Taking Trans Lives Seriously

It is not permissible to debate in some academic parlor game the lives of people who are oppressed and murdered, writes Mark Lance.

July 30, 2019
 
 

In 1702, the New England Puritan Cotton Mather produced a theological/philosophical reflection on the nature of the American continent and its inhabitants. He asserted that the heathen savages that Europeans had met here were probably put here by the devil, likely lacked souls, were more akin to beasts than humans and absolutely must be at least converted, and if not, removed (i.e. killed).

Now I take it that no current philosopher would be so intellectually dense and morally obtuse as to describe that reflection merely as “arguing for positions on a core metaphysical issue -- the nature of persons.” One can imagine contexts in which such views would merely be laughably stupid and offensive. But at the dawn of the 18th century, as a mass influx of Europeans are launching one of the largest campaigns of ethnic cleansing and genocide in human history, these remarks are violence. They are an endorsement of genocide and played a very real role in facilitating it.

Recently, a small but highly visible group of scholars has taken to arguing against the growing acceptance of the gender self-identifications of trans people -- insisting that trans women are really men, trans men really women, trans lesbians really heterosexual men and so forth -- and often explicitly presenting these arguments as support for legal efforts to restrict trans folks' access to public spaces. This has led others to sharply criticize such "gender-critical" positions, and even to call for boycotts and deplatforming of those defending them. In response, 12 "leading scholars" wrote an open letter in Inside Higher Ed asserting that such calls were an assault on academic freedom and that such criticisms counted as unacceptable abuse.

I do not suggest that the current situation around TE“RF” philosophers is as grim as the genocide of Native Americans. (Note: Prior to public criticism of their exclusionary views, these scholars were happy to identify as “trans-exclusionary radical feminists.” Once the position had been denounced by serious feminist scholars and called out as hostile and abusive, a rebranding was attempted and they now prefer "gender-critical feminists." The latter term, however, is far less descriptive and obviously prejudicial. At the same time, while the whole point is to be trans-exclusionary, I would deny that the reactionary exclusion of various women from the category "woman" is either radical or feminist. Hence my use of TE“RF.”) Obviously, there are differences of quantity, and some of content, between what happened to Native Americans in the 1700s and what's occurring in academe today.

But when trans folks are systematically reviled, mocked and disempowered; when they are disproportionately harassed by police, arrested and brutalized -- both on the street and in custody -- and when there are active campaigns or existing laws in many countries to deny them basic human rights, one cannot merely have a polite discussion about the nature of gender and sex. To produce arguments, in this context -- that trans women are not women, or trans lesbians are not lesbians -- is not just a view we can easily reject as confused and offensive. It is complicity with systemic violence and active encouragement of oppression.

And to write pompous open letters about efforts to combat such complicity without mentioning any of the relevant context, to write as if this is simply an abstract question of academic freedom, to pretend that the cisgendered deniers of trans rights are the real victims because others criticize them is not nearly far enough from our hypothetical reaction to Cotton Mather.

It is difficult for me to see how highly educated, highly intelligent people can fail to see these obvious points. Perhaps they do, or perhaps something more complicated or more sinister is going on. I don’t know, or really care, what is behind it. But everyone who cares about the current victims of social and institutional bigotry needs to denounce it.

It is not permissible to debate the lives of people who are oppressed and murdered. Those who treat this like an intellectual game should not be engaged with. They should be told to [unprintable here] -- just as I hope we would respond to Cotton Mather. Every time.

Bio

Mark Lance is professor of philosophy, professor of justice and peace, and co-director of the program on justice and peace studies at Georgetown University.

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

Back to Top