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“Free debate” has hidden costs – TD Jacobs

When I was a bachelor student, there was a conspiracy theorist who regularly appeared outside our university buildings to harangue students. His interests ranged from the relatively mainstream moon landing and 9-11 conspiracies, to an extremely offensive fringe belief that birth control pills turned women into hairy lesbians. Nor did he settle for handing out fliers – he demanded, in the name of freedom of speech and academic debate, admittance to lecture halls during classes to present his evidence. Once, a professor gave him ten minutes to mathematically prove that humans have not achieved space travel. When this entertaining interlude in our otherwise dull day ended, the conspiracy theorist was shown the door and I don’t recall any professor providing him with a platform ever again.

Rather more recently (and somewhat less amusingly) a university funded student group at my own institution invited a well-known misogynist to give a lecture on university grounds. Among other things, the speaker expressed the quaint Victorian notion that women are simply biologically not suited to academic pursuits. Understandably, this event was roundly denounced by many – including myself, many of my colleagues, the ACCOD union, and other student groups – and demands made that neither the university buildings nor its funds be used for such purposes.[1] Not only have his opinions long been consigned to the scientific dustbin, but his airing of them at our institution was seen as contributing to the creation of a hostile work environment. Moreover, many have rightfully pointed out that this is particularly damaging in consideration of the systematic and structural inequalities women are already confronted with in academia.

The denial of an academic platform in either instance is not an attack on free speech. Our resident conspiracy theorist was free to say what he wanted out on the sidewalk. The misogynist is free to seek gullible audiences and speaker’s fees elsewhere. Moreover, academics routinely place limits on speech in academic settings. Scientists recognize that there are points at which unstructured, unlimited debate is not productive, and is even disruptive to the advancing of a discussion. For example, you will not find a creationist ‘teaching the controversy’ alongside evolutionary biologists at very many accredited institutions.[2] Nowhere, I dare say, will you find an expert in phrenology plying their trade in a medical school. No astrologers on staff in astronomy departments, or practitioners of alchemy in chemistry or physics. The debates between these competing views on the world are regarded as settled, and to continuously rehash them would waste time, money, and material resources.

Historians also place limits on debate. Just as with the ‘hard sciences,’ claimants must establish their knowledge of the subject with regard to what has been argued, dismissed, and demonstrated. Students and professionals alike must identify new questions that critique and build on older analyses and – above all – provide evidence, with receipts. Pupils who fail to meet these criteria are not given passing grades. Under ideal circumstances, colleagues who don’t meet these criteriawill not pass peer review processes. And historians who stray entirely outside their field of expertise to make pronouncements in another area of scholarship are often met with derision.

This is why I find it incredible that colleagues both at my own university and elsewhere are struggling to critically engage with the open letter published in Harper’s Magazine recently, decrying the “restriction of debate” in society and academia.[3] Perhaps this is because Noam Chomsky was, unsurprisingly, among its signatories. For decades, Chomsky has led the fight for free and open discussion in academia and elsewhere.[4] And I have generally been behind him in his crusade, which has helped draw attention to the problems of conservative reactionary movements against developments in the field of history such as the increased critique of a-historical nationalist narratives that have helped to justify and perpetuate state violence.[5] Not this time, however.

The letter was endorsed by a number of other individuals, including JK Rowling, who recently published her own essay on ‘cancel culture.’[6] And her signature highlights a problem that the letter fails to address: imbalances of power in public and academic spaces that help to perpetuate discrimination against minorities. Rowling, who achieved wealth and renown as a beloved children’s author, has become the avowed champion of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) in academia. TERFs – or ‘gender critical theorists’ as they prefer to be called – have aggressively targeted the transgender community.[7] According to their reductionist and antiquated view of biology,[8] gender identity, expression, or perception are irrelevant. Transgender men (such as myself) are women who have been brainwashed into hating our biological sex, while transgender women are predatory men in dresses. Such claims are, of course, extremely offensive. But more importantly for the purposes of this essay, they are unfounded. Not only do they lack evidence and a cohesive body of nuanced interdisciplinary research to support their views, their opinions are actually contradicted by both researchers and practitioners across various disciplines, including biology, gender studies, psychology, transgender healthcare, [9] and even in history and anthropology.[10] Indeed, the last two fields have contributed enormously to our understanding of how gender has been variously socially constructed through time and space.

TERFs have no convincing response to any of these critiques, and for that reason they are – like the misogynist mentioned above – largely shut out from serious academic discussions on gender. Instead, they have had their greatest successes in the areas of media and politics, where intellectual honesty and scientific standards generally don’t apply but where their academic credentials hold some sway.[11] And the ensnarement of a platform such as Rowling’s has substantially increased their reach. For example, Rowling was recently cited in the US Senate during the debate on the Equality Act, which seeks to amend the Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in numerous areas, including employment, education, housing, and public accommodations. The vote on the act was blocked by James Lankford, an anti-gay rights Republican from Oklahoma, who quoted a passage from Rowling’s essay on ‘cancel culture’ in which she claimed that women were being threatened and abused while trying to express their concerns regarding the threat posed by transgender people.[12]

The women Rowling referenced complain that they are being victimized by transgender activists pushing a radical agenda that seeks to stifle free speech and intellectual debate. But the reality is quite different from the scenario that Rowling has presented on Twitter and in her essay. For example, one TERF that Rowling has supported, Maya Forstater, was not – as Rowling has insisted – ‘fired’ for saying biological sex is real (something that the vast majority of transgender people do not dispute.) In actuality, Forstater continually Tweeted undeniably bigoted statements directed at specific individuals, and made other more generally discriminatory statements on the platform in an effort to derail changes to the UK’s Gender Recognition Act that would have granted transgender people easier access to necessary paperwork changes. Colleagues at the Center for Global Development, a nonprofit think tank, complained of Forstater’s transphobic Tweets. However, she persisted, and her contract as a tax expert was not renewed. Forstater decided that she was being unfairly discriminated against and took her case to an employment tribunal, where she lost. The judge applied a carefully formulated set of criteria and ruled that her intolerant, absolutist views were “not worthy of respect in a democratic society,” and did not warrant the special protection afforded other strongly held, philosophical beliefs.[13]

Rowling has also cited a highly contentious study that led to accusations of academic censorship against its critics. In 2018, Lisa Littman, an assistant professor at Brown University, published a paper in PLOS ONE in which sheinvented the diagnosis ‘rapid onset gender dysphoria.’ The crux of Littman’s argument was that gender dysphoria among transgender youth is not real, but rather is a socially induced phenomenon that may mask other mental health disorders.[14] However, Littman interviewed no transgender youth or transgender healthcare specialists before coming to this conclusion. In fact, her research consisted of a survey for parents that she posted on anti-transgender websites. Following critiques that Littman’s research was ideologically biased, lacked methodological rigor, and fell below scientific standards, the journal opened a post-publication review and her university withdrew a public endorsement in the form of a press release.[15] While Littman agreed to rewrite her paper to clarify her methodology and provide context,[16] her invention is still not recognized as a legitimate diagnosis among medical professionals, including her own colleagues in the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH).[17]

Neither of these cases represent factual attacks on freedom of speech or academic debate. Forstator’s bigoted speech was not limited. It was criticized. Transgender activists and allies have the freedom to respond to attacks on efforts to gain greater equality in society. She sought to perpetuate a gross injustice, but was not the victim of one. Moreover, freedom of speech has never been an absolute guarantee against the consequences of said speech, and not all speech is protected. In many countries, including her own, hate speech such as Forstator’s is not. In Littman’s case, she attempted to engage in academic debate, but her initial argument was deemed scientifically invalid upon closer examination because her methodology was poor and her results improperly founded. That is, as indicated above, how academic debate is supposed to work. A fact based charge of incompetence is not censorship.

Rowling’s defense of Forstator and Littman, among others, as the victims of ‘cancel culture’ is disingenuous, and the Harper’s letter does nothing to address this increasingly common discursive power play.[18] As several critics of the missive have pointed out, Rowling is not the only high placed signatory who cannot be considered to be engaged in “good-faith disagreements.” Quite a handful of them have been called out for misconduct or the promotion of extremist ideologies.[19] Nor do the claims made in the letter regarding discrimination or censorship appear to hold up under closer scrutiny.[20] And now, as Valentini puts it, “they want to be able to say whatever they want without consequence and to paint themselves as the victims even as they wield more institutional and systemic power than anyone criticizing them.”[21] This is, as Hannah Giorgis has termed it, “a deeply provincial view of free speech.”[22]

Some of my colleagues, I am afraid to say, are overlooking this key point. And Rowling is once again a prime example of this feigned victimhood. She demonstrably does not care about the freedom of speech of others, and is more than willing to use her considerable resources to ‘cancel’ her critics. After all, Rowlingsigned the Harper’s letter but recently threatened one critic of her outspoken transphobia with a lawsuit – and since she has all the lawyers one could buy at her disposal, the threat was effective. Nicola Spurling deleted her Tweet stating that Rowling can’t be trusted around children, but has stood by her point regarding the harmful nature of Rowling’s views.[23] And considering Rowling’s recent remarks equating legitimate medical treatment for transgender youth with the increasingly banned practice of so-called ‘conversion therapy,’[24] the author’s opinions most certainly do pose a danger to transgender children, who are already at a higher risk of suicide.[25] She cannot be trusted around them. Her signature – alongside those of others with platforms that they’ve used to ‘debate’ the validity of transgender people via such ‘concern trolling’[26] – cannot simply be dismissed as an obscuration of a greater point as some of my colleagues have proposed.

That brings me to the following: colleagues rushing to jump on Chomsky’s now hijacked bandwagon need to acknowledge that not all proposed academic debates have the same weight in terms of their potential consequences, nor do they burden those most closely concerned with the same amount of mental and emotional labour. For example, if I lost an argument regarding my own research, which centers on early modern diplomacy, the cost is somewhat negligible in that it would mostly affect my own career and not have any broader societal implications. And I engage in those debates because it’s my job.

However, the debate TERFs persist in demanding despite having long ago lost on scientific grounds concerns my validity as a person, my life. And the ultimate price of failure in such a debate is my right to move unmolested through society. It is not an ‘academic’ debate in the colloquial sense because it is not confined to academic spaces, and it can have a real-world impact on a marginalized and vulnerable minority by legitimizing discrimination. Academics have a professional, ethical obligation to ask who is demanding and framing such debates and to what end, and how is general societal capital – as well as academic access and resources – being distributed between the participants and subjects of such debates. And the same holds true for debates regarding the real-time struggles of other minorities, such as the Black Lives Matter movement or the resurgence of Indigenous activism against settler colonialism – the latter being of particular interest to me as a Native American. If the concerns and the costs to these communities are not actively taken on board or are condescendingly dismissed as ‘identity politics’ by those debating with no risk to themselves other than a witty riposte, then that isn’t an honest intellectual pursuit. It’s exploitative mental masturbation.

Lastly, like other transgender scholars who are not actually working in the field of gender studies, I feel press ganged at times to engage in conversations I’m not paid to have, don’t want to have, and in which I simply don’t have the luxury of ‘agreeing to disagree’ as I can with points of contention relating to my dissertation. Apart from having to educate people about being transgender – which I generally don’t mind so long as the subject of what’s in my pants isn’t raised too often – I’ve also had to defend my existence to some colleagues, ward off attacks from conservative students, and at times fight the Byzantine university administration for the most mundane changes to paperwork. Nor have role models or peer support always been readily at hand. Indeed, I have often felt obligated to provide help to students facing similar problems. That is the reality of being a minority in an academic setting. The toll in terms of additional stress and anxiety is significantly higher than what is demanded of me by my actual job, not just because of what is at stake but because there is no apparent end in sight. At least my dissertation has a definitive deadline.

So before colleagues excitedly and enthusiastically endorse calls for more ‘free debate’ from the intellectually dishonest and yet disproportionately powerful, I’d ask them to carefully consider what they are asking for. Because unlike recondite arguments concerning the ceremonial use of hats in diplomatic encounters in the seventeenth century, these debates have actual costs.

[1] Mingtje Wange, “KVHV onder vuur na seksistische uitspraken op lezing,” Schamper, 11.12. 2019. is UGent’s student magazine, and it has done a great deal of reporting on the rise of extreme right student groups. There was a video made of the event, “Video opgedoken van seksistische uitspraken Jeff Hoeyberghs aan UGent,” De Morgen, 9.10.19.  The complaints also led to investigation being opened into the conduct of the misogynist by the Orde der Artsen, the national licensing board. Tuly Salumu, “Massa klachten na seksistsche lezing van Jeff Hoeybergs, Orde der Artsen opent onderzoek,” Het Nieusblad. 10.12.2019.

[2] The assertion that there is a controversy between creationist beliefs and scientific findings that deserves to be debated in classrooms is actually a known tactic that is specifically employed by religious groups in order to gain access to academic and educational platforms. See, among others, Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross, Creationism’s Trojan Horse: the wedge of Intelligent Design (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, updated edition), and the chapter “The Wedge Document: a design for Design” in particular.

[3] “A letter on justice and open debate,” Harper’s Magazine, 7.7.2020.

[4] This is not the first time that Chomsky’s longstanding work on intellectual freedom has become embroiled in controversy. See Jean Bricmont, “Chomsky, Faurisson, and Vidal-Naquet,” in Julie Franck and Jean Bricmont, eds., Chomsky Notebook (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 292-308.

[5] Among others, see Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing consent: the political economy of the mass media (first published in 1988, revised in 2002); Noam Chomsky, Objectivity and Liberal scholarship (first published in 1997); Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or survival: America’s quest for global dominance (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2003).

[6] J.K. Rowling, “J.K. Rowling writes about her reasons for speaking out on sex and gender issues,” 10.6.2020.

[7] TERFs generally claim that the term is a slur, but in my opinion that is the discursive equivalent of racists complaining about being called racist, and I am not going to participate in their rebranding efforts. However, Sophie Lewis has provided a useful critique of the term, noting that there are anti-trans individuals and groups, particularly in the United States, willing to associate with TERFs but who do not claim – and cannot be considered to have – any kind of connection to feminism, Sophie Lewis “How British feminism became anti-trans,” The New York Times, 7.2.2019. Viv Smythe, thought to have invented the term, has since written about it: “I’m credited with having coined the word ‘Terf.’ Here’s how it happened,” The Guardian, 28.11.2018.

[8] Biological sex, both in terms of genotypes and phenotypes, is more complicated than the binary narrative (i.e. XY equals boy, XX equals girl) taught in primary schools. Nor do genotypes map directly to complex human behaviors. Having XX chromosomes does not mean an individual will prefer the colour pink, any more than it means that they are unsuited to academic pursuits. For a basic,general rebuttal of essentialism, see Gisela Kaplan and Lesley J. Rogers, Gene worship: moving beyond the nature/nuture debate over genes, brain, and gender (New York: Other Press, 2003).  For an advanced review article on the plasticity of the phenotypical expression of sex characteristics, see Malin Ah-King and Sören Nyllin, “Sex in an evolutionary perspective: just another reaction norm,” Evolutionary Biology 37, (2010).

[9] A biological basis for transgenderism in at least some portion of the population is still being established, but epigenetics is an increasing area of focus. An overview of various theories, and those relating to epigenetics in particular, can be found in Dana Jennett Bevan, Transgender health and medicine: history, practice, research, and the future (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2019). Bevan’s tome contains such a wealth of references to peer reviewed papers that it is an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to study the subject further.

[10] Anthropological studies on non-Western conceptualizations of gender include Will Roscoe, Changing Ones: third and fourth gender in Native North America (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998); Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas and Sabine Lang, eds. Two-spirit people: Native American gender identity, sexuality, and spirituality (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997). Individuals in pre-modern Europe who appear to have engaged in more than mere situational cross dressing have been subject to investigation, see for example Sherry Velasco, The lieutenant nun: transgenderism, lesbian desire, and Catalina de Erauso (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000). Studies relating to early modern European conceptualizations and performance of gender in literature are particularly numerous, but a good and nuanced oversight is provided by Simone Chess, Male-to-female crossdressing in early modern English literature: gender, performance, and queer relations (New York: Routledge, 2016).  Modern and contemporary’Western’ transgender history has been covered elsewhere; see for example, Susan Stryker, Transgender history (London: Hachette: 2007).

[11] For an excellent essay on the history of UK media representation, see Hannah Ewens, “Inside the great British TERF war,” Vice, 16.6.2020.

[12] Chris Johnson, “User clip: Kames Lankford cites J.K. Rowling in opposition to Equality Act,” C-Span, 18.6.2020.

[13] “Forstater v CGD,” Case Number: 220909/2019.

[14] Lisa Littman, “Parent reports of adolescents and young adults perceived to show signs of a rapid onset of gender dysphoria,” PLOS ONE 13, no. 8 (2018).

[15] Brown University, “Updated: Brown statements on gender dysphoria study,” 19.3.2019.

[16] Lisa Littman, “Correction: parent reports of adolescents and young adults perceived to show signs of a rapid onset of gender dysphoria,” PLOS ONE 14, no. 3 (2019).

[17] WPATH, “WPATH position on “rapid-onset gender dysphoria (ROGD),” 4.9.2018. The reasons why Littman’s invention has no credibility in the medical community are pretty much summed up in just one review of her work: Arjee Javellana Restar, “Methodological critique of Littman’s (2018) parental-respondents accounts of “rapid-onset gender dysphoria,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2019). Somewhat worryingly, Littman is now purportedly researching desistance and de-transitioning.

[18] The Harper’s letter has already inspired an equally ridiculous Belgian equivalent, warning against “radical activists” purportedly seeking to silence debates that according to the text “deserve to be held on every topic.” However, it must be noted that the so-called “radical activists” in this case are further identified as those that “say they want to fight (institutional) racism.” In other words: the Black Lives Matter movement. It is therefore not surprising that the letter was signed by a prominent nationalist who has been criticized for his bigoted positions. Bonne Kerstens, “Theo Francken (N-VA) en tientallen anderen ondertekenen manifest tegen ‘afrekencultuur,” De Morgen, 16.7.2020.

[19] It seems some of the lesser known signatories of the Harper’s letter were unaware of the other signers, and some may not have agreed to sign it at all: Aaron Huertas, “How did the organizers of the Harper’s letter mislead some of the signers? (It’s about ethics in open letters),” Medium, 9.7.2020.

[20] “A more specific letter on justice and open debate,” The Objective, 10.7.2020.

[21] Jessica Valenti, “‘Cancel culture’ is how the powerful play victim,” Gen, 8.7.2020.

[22] Hanna Giorgis, “A deeply provincial view of free speech,” The Atlantic, 13.7.2020.

[23] Megan Lalonde, “J.K. Rowling threatens legal action against Coquitlam transgender activist over tweets,” Tricity News, 29.5.2020. Despite this, and in an example of the kind of solidarity that Rowling purports to believe in but does not practice, a group of transgender and non-binary activists recently criticized a UK tabloid for its lurid reporting regarding Rowling’s personal life: Jim Waterson, “Trans activists write to Sun condemning JK Rowling abuse story,” 15.7.2020, The Guardian,

[24] For just one critique of Rowling’s remarks on conversion therapy see: Garrard Conley, “J.K. Rowling’s bigotry is painful and maddening,” CNN, 8.7.2020.

[25] Two of the most recent studies include Russell B. Toomey, et al. “Transgender adolescent suicide behavior,” Pediatrics, 142, no. 4 (2018); Brian C. Thomas, et al. “Suicidal disparities between transgender and cisgender adolescents,” Pediatrics 144, no. 5 (2019).

[26] Among other critiques see: Zack Ford, “Atlantic cover story is a loud dog whistle for anti-transgender parents,” Think Progress, 20.6.2018,; Karter Booher, “(Trans)itioning from false narratives,” South Seattle Emerald, 7.7.2017.; Noah Berlatsky, “We don’t value trans voices – even on trans issues,” The Establishment, 16.11.2015.

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