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.

Kathleen Stock: Can you change your gender?

Philosophy professor Kathleen Stock OBE apparently does her job, here, addressing the philosophical questions What is reality? and What do words mean? She gives five putative ways in which one might change gender, and says it is impossible in three of them, but sometimes possible in two, though she says whether that is desirable is a separate question.

So where is it not possible? If “gender” is simply a synonym for “sex” meaning which of two sexually dimorphic reproductive roles one fulfils, Prof. Stock claims you cannot change sex. I am not sure this is so. Stem cells can become any cell of the body. Why could a trans woman’s stem cells not be used to create ova with her genes? If this is not possible now, I am sure increasingly expert attempts at it could be made until it was done. Uterus transplants are possible- Lili Elbe died of organ rejection after one. It is at least theoretically possible for a trans woman to bear her own child, certainly possible to bear one not produced from her ovum. Your reproductive role is only important when you are reproducing, that is, for very little of human life. A woman with five children who dies aged twenty has spent 3/16ths of her life reproducing, and she is an outlier. A trans woman could certainly adopt the social role of mother.

Theoretically if not ethically you could change reproductive role, a possibility Prof. Stock does not even dismiss. Perhaps she imagines it is not possible. She instead addresses the question of people with differences of sexual development, DSDs, changing sex. She says they are classified as having one of the two sexes, based on “an attempt to do justice to a pre-existing biological state of affairs.” Many of these people are infertile. Some with XX CAH may be assigned male, and this paper indicates that assignment is based on likely “satisfactory social and sexual function” as adults- in other words, whether they will be happier, rather than mere biology.

The example of DSDs shows that we are assigned a sex even when we are infertile, or have aspects of both, and therefore our “sex” is not simply a matter of reproductive role but social role. Prof. Stock admits “So, for instance, you don’t need to possess all of the ‘female’ sex characteristics to count as female”. Her statement that “However, you do still need to possess some of them” is mere unjustified assertion.

Her second meaning of gender is the stereotypical characteristics imagined by culture to be normal for men or women. Her examples are quite unattractive, even negative, and that may indicate she disapproves: “in many cultures males are supposed to be strong, ambitious, competitive, repressed, aggressive, and logical; and females weak, domestic, self-effacing, emotional, passive, and kind.”

Trans women might never imagine we are women if we did not more clearly fit the feminine stereotype. She says we can’t “change the cultural fact that such characteristics are deemed abnormal for your sex by others”, but we can indicate we are trans women, and people will be less shocked by our femininity. She says we can’t change gender as “sets of normative stereotypes applied to sex”, but this is unduly rigid. Most people are aware of trans people, and many tolerate us. Trans allies may generally think feminine stereotype character unfitting in a man, but see a trans woman and accept it in us. Our character need not make us “abnormal” unless you think transition is unacceptable.

Prof. Stock moves on to “socially constructed sex”, and says that can’t be changed either. Here she discusses Judith Butler. Sex is culturally constructed. For Prof. Stock to be right, society needs to reject the concept or possibility of transition. “Trans women are men”, she believes, and thinks others do too. However many people say “Trans women are women”, and for them, we change socially constructed sex.

For the other two definitions of gender, Prof. Stock admits you can change gender.

If womanhood is a matter of social role, a trans woman can be a woman. This is gender essentialism, some idea that real women fit the stereotypes. Prof. Stock really does not like this idea, and I don’t either- I observe that many people are gender non-conforming, and want them to have the freedom to be themselves, without enforcement of gender. But she admits that we can change our gender in this sense. We do this if people accept the concept of trans woman.

From what Prof. Stock says about sex, it appears she is a realist, believing that there is an objective real world, which may perhaps in some cases be knowable. Not all philosophers are, some are “idealists”. However, if you are a “realist”, you should accept that this “real world” includes trans people. We are in all ages and cultures. We are documented in Deuteronomy. In the Roman Empire, the priestesses of Cybele were trans women. To deny the reality of trans women, you have to say something like “I don’t like it therefore it doesn’t exist”, which is more an Idealist position.

Trans women exist, therefore we have changed our gender.

The fifth definition, where she says we may change our gender, is gender identity. She does not like the concept, and her distaste shows in her attempt to define it: “quasi-mystical”, “a set of feelings” rather than the most important thing in a person’s life, and “a final resort in severe cases” because one should try very hard to “alter one’s self-conception”. Gender identity is the one way gender does not change, such that we have to alter everything else to fit it.

So Professor Stock was not doing her job very well. It is almost as if she had the answer she wanted- her final four words are “the answer is no”- and made up the argument to fit.

This article is published on Medium, and also in The Philosopher, the journal of the Philosophical Society of England. That goes to show that transphobe academics can publish transphobic articles in journals, and the Free Speech hysteria is just that. A pity her argument is so poor.

Art today from Constance Gordon-Cummings.

Gender variant children are not ill, and do not “desist”

What does it mean to say that gender variant children are not ill? What are the problems with studies which assume they are, and can we learn anything from those studies?

Some studies purport to show that trans children “desist”, and become cis as they mature, so should on no account be treated as trans. “A critical commentary on follow-up studies and ‘desistance’ theories about transgender and gender-nonconforming children” by Julia Temple Newhook and others shows the problems with these studies and their assumptions. Nine academics in diverse disciplines including medicine, psychology, social work, gender advocacy, education and paediatrics considered and tore apart those studies, and gave an alternative way forward.

Based on the studies, the media suggest that 80% of trans children will identify as cis in adolescence or adulthood, so should not be treated as trans as children. However, the research is flawed. It is based on a definition of “Gender Identity Disorder in Children” from DSM IV, which included behaviour, rather than “Gender Dysphoria”, diagnosed by cross-gender identification and distress with physical sex characteristics and associated gender roles. It failed to recognise the WPATH principle that transgender identity is a matter of diversity, not pathology.

Behaviour: in DSM IV, “intense desire to participate in the stereotypical games and pastimes of the other sex” was one of the criteria. So, a little boy who liked skipping, and playing with “playmates of the other sex”, might be whisked off to the gender clinic for an assessment, and, suitably shamed and frightened, two years later he would report that indeed he had desisted.

We are not ill. We do not need to be made well. We certainly do not need to be made normal. So much of our treatment attempts to make us fit in, to be acceptable to “normal” people. However, there are huge advantages to being “normal”: being seen or treated as weird sucks. Seeing us as ill can mean wanting to make us well: wanting us to be happy conforming to gender stereotypes, ideally those assigned at birth, and if that proves impossible, gender stereotypes and an approximation of the sex characteristics of the other sex. Wanting to be accepted, we may go along with that.

Children exploring gender in a transphobic society face great pressures, and the older studies incidentally describe that. They show that statements of gender identity or gender dysphoria in childhood may indicate similar feelings in adulthood.

Three of the four defective studies included children who did not have a diagnosis of GID, but had simply been referred to a gender clinic. Three assumed any participant who could not be assessed for follow-up had desisted, even though it was possible that they still considered themselves trans, but did not want to medically transition with hormones or surgery. All reassessed children in their teens, one as early as 14, which gives no idea what they will be like as adults. Perhaps they felt unable to transition by that age, but transitioned later. Therefore, the reported desistance rate is hugely inflated.

The parents of the children in the studies brought them to a clinic, indicating they thought there was a problem, but where parents validate their children’s gender identity the children are likely to have a different, arguably healthier, life-course.

The studies used the term “desistence”, which originates in criminology. Gender variance was seen as sick. Being cis was seen as normal. So transgender identity was only viewed as valid if static and unwavering throughout life. Few trans people do not waver sometimes, in the face of family and societal pressure to be normal.

The studies referred to the children as “boys and girls” based on their assigned gender. Their identity was less important. There was no acknowledgment of nonbinary identity. They were too keen to call people “desisters”- for example, an AMAB person aged 18 “still desired to be a woman, with breasts and the possibility of giving birth. However, he (sic) considered himself 50% male and 50% female.”

The studies assumed a stable gender identity is a positive health outcome, so pushed children towards that, but where gender identity is fluid or slower to develop the child may still be developing in a healthy way. Different identities are a different way of seeing onesself, under different levels of self-knowledge and differing vulnerability to differing pressures from others. The journey of self-discovery may be lifelong.

The language to describe identities improves. I had not heard of nonbinary when I transitioned.

Some people imagine that desisters grow up to be gay and not trans. Again this is a way of seeing a person who may be nonbinary and androphile or gynephile. If people do not fit categories, then it is the categories that must change.

There was intensive treatment of the children, with questionable goals. Healthy children may have their self-esteem damaged by being brought into stigmatising diagnostic and treatment settings. Treatment was often designed to lower the odds that they would grow up transgender, or to “reduce GID persistence”, claiming transsexualism, with social stigma and a lifetime of medical treatment, is undesirable.

However, as some children become trans adults, these efforts to make us fit a more normal box can be traumatic. The Netherlands clinic discouraged social transition before puberty, though it can make children happier. Children’s rights to autonomy and self-determination were subordinated to clinicians’ concepts, beliefs and desired outcomes.

Did the children feel some obligation to go along with treatment and participation in the research, as a condition of having their gender variance taken seriously?

Temple-Newhook and others say,

These ethical concerns raise questions about the validity of research with children whose parents believe they have a medical problem, who are subjected to a high level of testing and treatment, who are disallowed or discouraged from asserting their own gender identity, and who are being raised in a broader society that often punishes perceived transgressions of male and female boundaries.

When children think being gay or trans is seen as bad, they often pretend not to be. The social pressure is intense, and cruelly shaming.

The older studies did not consider that attempting to delay or prevent transition could be harmful to the patient’s self-respect and sense of self. They assumed unknowable future adult needs should supersede known childhood needs. Contradicting that, the older research mentions “a de-transitioning girl and her mother who expressed gratitude for her opportunity to live as a boy for a time, and felt that if she had been forced to live as a girl for her entire childhood, that her mental health would have suffered.”

It is not true to suggest that “a potential future shift in a child’s gender identity is a justification for suppressing or redirecting their assertion of identity in childhood”.

From a developmental perspective, a child who is repeatedly discouraged when she earnestly insists on being called “she,” is learning, on a fundamental level, that (1) she cannot trust her own knowledge of herself and, (2) the adults she depends on may not value her for who she knows herself to be.

Trans children and adults are not sick. We need affirmed for our innate worth as diverse humanity.

The study, by Julia Temple Newhook, Jake Pyne, Kelley Winters, Stephen Feder, Cindy Holmes, Jemma Tosh, Mari-Lynne Sinnott, Ally Jamieson & Sarah Pickett, is available here.

Hat tip to Reubs J Walsh.

Trans rights and the Communist party

We are the purveyors of truth.

I am glad that the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) exists, so that these people can have a space to talk amongst themselves, rather than try to change the Labour Party by speechifying at local meetings, and boring us to death. From the speeches of the Central Committee to the Eighth Congress of the Seepy-Geeby, which overwhelmingly passed Motion 8, the party is officially against Identity Politics. It abbreviates that to Idpol, a word reminiscent of Ingsoc. They resolved that The propagation of identity politics [is a]… diversion from the class struggle of the proletariat for its social emancipation.

The Party of the Workers was formed when some members of the Socialist Labour Party (Not to be confused with the Socialist Party, Respect, the Socialist Workers Party, the Workers Party of Britain, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition or even the Communist Party of Britain) wanted to support the government of North Korea, and were expelled. What do the purveyors of truth say? The speeches on their website are anonymous. The woman member of the Central Committee spouted ordinary “gender-critical” stuff.

“To my mind, it is plain child abuse to tell little children who don’t like the gender stereotypes being forced on them that they are in the wrong body, rather than teaching them the resilience to ignore those stereotypes and find a way to be comfortable in their own skins.”

Ignore the stereotypes. Yes, of course, but some children are trans, no matter how much schools and parents fight against gender stereotypes. The idea comes from the trans children themselves, that they have the opposite gender. But this woman thinks she, her mother and her daughter could have been seduced by trans ideology.

The lesson she draws, though, is that her tiny sect (Wikipedia had no membership figures) is poised to launch its Workers’ Revolution: It’s a sign of a society in total collapse – utterly bankrupt and unable to offer workers anything useful or fulfilling to do with their lives, or any hope of a better future.

She has a different understanding of gender, though. For her, gender is a material thing, what other trans excluders call “sex”. She says the social construct is “gender roles”, rather than gender. One of the ways these people preserve their purity is to insist on their own terminology, which distances them from potential allies.

She insists We are not against trans people, we are against a society that has produced this delusion and the leeches who nurture and feed off it. Seeing everything as the Oppression of the Workers by bourgeois “leeches” makes you see enemies everywhere, and I don’t know if she would call me a “leech”. We are against lying, which would probably mean she insisted I use the men’s loos.

The male member of the Central Committee is also against nonbinary folks, calling gender fluidity a “reactionary nightmare”. He asks Do we think that a material reality exists? This is a fundamental question of philosophy, he says. Well, yes. I am a critical realist: there is a real world even though we can’t know it accurately, though quantum superposition strongly challenges that theory. But through study and struggle he has won the true understanding of dialectical materialism, the revolutionary teachings of Karl Marx.

From Wikipedia, idealism is the diverse group of metaphysical philosophies which asserts that “reality” is in some way indistinguishable or inseparable from human understanding and/or perception. However he dismisses it as the argument that there is no material reality at all. That is not a Marxist concept.

Sex and gender are synonyms, he says, and sexual dimorphism is real. Truth is what is in the interests of the working class as a whole… we have to come to a correct position which serves our class. Only one view can ever be acceptable. He claims that will make them the vanguard of the working classes, and the masses will trust and accept anything we’re saying. Not yet, unfortunately, but, soon, Comrades! The truth will enslave you, if you have such a narrow conception of acceptable truth. This is the attitude to truth behind Stalin’s purges. You have to be openly partisan… in art, in culture and in science.

After reading this, I realised I had not understood Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler, before. There is one Truth, decided in the interests of the Workers by the Party. Because truth is too complex to be reduced in this way, that is both utterly corrupt, and incapable of adjusting to reality. It is the basis of totalitarian control.

But for the male member, trans people are no longer fighting against oppression, but against reality. It’s the ultimate idealism, in the philosophical sense that the material world doesn’t exist. This prevents workers uniting on a class basis. Transgender is a capitalist tool to prevent revolution, and also it is Khruschevite revisionism, the rejection of Stalin’s pure and perfect truth. People are oppressed by class, not identity. He wonders why there are no Black people in the Congress, when they are, he says, oppressed by class not race. Similarly trans people. We are not transphobic!… But, we do not advocate and we cannot allow the bourgeoisie to impose this divisive ideology upon us!

Why research the treatment of aneurisms, when in fact you could get rid of much of the problem by stopping the community from smoking? Capitalist society attempts to reduce smoking, but he would stop it outright by the diktat of the Workers’ State. He reminisces, I argued with my schoolteachers; they would send me out of the class for disagreeing in a way they felt was antisocial. Well, yeah. This level of closed-mindedness is a deep-seated trait. That’s why they’re such a tiny sect.

This has occasioned another split. Red Fightback, which is also a Marxist-Leninist Communist party, is pro-trans. They write, The likes of the Socialist Workers’ Party, the CPGB-ML, the Labour Party and so many others have tarnished what it means to be a revolutionary socialist—it is about time that we restore honour to that name and remind people that to be a socialist is to be a tireless fighter for liberation. No, a tireless squabbler with other revolutionaries. Me, I’ll carry on sharing my photo with Jeremy until I get one with Keir.

Jennifer Saul

Professor Jennifer Saul is a philosopher and trans ally who writes about how language works, for example when used to explain, obfuscate or oppress. She expresses concepts clearly and accessibly.

She argues that we should not call people TERFs, because many of them are not radical feminists. Radical feminists oppose sexist ideas about what men or women are like and how they relate to each other, and not all anti-trans campaigners do. Nor is the term “gender critical” useful- all feminists are gender critical. “No feminist thinks gender is just fine as it is,” even if feminists disagree about what to do about it. There is a battle over the rights of trans people, and whether our opponents allege falsely that “predators” could use our rights, or that our rights should be curtailed, they are “anti-trans campaigners” and that is the word that should be used.

I generally use the term “anti-trans campaigner”. I loved the lucidity of her argument, and went in search of other articles. In The Independent she analysed what Donald Trump was doing when he said Mexicans are “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Why that last bit about “good people”? She says it’s a figleaf, so that Trump’s supporters can doubt that he is racist. A racist would not say that, they say. I don’t doubt Trump is racist, and neither does she. The figleaf “serves to just barely cover what one isn’t supposed to show in public”. It’s different from a dog-whistle, such as talk of “inner-city crime”, which does not explicitly state that the criminals are Black, though racist hearers will assume that. The fig leaf makes it easier to be explicitly racist: when Trump talked of “shithole countries” he used no figleaf.

On Medium, she discusses how people say things whose meaning is clear even if not explicit. “It would be a terrible shame if something were to happen to your family” is clearly a threat, as in context sending someone a photograph of their children can be. So when Trump said to poor dupe Michael Cohen “there’s no business in Russia,” which both knew to be false, Trump was telling Cohen the party line he should insist on. Most of Prof. Saul’s Medium posts are about the shocking scheme to cut down half of Sheffield’s trees, showing the heavy-handed way the city council responds to protests and activism. They might interest anyone whose activism ventures beyond our computer screens. She also established a blog where women in philosophy could anonymously state their experience of sexism.

My interest took me to an academic paper, “(How) should we tell implicit bias stories?” A google search led directly to a pdf download. She writes, Implicit racial biases are largely unconscious and largely automatic racial attitudes, which have been shown to influence behaviour toward members of racial groups… these may be at odds with genuine deeply-felt egalitarian commitments. This makes implicit biases especially puzzling and uniquely disturbing to the self-conception of anti-racist whites like me. I might pick something up about internalised transphobia. The paper is written for a different audience.

Racist, sexist and transphobic results can arise from explicit bias, where a person is happy to be racist etc; from implicit bias, where they want to be anti-racist but act on unconscious beliefs imbibed from the wider society, and from structural injustice.

Prof. Saul quotes Sally Haslanger: Critical Social Theory begins with a commitment to a political movement and its questions; its concepts and theories are adequate only if they contribute to that movement. Fascinating. We have a purpose- to subvert the Kyriarchy. We judge understanding on whether it furthers that purpose.

One might reject stories blaming implicit bias for racist outcomes if the stories make people less likely to take action to avoid those outcomes, either action on themselves or against structural injustice. The stories might, unless the hearers are already committed to seeking social justice: it might reassure them that everyone was like that, so there was no need to change, or reduce their belief that improvement was possible. So our stories should motivate action towards social justice, and offer a road map for such action. They should show that implicit bias arises from and perpetuates structural injustice- such as the “institutional racism” the Macpherson report describes- and that both need combatted.

Reading, writing, understanding

“It was Heidegger who rendered phenomenology hermeneutical.” Are you still here, Jim? Jim wrote here, once, “I adore Heidegger”. I just about understand that sentence, have some understanding of what phenomenology is, or hermeneutics, though I am unclear about how one could be the other. And then a shaft of light: Heidegger describes understanding as the human’s fundamental way of being-in-the-world… the basis of human knowing in general.

Afraid to go out, afraid to go in- I have not been meditating, because I fear it, and then yesterday felt moved to, so did. And this morning I felt moved to so did and found my pain and sadness, at the heart of me, it just hurts. Being with it, being conscious of it, was what I had feared and why I had avoided meditation, and why I may avoid meditation in the future. And yet just sitting with this pain the emotional accretions to it cease to matter. There is the pain and sadness, and there is the terror and sense of incomprehension and powerlessness which they evoke in me, but if I sit with the pain the terror disappears. Perhaps I am still powerless, I don’t know. Perhaps, I am not. Perhaps, I will meditate.

Become blind during contemplative prayer and cut yourself off from needing to know things. Knowledge hinders, not helps you in contemplation. Be content feeling moved in a delightful, loving way by something mysterious and unknown, leaving you focused entirely on God, with no other thought than of [God] alone. Let your naked desire rest there. . . .

I have been reading. I love the idea of the Oxford “Very Short Introductions”, books about 120 pages long on all sorts of topics. The one on Existentialism has required my concentration, reading slowly, re-reading paragraphs and chapters, and that concentration seems a worthwhile practice to me as I sit at home. Maybe I should take notes. It seems a less frittery way of spending time than others open to me. I wish they were slightly easier, but there are concepts new to me which may be as lucid as possible. It fits this section, on how an inkling may grow to an understanding, how it might be aided by others, shaped by words. I have experienced such learning before.

She may be there this weekend. I hope so, hope not. I have spoken at her twice, both times imbecilically. (If you’re reading this, I don’t mean you.) She is utterly alien to me, beyond my comprehension, of fabulous intellect which I intuit may create loneliness in crowds like there will be. If she is there it will be her gift to us. If I dare approach her, not for absolution for my past idiocies but to say


as a gift not a request or a pawing attempt at robbery- an attempt at I-thou-

could it possibly result in communication I could bear? Though my communications so far, impertinent though they were, have elicited reactions so that I have seen her slightly better. What is the best that I want?

That intellect should win respect from all, but merely being female exposed her to insult and contempt, over and over again, probably still does.

Another person will be there, also alien to me but with whom I have communed, in Tate Modern, making the art we contemplated together dance and sing and give up mysteries. (If you’re reading this, you know who you are.) I so desperately want to commune.

Faced with the possibilities of Bad Faith or Authenticity, explained by Sartre as mediated by Thomas R. Flynn, I will occasionally make progress, slower than I would like, wanting instant communication and finding attempts failing over and over again. But then in meditation this morning, fleetingly, I managed to communicate with myself.

Trans philosophy

What does it mean to say “Trans women are women”? Should philosophers debate this? Angelos Sofocleous was sacked for tweeting “women don’t have penises” from his post at Critique, a philosophy journal, and The Times got hot and bothered: The censorious junior philosophers of Durham… appear to have an absolute moral conviction that this is something not to be thought about. There was more huffing and puffing from Conatus News: Thought Crime in the UK: in Solidarity with Angelos Sofocleous. But Angelos’ twitter says he is a writer/editor at Conatus.

Well. Sofocleous is only an undergraduate, and Critique is an undergraduate journal. And he was not philosophising, but making a bald statement, sharing a Spectator article.

My French friend has lived in Birmingham for thirty years. He has two daughters, both now graduated from university. He bought a house. He divorced his British wife, and never took British citizenship. Is he one of us, or a foreigner? Before the EU referendum, only a few hard-right haters would have said he was foreign; after, the British Government says he is. I am angry and ashamed that my friend should be excluded like this.

Emily Thornberry MP, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said, My starting point is that I’m a feminist, and I’m a feminist of a certain age. I was involved in the women’s rights movement in the late 70s and early 80s, when we had our discussions about women-only meetings, and we were talking about the importance of us as women, and our own experiences in contrast to men. That’s kind of what my background is. So I’ve found the trans debate quite challenging.

But actually talking to people and listening to people- when they’re not shouting- what really struck me actually is that what I have learnt from feminism is that there are people who are marginalised and people who are treated badly, and actually the feminist movement is big enough and big-hearted enough, and if someone believes that they have been born as a man but they are a woman, we have space.

Of course philosophers should consider what it means to say “Trans women are women”. But as with my French friend, who has been told to “get back where he came from,” there are dangers in this. We can be excluded, and we can be hurt. A tweet of a Spectator article encourages those who would hurt and exclude us.

So the philosopher might be allowed to say things in an academic journal which they could not tweet. What does this mean for other women? is a legitimate question. What is a woman?

Suggesting that there are dangers from trans women in general, extrapolating from one trans woman who has committed rape, is inciting hatred and fear so transphobic by the core definition. Any suggestion that we should be excluded should be carefully argued. Any suggestion that there are dangers from trans women should stick to facts rather than speculation, and take great care not to express those facts to exaggerate any risks, or make someone think them disproportionate. Saying there are risks from a group of people- foreigners, coming over here, taking our jobs, taking our benefits– is a simple way to incite others against them.

Any philosopher writing about risks from trans women should expect push-back. Of course we will pick up any exaggeration of those risks, any false argument. The Shadow Foreign Secretary has the right idea. But Sofocleous was not philosophising, and was not sacked for philosophising.

Here is useful philosophising about trans.

Academic debates, trans lives

Erudite academics applying philosophical techniques to the nature of trans affect my life, but only if I let them.

Prof. Kelli Oliver protests that she is openly bisexual and has mentored women and students of colour in her male-dominated discipline, in order to eliminate injustice and inequality. I find myself in an educational environment in which outrage, censoring and public shaming has begun to replace critique, disagreement and debate. She is still getting hate mail after defending Rebecca Tuvel, who wrote an article comparing transracialism to transgender. One way we delegitimise Nkechi Amare Diallo is by using her former name, though she has changed it, an act equivalent to deadnaming a trans person.

Mmm. Deadnaming. Prof. Oliver pointed out that Caitlyn Jenner herself refers to “Bruce”: I will refer to the name Bruce when I think it appropriate. Bruce existed for sixty-five years, and Caitlyn is just going on her second birthday. That’s the reality. I feel it behoves me to bear references to Stephen. I have enough ways for people to provoke me, without that. Yet deadnaming distresses many transitioned people: it is a way of denying the reality of transition and gender identity, the person’s gender and right to assert it.

Deadnaming is unfriendly. I can imagine psychologists or philosophers debating these matters in an academic setting, and if Rebecca Tuvel’s journal article had just been in print in University libraries perhaps no-one would have objected to it. However, it was available on-line, and so the least active transactivist and lots of incipient trans folk, as well as people of colour who objected to “Rachel Dolezal”, read it and got angry. As Kelli Oliver says, some who were in a position to ruin Rebecca Tuvel’s career read it and objected.

What you don’t know rarely hurts you. Had it been only available in print in a scholarly journal, trans activists would not have heard of it, and few might have bothered to communicate objection if they had to type a letter and use a stamp- perhaps even dictating rather than writing, in my first job I used a dictaphone to dictate letters for secretaries to type. Now, it is online, and gains notoriety. People read it. We are hurt by it. Transracialism is not accepted by black people, and I don’t like it compared to transgender. Others can make moral or practical distinctions, but finding those is effort.

I stop being able to ignore Rebecca Tuvel. People talk about her. So she affects me, threatening to delegitimise me. I have no safe space. Just as once there was a Gender Recognition Certificate I had to have one, so now Rebecca Tuvel impinges on my consciousness and that of other trans folk I have to read her.

The Guardian had an article saying that teenagers were not having gender surgery. Comments were opened, and people saying prejudiced things about trans people had a field day. Their comments got lots of upvotes. Some suggested that the Transgender Day of Remembrance was a fraud, that there was no evidence murder rates of trans folk were any higher than the general population. A few trans folk answered, and were abused.

Any TERF can join a TERF bubble, and learn horrible words like autogynephilia, or about assaults on cis women by trans women, including sexual assaults. Then they can come out and attack us with them. Articles about transracialism, or by Anne Lawrence, are used to attack us. And yet it need only affect me if I let it, if I read the hostile articles and the difficult arguments. People will transition, whatever the climate of hostility. Perhaps no-one I know IRL would read them, but me. I could just cut myself off from all this ferment, simply by switching off my computer, and no-one I know IRL would care. But I am drawn to it, however much it stresses me. Academic freedom has to take account of the casualties.

Possibly it would be better if philosophers and psychologists could debate trans in ivory towers, find a solution and just apply it. Actually, no, we have fought for what we have, it gives us a sense of agency. We are part of this argument. We know what we want. If academics debated, then lawmakers followed their recommendations, the world would be like the prayer of Teilhard de Chardin, archaeologist and mystic:

Ah, you know it yourself, Lord, through having borne the anguish of it as a man: on certain days the world seems a terrifying thing: huge, blind, and brutal. . . . At any moment the vast and horrible thing may break in through the cracks—the thing which we try hard to forget is always there, separated from us by a flimsy partition: fire, pestilence, storms, earthquakes, or the unleashing of dark moral forces—these callously sweep away in one moment what we had laboriously built up and beautified with all our intelligence and all our love.

Since my human dignity, O God, forbids me to close my eyes to this . . . teach me to adore it by seeing you concealed within it.

But then the world is.

Kelly Oliver in NYT.

Computer simulation

We are probably in a complex computer simulation. The neutrinos and galaxies our instruments detect, and even each of us, are made of code. “How can I emerge into Reality?” asked H- but why would you want to? Why would reality be preferable?

Imagine that in reality you have moments to live, having been in an accident. As the human population is kept at a precise optimal sustainable level, there is a strong taboo against prolonging life. Your death will mean that someone can have a baby. However, as you are dying early you get the opportunity to enter The Simulation. You will not remember your real life, but can live a life here.

Or, in reality the Big Crunch will happen within 100,000 years. Nothing of the whole Universe will remain. It is believed that there will be a further Big Bang, but for hundreds of thousands of years after there will be no structure or information in the hot plasma, if ever. However, in the Simulation time is speeded up, so that we have another ten billion years before the computer substrate is destroyed. And we detect evidence that there will never be a Big Crunch, just the evaporation of black holes and a perpetually expanding Universe of solitary particles at absolute zero, too far apart to have any effect on each other: it is set this way, so that we will not suffer the despair our creators feel.

Or, in reality you are a criminal. Your body will be placed in a coma so that you will never sense anything ever again, and this is a mercy because your crime is so dreadful that all of society would ostracize you. However, you can have a life in the Simulation.

I imagine life would be preferable in reality because you could influence real events, but in the simulation life is perhaps as complex as in Reality- so how is Reality more real? Perhaps life is less complex there. There is only one galaxy, and only one planet with intelligent life, and reality is simple enough for people to have fully understood and explained it. They would die of boredom, but instead they live vicariously through us. Right now they are laughing at the practical joke they have played on us, for here quantum theory and gravity are irreconcilable.

If the simulation is indistinguishable from Reality, why would Reality be better? I can influence other lives here, which matters even if they are made of code rather than cells.

If this is reality, the Sun will heat up so that Earth’s water will evaporate in a billion years’ time, so that organic life will be impossible. In seven billion years the Sun will become a red giant and if it does not engulf the Earth, Earth’s atmosphere will be stripped away and its surface temperature rise to over 2400K. Homo Sapiens Sapiens emerged 200,000 years ago, and perhaps our species will end within a million years. I might extend my empathy and fellow feeling to a machine intelligence emerging from Earth, and be pleased that something emerging from life on Earth would survive, but just as I will die so will my country, my civilisation, my species, my planet, and perhaps everything relating to or influenced by life here will end.

It will end; but it will have been beautiful and valuable, while it lasted.


I assert my morality is mainly consequentialist, with a tincture of rules-based and virtue-ethics. Perhaps I should read up on what that means. So I turned to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Moral philosophy consists of people putting up theories, and people picking holes in them. When the theorists try to defend, that can be like a Ptolemaic astronomer finding ever more tiny epicycles to fit the data.

Stanford is better than “”. There I read of Situational ethics: the idea that a moral response depends on all the circumstances of a situation, and not on any fixed law. I agree: but the site’s killer argument is that Situational ethics “contradicts the Bible”. Yet still Stanford felt like a series of straw men.

Most people could live on less, and give more to charity. That charity might save lives. Consequentialism might seem to put an obligation on us to save lives, and socialise at home rather than in the pub. However much you do for others, most people could find ways to make more sacrifices, and do more. I could see the greater sacrifice as morally preferable, but not obligatory. Or I could attempt to use Aristotle’s golden mean, a virtue ethics argument, to say that too great sacrifice is a fault. Or a Quaker line: “A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength.” JS Mill would argue that an act is only morally wrong if liable to punishment: it does not maximise utility to punish people for not being absolutely as moral as they might.

Philosophers refer to agent-neutral and agent-relative views. The theorist of agent-neutrality says that an act which is right for anyone is equally right for everyone. The agent-relative theorist might say here that a parent has a particular obligation to their family. This starts to look like argument after the fact: one can rationalise any decision. How to balance competing claims?

The article expresses it differently, but considers the Trolley problem. Imagine a train is coming down the tracks towards five workers. Points could divert it to another line where there is only one worker. Do you pull the lever, to save five lives at the cost of one?

Such problems have to be unreal. No, you cannot warn the driver or slow the trolley. No, you cannot warn the workers, and they cannot jump out of the way. Perhaps they are tied there- one damsel in distress on one line, five on the other. The argument for not pulling the lever is that my action will have directly caused the death of the One, even though saving the five, so I will not. What if the death would be my fault, asks Stanford: the workers were in danger because I had told them to work there, and had not known the trolley was coming because I had not bothered to check. In that case, I might collapse into a fugue of terror and do nothing.

I come away from the article with more questions than answers, and perhaps better able only to rationalise after a decision, rather than decide morally before.

Article on Consequentialism.

woman tied to railroad tracks