Sunday, October 25, 2015

Mustn't we talk in universities about whether trans women are women?

I have been watching for some time with ever-growing horror a movement of - let's be honest, mostly progressive - folks, aka my friends, that strives to limit what we can and cannot debate in university settings. It happens on various levels and is quite insidious. There's the thing about trigger warnings where we are supposed to warn our students each time they might encounter something in class that might deeply upset, disturb or even distress them. Well, I teach bioethics, there's a fair chance that that could happen in every class that I teach. My students are also all of mature age, so should I really aim my classes at not upsetting their emotional well-being or should I aim to challenge and potentially even upset them? It's a rhetorical question. I begin my classes by issuing a general trigger warning for the rest of the course, including every class without exception. Box ticked. Sorted. Would I change my content based on whether a student might be deeply disturbed by the topic, or a case scenario, or a video clip? Not a chance. What's the point of taking a bioethics class and not being challenged frequently to reconsider how you look at the issues we are considering in class. There is no way to run a class on, say, the ethics of animal experimentation, abortion, euthanasia, even cochlear implants, without upsetting someone.

I'm not a junior faculty member in a tenure track position, 'student led' teaching evaluations will neither make nor break me. I doubt junior colleagues would be able to afford doing the same.

Part of this ongoing campaign to keep universities conflict free, and to avoid 'offending' students are no-platform events. No-platform events are events where particular speakers are no platformed, meaning they are prevented from speaking on campuses. This is either achieved by student organisations declaring particular speakers persona non grata, or by university administrations preventing invited speakers from speaking due to 'security' concerns. This has been going on for some time, mostly in the UK, not so much in North America. Initially the objective was to keep neo-Nazi organisations off college campuses. No platform to the BNP or the KKK, that sort of thing. More recently though the victims were secularist speakers aiming to address Muslim fundamentalism on college campuses (including enforced seating arrangements for men and women attendees, enforced head covers, and other such medieval niceties) and there were invariably 'concerns' expressed and offense taken about their 'racism'. 'Racism' here is the preferred misnomer for critiques of a man made ideology.

The latest round of no-platform campaigning has hit feminist author Germaine Greer. She doesn't think that trans women are women. I do think one can have a legitimate debate about human-made categories such as 'man' and 'woman'. However, I also think it's pathetic that student activists think they ought to prevent such debates from occurring by declaring that people who were born 'male' could now define 'woman' in such a way that it includes some of them and that this should be binding on the rest of society. I understand the desire of trans women that society should see them in the same way as other women, as much as I understand that some feminists as well as other people will find that idea offensive. It's a great debate to have - we should teach classes on this subject.

Alas, trigger warnings will be considered necessary in many universities, student activists queer and otherwise will need to be placated and what not else. None of this is acceptable. If we cannot interrogate (there's that dreaded term) these sorts of concepts and categories in universities, where else should or could we do so? How would we even be able to determine whether our culturally evolved categories about ourselves are fit for purpose? And for what purpose?

What's troubling about this defense of free speech on college campuses is that there is a price to be paid for such open debate, and it is mostly to be paid by trans people, that is people who are subjected already to unacceptable forms of societal discrimination and disapprobation. They will find their claims analysed and critiqued, courtesy of the internets, in ways that will be vicious at the best of times. That is deeply troubling seeing that suicide rates among trans people are as sky-high as they are. And yet, while pleading for civility, I am convinced that a public airing of these issues is what is in the best interest of trans people themselves. It helped liberate gays and lesbians, we had to subject ourselves to debates about normality, and naturalness, whether we suffer from a mental illness, perversion, and what not else. Being able to debunk these falsehoods one by one worked for gays and lesbians. I'm afraid trans people and their allies will have to face these issues head-on, make their case with the best arguments and evidence available and win the argument in the public domain as well as in the academy.

No platforming speakers we disagree with is counter productive. The idea that these issues will go away by suppressing debate about them is naive at best.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Certainty is not a defensible standard for policy making in the context of assisted dying

I mentioned in a Bioethics editorial a while ago that new frontiers are opening in the assisted dying debate. As an increasing number of...