Kathleen Stock

How to be a heretic

How to be a heretic
[Sonali Fernando]
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Two weeks ago, I resigned my post as philosophy professor at Sussex University. For three years, I’ve faced bullying and harassment for my views on sex and gender. More recently, this intensified into a full-blown campaign. Posters and graffiti went up denouncing me. Masked students held protests, set off flares and gave interviews saying they felt unsafe with me around. The problems all started when I began making such controversial statements as: ‘there are only two sexes’ and ‘it’s wrong to put male rapists in women’s prisons’. I even went as far as worrying out loud about the consequences of children being given body-altering drugs based on potentially temporary inner feelings. It has been all too much for certain colleagues. My critics have produced an apparently unstoppable narrative, according to which I’m a bigot and a terrible danger to trans students. What they lack in evidence, they make up for in conviction. Eventually any hopes I could lead a relatively normal life on campus were definitively extinguished. My feelings are mixed. What exactly I’ve lost has yet to sink in, but there’s also some exhilaration and a new sense of freedom. Finally, I can admit to the really heretical aspects of my character. For instance: I’ve never read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

For years now, I’ve criticised academic feminism for its failures: the internal contradictions, the unacknowledged class interests, the rampant narcissism of the few, the careerist capitulation of the many. In particular, I’ve criticised some academics for their enthusiasm about gender identity theory: roughly, the theory that, in every conceivable context, inner feelings of a misaligned ‘inner’ gender identity are more important than material facts about ‘outer’ biological sex. With this, a feminism focused on women and girls in the original sense was instantly defined out of existence. In return, academic feminists have attacked me, hard: I’m unkind, I’m intellectually second-rate, I can’t have read ‘the literature’. Don’t I know that sex is a spectrum and the notion of a sex binary a colonial plot? And so on. It’s been a turf war, not just a terf war. Outside the academy, most people look on with blank incomprehension. Sometimes education really can make you more stupid.

Since my resignation, I’ve been supported by many outside the university. One wonderful friend, on hearing of the posters on campus proclaiming my ‘transphobia’, rushed there with a scraper to take them down herself. I’ve received supportive emails, letters, flowers, booze, food, music, cosmetics and an expletive-decorated cake. It has been both the worst and best of times.

In between ploughing our way through delicious gifts of food, my wife and I have been watching the documentary Blair and Brown: The New Labour Revolution, and have reached the episode about the Iraq war. I’m reminded that in 2003, 54 per cent of British respondents thought going to war was justified; but when asked again in 2015, only 37 per cent remembered it that way. This offers a possible answer to a question which frequently troubles me: how, in future years, are people going to get out of the identity-based corner into which many have painted themselves? How will they deal with their recollected support for the placing of male rapists in women’s prisons, or the performing of double mastectomies on teenage girls, or the crowding out of female athletes from sporting competitions, or the pressuring of lesbians into sexual relations with males who say they are women? If it means we can put this nonsense behind us, perhaps we should bring on the convenient collective forgetting.

I am on the left — or at least, a version of the left that doesn’t involve trying to get employees sacked by bosses, which may or may not be the left as we now know it. One frequent preoccupation of fellow left-wingers is the potential for guilt by association with those on the right. When feminists like Julie Bindel and I share a platform with a Tory, or write something for The Spectator, isn’t that just grist to the mill of our enemies? And, over time, won’t this heinous practice increase the likelihood of our own politics becoming less feminist? My usual response is to point out that an ideology with ambitions to erase fundamental categories like ‘woman’ and ‘man’ will annoy nearly everyone, right-wingers included (usually adding that if the Guardian ever want me, they know where to find me). But these days I feel more bullish. As far as I can see, rather than feminists like Julie Bindel becoming more right-wing by appearing in The Spectator, Spectator readers are becoming more feminist by reading articles by Julie Bindel. And that’s fine by me.

Written byKathleen Stock

Kathleen Stock OBE is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sussex

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