The campaign of intimidation against the Sussex University scholar is a parable of much else that is wrong with our culture – and a terrible sign that we are becoming cavalier about free expression
“Why do all conversations always end up being about trans?” From time to time, this question has been posed in Tortoise news meetings – asked in a spirit of curiosity rather than exasperation. As we confront the energy crisis, looming inflation, the continued grip of the pandemic, climate emergency, the return to power of the Taliban – you know, minor stuff like that – why should the discussion so often revert to this particular, apparently niche issue?
It’s a good question, not least because, even according to LGBT+ campaign groups, trans and non-binary people account for only one per cent of the population. Naturally, their rights, dignity and access to healthcare are matters of intrinsic concern: the new 2021 Trans Lives Survey, for instance, presents disturbing evidence that trans people are poorly served by their GPs and, in some cases, report being refused medical care.
Such systemic injustice certainly deserves coverage and attention. But what has become known, in shorthand, as the “trans debate” embraces much more than specific issues of this sort, and has become a broad proxy for a great deal more than the challenges faced by the one per cent. Why so?
A clear and present answer has been presented in the past few days by the appalling case of Kathleen Stock, professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex and a writer who has contributed to Tortoise. For some time, but especially since the publication earlier this year of her book, Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism, Professor Stock has been vilified by trans activists for her gender-critical feminism, her belief that the facts of biological sex cannot be trumped by gender identity, “particularly when it comes to law and policy”, and her insistence that same-sex facilities should be for the use of biological females, rather than for anyone who identifies as a woman.
She is one of a network of feminist scholars, writers and other professionals – Maya Forstater, Helen Joyce, Julie Bindel, Suzanne Moore, Janice Turner, Allison Bailey and others – who have collaborated in the most inhospitable of contexts to achieve a critical mass in the public space where their ideas can no longer be ignored. Predictably, retribution for their achievement has been swift and brutal.
As the new academic term has begun, the campaign of intimidation against Stock has become unconscionable. Under the auspices of an online group calling itself “Anti Terf Sussex” (“Terf” standing for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist”), stickers accusing Stock of talking “transphobic shit” have been plastered around the campus, alongside signs reading “Stock Out”. Flares have been let off by masked figures outside her home.
The campaigners say their demand is straightforward: “Fire Kathleen Stock. Otherwise you’ll see us around.” The police have advised her that she may need bodyguards on campus and CCTV at her house, and have installed what amounts to a panic button on her phone, enabling her to trigger an automatic call-out by officers to her house.
She has suffered dreadful panic attacks and, though demonstrably at the top of her intellectual game, is asking whether she has a future in academic life. As she told the Sunday Times: “I feel very on edge and a bit mad. I am not sleeping very well. It is surreal.”
On Friday, months after she filed a complaint to her university for its failure to support her, Adam Tickell, Sussex’s outgoing vice-chancellor, finally spoke up on the BBC’s Today programme to defend the “untrammelled right [of his academic staff] to say and believe what they think.” That was good of him. It was also too little, too late.
It is often claimed that this is, if nothing else, an even-handed controversy, with equal venom and adversity on both sides. But I invite you to pause for a moment and ask yourself what would have happened if a trans academic had been subjected to comparable intimidation on a British university campus. There would already have been a national day of reflection, a special ribbon available for purchase online, symbolic acts of solidarity on the pitch at sporting events, and supportive hashtags trending globally on Twitter. If you think this battle is being fought on a level-playing field, you haven’t been paying attention.
More shaming is the cavalier attitude to freedom of expression that has led us – and, more particularly, Stock – to this shameful pass. Last week, two journalists, Maria Ressa and Dmitri Muratov, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of their courage in the face of repression and censorship in, respectively, the Philippines and Russia. To learn of the adversity they have faced and the price they have paid to defend the core principle of free speech is inspiring – and humbling. It is nothing short of shameful that, in our own decadent society, we have come to value this liberty so cheaply and to defend it so very selectively.
To return to the original question, the case of Kathleen Stock is a grim parable of four interconnected phenomena:
1. The malleability of truth
The trans debate scratches at the conscience because it is part of a much broader and potentially dangerous reconfiguration of what constitutes reality. Amazingly, it has become heretical (at least in elite intellectual and political circles) to assert the reality of biological sex, on the post-modern grounds that biology is a minor matter compared to self-identified gender. On this basis, womanhood is not rooted in reproductive biology but entirely in self-perception. If I say I am a woman, I am one (which means – for instance – that a male former US Special Forces soldier can identify as a woman, pound a biological female contestant into submission in a mixed martial arts fight, and celebrate the victory as a blow to so-called “trans genocide”).
The consequences of this reconfiguration are huge. It means that when the apparently sensible Keir Starmer was asked two weeks ago by the BBC’s Andrew Marr whether Rosie Duffield – the Labour MP for Canterbury who had felt unable to attend the party’s conference – was right to say that “only women have a cervix”, he said: “It is something that shouldn’t be said. It is not right.” Linger on those words for a moment. According to the man who aspires to be our next prime minister, it should not be sayable that only women have cervixes.
We have grown familiar with the argument that anyone who says they are a woman should have access to same-sex spaces. The case against such demands is usually – and understandably – framed around the risk that male predators will exploit the opportunity, as has already happened (for example) in prisons and health facilities.
But this is not the end of the matter. Women have fought for single-sex spaces not only to safeguard themselves against assault and harassment, but to protect their privacy in a more general sense, and in civilised recognition of the fact that there are moments when they do not wish to be in close proximity to biological males. The speed with which these sensibilities – the sensibilities of 51 per cent of the population – have been brushed aside by concern for trans rights is breathtaking.
Yet this is what happens when reality becomes fungible; when truth is a matter of feeling and “lived experience,” rather than scientifically observable fact. What should make trans activists and their supporters feel very uncomfortable indeed is how much their world view has in common with the “alternative facts” espoused by the allies of President Trump. In the world of trans discourse and Trumpism alike, the point is not to establish the truth by a process of rational evaluation, assessment and conclusion. You pick your own reality, as if from a buffet.
The dangers inherent in this epistemological upheaval are terrifying, once you join the dots. In the 20th Century, the totalitarian state ripped the notion of truth to shreds (which was why, especially in the works of Vaclav Havel, the restoration of truth was so important to the fall of the Soviet bloc in 1989).
In the 21st, however, we are witnessing the emergence of what might be called the “totalitarian self”: the individual who, with the support of particular institutions or pressure groups, insists with increasing success that the rest of the world conform, in behaviour, language and organisation to his, her or their version of reality.
Once again, what Orwell called in Nineteen Eighty-Four “the secret doctrine that two plus two makes four” is under attack. For what if the answer “four” upsets people, or makes them feel “unsafe”? What then? Surely the “kind” thing to do is to recognise that the answer might well be five, or three, or eleven? Or all of the above? Whatever makes people feel comfortable.
2. They who rule Twitter…
The vigour of trans ideology and its capture of so many institutions reflect, in large part, the supremely strategic use of social media and the tyranny of the hashtag. Not since Vote Leave’s “Take Back Control” has there been such a culturally successful slogan as #TransWomenAreWomen – its genius being that it permits in response only “yes” or “no”, affirmation or rejection.
To suggest, as one might, that this is a purity test rather than a meaningful proposition is to identify oneself instantly as “transphobe”. To argue that a trans woman should be treated with dignity and respect, be addressed by her preferred pronouns, have access to the health care she needs, but is not literally, wholly and completely the same as a biological woman – well, that is (variously) to call for her “erasure”, to deny her “existence”, and even to encourage trans suicidality. (One of Stock’s most heinous crimes, incidentally, has been to show how disgracefully LGBT+ lobby groups have misrepresented and distorted the limited data on trans people and suicide.)
The same absolutism applies to the hashtag #TransRightsAreHumanRights. What it means, in fact, is that anyone who questions any aspect, or detail, or subclause of the trans agenda is, by definition, a bigot. Of course, all pluralist societies depend, in order to function, upon a constant process of negotiation between different groups to resolve the conflicts of rights that arise in any complex community. The warp and weft of diverse co-existence is compromise and give and take.
But not for the trans lobby: to an unprecedented extent, they insist upon total and complete compliance with their position, and the punishment and exile of anyone – such as Stock – who dares to question any of their demands. Men who do so will be called idiots and bigots, which, I suppose, comes with the territory. Women, on the other hand, who push back will be inundated with threats of death, rape and torture, viciously condemned as “Terfs” who deserve violent punishment.
Of course, everyone ritualistically condemns such behaviour. But I detect no urgency of will to stamp it out.
All of this is consistent with the demented algorithmic culture of Twitter, and the pile-ons that are its commercial engine. But it is no basis at all for organising the real world, real people and the nuances of their disagreements. The digitally driven fundamentalism of trans ideology is perhaps its most alarming feature.
3. Generational change
There is unquestionably a generational divide on this issue. Broadly speaking, members of Gen Z (those born between 1997 and 2012) are baffled that this is even an issue for older people and find their reservations quaint, bigoted, or both. Yesterday’s Sunday Times quoted Rees, a 20-year-old student: “I do not think [Stock] should be working at the university. Trans people are a marginalised group in society and institutions simply do not care about trans people. People I love very much are trans and are clearly upset by Stock. There is the matter of academic freedom but these things should have limits.”
As it happens, I think the generation in question is one of the most energised and dynamic to have come along in a long while (reader, I wrote a book saying as much). They are right about racism, sexism, climate change, the intergenerational injustice of property prices, taxation and student finance, the deplorable state of mental health services, and the decay and dysfunction of the political system.
But no generational cohort is infallible – and this one has swallowed trans ideology in a single gulp without due care and attention. There lies ahead an invigorating intergenerational debate as they make their way and assert themselves in life. But a debate it will be, not mere stenography as the grateful old transcribe a new set of commandments issued ex cathedra by the young. The riposte “okay boomer” was funny to start with – but, as killer lines go, it’s pretty much run its course.
4. Censors aren’t always nice
Is there such a thing as “cancel culture”? A quick way of finding out would be to ask Kathleen Stock, who has a pretty fair claim to be victim of a form of attack that – in the purest form of gaslighting – many of her antagonists would say does not exist. Surely, they argue, she is only being subjected to precisely the sort of scrutiny and accountability that she herself claims is the essence of academic freedom?
For a magnificent exploration of the difference between criticism and “cancel culture”, I recommend Jonathan Rauch’s recent book, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth. Here is the heart of his argument:
The response of trans activists to this would be: maybe, but what we say is morally correct, we are on “the right side of history,” and so the expulsion of those that transgress is demonstrably in the interests of the common good.
There is so much wrong with this position that one barely knows where to start. But the best counterargument is this: why do you so glibly assume that the people doing the cancelling, the sacking and the censoring – all in the name of “human rights” and “safety”, of course – will always be those you consider to be the good guys?
The trouble is that censorship of one sort invariably normalises censorship of all sorts; today’s campaign of which you approve, against a gender-critical academic like Stock, opens the path for tomorrow’s crackdown on something you cherish.
What do you imagine Nadine Dorries is planning in her new role as culture secretary? Didn’t you hear Boris Johnson and Oliver Dowden, the Conservative party chair, lambast “wokeness” in their conference speeches last week?
Once you lose sight of the fact that free expression protects everyone, you are inviting your own destruction. I firmly believe that tomorrow’s citizens should be taught in school about – amongst many other things – critical race theory and gender ideology to help them navigate the complexities of modern life. But I have a bleak and informed hunch that there is a 21st-century version of Section 28 (the 1988 legislative clause that outlawed the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities) coming down the track – one that insidiously limits pupils’ exposure to certain kinds of radical ideas connected with the new social justice movements.
Such proposals, if they are tabled, should be resisted ferociously. But how much harder will that be for those who have argued for the censorship of people and ideas of which they disapprove? Those who live by cancellation will die by it.
Journalism is not a therapeutic trade. Those who want to increase people’s ease should try the caring professions. The job is what it has always been: to cut through to the truth, however awkward or unpalatable.
And the truth is – in answer to the inquiry with which I began – that the trans debate is unavoidable because it is really a crossroads, and one that leads in all directions in our culture: to freedom, censorship, identity, truth, scientific reality, and Orwell’s “secret doctrine”. The whole nine yards, in other words.
So the question is not: how, when so much else is going on, can I write about Kathleen Stock? The question is: how can I not?
Helen Joyce joins us on October 20 for a ThinkIn called Pulp and Be Damned: a new age of censorship in publishing? in which we will discuss the impact of the so-called “culture wars” on intellectual freedom, ideas and publishing.
Pulp and be damned: are we living in a new era of censorship in publishing?
Photograph by Graeme Robertson / eyevine