During the past year professional philosophers have struggled with controversies pertaining to transgender issues (recall the Tuvel/Hypatia affaire here and here; and again involving language in journal articles [recall my piece on the open letter to the editors of PPR at Dailynous here;] the debate between Talia Mae Bettcher and Kathleen Stock; the language of the APA philosophy blog [see Leiterreports]), etc. These debates have intersected with wider society and have even led to campaigns to to have faculty removed from their positions in the UK. While I am no friend of calls for civility in debate (recall this post among many), the way this debate is conducted is unedifying and I have already expressed despair that even the philosophers party to the debate seem to be unable to recognize explicitly each other's vulnerabilities.
I start this post with two preliminary comments. First, as regular readers know, I support so-called public philosophy (recall; which comes in many varieties [see here]) and philosophical activism (which comes in many flavors and in support of many different kinds of causes) of society and the profession. I have long admired the service philosophy of Kristie Dotson (recall), Hugo Bedau's activism against the death penalty, and John Corvino's work on same-sex marriage. (I am sure readers can add to this list their own favorites.)* Such cause/ideal-promoting political activism is both self-justifying and a useful means of discovery of truth. While philosophy can benefit from a measure of distance, cool reflection, and impartiality, it's also the case that engagement with the messy details of lived experience and the arguments generated by political conflict can also be a useful constraint on and source of creativity for philosophical discovery of the nature and properties of an ideal.
However, I have long thought that it seems unwise, or at least imprudent, when philosophers qua being philosophers support active politicians and political parties. (That's compatible with doing so qua being citizens of a particular polity). It seems best if one's pursuit of truth and the good is not sullied by and subject to the many tactical compromises and fatal injustices that accompany political life pursued by imperfect beings like us. I rarely see philosophical excellence in support of a politician or party,+ and much that I find cringe-worthy.
Second, transgender people are subject to bigotry, discrimination, harassment, and violence. This is well documented in the UK and US. The evidence also suggests that many transgender victims are also (intersectionally) members of other historically discriminated minority groups, I assume here that the violence occurs in virtue of their being transgender, and that belonging to it means one belongs to (all other things being equal) a vulnerable category of people. So,
- I wholeheartedly support the campaign for transgender rights and protection under the law.***
Regular readers know (recall this post on MLK Jr.) that I also think that human imperfection, self-interest, and bigotry often undermine enforcement of the law and can even make the most beautifully written laws a tool of oppression. What's needed is, thus, also sufficient popular support or opinion and the right dispositions in favor of such rights. Political campaigns are, therefore, crucial to generate such support.** Of course, there is something of a paradox lurking here, because where such support exists the right would not be necessary.
One important feature of new rights is that the costs and (new) down-side risks of these need not be distributed evenly on the population. That's of special concern if these fall on other vulnerable groups. I understand the present campaign against trans rights, which includes some high profile self-described feminist philosophers -- where not informed by or leaning on bigotry -- as aiming to articulate some such risks to vulnerable women, especially those in prisons and among the homeless. I think such concerns eminently reasonable, but that's because there is a reasonable fear of violence and degradation within prisons and fear of violence against the homeless (see here). But rather than fighting transgender rights, the proper response to such concerns for the very vulnerable is, I would think, to join the coalition for thoroughgoing prison reform and better/more resources and conditions for the homeless.++
So my preliminaries have turned into a blog post, which was prompted by my momentary reconsideration of my stance on public philosophy.+++ It's true that there is no reason to believe that philosophical activism will always be beneficial. And I am reminded of the fact that even in the pre-internet age (which, let's stipulate, can make any bad thing worse), there was and never is a golden age of civility (as those of us old enough to recall philosophical debates over abortion, LGBTQ rights, or if one pays attention to debates over Zionism/BDS, etc.)---I have often remarked upon the fact that as a discipline we have an all-too-human fondness for philosophical debates as blood-sports and the delicious take-down.
It's a familiar fact that the pursuit of a worthy cause can turn into fanaticism and unpleasant and vindictive (moral) righteousness. And it is known that friends of worthy causes will find it difficult to condemn the excesses because they do not wish to be seen as undermining the worthy cause. For, it's also all-too-common that critics of the worthy cause will use such excesses as a tactic to undermine a cause, and shift debate away from consideration of the underlying evils. Savvy intellectuals recognize the temptation they may benefit from escalation and from hyping an otherwise unworthy critic, inviting abuse from their anonymous followers, with the cycle being renewed etc. And so it can often happen that wisdom is pushed aside or found crouching unnoticed in the margins of the arresting debates.
In light of such facts people of good will may prefer to retreat to the ivory tower, and pursue their worthy work in undisturbed quiet. Others will note that these facts are part of the eternal return of life's carnival, and will will them...one tweet at a time eternally.
*A critic may ask, what about the activists whose ends you do not support? I try to be inclusive toward philosophical activism, including ones whose radical, illiberal, and revolutionary ends I do not endorse. (Judging by routine criticism of me in the philosophical blogosphere, where I am often lumped with revolutionary, intolerant, and far-reaching change proponents, I have to grant that I have succeeded in creating confusion about my own first order ends.)
+One may object that in the Burkean sense (recall), political parties are a philosophical enterprise. One may even argue that because today's parties are in his sense factions, it requires philosophers to re-animate parties. That would be a reasonable position in theory, and I am open to be convinced by practice.
**I have become an increasing human rights skeptic over time (recall), but domestic rights are different.
*** [UPDATE: I briefly took down this post because I wanted to correct this note.] In an earlier version of the post I avoided taking a stance on the the use of 'women' because I thought one can separate the legal protection and rights of transgender people from the categorization by the state and its agencies of who counts as a woman. (I try to call people what they want to be called, so it's not a matter of personal preference.) That's because I tend to think all such classification is contestable (and informed by potentially conflicting values and interests) and partially because I was uncertain about understanding the issues.As I noted (in an earlier version of this footnote after talking with Jack Samuel), for transgender activists and fellow-travelers, commitment to transgender rights is a commitment to formal recognition of trans men as men and trans women as women. After discussion with friendly critics, I now see that my own support for transgender rights would be hollow without such a recognition, so such recognition is the right thing to do.
++Of course, these are distinctively unpopular causes, so one may suggest transition periods after the introduction of new rights.
+++ I suspect my disappointment was caused by the unexamined expectation that an intra-feminist debate would be high minded.