Rebecca Lowe is the former director of FREER, and a former assistant editor of ConservativeHome. She is co-founder of Radical. She and Victoria Hewson, her co-founder, alternate authorship of this fortnightly column on trans, sex and gender issues.
Regular readers of this column will know that the two of us who write it have some differences of opinion. Since one of us is a classical liberal (me), and the other a classic conservative (Victoria), you might not be surprised to learn we disagree about the honours system. One of our many points of agreement, however – regardless of whether the UK should have such a system – is that there are few people in public life more deserving of public gratitude than Kathleen Stock.
Professor Stock was awarded an OBE in December for ‘services to higher education and academic freedom’. Over the past decade, she has written and spoken at increasing length about sex and gender, emphasising her concerns about the rise of ‘gender-identity’ activism. She has approached this as a trained philosopher – writing analytically about complex matters in a clear and coherent manner.
I, for one, find her approach comes as a sharp relief, amid the sea of stream-of-consciousness ‘arguments’ from ‘authority’ that make up most of the contemporary writing on these matters. And I challenge anyone to read her relevant public philosophy and fail to understand exactly what she’s saying. Now, being clear is, of course, insufficient in itself. But it’s hard to stress quite how rare it is, today – not just in public writing about sex and gender, but, sadly, in academic writing more generally.
One reason Stock focuses on the area of sex and gender (having previously written mostly about aesthetics) is evident from something she wrote last weekend:
“People such as me are going to carry on thinking and writing about [the risks of uncritically assuming gender identity to be more important than biological sex] even if many of our colleagues would prefer us to shut up. I’m afraid we can’t afford to stop. The costs to the public are too large to do otherwise.”
Two salient points to take from this are that –
a) Stock believes that if she and others stop doing the kind of thing she’s doing, serious harms will ensue; and
b) that there are many people who want her and those others to stop.
The first point relates to the substance of arguments she makes: about the risks ‘natal’ women face if ‘natal’ men who self-identify as women are permitted general access to women-only spaces;* the societal importance of acknowledging biological truth; and the requirement to respect obligations of care towards children who aren’t capable of consenting to taking life-changing drugs of the type prescribed by the Gender Identity Development Service.
The second point relates specifically to the appalling treatment Stock constantly faces at the hands of others within academia. Regular readers will be unsurprised to learn she needs extra security on campus. Beyond that, just consider the past few weeks.
After the OBE announcement, many professional philosophers denigrated Stock on social media. They claimed she’s a weak philosopher, whose work is unworthy of public honour, and even – in one notable case – that it’s totally lacking in value. Learning, however, that the OBE hadn’t been awarded for the philosophical merit of Stock’s corpus, but for her embodiment of commitment to free speech, her opponents turned to character assassination.
Hundreds of academics signed a public letter stating their dismay at the OBE, on the implicit grounds that Stock is transphobic. Whilst this un-evidenced and defamatory specific accusation isn’t directly put into words, the letter is entitled ‘Open Letter Concerning Transphobia in Philosophy’, and includes claims such as: “[d]iscourse like that Stock is producing and amplifying contributes to […] harms” against trans people.
That the letter included a serious substantive error (it stated that Stock opposed the GRA, rather than particular reforms to it) seemed of little concern to its organisers. Indeed, they stuck with the letter’s original uncorrected text for some time, preferring to present exactly what their initial signatories had agreed to (see the first attempt at an erratum), over removing untruths about Stock’s views.
This was actually helpful: it showcased the lack of value these people place in truth. This is unsurprising, of course, since dangerous truth-denying post-modernist roots lie beneath many of the ‘arguments’ that Stock’s work counters.
The letter’s organisers have now added a correction, however – in parenthesis, asterisked to an updated erratum. Even post-modernists understand the costs of being seen not to care about truth, it seems. (Of course, many of the signatories are not signed-up post-modernists. But I’d bet all of them believed signing would bring personal career benefits over costs.)
One particularly badly-thought-through take making the rounds these past couple of days explicates the matter further. Apparently, because Stock has an academic book coming out, because she’s given prestigious lectures (amid angry petitions), because she’s been able to reveal her struggles in the national press, and because she’s been awarded an OBE (suddenly of interest to philosophers all over the world..), therefore, they claim, she’s not ‘being silenced’.
Now, current obsession with the term ‘silencing’ is surely generally unhelpful. Attacks on free speech aren’t limited to instances of literal gagging. In a liberal democracy, it’s required that all members of society are able to speak out about whatever they want. Yes, certain conditions are typically placed on this, such as that constituted by J.S. Mill’s famous ‘harm principle’. But just because someone is able to speak publicly in certain privileged ways – indeed, even if they were able to shout directly into everyone’s ears, via some clever new technology – doesn’t mean their freedom of speech is not unjustifiably at risk.
Such risk can come from many places – not only from within the formal apparatus of the state, but from other institutions, groups, and individuals. A liberal democratic society must model an environment of deliberation, equally open to every member. We all have responsibilities, here. But foremost among the institutions expected to help maintain this environment are educational establishments. Within those, if you’re lucky, you’ll find some philosophers.
Philosophers are people committed to searching out truth. They understand the value of formal argument, and practise it. Not to denigrate or otherwise harm others, but to try to reach truths, by fully testing differing positions, which involve obviously firm things like scientific facts, and less obvious but nonetheless equally firm things like values and principles. We need these people badly. We need them, not least, to help us find our way through important but difficult and emotive debates.
So you should be pleased to hear of a second public letter. Entitled ‘Open Letter Concerning Academic Freedom’, its academic signatories state their consternation at the ‘public vilification’ the anti-Stock letter represents.
But, beyond concerns about the value of public letters, there’s something else worth considering. Although it’s cheering to note that many more philosophical ‘big hitters’ signed up to the second letter than the first, that doesn’t mean all’s well.
Successful older academics can say pretty much whatever they like, as long as they provide decent reasons – certainly without fear of career cost. But junior scholars don’t have that luxury. Telling a twenty-something graduate student ‘hey, don’t worry, you’re on the side of some of the most famous living philosophers!’ doesn’t mean much. Not when they know that their peers – and the academic administrators they depend on for preferment – are watching for any ‘misstep’, fingers on the screenshot buttons. Academic freedom? Doesn’t sound like it to me.
*Stock doesn’t use the term ‘natal’ like this, anymore. I think that’s generally a good call, but I’m using it here for clarity in the context of a limited word count.