Kathleen Stock: taboo around gender identity has a chilling effect on academics | Higher Education
TThe press release accompanying Professor Kathleen Stock’s new book says she wants to see a future in which trans rights activists and gender-conscious feminists work together to achieve some of their political goals. But she admits that it currently looks fanciful. As far as she’s concerned, the book, Material Girls, features her booth – and she knows a lot of people will find it obnoxious.
Stock, a philosophy professor at the University of Sussex, says the key question she addresses – herself offensive to many – is: do trans women count as women?
Anything else about her opinions is controversial, she’s surely on firm ground when she writes that this issue has become surrounded by toxicity. But the problem for her is, at least in part, that many people are doing all they can to avoid responding to them. “Very few skeptical people talk about it directly, because they are afraid,” she says. “It’s so psychologically difficult to say, in response: ‘I’m afraid not.'”
Stock finds it hard to say that she is not a transphobe, and also that she is sensitive to the idea that many people feel they are in the “wrong” body. What she says opposes, however, is the institutionalization of the idea that gender identity is all that matters – that how you identify with yourself automatically confers all the rights of that sex. And she thinks that increasingly in universities and around the world, this is a vision that cannot be questioned.
“There is a taboo against saying that, but that’s what I believe,” she said. “It’s fair enough if people want to disagree with me, but that’s what I think.”
This latter statement is also loaded, as the gender identity line is closely linked, especially on college campuses, with freedom of expression. Campuses are a minefield for those who wish to discuss these issues, she said, and she faced calls for her university to fire her. She therefore supports the government controversial plans for a free speech bill, which critics say, including England’s PEN, Section 19 and Index on Censorship, will have the opposite effect.
In a joint letter, they argued that the legislation “may have the reverse effect of further limiting what is considered ‘acceptable’ speech on campus and of introducing a deterrent effect on both the content of what is said to be ‘acceptable’ speech on campus. is taught and on the scope of exploration of academic research ”.
But Stock supports the bill: “I think the vice-chancellors and the university management groups have shown that they cannot handle the modern problems related to the suppression of academic freedom. I think there are real examples of the unfair treatment of controversial academics, and these academics should be able to obtain meaningful redress. “
This week, the University of Essex apologized to two professors, Jo Phoenix and Rosa Freedman, after a investigation found that the university violated its free speech obligations when their invitations or discussions were canceled following complaints from students.
Stock grew up in Montrose, Scotland, the daughter of a philosophy professor and newspaper proofreader, and studied for her degree at Exeter College, Oxford, and then did a master’s degree at the University of St Andrews and a doctorate at Leeds.
Having become gay relatively late in life, she now lives in Sussex with her partner and two sons from her previous marriage. She sees her OBE, awarded earlier this year for higher education services, as a signal that her views have at least some support in the facility.
“With academics online, students online – this has introduced a whole new landscape for dealing with controversial ideas, especially when those ideas are controversial within your peer group or student body. Threats to academic freedom don’t just come from China, or from millionaires trying to buy a library wing for your college; they also come from students who prepare a petition seconds after you’ve said something and tried to get fired.
Sometimes, she says, it’s more insidious than layoffs: “For academics [the gender identity debate] has a chilling effect, as academics believe their careers may suffer less visibly: they are not promoted or they are excluded from an editorial board. The net result of all of this, she says, is an impoverishment of ideas and knowledge, and damage to the dissemination of information.
Because another of Stock’s key arguments in her book is that her own profession, academia, has failed to examine in detail some of the claims made by trans activists. She questions some of the shared data regarding violence against trans people, saying many of it is produced by groups who embrace a particular narrative.
“I have no doubt that transphobic crime is happening, but I want to know to what extent it is happening in a way that could help the trans community better understand the problem they are facing.” She is disappointed, she says, with some college colleagues not to rise above the fray. “I thought the purpose of philosophy was that you would be able to discuss things without resorting to ad hominem attacks – I thought that was the purpose of our training.”
How does he think we got to where we are? Stock is challenging Stonewall, the LGBTQ + charity, which advocates for trans inclusion and opposes the views of critical gender feminists. The charity Diversity Champions Program is very popular on campuses, and Stock believes this has in part “turned universities into trans activist organizations” through their equality, diversity and inclusion departments.
Beyond that, the introduction of tuition has played its part in the current situation, Stock believes. “As soon as the students started paying, they became customers and the universities became much more deferential. They started talking about knowledge co-production, which gave them a lot more choice over the whole experience. The problem with this, she thinks, is that “some young people have fixed ideas about gender identity theory, and it’s embarrassing – especially when universities present themselves as friends of LGBT and gay people. “
Philosophy is a vast space, most of it without risk of abuse. So what’s holding her back in this particular arena? “I was bullied as a kid and I think it gave me the experience of social ostracization and hardened me,” she says. “I also have incredible support. Of course, some philosophers and colleagues are against my point of view, but others are very favorable.
“In addition, it’s personal for me: I struggled with my body in terms of femininity. I could easily have decided at 15 that I was non-binary or even a boy. And I feel very worried about the teens who are now blocking reproductive possibilities and their futures, or damaging their bodily tissues irreversibly, based on an idea they might give up at a later date.
A tragedy of the gender identity debate is how hateful and polarized it has become. Stock says she has suffered abuse online, but is making it clear that she will continue to expose her case.