A debate has arisen among philosophers concerning a couple of papers published recently in the prestigious journal Philosophical Studies. The first paper, “Are women adult human females?” by Alex Byrne (January, 2020) attempts to refute what Byrne identifies as “the orthodox view among philosophers,” that “the category woman is a social category, like the categories, wife, firefighter, and shoplifter,” rather than “a biological category, like the categories vertebrate, mammal, or adult human female.” Byrne argues woman is a biological category, that to be a woman is to be an adult human female. The second paper, “Escaping the Natural Attitude About Gender,” by Robin Dembroff (forthcoming, but available already online), attempts to discredit Byrne’s argument.
The controversy surrounding the two articles does not concern the substance of the arguments themselves but the fact that Dembroff’s article includes an ad hominem against Byrne in which Dembroff effectively accuses Byrne of bigotry against transsexuals despite the fact that there is nothing in Byrne’s paper to support such a charge. The editor of the journal, Stewart Cohen, resigned in protest because he wanted to publish an apology for printing an article that included defamatory rhetoric, rhetoric which should never have made it past the journal’s referees, but the publisher of the journal, Springer, refused to allow him to do that.
Philosophers are not generally known for being warm and fuzzy. But Dembroff’s paper represents a new low in levels of civility. Usually, philosophers aim their barbs at an opponent’s cognitive abilities. Even then they aspire to some subtlety. They’ll intimate that an opponent is feeble minded, but they rarely say so directly. It’s not simply that it’s rude. It’s unprofessional. It’s rare, for the same reason, for a philosopher to directly accuse another of being a “shoddy scholar.” It’s rarer still, again, for the same reason, for a philosopher to accuse another of being immoral. Yet Robin Dembroff has advanced both charges against Byrne.
The debate amongst philosophers surrounding what Byrne has dubbed GenderGate, focuses on a brief passage at the end of Dembroff’s article. The passage reads:
Byrne’s paper fundamentally is an unscholarly attempt to vindicate a political slogan [“women are adult human females”] that is currently being used to undermine civic rights and respect for trans persons. And it is here that I return to Byrne’s advice to question the motivations behind this debate.”If someone is personally heavily invested in the truth of [some proposition] p,” Byrne writes, “it is prudent to treat [their] claim that p is true with some initial caution.” I agree. So we may ask: What are the motivations of someone who would so confidently insert themself into this high-stakes discourse while so ill-informed?
That is, Dembroff is insinuating here that Byrne has an anti-trans agenda that he is trying to advance in a scholarly paper published in an academic journal even though, again, there is nothing in Byrne’s paper to support such a charge.
This isn’t the only place, however, where Dembroff takes a shot at Byrne. A close look at Dembroff’s paper immediately reveals that it flouts established scholarly protocol from the very beginning. The first line is itself an example of innuendo. Dembroff charges that “The title of Alex Byrne’s paper, “Are Women Adult Human Females?”, asks a question that Byrne treats as nearly rhetorical.” To treat a question as “rhetorical” is to fail to take it seriously, so Dembroff is charging, in effect, that Byrne fails to take philosophical debates concerning the meaning of “woman” seriously. This is an odd charge to make against Byrne given that his article is more than twenty pages long, contains over thirty footnotes, and includes a list of approximately eighty references.
The deployment of innuendo before Dembroff begins their (Dembroff prefers the plural pronoun) actual examination of Byrne’s argument is a strategy known amongst rhetoricians as “poisoning the well.” That is, it’s an attempt to prejudice the reader against an opponent’s position and in favor of one’s own position before one has advanced any evidence to support the charge that the opponent’s argument is flawed.
Dembroff is not content, however, to insinuate that Byrne is intellectually irresponsible. Dembroff quickly proceeds to insinuate, through the vehicle of yet more innuendo, that Byrne is at best morally irresponsible as well, and at worst, morally reprehensible in that his argument “or some nearby relatives,” meaning similar arguments, along with the title of his paper, “has been championed by anti-trans activists.”
The claim that “women are adult human females” may well be a slogan that is used by anti-trans activists. This in itself does not support, however, that Byrne condones such use. Moreover, Dembroff’s charge that Byrne’s argument, which like the arguments of most philosophers, is actually highly technical, “has been readily repeated in social, political, and personal contexts” to support an anti-trans agenda is either disingenuous or naïve in the extreme. The general level of both public and private discourse in this country falls well below that of an article in a professional philosophical journal, even one so “confused” as Dembroff purports Byrne’s is.
Dembroff labors mightily to prejudice readers against Byrne’s position before even explaining what it is. In fact, Dembroff never engages with it directly, but only with what they refer to, as a “charitable reconstruction” of it. Unsurprisingly, Dembroff’s reconstruction isn’t all that charitable; hence it will likely surprise those who read Dembroff’s piece first to learn that the article that so enraged Dembroff includes an assertion that “[a]n eminently desirable and feasible goal is for trans women (and men) to be accepted by society and live in peace and dignity.”
Dembroff has charged that the editor of Philosophical Studies, Stewart Cohen, wanted to “censor” their (i.e., Dembroff’s) paper by removing the defamatory content even though it had already “been accepted after a transparent and professional editorial process.” That isn’t censorship, however; it’s responsible editorial practice. The defamatory nature of some of Dembroff’s rhetoric should have been flagged by the journals referees. Dembroff presents the controversy as if it concerns the rights of transgender persons. It doesn’t. Byrne is on record as supporting those rights. The controversy is about standards of professionalism in scholarship. It’s about protecting and preserving an atmosphere that is congenial to open discussion and debate, an atmosphere that makes discussion and debate about sex and gender possible.
Byrne has issued a public statement concerning the controversy that ends with the following passage.
Academic freedom is not just a procedural matter. Even more important than transparent and impartial refereeing processes is an academic culture that does not encourage self-censorship or throw up barriers to the examination of controversial or offensive ideas. Regrettably the discipline of philosophy has not been living up to these standards: in particular, certain feminist philosophers, who are arguing in good faith about questions of great public interest, have been shamed and shunned by their professional colleagues. This will have (and, judging by conversations, already has had) the inevitable effect of discouraging junior scholars from working in this area, unless they can conveniently avoid having the “wrong” opinions. Whether these feminists are right is neither here nor there—what matters is that our discipline allows them to express their views without fear of banishment or censure. Of course the point holds equally well for philosophers who are sympathetic with Robin’s [i.e., Dembroff’s] views. Robust evidence-based disagreement should be the norm. This is helpful if philosophy is to welcome everyone; it is essential if philosophy is to make progress
The threat represented by Dembroff’s paper isn’t merely one of encouraging self censorship among philosophers. That’s one way of shutting down discourse, but it isn’t the only way. Another way is by alienating the people one is purportedly trying to engage in discourse.
Again, philosophers tend not to be a warm and fuzzy group, but they have, at least traditionally tended to be genuinely interested in persuading others, by appeals to reason, that their views are correct. In fact, this is arguably a defining characteristic of philosophy. If one gives up trying to persuade others of the rightness of one’s views through rational argument, one isn’t doing philosophy anymore. Unfortunately, that would appear to be precisely what Dembroff has done.
One of the first things I try to impress on my students when I teach critical reasoning is that it’s important to treat one’s opponent in an argument with respect. To ridicule one’s opponent, to disparage that person or their position, amounts to shutting down discourse. People will simply cease to listen to the arguments of those they feel fail to respect them, let alone be persuaded by them.
The inevitable effect of Dembroff’s strident tone will be that of alienating the very people their argument is purportedly designed to persuade. I say “purportedly” because this cannot be something of which Dembroff is unaware. Dembroff’s article appears designed not to persuade, but to create controversy by conspicuously violating scholarly protocol through the inclusion of defamatory and inflammatory rhetoric.
“Branding” has become big in higher education. Institutions, programs, even individual scholars are advised to “brand” themselves as a way of giving themselves a competitive edge. This would appear to be what Dembroff is doing. Dembroff is branding themselves as a controversial scholar. This view is supported by a glance at Dembroff’s website and the many media appearances it lists along with the standard list of scholarly publications.
Dembroff is smart and knows that higher education in general and the world of humanities scholarship in particular, is increasingly competitive. Only a very tiny portion of scholars are immune to to the vagaries of an anti-intellectual culture and that that immunity is acquired through prominence in one’s discipline. Such prominence, unfortunately, normally takes years to acquire, years that many younger scholars fear they may not have in an era when higher education is in crisis (a crisis that preceded the precipitous enrollment declines brought on by the COVID-19 epidemic).
It’s hard to blame young scholars who want to brand themselves as Dembroff is doing. And yet, it’s likely the greatest threat philosophy now faces in that it represents a jettisoning of philosophy’s core value because branding is not about substance, but about appearance. It’s a marketing technique for distinguishing between otherwise indistinguishable things. The example used by The Branding Journal involves water.
But water always looks the same, doesn’t it? It is liquid and transparent. So, how can different companies sell the same product but still convince people to purchase their bottled water instead of the one from the competition?
The answer is: by creating a brand.
Philosophers who attempt to brand themselves are marketing themselves to their profession not on the basis of the merit of their arguments or scholarly accomplishments, that is not on the basis of the substance of their work, but on the basis of its appearance. But philosophy is supposed to be about substance, not appearances.
Dembroff is so concerned about marketing the Dembroff brand, that they will sacrifice even furthering the cause of trans rights to do so. The strident tone of Dembroff’s article isn’t going to help the cause of trans rights. At best it will simply be ignored by everyone who is not already solidly on Dembroff’s side on this issue and at worst it will galvanize opposition.
Philosophy isn’t supposed to close people’s minds. It’s supposed to open them.
(This piece originally appeared in the June 22, 2020 issue of the online political journal CounterPunch.)