In praise of ambivalence—“young” feminism, gender identity, and free speech
* Note: this article was first published online at Quillette magazine.
Alice Dreger, the historian of science, sex researcher, activist, and author of a much-discussed book of last year, has recently called attention to the loss of ambivalence as an acceptable attitude in contemporary politics and beyond. “Once upon a time,” she writes, “we were allowed to feel ambivalent about people. We were allowed to say, ‘I like what they did here, but that bit over there doesn’t thrill me so much.’ Those days are gone. Today the rule is that if someone—a scientist, a writer, a broadcaster, a politician—does one thing we don’t like, they’re dead to us.”
I’m going to suggest that this development leads to another kind of loss: the loss of our ability to work together, or better, learn from each other, despite intense disagreement over certain issues. Whether it’s because our opponent hails from a different political party, or voted differently on a key referendum, or thinks about economics or gun control or immigration or social values—or whatever—in a way we struggle to comprehend, our collective habit of shouting at each other with fingers stuffed in our ears has reached a breaking point.
It’s time to bring ambivalence back.
A Fatal Retraction
Given the state of politics these days, Dreger’s remarks could have been triggered by just about anything; but as it happens, she was reflecting on a controversial decision by the editors of Everyday Feminism, a popular online feminist magazine, to pull an essay of hers on sex education. The essay had earlier been published by Pacific Standard with the provocative title, “What If We Admitted to Children That Sex Is Primarily About Pleasure?”
The essay wasn’t the problem. In fact, the editors liked the essay: they had reached out to Dreger to ask her permission to republish it, which is how this whole episode began. Instead, the problem was some other, unrelated material that Dreger had published elsewhere—a kind of “guilt by association” with her own work.
This is how the editors explained their decision (key bits in bold):
What happened was that we decided to pull the article from circulation shortly after it went up. When we asked permission [to republish] it we weren’t aware of some of the articles you’ve published on trans issues and after a reader brought it to our attention [we] looked into them.
Trans issues means transgender issues. The editor went on:
We … realized that while we very much valued the information in the article on teaching children that sex is about pleasure, the views expressed in several of your other articles directly conflicts with the work we’re trying to do in Everyday Feminism. For that reason, we decided to pull the article.
If you aren’t familiar with Dreger’s work, you are probably wondering what she’s written about trans issues that the editors found so troubling—troubling enough to retract an unrelated essay. And if you are familiar with Dreger’s work, you are probably wondering even more. This is because Dreger is widely regarded as being a supporter of trans rights, as well as rights for intersex people, for gender non-conformers generally, and for other marginalized groups, all of which seems broadly consistent with the aims of Everyday Feminism.
Dreger’s support for sexual minorities is not idle. Instead, she has devoted the better part of her professional career to blowing up narrow-minded gender identity norms, against sometimes huge resistance, and to fighting oppressive attitudes about sex and gender within the more traditional corners of science and medicine. Her work on intersex ethics has been especially influential.
So what could be going on behind the curtain?
This is not about Alice Dreger
This is not an essay about Alice Dreger. Instead, it’s about the role of ambivalence in contemporary politics, focusing on an emerging strand of feminist politics in particular—what Kate Lyons calls “young feminism.” More ambitiously, it’s about the limits of free speech, the nature of tolerance, and the risk of moral certainty in the fight for gender justice.
The epicenter for this discussion is a heated debate over transgender identity, touching on the intimate question of what it means to be a woman. Part of this debate hinges on “what’s behind the curtain” in the exchange over Dreger’s article. Another part hinges on a much more infamous exchange over a 2015 speech by the Australian feminist Germaine Greer (but we’ll get to that later).
For now, I want to ask how a progressive, sex-positive feminist like Dreger could have fallen afoul of an online feminist community, especially one with seemingly similar values. How did she come to be seen as too hot to handle?
Science, sex, and identity
The story goes like this. Dreger has written, in her recent book and elsewhere, about a condition called “autogynephilia.” If you haven’t heard of this condition, you are not alone; but it turns out to be really important. What it refers to is the tendency of certain individuals who were male-assigned at birth to be sexually aroused by the thought or image of themselves as a female.
Some of these individuals later transition into being women, which is why this is relevant.
The problem is, some people, including some members of the trans community, strongly disagree with Dreger’s analysis of the scientific evidence on this condition. Just to be clear, Dreger does not do primary research in this area, but as a historian and sociologist of science and medicine, she has written at length about the work of those who do.
Although her primary interest has been to defend the right of these scientists to advance their views without being personally attacked—which has led to further attacks on Dreger herself—she also sometimes discusses the specifics of their theories. And while she doesn’t agree with everything they have to say, she sees their main conclusions as being pretty well supported.
One of these conclusions has become a lightning rod. That is the notion that the sexual arousal aspect of autogynephilia is not somehow tangential to the desire to transition, but is often directly causally related. Specifically, the idea is that “nonhomosexual transsexuals experience erotic arousal at the idea of becoming a woman, and this arousal motivates them to become women.”
Again, Dreger basically agrees with that idea (although she uses different terminology). Others, including the scientist and writer Julia Serano—see here—and the psychotherapist and physician Charles Moser—see here—do not.
I’m not going to drag you into the details of the science. Both of the critiques I’ve linked to are open access, and they describe what the authors see as the more dubious features of autogynephilia research. You can make up your own mind about the strength of the critiques. Instead, I want to give you a sense of the differing perspectives behind the disagreement between Dreger and her most ardent critics.
Science doesn’t happen in a vacuum (as the cliché goes); autogynephilia research is no exception. In fact, it has become a playing field for competing understandings of trans sexuality, as well as rival approaches to promoting trans welfare in a society that is—in some respects—only just beginning to grapple with the reality of trans people’s existence, let alone their basic needs.
Dreger and her critics have taken up different positions on the field. For her part, Dreger thinks that “sexual phobias” on the part of non-transgender people “have caused many transgender people over the years to feel they must only talk about their genders and never their sexualities.” In other words, they have to hide something about themselves in order to gain acceptance from a sexually conservative majority.
If that much is right, it could help to explain why studies pointing to an alleged “sexual” component to trans identity could be interpreted as rocking the boat. But in Dreger’s opinion, allowing transgender people to “openly have sexualities that matter to their genders” is not only something to be encouraged, it is “part of giving them full human rights.”1
In other words, it isn’t the erotic desires of (some) trans people that are the problem, Dreger thinks—whether in connection with transitioning or anything else—but rather the prejudiced and restrictive attitudes of the dominant culture. Trans people should embrace the sexual elements of their identities, she argues, and not give in to the close-mindedness of others.
Well, that is something that trans people will have to decide for themselves. Part of the push-back against Dreger’s analysis, I’ve come to learn, stems from the fact that the “close-mindedness of others” is not an abstract concern for them. Instead, for many trans people, it is an almost-constant source of tangible mistreatment, ranging from minor inconveniences to outright brutality.
I am reminded of something a dear friend wrote to me after I described what I saw as a conceptual problem in the “born this way” gay-rights movement. Wearing my philosopher’s hat, I raised this quibble: if the idea is that people shouldn’t discriminate against you because you didn’t choose your sexual orientation (because you were “born that way”), then what happens if some future technology makes it so that you can choose—some kind of high-tech “conversion therapy” that actually works?
Would discrimination against gay people become suddenly OK?
That seemed like an unacceptable conclusion, so I proposed that the argument for gay rights be placed on stronger footing (something I maintain is an important long-term objective). Here is what my friend wrote to me in reply:
The timeline of events in history that led to [the] “it’s not a choice” counter-argument clearly shows that this is not inherently a matter of gay-rights activism, but, rather, a necessary grasping unto something presented by a segment of the scientific community that … could enable a needed moment of relief from relentless attacks against the soul.
“It’s not a choice” has been a way to survive.
In other words, many have had to endure endless abuse for their non-heterosexuality: daily bullying, loss of employment, public humiliation, discrimination, excommunication, loss of family and friends – sometimes murder or suicide. And then, finally, in the face of all this, struggling gay men and women had something to say that would cause some attackers to pause for a second by virtue of a few magic words: it’s not a choice. There are people who reclaimed their lives because of those magic words.
Whether, in the end, sexuality is truly a choice doesn’t matter. But if someone who has endured malice all his life for feelings he felt no control over, finally, can get up in the morning and face the world with confidence while others back off, just a little, then maybe we can better understand this particular timeline of progress and not mistake it for irresponsible activism.
It has been years since I received this message, and still it hits me hard each time I read it. For me, it serves as a powerful reminder of just how easy it can be to miss the pragmatic context of a real-life issue when you approach it primarily with your “philosopher’s hat.”
The relevance of this insight to debates about trans-rights activism is fairly straightforward.
In the first place, the trans community has its own version of a “born this way” argument, which rests on the notion of a woman being “trapped in a man’s body” or a man being “trapped in a woman’s body” as a shorthand explanation for trans identity. The idea is obviously simplistic, in that there is a lot more to sex and gender—and indeed, trans identity—than a single short phrase could ever capture. But it does describe many trans people’s experience of themselves to a reasonably accurate degree.
More importantly, though, it has the potential to work like those “few magic words” that my friend described in the context of gay rights. That is, it allows some trans people, many of whom have “endured malice” for much of their lives, to “get up in the morning and face the world with confidence while others back off, just a little.”
The downside of simplicity
At the same time, there is a risk in shorthand explanations. At least, there is if they involve a trade-off with the truth. Over the long haul, trans rights, like gay rights, are likely to be most secure if they are grounded in an unshakable conceptual premise: some core principle whose perceived validity won’t rise or fall with the latest technological development—as in high-tech “conversion therapy”—or with the ever-changing tide of scientific opinion.
In other words, it can be dangerous to hitch what is essentially a moral or political argument, namely, that trans people should be treated with respect and given the same rights as anyone else, to an ultimately debatable empirical assumption. By this, I mean the assumption that there are internal gender “essences”—typically male or female—with which a person can self-identify, and then compare against their sex-typed body to see whether or not they “match.”
I am not saying that this assumption is incorrect (although it is probably not the whole story; and some trans people do not identify this way). What I am saying is that if the idea of being “trapped in the wrong body” is ever contradicted by some valid scientific insight, those “few magic words” might begin to lose their power.
Given the aim of that magic (to keep trans people safe, and to advance their vital interests in the public sphere), that might not be a risk worth taking.
How does autogynephilia research fit into this? For one thing, it challenges the “gender essences” narrative, which is a big part of why it’s so controversial. But it’s also controversial because some people see it as being flawed on scientific grounds.
For example, Serano and Moser—the two critics I cited earlier—argue that the existing data on autogynephilic trans people just do not support the proposed model. According to their reading of the literature, although there is sometimes an erotic component to gender transition decisions, it is not usually a core part of the actual motivation. So the whole focus on sexual desire which characterizes Dreger’s account (and that of the scientists she defends), is in their view beside the point.
In other words, from their perspective, it isn’t that trans people with autogynephilia are somehow denying their “true” motivation for transitioning—in order to save face or to appease social conservatives—it’s that the motivation really isn’t primarily sexual.
But so what if it is! says Dreger. This is typical of Dreger’s sex-positive attitude, and also reflective of her sex-positive politics, which I’ll expand on shortly. A developmental path shaped by sexual desire, she thinks, would be a “perfectly legitimate” route for transitioning from assigned-male to female, and, in any event, her reading of the evidence suggests that it’s a real path, whether people find that politically convenient or not.
Moreover, she says, “regardless of how someone becomes a woman, if she identifies as such, we owe her the respect of recognizing her identity and addressing her appropriately.”2
Babies and bathwater
And that is where things are at the moment. Some trans individuals, but not others, take issue with certain aspects of Dreger’s stance on autogynephilia, both politically and scientifically. Her critics have valid concerns; and so does Dreger. There are no slam dunks in this arena.
No one, however, who has charitably read even a small portion of Dreger’s scholarship on these issues, could honestly mistake her for an enemy to trans people, an opponent of trans rights, or anything along those lines.
She may not be perfect, but she is on the same team.
To conclude otherwise—as the editors of Everyday Feminism appear to have done—is, in my view, to throw out the pro-trans baby with the autogynephilia bathwater … when it isn’t even obvious that the bathwater is dirty.
Feminism, gatekeeping, and freedom of speech
This raises a delicate question: Who gets to decide if you’re the “right kind” of feminist (and so potentially qualified to write for a feminist website); similarly, who gets to decide if you’re an ally on some issue or really just a bigot in disguise?
Dreger self-identifies as both a feminist and an ally to trans people; her body of work, I contend, largely confirms those identities. But “women like me can be subject to silencing,” Dreger says, not because they are fundamentally antagonistic to trans people as such, but “simply on the basis that they have supposedly said something that is anti-trans rights, even if they have not” (emphasis hers).
Now, “silencing” strikes me as too strong here. Dreger’s piece on sex education, remember, had already been published by at least one other outlet, where it apparently went viral; and she has access to plenty of other platforms from which to broadcast her ideas, including her own popular blog. Her voice is also amplified by an impressive social media following, as well as a large and loyal audience base of generally sympathetic readers.
So it isn’t that the editors of Everyday Feminism were somehow preventing Dreger from sharing her views.
Instead, and this is no less problematic, it’s that they were trying to shield their own readers from exposure to a particular article. Not because the article itself was likely to upset them, but because it was written by an individual the editors had deemed to be ideologically tainted.
That has worrying implications for political discourse. “Because as soon as you assert anything that someone with [a] trans identity card claims is anti-trans,” Dreger writes, even if other people with the same identity would argue the opposite (the trans community is obviously not a monolith), “you are stripped of your rights to be a sex-positive feminist talking about sex ed at a feminist website.”3
The unintended consequences of censorship
Let me come right out and say it: I think the editors of Everyday Feminism made a really bad decision in pulling Dreger’s piece.
In the first place, their retraction has—if anything—brought more attention to Dreger’s views on trans issues, including her views on autogynephilia specifically (the essay you are reading is a case in point). Presumably, this is the opposite of what they had in mind. In the second place, it smacks of a kind of small-tent activism, which typically prevents a movement from going mainstream.
But finally, and most importantly, it betrays an unwillingness to provide a “platform” to someone who does not share the exact same ideology. When that someone is as generally sympathetic to the cause as Dreger is, this can be a counterproductive mindset (because it tends to alienate otherwise dependable supporters). But “no-platforming” can be a bad idea, I’m going to argue, even when the person you want to exclude is a dyed-in-the-wool ideological opponent.
Which brings me to the case of Germaine Greer.
No platform for bigots
Germaine Greer, the noted “second wave” feminist and author, was slated to speak at Cardiff University late last year. Due to her controversial views on trans issues, a petition was launched by some students at the university to have her speaking invitation rescinded.
In comparison to Dreger, Greer’s views could much more easily be described as “anti-trans.” For example, she has repeatedly denied that trans people “suffer in a way that other people don’t suffer,” despite ample evidence to the contrary; she also denies that trans women are women (on which more in just a moment).
Her feelings seem pretty anti-trans as well. Here is something she wrote in the Independent in 1989:
On the day that The Female Eunuch [Greer’s book] was issued in America, a person in flapping draperies rushed up to me and grabbed my hand. “Thank you so much for all you’ve done for us girls!” I smirked and nodded and stepped backwards, trying to extricate my hand from the enormous, knuckly, hairy, be-ringed paw that clutched it … I should have said, “You’re a man. The Female Eunuch has done less than nothing for you. Piss off.” The transvestite [sic] held me in a rapist’s grip.
The passage is painful to read, and to apply the word “transphobic” to its author seems to me to be entirely appropriate. This is especially when you factor in all of the other awful things that Greer has said about trans people since 1989.
Let me be clear, though. I am using the word “transphobic” in its dictionary sense, which is roughly: “showing or having intense dislike of or prejudice against transgender people.” Germaine Greer really does seem to dislike trans people—especially trans women, as we are about to see—and her rhetoric suggests that this dislike is, if anything, “intense.”
Some people use a wider definition of the term, however, going beyond this “dictionary” sense. They would include, not just a person’s feeling of intense dislike for trans people as an indicator of transphobia, but also the very belief that trans women are not “really” women.
As grounds for attempting to prevent an otherwise qualified speaker from giving a lecture at a university, it is hard for me to see this as sufficient.
For one thing, the question, “What is a woman?” is not trivially easy to answer, and different conceptual frameworks yield different results. So simply labeling Greer’s position as “transphobic,” in order to discredit her or keep her from speaking, is not self-evidently justified: she makes specific arguments in support of her beliefs about womanhood, and someone who disagrees with those beliefs should be able to say why, specifically.
That way, if it turns out that her arguments really are just nonsense, she can be discredited on account of the poor quality of her ideas, rather than their propositional content. Then, everyone can see the folly of her thinking, which means that her perspective would get a lot less traction.
In other words, if you are worried that someone’s ideas might be harmful, this is likely to be a more effective way of shutting them down.
That also the view of Alex Sharpe, a trans woman and scholar from Keele University. As she writes, “Censorship … tends to electrify the mundane, and Greer is a case in point. In one sense, she is [now] gaining a reputation for being the kind of celebrity who possesses a secret that can never be told.” So instead of censoring Greer, Sharpe says, we should attempt to “meet her arguments with more convincing ones [and] let her hoist herself on her own petard.”
The Greer controversy
When I first heard about the Germaine Greer controversy, I actually didn’t know who she was (I am embarrassed to say). I therefore didn’t know anything about her views on trans people, her history with feminism, or anything else. Talk about “electrifying the mundane.” I did see that some people were calling her names like “noted transphobe” and “hateful bigot,” so I assumed that she must be guilty of spouting ideas about trans people that were so absurd they could safely be ignored.
But then I noticed that some of the people who were attacking Greer weren’t actually saying why they disagreed with her. Instead, unlike Alex Sharpe, they were just labeling her as a “transmisogynist,” assuming that the reader would know to agree.
For example, in the Huffington Post, Payton Quinn wrote: “If you believe that trans women are women, as you should because they are, then what Germaine Greer is espousing in her campaign against them is misogyny and surely no feminism should include any form of misogyny.”
She went on to write: “Hopefully you’re still on board so far, because if you’re not it can be assumed that no matter how measured and reasoned my position on no-platforming is in this instance, you’re not going to agree.”
Well, I wasn’t sure I agreed with that way of framing things, but I could tell that there was a serious issue at stake: the question of whether or not “trans women are women.” Answering this question, I soon discovered, is a lot harder than I originally imagined – and it sheds light on the causes of the conceptual rift between the different sides of this debate.
What is a woman?
The first step in trying to figure out if trans women are women, apart from just asking trans women, is to clarify what you mean by the concept. This is because if Person A says trans women are not women, and Person B says they definitely are, the most likely scenario is that, among other things, they have different definitions of “woman” in mind.
Here is one widely accepted theory, which helps to explain why there might be different definitions. The theory says, basically, that the term “woman” doesn’t have a single definition, floating up there in the sky for us to discover, but is instead what philosophers call a “path-dependent cluster concept.” I know that sounds like gobbledygook, but let me explain.
In simplest terms, a cluster concept is a concept like “art” or “chair”—something that can’t be strictly identified in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, but rather something that’s characterized by a collection of familiar attributes that tend to “cluster” around paradigmatic examples.
So, for chairs, the paradigmatic example is probably a brown, wooden thing with four legs that you can sit in. But silver, metal things with three legs can be chairs, too. There are also chairs that you can’t sit in (because they’re broken, or hanging from the ceiling); and even big fabric bags full of beans can be chairs, although now our cluster of attributes is getting more diffuse.
The same thing is true of “woman” (according to this theory), as well as “man,” “American,” “Black,” and other social concepts with fuzzy boundaries. Remember the Rachel Dolezal case, about the “White” woman who claimed that she was “Black”? Whatever else it was, it was a reminder of just how hard it can be to pin down definitions for these terms that everyone can completely agree with. Does “one drop of blood” make you Black? Do you have to “look” a certain way to be Black? The cluster-concept theory reminds us it isn’t so simple.
Just as with art and chairs, then, as well as racial identities, national identities, and other cluster concepts, you have to consider more than one dimension to make sense of a term like “woman.” Obviously with art and chairs you don’t have privileged instantiations of those concepts policing membership in the overall category. With gender, race, and other social categories, you often do, and that has to be kept in mind.
But most people would agree that there are certain properties that count in favor of being a woman (like having a uterus, a vagina, or breasts, or simply regarding oneself as a woman), while at the same time, it is possible to lack at least some of these properties and still be a woman on anyone’s account. Angelina Jolie, for example, did not cease to be a woman when she had her breasts removed in an attempt to ward off cancer.
On the flip side, possessing at least some of these properties doesn’t automatically make you a woman either: most self-identified men have breasts, for example, although they tend to be smaller and typically don’t produce milk. And of course people will disagree about how much “weight” to assign to any particular property in the overall cluster.
To see this, take the concept of art. Some people think that the property being intended as art should get a lot of weight when deciding what counts as art, which would mean that something like Duchamp’s Fountain could be included in the concept. Other people think that the property being the product of extraordinary skill and effort should get more weight, which might have the effect of ruling Fountain out. There are better and worse arguments to be made for each of these dimensions (in terms of how much weight they should get), but there probably isn’t a fact of the matter one way or the other.
You can see the potential parallel with “woman,” which I’ll come back to.
Finally, there is the issue of where these properties came from—their causal history—which is the “path dependent” part of the theory I mentioned earlier. As Les Green explains, many social categories are “shaped by the way they come to take hold.” For example, “It is one thing to grow up with English as one’s mother tongue, another to speak English as a second language; one thing to be born to privilege, another to be a ‘self made man’; one thing to be raised a Jew, another to be an adult convert.”
Similarly, “the social significance of being a penis-free person is different for those who never had a penis than it is for those who used to have one,” Green says, and then either had it removed, or decided to keep it but identify as female.
Different paths, different perspectives
This is not to devalue the second kind of person, or to question their identity. It is just to explain why some people think that at least one important property for “being a woman” is having grown up being treated as a female, and having gone through certain formative experiences as a result. Les Green spells it out like this:
In our society, to be a woman is to have arrived there by a certain route: for instance, by having been given a girl’s name, by having been made to wear girl’s clothes, by having been excluded from boys’ activities, by having made certain adaptations to the onset of puberty, and by having been seen and evaluated in specific ways.
There is nothing wrong with objecting to this view (and many people do). After all, it seems to homogenize the path for becoming a woman, to the point of clouding over a lot of important individual differences even among women who “never had a penis.”
But it is worth trying to understand why some people might find this view appealing, in a way that doesn’t just attribute to them bad motives or bigotry. In the case of Germaine Greer, there are at least a few possibilities.
One is that, as a feminist writer who came to prominence in an earlier era, she is probably acutely sensitive to the ways in which people who are perceived as being female in our society are treated differently, on balance, from people who are perceived as being male—starting from a very young age—and to the various ways in which those people tend to suffer characteristic disadvantages as a result of that differential treatment.
With that in mind, it is perhaps not unreasonable to think that “having grown up being treated as a female”—with everything that often entails in a male-dominated society—should count for something when applying the concept of “woman.”
The difficulty is that, in Greer’s opinion, properties like this shouldn’t just count for “something,” but for a lot. In fact, she sees this path-dependent dimension as being so important for paradigmatic womanhood, that people who don’t have it—because, among other things, they grew up being treated as a male—just cannot be women, no matter what.
Others disagree. As they see it, this way of thinking ignores the “characteristic disadvantages” suffered by trans people, such as bullying, sexual assault, and other forms of mistreatment that also often start from a young age, and which can be just as bad as, if not worse than, the sorts of obstacles that a “penis-free” person might have to face growing up in contemporary society.
It also ignores, or at least downplays, another major attribute of womanhood, namely regarding oneself as a woman. For many trans people and their allies, it is this property that should count most heavily, to the point of being a sufficient condition all on its own. According to this perspective, if a person regards herself as a woman, then she is a woman, end of story.
Objections could be raised here, too. But it is important to realize that this perspective doesn’t just come out of nowhere. As Julia Serano explains, “transsexuals’ gender identities and lived experiences as members of our identified sex are deemed to be less socially and legally valid than those of nontranssexuals.”
This, she suggests, contributes directly to discrimination and abuse. “For this reason, transsexuals are constantly placed into positions where we have to account for, and/or fiercely defend, our gender identities in order to obtain the same [basic] rights and respect that nontranssexuals take for granted.”
In that context, you can see why tipping the scales more heavily in favor of the self-identification factor could be sensible, whether someone grew up being treated as a female or not. Deferring to trans people’s judgment about their own gender identity, according to this view, is not just a simple courtesy or a sign of respect; it is a lifeline.
I hope I’ve managed to show that the “Greer affair” is not as cut-and-dried as some have suggested. But when it comes to the issue of potentially “silencing” people for their beliefs, there is a twist here. And that is that Greer was not actually scheduled to speak on trans issues at Cardiff. Instead, her remit was to give a lecture on a largely different topic—women and power in the 20th century—drawing on her long career as a feminist theorist.
This is the major point of overlap with the “Dreger affair” that I wanted to highlight as an emerging issue.
Commenting on the controversy, Greer summarized the position of her detractors like this: “What they are saying is that because I don’t think surgery will turn a man into a woman I should not be allowed to speak anywhere.”
Kate Lyons has given a similar analysis. For some young feminists, she writes, “it’s not a matter of weighing up the sum of Greer’s work and deciding [whether on] balance [she] has done more for women than not, but of drawing a line on behalf of transgender friends and saying that despite all Greer has done, as long as she speaks in certain ways about trans issues, she will not be listened to on anything.”
That seems to me to be a problem.
Let’s just assume that Greer’s position on trans identity is truly unsupportable: that her arguments are weak, that her conception of “woman” is hopelessly confused, and so on. Let’s even grant that she has an irrational emotional prejudice against trans people, and that this prejudice is what’s driving her view (I am not saying this is actually true). What would follow from this? Would it mean that Greer has nothing of value to say about any other topic? That she must be totally disregarded as a feminist speaker because of her convictions in this one contested area?
Why should it be all-or-nothing?
As Lyons notes: “there is a danger to this new brand of feminism” in that “in its carefulness to include everyone it may end up excluding anyone who offends or dissents. It’s a style of feminism in which, if you break the rules, or hold an unpopular view, the answer [is] to kick you out of the sisterhood.”
But echo-chambers of this kind can lead to unsustainable dogmas, as I’ve written about before with respect to other feminist issues. And when that happens—when these dogmas form in the pursuit of justice—it is often the very people who are in need of that justice who suffer the most in the end. This is because dogmas have a way of breaking down over time, as people start to question the party line. When the backlash sets it, as it almost inevitably does, there is little completely solid left to hold on to.
I am reminded here of Robert Green Ingersoll’s famous remark about blasphemy, which has its parallels in some feminist circles (and many other circles as well). Blasphemy, he said, is a crime that was “invented by priests for the purpose of defending doctrines not able to take care of themselves.” My point is that arguments for trans rights are too important to be tied to any particular doctrine, feminist or otherwise, that is not capable of withstanding dissent.
The role of ambivalence
Making room for ambivalence might be part of the answer. To go back to Dreger for a second, suppose that her take on autogynephilia is truly in conflict with the work of Everyday Feminism. Even so, why should they decline to publish her article on sex education—an almost entirely unrelated topic—given that they approve of the actual content of the essay and see it as expressing a valuable perspective?
I expect that the answer to this question (and a similar one that could be raised about Greer) might be phrased in terms of additional questions. We wouldn’t publish an essay by an anti-Semite at a feminist website, would we? Surely, we wouldn’t let a racist speak at a public university? So why should we give a platform to transphobes like Dreger and Greer?
Wouldn’t that just “validate” their views, enhance their reputations, and therefore make the world less safe for people who are already vulnerable?
That is basically the argument given by Payton Quinn, whom I quoted earlier.
There are a few ways to respond to this. The first would be to question the premise that Dreger and/or Greer are really “transphobes.” As I understand it, transphobia is supposed to be an extremely serious charge, along the lines of calling someone a racist or an anti-Semite, and so the standard of evidence for making this charge should be very high—just as it should be for those other terms—and there should be a starting presumption of relative innocence.4
When it comes to Germaine Greer, nobody knows her innermost feelings except for her. Based on her public statements, however, it would not be a stretch to infer that she is transphobic in the emotional sense. But calling her beliefs “transphobic” is in some respects too easy. As I said before, she has staked out a position on what it means to be a woman that many people disagree with, and for good reason in my opinion, but this position is not so flatly incoherent as to be dismissible out of hand.
As for Dreger, if she is a “transphobe,” then I think the notion of “transphobia” has become so watered down as to be close to meaningless. The more you stretch a word like “transphobia,” and extend the range of seemingly tolerant, progressive-minded people it applies to, the less and less powerful it becomes. And, again, that is ultimately bad for trans people. Because it deprives them of an otherwise extremely effective rhetorical tool (which is all the more effective the more sparingly it is used).
The second way to respond to the argument is to question the assumption that allowing someone to publish on your website (or speak at your university) will have the effect of “enhancing their reputation.” As Alex Sharpe points out, the more likely scenario is that preventing them from doing those things will enhance their reputation, by drawing attention to them and their “dangerous” ideas. Better to let them speak and show how wrong they are, she suggests, if you really want to put those ideas to rest.
Finally, you could respond by questioning the assumption that holding even genuinely transphobic, racist, or anti-Semitic views (or feelings) should disqualify someone from speaking on other issues. To use a silly example, let’s pretend that Marie Curie was a total racist. She still would have had some important things to say about radioactivity, among other things, and it would have been to all of our advantage to let her say those things freely.
I recognize that that is an extreme case. Racist Curie probably shouldn’t be invited to speak at a conference on how to fight racism (except as a foil); and physics and chemistry are a lot more isolated from key social justice issues than are other domains of inquiry. My point is only that the demand for ideological purity has its costs. As Lyons—once again—explains: “the danger of young feminism is that, while attempting to listen to the voices of a broader spectrum of women, the number who are allowed to speak gets smaller and smaller, as people who express differing opinions or inadvertently use the wrong language get thrown off the feminist boat.”
The problem is that, if this “young feminist movement is [going to] flourish and change the world, on behalf of trans women as well as cisgendered ones, it needs to find a way to engage those with whom it disagrees, not just petition them” to shut up and be silent.
Methods of social change
So what is the bigger picture? The political theorist Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, herself a controversial figure in this debate, argues that there is “a creeping trend among social justice activists of an identitarian persuasion” towards what she calls ideological totalism.
This is “the attempt to determine not only what policies and actions are acceptable, but what thoughts and beliefs are, too.” Anyone who does not sign on to the latest dogma, down to the last detail, no matter how passionately on board they are with the general program, is “seen as not only mistaken and misguided, but dangerous and threatening, and must therefore be silenced.”
As she writes: “The possibility of reasonable disagreement on these issues is ruled out, ex hypothesi.”
If that sounds authoritarian to you, Reilly-Cooper would agree. In fact, she draws a direct comparison between certain strands of contemporary social justice activism and classic methods of indoctrination or mind-control. One of these methods is to insist on purity of thought. As she writes, the world gets divided into “pure and impure, good and evil, believer and nonbeliever.” According to this view, “There are people who believe that trans women are women, and there are transphobic bigots who ‘deny trans people’s right to exist.’ No intermediate position is possible.”
My worry is that such thought-policing, to the extent that it exists, is unlikely to achieve its aims in the long run (as I suggested earlier). In other words, given the clear importance of securing recognition of rights for trans people—not to mention basic respect, common decency, and fair treatment—there has got to be a better way of arguing these things through.
As the philosopher Michael Hauskeller and I put it in a recent essay, although it is tempting to think otherwise when it comes to certain hot-button issues, there really are no “simple, straightforward answers that can lay claim to ultimate moral truth. Invariably, although it is easy to forget, there are other valid sides to every issue, other perspectives to be thoroughly considered. And it is only when we honestly engage with these other perspectives [that] we can hope to achieve an adequate understanding of what is really at stake in our moral disagreements.”
It’s okay to be ambivalent as we do this. In fact, I think it’s likely to be necessary. At least, it is if we want to make meaningful progress on resolving these polarizing issues: we have been shouting at each other long enough as it is.
So what does this mean in practical terms? For one thing, it means that even if you disagree with, say, Alice Dreger’s stance on autogynephilia, you still might try to see if you—or your readers—could learn something from her work on sex education. Similarly, despite her harsh rhetoric and uncompromising beliefs about trans identity, you could try being open to the idea that Germaine Greer—a pioneering figure in the fight against patriarchy—might have something important to say about women and power in the 20th century.
Publishing an essay on your website doesn’t mean that you endorse every other word the author has ever written. And letting someone speak at your university on subject X doesn’t mean that you agree with their views on subject Y.
“I like what they did here,” you might say, “but that bit over there doesn’t thrill me so much.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that the sign of a first-rate intelligence “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I think there’s a lesson in that sentiment for this debate. Maybe we should say that the sign of a first-rate social justice campaigner is the ability to engage with, and even learn from, someone they really disagree with on some issue, and still retain the ability to pursue their righteous cause.
In fact, I think this first ability (engagement) can help improve the second ability (pursuing justice), directly. This is because, when we take the time to acknowledge that there might be a valid insight at work in someone’s view—even if we ultimately reject that view for legitimate reasons—we often discover an element of nuance in our own position that we hadn’t picked up on before. This, in turn, can increase the chance that our position will better approximate the truth, as well as appeal to other people besides the ones who already agree with us.
Preaching to the choir never did do much to change the world.
I think Ian Leslie put it best in a recent essay. He said: “if we are to find a way to break out of our current deadlocks,” when it comes to trans rights or anything else, “we need a little more respect for ambivalence.” For when you are in “a state of mind in which things aren’t resolved into their conventional categories, you are more likely to see new possibilities.”
And isn’t breaking down conventional categories, in large part, what “young feminism,” trans activism, and even trans identity, are all about?
Brian D. Earp is a Research Associate at the University of Oxford as well as a Resident Visiting Scholar at The Hastings Center Bioethics Research Institute in Garrison, New York. His writing, both academic and popular, is freely available at Academia.edu. Follow him on Twitter: @briandavidearp.
As I was putting the final touches on this essay, the massacre at Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando hit the news. This was “the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman and the deadliest incident of violence against LGBT people in U.S. history.” And here I was “praising ambivalence” in a piece about, among other things, the well-being of LGBT people.
The emotional dissonance was grotesque. I didn’t feel ambivalent. I felt numb. Then sorrow took over, supplanted by anger. Anger at the shooter; anger at intolerance. At small-mindedness. Anger at guns, and violence, and death, and fear, and hate. Anger at religion. Anger at politicians. The hell with ambivalence at a time like this.
But as the days passed, I began to think that the lessons of ambivalence may be more important than ever in the face of such a tragedy. It is precisely the inability to see where other people are coming from—including not only those we happen to disagree with on certain issues, but even those who do hateful, evil things—that prevents us from finding deeper solutions to the problems that so sharply divide us.
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds,” wrote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Ambivalence means recognizing that there is good and bad inside each one of us: there are no pure allies or pure enemies either. Let us try, then, if we can, to listen to each other, really strive to take each other’s perspective seriously, and see where our respective good parts coincide.
1. To make this point, Dreger draws on a parallel with the gay rights movement. Faced with a culture in which disgust at the thought of same-sex intimacy was not only widespread but openly admitted to, many gay people felt the need to downplay their (diverse) sexual interests in favor of the supposedly more vanilla standards of the “hetero” mainstream. As Peter Tatchell has argued, the goal went from fighting for sexual freedom, including freedom from “socially enforced monogamy,” to achieving “equality,” but on straight people’s terms. In Tatchell’s view, this shift meant the abandonment of LGBTQIA+ radicalism, whose mission had been to transform the culture, not conform to it. So, he suggests, by agreeing to sweep gay sexuality under the rug, activists gave up their “critical perspective on straight culture.” The result was not gay liberation, he suggests, but “gay submission and incorporation.” Dreger’s position on trans sexuality appears to be cut from a similar cloth.
2. Fair enough. But there is still a lingering problem. And that is that most people are not as open-minded as Dreger is about the full spectrum of differences when it comes to sex, sexuality, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. Instead, we live in a world where trans people and other sexual minorities are regularly dismissed as being “sexual deviants,” where their gender identities are not respected, and where their day-to-day experience is often colored by extreme acts of prejudice, unjust discrimination, verbal harassment, and physical violence. So any research that could play into a “sexual deviant” picture of trans identity should be met with heightened scrutiny. Serano reminds us of the crucial context (bold in the quote below is mine):
There has been a long history of dubious research that has lent scientific credence to prejudiced beliefs that already exist in the culture: studies that have claimed to show that people of color are inherently less intelligent than white people, that homosexuals are more criminally-inclined than heterosexuals, or that women are biologically ill-suited for leadership positions. Often, such studies are embraced by the public despite their methodological flaws because they reaffirm and reinforce presumptions and biases that already dominate in the culture.
I think the key here is “methodological flaws.” As I interpret her view, Serano isn’t saying that if the autogynephilia model really did turn out to be the best description of reality, we should cover that up for political purposes. After all, cover-ups like that tend to get exposed (eventually), and that would not look good for trans activists or their cause. Instead, I think she is saying that research with serious political implications needs to be held to a higher standard (something I have written about as well), so that any erroneous “presumptions and biases” can be carefully rooted out. And the thing is, according to the critics, autogynephilia research hasn’t met that standard.
The risk, then, is that it will be misinterpreted by an unsuspecting public as providing a “scientific basis” for harmful, and inappropriately sexualizing, stereotypes about trans women. These include the idea “that we are either perverted men who ‘get off’ on the idea of being women,” Serano writes, or “gay men who transition to female in order to pick up straight men.” The reality is much more complex.
Now, Dreger is aware of, and deeply concerned about, the existence of these harmful stereotypes. She is also strongly opposed to any kind of invidious trans oppression. At least, that’s the distinct impression I get from having spoken with her, and from having read the bulk of her writing on this subject. It is just that she genuinely does not believe that her position on autogynephilia research is “fundamentally inconsistent with good advocacy for trans rights.” As she sees it, “good advocacy” should be based on something like that “unshakable premise” approach I mentioned earlier, rather than a contingent claim about trans sexuality. What if it is eventually shown, convincingly, that there is a major causal role for sexual desire in assigned male-to-female transition decisions (notwithstanding whatever flaws there are in the current research)? Why not play it safe and push for greater acceptance of sexual diversity in the wider society? That way, if the comparatively nonsexual “trapped in the wrong body” idea ever comes to be seen as too simplistic, arguments for trans rights won’t crack at the foundation.
I don’t have to tell you that others disagree with this assessment; I am giving you my own opinion. But that is the nature of complex social justice advocacy. People of good faith are bound to wrestle over the facts and methods, and they will sometimes reach different conclusions about the best path forward. All you have to do is look at other social justice movements throughout history, and you will find a similar dynamic.
3. Dreger is getting at something really important here; but again I think she goes too far. On the question of “rights,” it is the editors of Everyday Feminism that have the right to publish (or not publish) whatever they want. No one has a “right” to talk about sex ed—or anything else—at somebody else’s website.
4. I say “relative” innocence because, insofar as racism, transphobia, and the like are structural issues, and insofar as unconscious prejudice is common even among committed egalitarians, there is a sense in which almost no one is entirely innocent.
Please note that this essay has undergone minor edits since it was formally published (edits made on July 10, 2016), to correct typos and also to soften a few claims in the sections on autogynephilia. The present version of the essay should be cited in case of any discrepancies.
Further related reading from the author
Earp, B. D. (2016). Mental shortcuts. Hastings Center Report, Vol. 46, No. 2, inside front cover. Available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/292148550_Mental_shortcuts_unabridged?ev=prf_pub.
Earp, B. D. (2012, January 26). Choosing one’s own (sexual) identity: Shifting the terms of the ‘gay rights’ debate. Practical Ethics. University of Oxford. Available at http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2012/01/can-you-be-gay-by-choice/.
Earp, B. D. (2013, November 7). Could ad hominem arguments sometimes be OK? Practical Ethics. University of Oxford. Available at http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2013/11/could-ad-hominem-arguments-sometimes-be-ok/.
Earp, B. D. (2016). Between moral relativism and moral hypocrisy: Reframing the debate on “FGM.” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, Vol. 26, No. 2, 105-144. Available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/280080464_Between_moral_relativism_and_moral_hypocrisy_Reframing_the_debate_on_FGM?ev=prf_pub.
Earp, B. D., & Hauskeller, M. (2016). Binocularity in bioethics—and beyond. American Journal of Bioethics, Vol. 16, No. 2, W3-W6. Available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/282940257_Binocularity_in_bioethics-and_beyond?ev=prf_pub.
Earp, B. D., Sandberg, A., & Savulescu, J. (2014). Brave new love: The threat of high-tech “conversion” therapy and the bio-oppression of sexual minorities. American Journal of Bioethics: Neuroscience, Vol. 5, No. 1, 4-12. Available at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/21507740.2013.863242.
Vierra, A., & Earp, B. D. (2015, April 21). Born this way? How high-tech conversion therapy could undermine gay rights. The Conversation. Available at https://theconversation.com/born-this-way-how-high-tech-conversion-therapy-could-undermine-gay-rights-40121.