with them to fight the patriarchy. The overturning of Roe v Wade isn’t an attack on Chappell the way it is on women. If he were a woman he would probably get that.

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