On the morning of 12 October Professor Kathleen Stock drew attention to a statement that had been issued by the executive of her union at the University of Sussex that, she said, effectively ended her career. It demanded that the rights of trans people be respected, and that this does not contradict academic freedom. Stock may now leave her position. This is the culture war within the liberal left.
Stock’s argument in Material Girls: Why Reality Matters For Feminism would seem innocuous to most people unfamiliar with the debate. She argues that biological sex is a fact of nature that cannot be superseded by claims of gender identity. This insistence that sex is a fact, whether we like it or not, leads Stock to the conclusion that same-sex facilities should be reserved for biological females and not open to all those who identify as women. This is for reasons of safety but also of privacy.
Most people outside the political culture would hardly think that was a point worth making. It seems completely obvious. And, in truth, even if we accept that gender association is a more complex phenomenon than it might seem, it is surely possible to believe in the existence of biological sex and, at the same time, to extend the highest standards of consideration to people who identify with a gender other than that which they were assigned at birth.
The practical questions of how to use public spaces do not seem intractable. Yet masked protesters have let off flares on the university site. Stock has been advised by the police to consider getting bodyguards and to stay away from campus for a while. After the statement by her union, which effectively prevents her from making her case, Stock may be about to stay away from campus for a lot longer. The protestors are clear what they want. They want her to lose her job (a call that the union explicitly did not endorse). It looks as if, one way or another, that wish may be granted.
The first puzzle is why this should matter quite so much. It is certainly true that the 2021 trans lives survey by TransActual tells distressing stories about trans people being denied access to basic medical care. The mental health of trans people is notably worse than that of the general population. These things matter, of course they do. But the issue of trans rights has become a much bigger test of virtue than a genuine attempt to improve the living conditions of the 1 per cent of the UK population who identify as trans or non-binary.
[see also: How to talk about trans rights]
Isaiah Berlin once wrote that some of the most difficult questions in moral and political philosophy were not between good and bad, which was obvious, but between good and good. In the debate over trans rights, both sides regard themselves as defending a principle. The dispute is over which should trump the other.
The campaigners for trans rights believe that they are engaged in the next stage in the progress of civil rights. After the struggles for recognition for the working class, for women, for ethnic minorities, for gay people, comes the struggle over gender. In a sense this is an aggressively raucous modern Whiggism, moving towards the light. Once you have convinced yourself you are working with the grain of history, it is easy to caricature anyone who dissents as an opponent of progress, a reactionary who, back in the day, would probably have denied black people the vote.
But, in truth, the support for Stock is not coming from reactionaries. It is coming from, for example, feminists who, in the previous generation, argued vehemently for the autonomy of and respect for women that they believe is now threatened by the dismantling of the idea of gender. Stock does not seek to deny discrimination against trans people and nor in her book does she defend it. Despite the best efforts of the campaigners to paint this as a clash between cops and robbers, it really isn’t. Stock is not brandishing her bad. She is trying to defend an alternative good.
That good is her right to free speech, to think what she likes and have it debated in public. This ought to be what a university is for. Long after he should have said it, Adam Tickell, the outgoing vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex, described the “untrammelled right” of academic staff “to say and believe what they think”. Yet Stock’s career is now uncertain because she insists on saying what she believes to be true, namely that the fact of biological sex is significant enough to determine policy.
There is a case to be made against Stock’s contention. Perhaps biological sex doesn’t determine much of our behaviour and therefore doesn’t matter a great deal. But this is to engage in a debate the campaigners do not wish to have. They want the hurt feelings occasioned by argument to trump the right to argue. Those of us who are highly sympathetic to the claims of discrimination and ill treatment mounted by trans people still need to insist that Stock is right.
Truth in a democracy must emerge from conversation. The more we censor for “good” reasons the more we open the door for those who would censor for bad reasons. The free expression of views is the lifeblood of a vibrant culture. All the great causes of the civil rights movement were taken up in the public realm and the argument was heard. It was won by persuasion, not cancellation. Our public culture is at a strange and worrying point, and it is time to take stock of what we really value.
This article appears in the 13 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Perfect Storm