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  • Writer's pictureJuniper Colwell

Open Debate and its (Supposed) Enemies

“So, what are you?”

I had expected the question. Still, the form threw me off.

“Uh… woman?” I stuttered.

The nurse nodded. She seemed satisfied. I wasn’t, but I knew better than to invoke ‘non-binary’ in a situation like this. Even if I was willing to take the chance on folks reacting negatively, I didn’t have the energy to explain.

It was March 2020. I had contracted a mysterious illness which had left me immobilized in bed and unable to eat for a week. I avoided the doctor for as long as possible because I was concerned about the cost. When I finally checked into the ER, I had lost 1/5th of my lung capacity. I had moved so little that I didn’t even notice. Though I am almost certain that I had COVID-19, I couldn’t be tested due to the shortage that plagued the country at the beginning of the pandemic. The doctors did their best to eliminate alternatives and, as far as I know, found nothing else that might explain the illness.

One of the things that struck me in that hospital room was how it made some of the philosophical problems that I worked on and discussed with my students immediate, self-evidently important. For instance, I often teach the basics of Fricker’s thoughts on epistemic injustice by referring to an episode of John Oliver’s show discussing race and gender bias in medicine. In the episode, there are some clear analogues for testimonial and hermeneutical injustices. Testimonial injustices are evident in the way that doctors often ignore or write off the complaints of minorities. Hermeneutical injustices are similarly plausible in the account given of bad scientific research, such as testing drugs meant to affect the uterus on folks without uteruses.

Now that I had become a patient myself, I was for the first time exposed to these issues as a trans person. The situation is not great for trans people. I was well aware of the issues that people had with ‘trans broken arm syndrome,’ where transition was blamed for every medical problem, no matter how obviously unrelated. I regularly have to explain what transition consists of and doesn’t consist of to medical professionals, as well as clear up misconceptions about either the hormones or trans people. While I had been lucky with doctors who listened and were understanding in the past, I also had the ability to find other doctors if I needed to. In that hospital, I wasn’t going anywhere. It was completely out of my control.

In the wake of Dr. Kathleen Stock’s reception of an OBE, there has been renewed discussion of The Trans Question as an issue of open academic debate. Others have done plenty of good work to debunk the hateful nonsense spewed by Stock and I’m not interested in re-treading that ground. Instead, I want to talk about the reality of these academic debates.

As philosophers our problems do not come from the ether. As philosophers, we have a duty to understand and contend with the contexts of these problems. No matter how abstract, our problems are grounded in our lives, our experiences, our world. The way that we pose these problems and structure these debates isn’t just a matter of academic fancy. While we love the ‘anything goes’ ideal of academic debate as a place where we have no sacred cows and anything can be contested, most academics do not deign to ever consider the work that would be necessary to realize this ideal.

Instead, appeals to the value of debate have an ideological function not unlike the kind that Charles Mills identified with ideal theory. Mills criticizes ideal theory for flattening differences between human beings, their capacities, and their socio-economic contexts and overrepresenting the experiences of a small, privileged sect as indicative of the human condition. He distinguishes between two senses of idealization—the ideal-as-idealized-model and the ideal-as-descriptive-model. While the former has a valuable role in normative investigation, Mills argues that these models require a level of descriptive accuracy for these ideals to be meaningful to people on a practical level. Insofar as we fail to explore the massive gulf between the idealized and descriptive, “we are abstracting away from realities crucial to our comprehension of the actual workings of injustice in human interactions and social institutions, and thereby guaranteeing that the ideal-as-idealized-model will never be achieved.”

‘Open academic debate’ seems to play a similar role as ‘ideal theory.’ There is a sense in which it tracks something real—contesting ideas openly often allows us to expose falsehoods and flaws in reasoning. It is a helpful reminder that there is no one privileged person or perspective that will get us to truth, and that unpopular and repressed truths refuse to be totally extinguished. Of course, it should also remind us that the results of any one or handful of instances of a disagreement cannot determine the outcome. It could be the case that the ‘winner’ of actual debates really had the worse arguments and won for other reasons. The fact that these results are open to constant contestation means that we should ideally be able to overcome this sort of error.

But appeals to ideals such as this could not be more distant from the reality of academic philosophy. In reality, trans philosophers are scarce. Their works are not given the same value and consideration as cis philosophers even when writing on trans issues. While Stock and others like her have questionable knowledge of feminist philosophy in general, they don’t even bother to acknowledge trans philosophers, and make no effort to respond to the work they’ve done. This refusal to even acknowledge the vast wealth of literature on the metaphysics of sex and gender, most of which provides important counterpoints to their arguments, would be unacceptable in any other context. Instead, we are told that in the midst of an explosion of feminist research, anti-trans philosophers aren’t able to publish because they are being ‘silenced’ and ‘blacklisted,’ despite the fact that they seem to find themselves on plenty podcasts, in plenty of newspapers, and giving supposedly important lectures. Now, we’re told the very existence of open academic debate rests on us giving these people rewards and paying them for talks! And this isn’t even getting into the issue of their spreading misinformation from hate groups and butchering science—this is just based on our own discipline’s norms!

The actual terrain of intellectual disagreement is far more complicated and fraught for the marginalized than those who appeal to ‘open debate’ are willing to recognize. People who are truly marginalized and silenced don’t get awards by colonial institutions—though no one can argue that Britain knows a thing or two about silencing folks. Trans folks tend to be more precarious than cis folks. It is not an accident that those that remain in philosophy are generally grad students or early in their career. They cannot afford to lose opportunities to be invited to conferences, to publish, or to interview for jobs. Moreover, trans folks, like most marginalized folks, are subjected to what Kristie Dotson describes as a culture of justification, where positive status is accorded insofar as one makes oneself and one’s work congruent with the dominant norms governing legitimation.

In her analysis of the culture of justification in philosophy, Dotson identifies two kinds of exclusion—via exceptionalism and via a sense of incongruence—both of which are evident in the treatment The Trans Question and work by trans philosophers has received from philosophers. The first kind of exclusion, exclusion via exceptionalism, is the unfounded exclusion of investigations based on privileging one group over the other. The exclusion of non-western philosophy is offered as the primary example of exceptionalism. But Dotson makes an interesting comment on the selective deployment of justifying norms as another instance of exceptionalism. She notes that black thinkers who hold anti-white views like Alexander Crummell are quickly dismissed, while explicitly anti-black thinkers like Hegel are given the benefit of the doubt. I noted a similar exceptionalism regarding cis authors earlier. While any other academic—especially non-conforming practitioners—would have their reputation destroyed if it came out that they knew nothing about the literature base which they spoke on, cis philosophers are allowed to completely ignore decades of scholarship to publish their idle musings. As Sarah Ahmed notes, these ‘reasonable theories’ often just constitute an extension of transphobic harassment because they allow for almost the same discriminatory behavior to be perpetrated under the guise of ‘just asking questions.’ Exclusion via a sense of incongruence, on the other hand, refers to the dissonance felt by practitioners who do not accept these justifying norms as the only way to do real, legitimate philosophy. I can personally attest to the fact that being discussed and debated like one of Husserl’s tables or chairs creates a level of dissonance. Both forms of exclusion make the task of legitimation an impossible goal and create unlivable working conditions for diverse practitioners, who must invest precious time and energy into the project of transforming dominant norms.

Dotson’s invocation of the need for a livable option for diverse practitioners of philosophy already indicates some obvious problems for the valorization of debate as it actually exists. It goes without saying that those who leave or are driven out of the profession are unable to contribute to these debates. Those who remain must be willing to sacrifice precious time and energy with no guarantee of protection from backlash. Moreover, they must gain a level of expertise in whatever area transphobic myths might proliferate so that they might be able to identify and respond to them. Toni Morrison once noted that one of the important functions of racism is distraction because it constantly forces you to justify yourself and combat all sorts of myths. “It keeps you from doing your work,” she wrote. “It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being… None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.” Much the same can be said about the ‘open debate’ that is always invoked to defend people spreading transphobic myths through ahistorical analysis. No matter how much evidence you provide, no matter how well you answer their arguments—none of that will matter in the long run. Just like myths about racial science and IQ thrive despite thorough debunking, transphobia will not be eliminated by arguing with people on the terms of transphobes with apparent amnesia. For how many decades do these debates need to repeat before cis folks will be satisfied with the answer? How many of us ought to dedicate our lives to assuring them that this nonsense is indeed nonsense?

But the implications of the culture of justifications do not stop at the playing field, of course. What arguments are made, how they are made, and how people evaluate them are all impacted by this culture. Anyone in Anglo-American philosophy is at least aware of the dominance of analytic philosophy and of the value of conceptual analysis. It is without a doubt a rich tradition that is exceptionally useful for philosophical discussions of any sort. However, as Dotson notes in her discussion of incongruence, analytic philosophy also has a well-documented tendency to engage in ahistorical and disembodied inquiry that often alienates those ‘marked’ by difference.

I want to stress that this is clearly not intrinsic to analytic philosophy, since there are many analytic and analytically trained philosophers who recognize the importance of socio-historical context. It is instead a distinct product of our (Anglo-American) philosophical culture, one that directly affects how we engage in our inquiries. Cis philosophers writing abstractly on trans folks can baselessly muse on our supposed deviance and criminality under the guise of ‘conceptual analysis.’ Their deeply irresponsible work is not just accepted, but applauded, precisely because it is so abstract and disconnected. This culture also complicates the ways that trans and other philosophers might respond to these errors. Because socio-historical context is devalued, the long history of trans and queer scholarship that has already dealt with the arguments put forth by cis philosophers is ‘unserious’ theory that is irrelevant to the discussion. The only chance that these arguments have at being considered is if someone takes the time to repackage them in an abstract style palatable to that audience. We cannot have meaningful academic debate where people are not equally held accountable to either the intellectual histories or the human beings whose lives evaporate so easily beneath these supposedly ‘neutral’ analyses.

As a result of this culture of justification, philosophical debate is robbed of its critical potential. Far from introducing new and original perspectives, what we are offered instead is blatant bigotry dressed up in intellectual terms. Since no other context is offered with this analysis—no sociological analysis, no historical background, no in-depth engagement with empirical evidence*—the reader is left to fill in the gaps with ‘common sense,’ the bane of thought. That is, the reader is led to conclusions that ‘feel’ right based on their own experiences. But how many trans people is the average reader intimately familiar with? Most readers, philosophers included, do not know any trans people. If they have met any, they have certainly not become close enough with them to discuss gender at length. When one thinks of a trans person, then, one is considering a merely abstract entity whose characteristics are imagined primarily based on movies and television shows where trans people are played as a joke. The odds are thus stacked against pro-trans philosophers who must try to reason people out of buying into the fearmongering of transphobes because trans people might as well be mythical beings to them.

I do not want people to give up their support for open debate. Far from it. I want people to seriously consider what practices and conditions must exist for us to meaningfully have that open debate. First, there must be some sort of shared intellectual history that can serve as the basis of discussion. One cannot expect to seriously discuss trans issues without engaging with any of the literature produced over the past few decades. To do so, we also need to change the culture of justification that enabled the exclusion of feminist, queer, and trans philosophy in the first place. Second, we cannot have meaningful debates so long as the massive inequalities between parties involved in the debate continue. The material and professional security of trans folks is almost universally precarious, whereas transphobes have broad institutional support and, up until recently, uncontested cultural dominance in the Anglo-American world. It is bad enough that so few philosophers speak out, and we face enough discrimination without having to put ourselves on the line every time the latest philosophical genius decides that formalizing their bigotry is a brilliant idea.

Finally, we need to engage in this debate in good faith and in a morally responsible fashion. We can’t continue to treat rehashed propaganda about queers being rapists and pedophiles or other misinformation from hate groups that Stock and the like are wont to spread as innocuous and just as good as any other argument. Enabling bigotry is repugnant enough in its own right. But taking the argument at face value also leads one to misunderstand its purpose. These absurd accusations of deviance and criminality are meant to code trans people as impure contaminants of an otherwise clean and simple binary. María Lugones's Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition Against Multiple Oppressions argues that the rational vantage point of the modern subject, this view from nowhere which supposedly enables one to carve up and categorize the world, is a myth grounded in the abjection of the ambiguous and multiplicitous. This subject can appear as neutral and transparent insofar as it is able to differentiate itself from other beings that lack that neutrality and transparency. She is worth quoting at length here:

If women, the poor, the colored, the queer, the ones with cultures… are deemed unfit for the public, it is because we are tainted by need, emotion, the body… We become sides of fictitious dichotomies. To the extent that we are ambiguous—non-dichotomous —we threaten the fiction and can be rendered unfit only by decrying this ambiguity as nonexistent—that is, by halving us, splitting us. Thus, we exist only as incomplete, unfit beings, and they exist as complete only to the extent that what we are, and what is absolutely necessary for them, is declared worthless.

Lugones agrees with Morrison’s analysis that becoming trapped in reaction to oppression is a vicious cycle that undercuts any creative agency. If one is totally defined by the logic of the oppressor, Lugones reasons, then one will not be able to find the resources to liberate oneself or effectively resist oppression. Her solution is to accept a pluralistic vision of the subject composed of various selves tied to various worlds. Ties between these various selves/worlds can be made such that one is able to work ‘in-between’ selves and ‘remember’ another self to gain another perspective or serve as the impetus for action. A famous example from Lugones’ work is her discussion of playfulness. When Lugones asks old friends, they tell her that she is indeed playful. But when Lugones asks colleagues, they tell her that she’s actually very serious. At first, Lugones considers that she may not actually be playful because she’s not at ease but realizes that she has it backwards. She is not at ease because she is in a world that constructs her as serious. If she were to become at ease, she would not suddenly become playful. Her place in the world is tied to those descriptors. Thus, the world would need to change alongside her for her to become playful. Lugones’ pluralism and ethical orientation toward liberation are instructive for how we might think of this debate space. Insofar as we remain in the hermetically sealed world of abstract analysis and our inquiry is guided entirely by demeaning stereotypes, then we have no hope of making meaningful progress. To make these debates meaningful, we cannot always and only force trans people to travel to cis people’s worlds and articulate themselves on cis people’s terms. To do so would be the effective equivalent of dooming one to the same non-agential position I found myself in while at the hospital. Open debate is only possible if our worlds are understood as equally valid and veridical as the world of any cis person. Without this, we do not have a debate as much as a solipsistic soliloquy.

* Some may object that anti-trans philosophers do refer to biology. That may be the case. But they do not engage with the work of contemporary biologists or philosophers of biology who have long criticized their naive ‘common sense’ approach. Anne Fausto-Sterling, for instance, first published “The Five Sexes” (1993) and Sexing the Body (2000), both of which provide in-depth analyses of myths surrounding binary sex and the erasure of intersex people at an academic standard that none of the anti-trans philosophers have met. Decades later, in 2020, she is still publishing op-eds like “Science Won’t Settle Trans Rights” dispelling the exact same myths which she has spent a lifetime arguing against. If any anti-trans philosophers took the project of engaging with empirical evidence seriously, we would see sustained engagement with Fausto-Sterling and others like her. Yet, they are silent. Lugones, whose work is discussed later in this essay, links this reification of the gender binary through both the mutilation of the bodies of intersex folks and the destruction of non-western cultures and their associated gender norms. (Lugones 2007, 2010) In this context, we can see why it is essential that we take a critical view towards what seems empirically “obvious” and recognize the fact that there is good evidence to show that their binary view of sex is false and that it is not so easy to separate the natural and the social.


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