Academic mobbing needs to be challenged, both inside and outside the institution

Academics should be standing together in defence of universities’ fundamental values: the pursuit of truth, evidence-based research, and academic freedom. They should not be joining in when identity groups mob their colleagues.

In 2003, American psychologist and professor Michael Bailey published The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender Bending and Transsexualism. The book’s cover notoriously featured a pair of masculine calves in a pair of high heels. Bailey was mobbed by transactivists in response; partly because in it he reaffirmed Ray Blanchard’s earlier typology of transsexuality as falling into two main types: effeminate gay males who opt to live as women rather than come out, and autogynephilic males, meaning, men who are attracted to the idea of themselves as women.

In her 2008 paper published in Archives of Sexual Behaviour, Alice Dreger presented the history of Bailey’s treatment at the hands of activists. Three transwomen — Lyn Conway, Andrea James, and Dierdre McCloskey — set out “to ruin Bailey professionally and personally.” Two of these transwomen were academics: Conway was a computer scientist at the University of Michigan and McCloskey was a distinguished professor of economics, history, english, and communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Their tactics against Bailey included lodging charges of scientific and sexual misconduct; securing media attention to amplify these charges; protesting against the book’s nomination for a prestigious LGBT award; attempting to alienate Bailey from his colleagues; devoting websites to criticizing and mocking him; and (in James’ case) harassing Bailey’s children, ex-wife, girlfriend, and friends. Dreger says explicitly:

“… The history [of the Bailey controversy] is worth tracking… in order for scholars, journalists, politicians, funding agencies, university administrators, publishers, and others to appreciate what can happen in an Internet-rich age of identity politics when a university-based researcher takes a controversial public stand, especially if that stand relates to sex, gender, or sexuality.”

Bailey is far from the only academic to run into problems with activists. In her book, Galileo’s Middle Finger, Dreger details a number of other cases in which scientists had similar experiences: Craig Palmer, who researched the biological basis of rape, and was subject to a massive media frenzy and threats to personal safety (“Things were so bad that the police told me to take some precautions, like checking my car for car bombs every morning and varying my routine. I was even provided a special parking place on campus they thought would be safer,” he told Dreger); Ken Sher came under fire for his editorial work at a journal that published a paper showing that the impacts of childhood sexual abuse are, in some cases, less impactful than standardly assumed (the paper was eventually condemned in Congress); and Napoleon Chagnon, an anthropologist who researched the Yąnomamö people, was “treated by his peers as cancerous and contagious, portrayed by his friends as a martyr and by his enemies as a Nazi,” according to Dreger. Wild accusations against Chagnon became the subject of a book by a determined detractor and made front page news. There are even more cases like these surveyed in Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianhoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind, and Russell Blackford’s The Tyranny of Opinion.

But Bailey’s case is particularly relevant because it’s an early example of a phenomenon that has become much more widespread today, namely, the mobbing of academics who have the “wrong views” on gender and gender identity by trans activists and their allies. In recent years, Lisa Littman, Michael Biggs, and Rebecca Tuvel have all become victims of academic mobbing for this reason. Littman for her study on the role of social contagion in trans identities, Biggs for a guest post published at Transgender Trend and his social media commentary, and Tuvel for treating race and gender analogously when thinking about how one may “self-identify.”

I can testify to the culture inside the academic discipline of philosophy at the moment. A small group of gender critical feminist philosophers have been openly challenging gender identity ideology — defending the view that gender is a harmful system of norms (and not an “identity”), criticizing policies that conflate sex and gender, and arguing against reform to law that would allow people to self-identify their sex. Among them are Kathleen Stock, Heather Brunskell-Evans, Mary Leng, Sophie Allen, and myself, as well as a small number of other people who are not “out” but are quietly working in this area (not to mention those who have PhDs in philosophy but do this work outside the academy, including Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, Jane Clare Jones, and Louise Moody).

There have been formal complaints made to our universities about our social media use; we’ve had Freedom of Information (FOI) requests on our work email accounts; there have been articles published in the local press and student newspapers about how having us on campus makes students “unsafe;” other academics have conspired to have us fired; we’ve been subject to protests at our places of work; stickers have been placed on our office doors saying, “TERFs aren’t welcome here” (combining a misogynistic slur with harassment at our place of work); students have protested events we are speaking at, carrying placards reading, “No TERFs on our turf;” our student unions have issued statements against us and identified our views as “hatred;” we’ve been deplatformed and subject to deplatforming attempts; a top-ranked academic journal published two papers that referred to us with the slur, “TERF;” colleagues in our discipline have made homophobic comments on social media, for example, saying that same-sex attraction is “transphobic” or a “genital hangup;” we have been both temporarily suspended and permanently banned from Twitter; our departmental seminars and public lectures have been protested; we have been subject to vitriolic abuse online, both from strangers and from colleagues in the discipline; our employers have been tagged into social media complaints in an effort to have us disciplined at or fired from our jobs; students have complained to our department heads about talks we are scheduled to give; colleagues in the discipline have approvingly shared posts demanding that gender critical articles not be published, gender critical speakers not be invited to conferences (either to speak or to merely attend), gender critical views not be given space on disciplinary blogs or shared on social media, and gender critical views be “called out” anywhere they occur in the discipline; we have been isolated from our colleagues throughout the wider discipline by activist colleagues who sanction those who show any willingness to engage or keep an open mind about the issues (e.g. colleagues are called out for liking our social media posts or commenting supportively on them and colleagues who too openly support us are immediately unfriended/unfollowed and blocked on social media platforms); and colleagues have deliberately associated our views with those of the alt-right and called us Nazis (a conflation that is objectionable for a number of reasons), which is an indirect way of putting us at greater risk of violence because a number of people today believe that violence against “fascists” is acceptable, and this comparison has normalized hashtags like #punchaterf, which was trending during Pride last year.

The Society for Women in Philosophy (SWIP UK) used to be concerned about a climate that was driving women out of the discipline, but now it seems that many of its supporters are contributing to exactly that climate (or at least not doing anything to stop it).

In March, an interview Richard Marshall did with me for 3AM Magazine was taken down due to pressure from trans activists, eventually leading to all interviews with philosophers being removed and relocated to a new website. In December 2018, I was temporarily suspended from Twitter for using a male pronoun to refer to the male person who has been repeatedly attempting to get me fired from my job, and I was suspended again in May for pointing out that the sex of a transwoman is male. On June 2nd, I was permanently banned for unspecified “hateful conduct” (which apparently means having opinions while female). I’ve been called an assortment of names online by colleagues in the discipline, including “cunt,” “bitch,” “vile fucking human,” and “bigoted piece of shit.” On social media, a prominent feminist philosopher claimed she can’t visit Melbourne (that’s right, the whole city) because of me. I was thrown out of an LGBT philosophers’ Facebook group for being gender critical. I’ve seen threads about me on social media wherein colleagues denigrate my intelligence and accomplishments, and in which friends of those colleagues wish violence and even death upon me. And I’m not even the most attacked gender critical feminist philosopher (that would be either Kathleen Stock, now, or Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, a few years ago).

Philosophy is not the only discipline that has developed a hostile climate. Rosa Freedman at the University of Reading in the UK is in the discipline of law and has been subject to all sorts of appalling treatment, including students urinating on her office door, stalking her around campus, and subjecting her to anti-Semitic insults online. A number of academics working on this topic or speaking out about these issues in different disciplines across different countries (including the UK, the US, and Australia) have been subject to similar treatment. In the latest case, we’ve seen PhD student and teaching assistant Laura Tanner attacked by student trans activists in a smear campaign at the University of California, Santa Barbara. At least one student recommended violence against her. Others demanded she be fired.

None of this should be happening inside the university. Academics should be standing together in defence of universities’ fundamental values: the pursuit of truth, evidence-based research, and academic freedom. They certainly should not be joining in when identity groups mob their colleagues. Academics should not have to face attacks like this from outside the university, but when they do, they should experience support from their colleagues, not abandonment or further bullying. As Dreger says at the end of her book, we must not let identity politics and activism drive research outcomes. If this is the climate in which gender critical academics must work, many academics will not be willing to do that work. This is a loss for everyone because we never learn how persuasive those arguments are (or aren’t!), and the arguments are never made stronger or weaker by their opponents, because they are not brought into battle at all. Winning by making it too costly for people to say what they really think isn’t really winning — it just makes the university a less appealing place to everyone who doesn’t conform perfectly to orthodoxy, and it compromises the university’s ability to make meaningful contributions to public life.

The activists who are currently participating in this mobbing will regret it when they find themselves outside the circle of acceptable views. There is a question about how trans rights and women’s rights interact, given the legal changes to the understanding of sex proposed in multiple countries. Women in universities (and women everywhere) must be able to work on and speak about these issues without fearing for their safety or their careers.

Holly Lawford-Smith is a senior lecturer in political philosophy at the University of Melbourne. She’s currently writing a book about radical feminism.

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