Philosophy and trans rights

I find philosophy fascinating. I have just been reading an essay considering trans rights from a “critical realist” perspective.

Critical Realism is a branch of philosophy that distinguishes between the ‘real’ world and the ‘observable’ world. The ‘real’ cannot be observed and exists independent from human perceptions, theories, and constructions.

There is a “real world”. We cannot know it, but we can get to know it better, and that has value. I find that idea attractive. It distinguishes between Intransitive: the unchanging things we attempt to know, and Transitive: our changing knowledge of those things. Nature is intransitive, science is transitive.

Philosophy is full of long words. Epistemology is the study of how we know things.

Epistemological relativism is the position that knowledge is valid only relatively to a specific context, society, culture or individual. The discussion about epistemic relativism is one of the most fundamental discussions in epistemology concerning our understanding of notions such as ‘justification’ and ‘good reason’.

A transphobe, David Pilgrim, writes,

A fundamental distortion of reality emerges if we only consider epistemological relativism and abandon a respect for ontological realism. It is another example of the ‘ontological vandalism’ of strong social constructivism.

A fundamental distortion of reality sounds serious. However, Pilgrim thinks trans people deny that sex is real, which he claims would be ontological vandalism. We don’t, so he’s wrong.

These things are mere games. Transphobes want trans women excluded from women’s spaces. They say that women traumatised by sexual violence need spaces where they know no men will be, and if they see trans women, whom they identify as men, in these spaces they will be retraumatised.

I do not deny that such women could exist, but when I read trans-excluders it seems that they consider trans women in women’s spaces are an insult to them, which is very different. I don’t necessarily want the traumatised women to stand up and speak of their trauma, so we are left with a number of women we can’t quantify, who are hurt if they see trans women in women’s spaces, and an overlapping group who are angry.

Respect for ontological realism- the idea that things actually exist in the real world, not merely as ideas in human minds- entails acknowledgment that trans people exist. Look around, and you see us. Look in historical records, and you see accounts of us, often written in terms indicating overwhelming disgust. Yet we persist, and we continue to transition however much we are persecuted.

Attempts to belittle our existence continue. It’s a mere matter of feelings, says Prof. Kathleen Stock, OBE. If it’s just feelings, they are deep and persistent, scarcely less strong than the trauma of the traumatised cis women, certainly stronger than the anger of the transphobes.

So there is an ethical issue. Two groups of people have needs which are apparently in conflict: if they cannot be reconciled one has to be prioritised. How do you prioritise between the two groups? Other solutions proposed don’t cut it. Third spaces where anyone might choose to go don’t exist, so transphobes should not insist we go there until they are created. If society’s highest priority was ending male violence, there might be no need for women’s spaces at all- but it isn’t.

This ethical issue is where philosophy might actually help. I believe that human understanding of the world to a great extent comes from the culture, rather than being worked out from scratch by each individual. That is what we have schools for. Arguments that we don’t matter, or don’t exist, whether couched in terms of “ontological violence of excessive social constructivism” or “You’re a fkg bloke” are equally worthless.

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