An open letter replying to Branwen at Branwen.me as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Further replies welcome!
I write to you at this time as my closest friend in the trans community, among which I have made a great many friends over the past twenty years, and all of whom I hold dear. I write with great concern, because social media advocates for the trans community are currently engaged in actions that are extremely likely to hurt the trans community, the lesbian community, and women in general. And I also write with considerable difficulty: precisely because I dearly wish for liberty for the trans community, and indeed for everyone else, I feel great anxiety when the path that leads there has become obscured by a series of intersecting forms of hatred manifesting in the dark corners of these communities.
A short while ago, I consented to having my name added to an open letter addressed the University of Bristol asking them to ensure the freedom of speech of the British organisation, A Women’s Place. This group has been accused of a great many things by the trans community, including that they are espousing violence against trans folks and that they are TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists). I can find no specific evidence to support the former claim, and have no particular interest in assessing the latter since ‘TERF’ is fast becoming the political equivalent of an ethnic slur (as with terms such as ‘libtard’ or ‘Remoaner’) and that seems as offensive to me as (say) purposefully deadnaming a trans person. I find both these situations offensive, but neither is illegal and, I would further suggest, neither should be.
A question I hear more often than I should these days is whether there should be limits to freedom of speech, which is otherwise taken to be a fundamental right. It seems to me that freedom of speech should not be curtailed, or else this right means nothing. Nonetheless, there is always an associated responsibility to take into account the outcomes of what someone says, and this mean that some forms of speech can be judged illegal, irrespective of freedom of speech. For instance, when Lawrence Burns was arrested in the UK for inciting racial hatred it was because such incitement was itself illegal. Indeed, inciting violence is illegal in the civil law of the vast majority of nations, and because of this it greatly matters what we construe as ‘violence’, a point I shall return to shortly.
As a historical matter, the very notion of ‘rights’ is grounded on the idea that the limits which should apply to everyone are those that serve to collectively defend everyone’s freedom. In his discussion of these issues in The Free Development of Each, Allen Wood lays out the conception of rights as they existed in the German philosophical tradition from which they originated. The German philosophical term ‘Recht’, meaning roughly ‘the condition of right’ or ‘rightful conditions’, entails having the freedom from having your choices constrained by the choices of others, such that everyone can experience freedom equally. In the centuries since Kant’s time, we have switched from talking about ‘the condition of right’ (Recht) and started talking about ‘rights’ instead, but the same considerations still apply. The manner chosen for addressing the condition of right at the moment is a set of legal statutes, agreed internationally (although not currently endorsed by all nations) and often modified nationally. It is these that we call ‘rights’, like the right to free speech, which (as for any such right) applies to everyone equally.
The problem we are now facing is that the trans community’s freedom from having their choices constrained by the choices of others has now come into conflict with other communities equivalent demands for freedom. These kind of disputes are an unavoidable consequence of trying to build a system of laws that sets as its goal equal liberty, since different conceptions of both equality and liberty must inevitably conflict as the attempt is made to balance the needs and demands of one group against another. Whenever this happens, there must be discussion about how to resolve the conflict – and no single party can expect its demands to be given precedence against anyone else’s as such disagreements are being resolved. The danger at the moment is that this necessary conversation is being obstructed by political pressure being applied by some trans advocates… and that’s a potential disaster for everyone’s liberty.
In the UK, these disputes have hit an impasse over a proposed modification to an existing law known as the Gender Recognition Act. Part of the proposed change would remove the current system of application for a Gender Recognition Certificate as a required step before legally permitting people to present themselves as a different gender to that officially recorded for them. I am not a supporter of the Gender Recognition Certificate process… it places a medicalised step into a system where it is not clear it is required, and where it can certainly be distressing. But I am unsure whether I support the currently proposed revisions to the Gender Recognition Act or not… that would depend upon how the new law impacts everyone, and not just the trans community. To establish that requires discussion – and it is this discussion that is currently being obstructed by certain trans advocates who are campaigning against groups such as A Woman’s Place who seek to participate in that debate.
It seems to me that a lot of the furore that has been directed at A Woman’s Place revolves around discussion of what is called the Gender Critical view. I can find no evidence that this particular organisation is committed to the ‘gender critical’ view, although it is certainly the case that some of the people involved with it do hold gender critical beliefs. I would like to provide a definition here of what ‘gender critical’ means, but any attempt to do so will be inadequate as a great deal is collected under this banner, not all of it accurately ascribable to those who hold this view. Broadly, however, being ‘gender critical’ entails firstly viewing gender primarily as a social construct, and secondly interpreting the female gender as relating to a specific model of power relations founded on control of the assumed innate reproductive qualities of female bodies. This viewpoint has become problematic in part because disbelieving gender also entails undermining trans people’s claims about their gender.
You contend to me that espousing the gender critical view is violence against the trans community… this is a serious allegation, since under the system of rights that evolved from Kant’s philosophy, the State is justified in intervening against those who conduct violence against others, in order to preserve rightful condition. But it matters here whether we are talking about literal violence – the use of physical force or power against someone – or whether we are talking about figurative violence, which would be protected by the right of free speech unless it incited literal violence. The twenty eight members of the trans community in the US killed in 2017 were tragic victims of violence – and distressingly this figure has been climbing each year recently. The ‘corrective’ rape of Mvuleni Fana, and scores of other lesbians like her in South Africa is grotesque violence. The beating of transwoman Jayla Ware in Charlotte, NC, earlier this year was violence. The punching of sixty year old Maria MacLachlan at Speaker’s Corner in the UK last year because she had been branded a TERF was violence.
I assume the reason that you and others want to hold gender critical views as (figurative) violence against the trans-community is because such beliefs dissolve the concept of gender entirely and instead focus solely upon biological sex, in some cases leading to a denial that a transwoman is a woman or a transman is a man. The threat here is thus one of erasure, since if this view were to be widespread it would entirely eliminate even the possibility of being a transgender person. Believe me, I know how upsetting such situations can be, as I have already experienced a situation where others were espousing views that entailed the erasure of an important part of my identity, namely my religions.
When Richard Dawkins began to talk about parents who were raising their children within a religious tradition as tantamount to child abuse, I was incensed. This amounted in my case to a literal accusation against my own parents that they abused me, which was factually inaccurate and deeply upsetting. Furthermore, if Dawkins’ logic had become sufficiently widespread, it would ultimately have amounted to the erasure of religious children – which I take as entailing a complete nullification of who I am, since who I am depends upon who I have been. I felt such anger at this horrific view. Even at my furthest point from wanting to identify as religious, even when I held my most hostile attitude towards fundamentalist Christianity, I still accepted the positive role my parents’ Christianity had in shaping me. Dawkins polemic was figurative violence against me. And I was ultimately forced to accept that this was protected by free speech. You might be resistant to this analogy, but for me this is directly parallel to the relationship between certain gender critical views and the trans community, right up to the invocation of ‘science’ or ‘rationalism’ as justifications.
We accept severe disagreements between people from different religious traditions because we acknowledge that different metaphysical (i.e. untestable) claims are entailed in each tradition. We are going to need at some point to accept that this is also true of sex and gender: there are facts about sex and gender, but none of them eliminate a need for individuals and communities to form their own metaphysical understanding of the meaning of those facts. This freedom of belief is crucial to liberty in general, and even extends to some degree to the facts themselves (if it did not, the sciences would be stagnant because there would be no room for new understandings to overturn old dogmas).
I share with you a commitment to the claim that ‘transwomen are women’ and ‘transmen are men’. But we cannot compel others to share those beliefs and still claim to be in support of equal liberty for all people. I share with gender critical feminists the view that gender is a social construct, just like other important things such as money, nations, personal identity, and human rights. I cannot share the view that a specific understanding of power relations entails denying trans folks the freedom to establish their own identities, since this seems against the commitment to equality and freedom that feminism was founded upon. But I cannot compel such feminists to give up those beliefs, even in such cases as they are hurtful to the trans community. I can and will oppose incitement to violence against trans folks, and every other human being. But figurative violence, no matter how distasteful, is protected by freedom of speech and must not be infringed, or the cause of liberty is hopelessly undermined.
I am astounded and impressed by the political power now wielded by trans allies as a result in large part of the connectivity of the internet. But I am horrified to find this power being wielded to bully and silence women and prevent conversations about the implications of a change in UK law with serious implications for all women, not just transwomen. When the cause of trans advocates risks encouraging organisations to bully their own staff because their beliefs do not align with a dogmatically enforced metaphysical status quo, the cause of liberty for all has run amok. When the trans community think it acceptable to advocate violence against women, as happens when people support concepts such as ‘punch a TERF’, we have gone far from redressing inequality and into a dark and distressing place where a desire for hateful vengeance is occluding the struggle for equality. That hatred and bullying can be found in the unpleasant corners of many political groups today, including feminists and radical feminists… but it is never justified in the pursuit of liberty.
The journey towards trans liberty has been difficult, and will continue to be so, but it is only a part of the greater journey towards equal freedom for all envisioned by Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers such as the British philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft understood that the condition of right necessitated a change in the status of women, and argued persuasively for this to happen. In her 1792 text, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman she wrote:
…if women are educated for dependence, that is, to act according to the will of another fallible being, and submit, right or wrong, to power, where are we to stop? Are they to be considered as viceregents, allowed to reign over a small domain, and answerable for their conduct to a higher tribunal, liable to error?
It will not be difficult to prove, that such delegates will act like men subjected by fear, and make their children and servants endure their tyrannical oppression. As they submit without reason, they will, having no fixed rules to square their conduct by, be kind or cruel, just as the whim of the moment directs; and we ought not to wonder if sometimes, galled by their heavy yoke, they take a malignant pleasure in resting it on weaker shoulders.
This caution applies to both the trans community and the feminist community, and to women and humans of all kinds, and holds a wisdom desperately needed at a time when social media technology is all too frequently undermining the cause of liberty for all. I worry whenever I see communities set into conflict that ought to be working together to support the common cause of freedom and justice for all, especially at a time when the entire notion of rights is under threat, if it has not already been irrevocably impaired. I am afraid, for everyone, when we lose sight of the path to liberty for all... but I never lose my hope that we will find our way back to it.
You will always have my love and respect, and I shall always strive to be worthy of yours.
With unlimited love,
The opening image is Traces of Liberty by Omar Obaid which I found here at omarobaid.com. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.