“There’s a disagreement in the planning group, about inviting you,” an organiser told me hesitantly during a phone call this spring to finalise the details of my speaking slot in a “diversity-and-inclusion” event, an event one would imagine would prioritise free speech and diversity of thought. I sighed and prepared to respond, knowing the objection to my participation likely had to do either with my post 9/11 writings, critical of the U.S. empire, or my more recent essays challenging the ideology of the transgender movement from a radical feminist position.
This time the problem was 9/11. One of the sponsoring groups preferred to pull out rather than be associated with an event that included me, a reaction that was common in the years following the terrorist attacks. The debate over transgenderism is a more recent source of contention and a current constraint on free speech. Earlier this spring, a talk I was scheduled to give was cancelled when someone objected and another talk was interrupted by protesters who hoped to shout me off the lectern.
These incidents are only a minor annoyance in my life, hardly worth attention except for what they reveal about the culture’s difficulty engaging in coherent and constructive arguments about issues that generate strong emotions. The health of a democracy depends on free speech and on people’s ability to argue, to propose public policies and articulate reasons why others should adopt those policies. Democracy atrophies when substantive arguments are sidelined by dogma, when claims are asserted with self-righteous certainty but not defended with reason and logic. There’s nothing wrong with people being emotional about politics – so long as it doesn’t shut down dialogue.
After several months of furore over high-profile conservative speakers who had been thwarted in some way on college campuses (Milo Yiannopoulos, Charles Murray, and Ann Coulter all made news this way), it’s illuminating to reflect on the far less dramatic challenges to my writing, which have come from both the right and the left. My focus is not on concerns about free speech – my constitutionally protected freedom has never been significantly impeded – but rather on the danger of a political culture in which critical self-reflection and thoughtful debate become more difficult, perhaps impossible in some times and places.
One of those times and places was post 9/11 United States. Like many in the anti-empire movement – a grassroots global justice movement challenging U.S. military and economic policy and demanding that policymakers take seriously our shared moral principles and international law – I argued that a mad rush to war would be counterproductive. When an op-ed making such an argument—that the United States consider a more rational course of action, and that we reflect on a history of U.S. crimes in the developing world—was published in a Texas newspaper a few days after the attack, I was the target of an ad hoc campaign (thankfully, unsuccessful) to get me fired from my teaching job at the University of Texas at Austin.
A decade later, a series of online essays about the transgender movement (available here, here, here, and here) led to another similar campaign to exclude me from left/liberal spaces because I argued that the intellectual claims of the trans movement appear to be incoherent and the political program that flows from it undermines feminism. Like many in the radical feminist movement who take such a position, I didn’t contest the experiences that transgender people describe but offered an alternative analysis that I believe provides a more compelling account of sex/gender politics.
These two cases are dramatically different in many ways, of course, but some similar features deserve attention. Challenging the foundational mythology of the United States—the claim that we have always been the moral exemplar of the world and today are the only force that can ensure a safe and stable world system—provokes a predictable reaction from most of the right and centre in U.S. politics, which has made acceptance of those myths a litmus test for being a “good American.” When one invokes history to challenge the myths, conservatives rarely attempt to engage in real debate, preferring to dismiss critics as the “blame America first” gang and label any debate over policy as a failure to “support the troops.”
Challenging the biological claims and underlying ideology of the transgender movement— that reproduction-based sex categories are somehow an invention and that cultural gender norms can be challenged separate from a feminist critique of patriarchy – provokes a predictable reaction from most of the liberal and left end of the political spectrum, which has made acceptance of those claims a litmus test for being “progressive.” When one invokes basic biology and a radical feminist critique of the transgender movement’s individualist gender politics, left/liberals rarely attempt to engage, preferring to dismiss critics as TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) and label any disagreement about policy as “bigotry”.
Because I work for a public university, I believe it is part of my job to take my research and teaching into public. Because I’m a tenured professor, I can exercise my right to free speech and engage in public debates without much fear of losing my job. In public writing and speaking, I don’t shy away from provocative statements when I believe they are justified by the evidence and are important to democratic dialogue – I always strive to support the claims I make with evidence and logic.
I don’t mind being criticised and I invite challenges to my ideas. What’s disturbing in both cases, however, is that I was routinely denounced as being morally and/or intellectually inadequate, but rarely did those denunciations include a response to what I actually was writing.
For months after 9/11, any critique of U.S. foreign policy was rejected out of hand, taken by many as evidence that critics were colluding with terrorists. It wasn’t until the failure of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq was undeniably evident that such critiques were taken seriously, and even then the debate focused mainly on failed tactics rather than the fundamental question of why the United States pursues global power through imperial strategies.
Radical feminist critiques of transgender ideology continue to attract denunciations, especially after the Obama administration issued rules about transgender students’ rights, which seemed to settle what the liberal position should be. Conservative/religious objections to that policy have been widely debated and covered by journalists, but the more substantial analyses of radical feminists are largely ignored in the mainstream and vilified in left/liberal circles.
All of this is troubling, but even more disturbing for me has not been what was said in public but what people told me privately. After 9/11, a number of faculty colleagues took me aside and told me that they thought the UT president’s denunciation of me was inappropriate, but only a couple of them spoke out publicly. The faculty council and the faculty committee charged with defending academic free speech were silent on the university president’s clumsy ad hominem attack on a professor.
Similarly, after a local radical bookstore issued a statement declaring me unfit for future association with the store, many left/feminist friends and allies told me privately that they disagreed with that decision, but, to the best of my knowledge, none of those people publicly challenged the store’s statement. Rather than risk similar denunciation, people found it easier to say nothing.
Reasonable people can disagree respectfully about many things, including the appropriate analysis of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and how best to understand the claims of transgender people. But in a democracy, weighty public policy decisions – such as going to war or endorsing the treating of trans-identified children with puberty blockers- should emerge from the widest possible conversation in which people provide reasons for their policy preferences and respond substantively to good-faith challenges.
If that process is derailed, whether by forces from the right or the left, the deterioration of responsible intellectual practice will only serve to undermine democracy. What good is the right to free speech if our current political and academic climate makes it impossible or dangerous to exercise it?