Doing Better Than “Doing Better In Arguments About Sex And Gender”

Making good use of lemons. Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

This article was written in response to:

That article presents the views of a group of “gender critical” writers, fronted by Kathleen Stock: it is a set of self-justifications, replies to critical arguments that they say they frequently face. But as their strongest ripostes to criticism, these exhibit a startling flimsiness.

In short, their verbosity cannot conceal an underlying inanity.

This article shows how those responses fail to “do better”, by illustrating: where superficial plausibility is papering over factual or logical lacunae; where carefully disingenuous phrasing is used to imply things that are not said directly; where statistically shaky data is being used to prop up unjustifiable conclusions; and where a tone of reasonableness covers for a streak of vitriol.

I’m tackling only the first of three sections in their article, but this provides a plenitude of material. I take the “arguments” from the original one by one, but I have reordered a couple of elements for the sake of how the arguments in response flow; this helps to avoid repetition.

The first argument they discuss:

Your position has been historically associated with far right-wing thought, and hence fails.

Their repudiation of this idea works from the notion that far-right thought might sometimes be correct: an unironic deployment of an “at least Mussolini made the trains run on time” argument (spoiler: it’s a myth, fascism does not encourage efficiency).

This is given in support:

It is likely that every single person on the planet shares several hundred (true) beliefs with any given far right-wing person.

Sure, everyone agrees with some of the anodyne true beliefs of far-right people, like “gravity exists” and “walruses have tusks”. But — this is the important bit — few share the actual far-right beliefs.

Far-right positions on trans existence were manifested in Nazi book burning and violence and persecution.

It may be worth some deeper reflection if the position you are defending is a natural fit to far-right ideas such as enforcement of a “natural order” based on “biology”.

Next argument:

You are biological essentialists

Essentialism is the idea that a class is defined through its members’ possession of specific characteristics. Their response defends what is presented as the core belief of the group:

the view that women, definitionally, are adult human females

As a definition this is truly otiose. It’s an pure example of the paradox of analysis: it can tell us nothing we didn’t already know.

One has to assume that “female” is used in a trans-exclusionary way to make this a trans-exclusionary definition of “woman”.

In other words, even amongst those who judge this definition to be correct, any disagreement about the extension of “woman” will simply be mirrored in disagreement about the extension of “adult human female”.

This phrase works well as a slogan, however: it has been deployed to elliptically express transphobic bigotry on T-shirts, stickers, billboards, and elsewhere. To claim it as a “core belief” is to align with its popularizer:

Next argument:

You want to reduce women to their genitalia, or to womb-possession

Which is answered by:

Several of us endorse a cluster account of femaleness, according to which possession of some vague number of a certain set of endogenously-produced primary sex characteristics — including vagina, ovaries, womb, fallopian tubes, and XX chromosomes — is sufficient for femaleness, though no particular characteristic is necessary or essential.

This is a very long-winded way of saying, “yes, we do”.

In spite of protestation otherwise, they have here provided a biological essentialist definition of “female”, as made explicit by:

those who have none of the named primary characteristics in question cannot be correctly categorized as female.

All that has been done is to loosely define a characteristic that consists of a limited set of disjunctions, and assert that this is the definitional “essence”.

A non-essentialist definition would look very different; the notion of “family resemblances” between different members of a category can be used. The very point of Wittgenstein’s famous “family resemblance” discussion of “game”, for example, is that different exemplars of the category don’t have to share any characteristics. This kind of definition doesn’t reduce to a set of disjunctions. (See Wittgenstein: “Philosophical Investigations”, 66-67).

A focus on the substantial “family resemblance” similarities between cis and trans women across multiple domains provides a better model of what the word “woman” means in common usage than one that insists on the primacy of “biology” (and gerrymandered “endogenously-produced” biology at that: a tacit appeal to the “natural order” of things).

Next argument:

‘You think there is a “right way” to be, as a woman/ lesbian/ mother’ (etc.).

They distinguish two senses of the word “right” and assert that they aren’t being moralistic (normative) in insisting on what the “right” definition is.

However, their many assumptions about normativity are baked in elsewhere in this article. For example, they say that we should accept the exclusion from bathrooms of people who don’t look “female” enough; argue for the maintenance of “social norms”; talk about what trans women are “morally entitled” to; and so on.

Next argument:

‘You are transphobic’; or ‘You may not be transphobic but your views are’.

This is given as their own understanding of what is transphobic:

We understand transphobia to be, not just the exhibition of upsetting disagreement with some trans people, but rather an attitude of disgust, fear, or revulsion towards trans people because they are trans people.

This is the classic misunderstanding of -phobia, adjacent in argumentation to the risible: “I’m not homophobic, I’m not afraid of gays”.

The -phobia in transphobia, just as in xenophobia or homophobia, isn’t directly about fear, disgust, or revulsion. It simply means “prejudiced against”.

You don’t need to feel disgust or those other emotions to be prejudiced. You can be prejudiced while being calm, cold, and polite about it. You can be prejudiced without realising you are prejudiced. Prejudice is revealed by what you say, and what you do — not what you feel.

Next argument (reordered from the original article):

Trans rights are not like a pie; no-one gets less pie if trans people have rights

Intangibles are not like tangibles but:

we do think that giving the social and/or legal capacity to male-bodied people to self-identify into woman-only spaces and resources, will take something substantial away from women

This phrase is actually used more than once in the article.

The key phrase here is “self-identify”, presented as though it is something new, a radical change to the status quo. But, in fact, “self identification” has always applied in spaces such as bathrooms, changing rooms, and most other gender-specific spaces. You don’t have to show documentation to get into most such spaces: and nowhere asks for birth certificates, which are not a valid form of ID in any case. There’s nothing here, no “pie”, to diminish.

This is why fantasies about predators “self-identifying” as trans in order to get access to spaces are nonsensical. Those raising fears about “self ID” are fencing with phantoms.

(The raison d’être of GRA reform proposals — now sadly shelved — was to simplify the bureaucracy involved in amending the birth certificates of trans people. Those changes would make no difference to anyone’s quotidian routine, but the prospect of those reforms was used for scaremongering around the notion of “self ID”, which still persists today).

Next argument:

‘You think all or most trans women are violent against cis women’.

They deny this — although trans women are framed as inherently violent throughout the article.

But they then digress onto what they see as a more general problem, the undermining of “social norms” caused by “self identification”:

We predict that, in such a culture, social norms which currently stop many predatory men, generally, entering these spaces will be eroded.

In other words, they hypothesize that inclusivity for trans people would somehow enable abuse being inflicted by people who are not trans: a group of pseudo-trans criminals, conveniently indistinguishable from trans people.

But, as we’ve already said, the idea that “self identification” is a change to the status quo for everyday activity is a myth.

Their position is made a palpable absurdity by the fact that many countries already have much more liberal social norms or laws around “self ID” than the UK without any “pseudo-trans” meltdowns. (A detailed look at different systems of ID is available here). As well as greater liberality with respect to trans people, some countries simply have a more general acceptance of the principle of mixed-sex facilities: see here, for example.

The data they present about prison populations is not sound. Arguments of this nature were recently dismissed from consideration when presented in a judicial review case, being characterized by the judge as:

a misuse of the statistics, which in any event are so low in number, and so lacking in detail, that they are an unsafe basis for general conclusions

Their painting of “erosion” is a penny-dreadful fantasy about criminals masquerading as trans women, intercut with: mention of “sinister motives” and “sinister entry routes”; speculation that anecdotes of violence presage the breakdown of “societal safeguards”; and unevidenced and unsubtle intimations about enabling violent crimes and paedophilia.

This stuff belongs in the realms of Fantômas or Fu Manchu, where credibility is unimportant. Bad dreams are not incipient reality.

Next argument:

Women get attacked and aggressed in women-only spaces anyway

Their argument here again makes the presumption that trans women are inherently dangerous: a familiar tactic in fearmongering anti-trans rhetoric about “keeping spaces safe”, “safeguarding”, or “protecting women”. But where is the evidential basis for it?

Their claim is:

It is reasonable to think that women would get attacked more often in unisex spaces

Firstly, let’s note that is misleading to conflate “unisex spaces” with gender specific spaces that trans people can access.

Secondly, they link to a UK newspaper article that suggests that a high percentage of assaults in changing rooms are in unisex areas. But just like the prison statistics they cited, these claims are concocted from inadequate data (which comes from FOI requests that provide information like this).

The figures reflect the fact that most of the facilities queried about incidents have unisex changing rooms in addition to single sex ones. The assumption is being made that in every case where an assault was reported in these facilities, it must have been in the unisex area — which is utterly unwarranted. This methodology renders the statistics worthless.

Thirdly, crime statistics are known to correlate with a lot of different characteristics: socioeconomic status, for example. How far should an argument for “prevention” of crime extend? When would exclusion of individuals on the basis of statistical averages for groups be acceptable? Discriminating against individuals on such a basis would usually be taken as straightforward bigotry.

Next argument:

‘No true trans woman is ever violent’ (See also: ‘No detransitioned person was ever really trans’)

Has anyone ever really claimed this?

Of course some trans women can be violent, as can some cis women; there is no group of people exempt from violence.

Of course detransitioned people can be trans; in fact, many later retransition. Often a lack of social support is one of the reasons underpinning detransition, while regret at transitioning is rare: see here for supporting evidence.

Next argument:

The only way to maintain a social norm of sex-separated spaces is via the checking of genitalia.

This is a logical endpoint of the “gender critical” desire to control who frequents which toilets. But the suggestion here is that it isn’t required because eyeballing is enough to weed out trans people:

Human beings generally, including children, have the capacity to pick out the biological sex of others from visual appearances alone, most of the time.

Of course, what people are actually doing is not directly “picking out biological sex” but gendering others.

Most of the cases where perceived gender and biological sex are misaligned will unavoidably be of cis people; because only a tiny proportion of the population is out as trans — and a smaller still proportion are visibly trans.

Given the occasional fallibility of our capacity to sex others, arguing for same-sex spaces for females, such as bathrooms, dormitories, and changing rooms, means that sometimes, females in those spaces will be missexed; and sometimes, males in those spaces will not be perceived as such. We see the former as a regrettable cost

This is telling us that any women who don’t look “feminine enough”, whether cis or trans, should expect to be challenged, hassled, or even expelled from such spaces. That is simply a reprehensible idea, not a “regrettable cost”.

Next argument:

‘Why don’t you want to exclude lesbians from women-only spaces too?’

They say this is mostly down to lesbians not displaying:

a documented pattern of male violence

Apparently they forgot (again) that they already claimed that they aren’t claiming that trans women are violent.

Of course, the phrase “male violence” is being used to imply that trans women do conform to that pattern: however, we haven’t anywhere seen a documented pattern of violence relating to trans women that stands up to any scrutiny: in fact they call for empirical research on it elsewhere in the article.

(The so-called “Swedish study” is surprisingly not cited, perhaps because the paper’s primary author has explicitly rejected the frequent transphobic misinterpretations of it: see here and here).

Next argument:

You are making violence to trans people more likely by your writing

The term to describe the phenomenon whereby demonizing a group leads to an upsurge in violence against them is stochastic terrorism.

Luckily:

We doubt that any actual transphobes are led to a path of violence by reading our relatively esoteric pieces

And:

we don’t consider that we are morally responsible for any radical misreading of our work

But their consciences shouldn’t rest easy.

Relatively esoteric their writings may be, but they are used as “intellectual ballast” by people more overt in their expressions of hatred. They contribute to a climate of increasing hostility, a world in which trans lives are becoming harder to live (see, for example, this Galop report).

The repeatedly debunked bathroom panic narratives used in their article, for example, are a direct encouragement to those prone to violence. In a world where backlash against trans people can materialize on the flimsiest of pretexts, it is horrifyingly irresponsible to contribute to such myth making.

Endorsing the kind of fantasies that violent bigots act upon is contemptible: a lack of remorse about it doubly so.

Next argument:

You need to understand why trans women are angry with you.

They do understand that they are perceived as showing utter contempt for trans identities:

it would be a consequence of our being perceived to be right, that they were perceived to be, not just wrong, but also subject to a large misunderstanding about their own identity, and to what they were morally entitled

They simply don’t think that it matters. At least that provides clarity, but it makes the role of moral arbiter an ill-fitting one.

As noted earlier, prejudice is revealed by what you say and do: not by what you feel.

Final argument:

Feminists have already had the discussion without you, and established that trans women are women

Their answer to the trans-inclusive nature of mainstream feminism is:

we judge that much of the trajectory of recent feminist philosophy has been a mistake, in relation to the question of who counts as a woman and why, it is hardly surprising that we refuse to defer to it

This is hardly refuting a fallacy. But that seems par for the course.

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PhD in Cognitive Science, interested in the structures of natural and artificial languages. Thrives on atonal music and trans rights. She/her.

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Kim Hipwell

Kim Hipwell

PhD in Cognitive Science, interested in the structures of natural and artificial languages. Thrives on atonal music and trans rights. She/her.

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