Just such a toxic climate

Laura Favaro’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed last September:

“There’s just such a toxic climate around this subject,” I was repeatedly told. A mid-career sociologist added: “There is conflict, and bullying, but no debate happening.”

But the topic seemed too important to ignore. In recent times, it has moved from Twitter (where it now trends almost daily) to the centre-stage of politics; would Liz Truss have been elected as the new Conservative Party leader by Tory MPs and party members without her consistent opposition to gender self-identification? Nowhere is the debate more febrile, however, than academia. It has ended friendships, research collaborations and even academic careers.

One recent case in point is the accusation that University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady presided over a “gender ID witch-hunt”. The Times obtained minutes of a meeting she attended that sought to gather information about alleged “transphobes and prominent gender-critical activists” working in university diversity departments.

Jo Grady apparently believe the “trans people are the most vulnerable” mantra.

Favaro goes on:

It was clear that the “gender-critical” feminist academics I interviewed had faced negative repercussions for years for expressing their view (now protected in the UK under the Equality Act 2010…) Among other experiences, my interviewees described complaints to and by management, attempts to shut down events, no platforming, disinvitations, intimidation, smears and losing career progression opportunities, including being blocked from jobs.

Others spoke about being physically removed from events, alongside receiving torrents of abuse online that even included incitements to murder. One criminology scholar said her experience was “a continuum of hell”, while a law scholar claimed “the impact has been huge [and] is going to last a long time”. Aware of these potential consequences, and citing feelings of fear, isolation and despair, others had decided to “hide in the shadows”.

Those in the earlier stages of their careers said that “it would just be too terrifying” to make their views public due to the threat of being “ostracised…because so much within academia depends on personal connections”, while more experienced colleagues alluded to “self-preservation”. Feared by all was the “horrible backlash” online; one sociologist worried about death and rape threats seen elsewhere stated: “I have children – I’m frightened.”

This didn’t happen with previous rights campaigns did it? Disagreement, argument, heated discussions, yes, but this systematic bullying and ostracism and career-trashing? Was that a thing? Not that I know of. Men who got nailed for sexual harassment may have seen it that way, but I don’t know of anyone else who did. The frantic rage and repudiation of this “activism” are (as far as I know) new.

Despite its conceptual diversity, genderism coheres around the push for gender (identity) to replace sex in most – if not all – contexts. Unlike feminism, its political subject is not female people but rather all those subjected to gender oppression – a concept that is redefined to emphasise lack of choice and affirmation relating to gender identity.

And there’s part of the problem right there. However constrained men are by the rules of gender, they’re not subordinated by them in the way women are. It’s like All Lives Matter again.

One interviewee who identified as a trans woman described the current situation in academia as “a political battle over an institutional space”, clarifying that: “My political bottom line is – I don’t concede to people who are interested in the eradication of me and everyone like me in the world because I consider that a genocidal project.”

This view, together with the belief that “cis women have more power than trans people”, led genderist academics to refrain from forthrightly denouncing some transgender activists’ aggressive tactics towards feminists. These include threats and ideations of extreme violence, which, as well as being pervasive on social media, appear to be increasingly condoned at universities. For example, last year, a London School of Economics postgraduate student conference paper described a scene in which feminists critical of genderism “scream for mercy”. The paper then described the potential threat: “I hold a knife to your throat and spit my transness into your ear”, concluding: “Are you scared? I sure fucking hope so.”

When discussing this horrific anti-feminism, some interviewees, including those working on violence against women, would nonetheless still equivocate. As one sociologist put it: “My priority are the people who are being harmed by this debate, who I perceive to be trans people.” “These gender-critical feminists – they are intellectualising [sex and gender], and I think it’s harmful,” she added.

So this sociologist, who is a woman, sees men as the victims of women, as long as the men claim to be trans.

When asked to describe their arguments, however, she responded: “I don’t know if what I understand or what I think are the issues are the issues, I’ll be honest with you – I stay out of their way.” This remarkable coupling of condemnation and ignorance regarding gender-critical feminism was fairly common among genderist academics. Many readily admitted that they limit their academic engagements, including their reading, to their “echo chambers and bubbles” where, as one journal editor noted, “we all share basically the same perspectives”.

“And we’re all pretty stupid.”

A number of genderist academics recognised that “more nuanced, more honest, self-aware conversations [should] take place” – although strictly among genderists only and in private spaces, since, in public, “you’ve got to be for your team and toe the party line”, one education scholar explained.

Ahhhhh well no wonder it’s such an intelligent thoughtful well-reasoned debate.

Gatekeeping was also suggested in the responses by another 11 interviewees who held principal editorship roles at feminist, gender and sexuality studies journals. All confirmed that genderist perspectives dominate these publications, in the sense that “on the editorial board, none of us would describe ourselves as in the gender critical camp”. Editors additionally pointed to the preferred perspective of authors, readers and publishing houses. For some, it was a matter of scholarly values, with gender-critical feminism described as “wrong-headed”, “outdated” or “completely delegitimised”. Others, however, acknowledged that “the objection is a political one”.

This article is making me feel ill.

Genderist academics reported personally imposing bans from academic networks and events, along with language policing of colleagues as well as students. “If students write ‘female’ in their essay, I’ll cross it out,” a sociologist told me, because “what matters is gender [identity]”.

The illness just got worse.

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