The deranged campaign against Kathleen Stock

I wanted to illustrate this article with a picture of Sussex University, in order to be topical, but it’s such a dreadful place – I mean really visually offensive – that I went with this photograph of Chichester cathedral instead. Something else dreadful has been happening at that university lately: an aggressive campaign by transgender activists to get the philosopher Kathleen Stock fired.

Their slogan appears to be “Stock Out”, which betrays a distinct lack of creativity. Surely “Out of Stock” would have more rhetorical impact? Of course, I don’t want to give the campaigners any ideas, but we can probably assume that none of them read my Substack. Anyway, Stock has been in activists’ cross-hairs for some time, owing to her “gender critical” beliefs. She takes the extraordinarily controversial view that people who have male genitalia cannot properly be regarded as women. (She’s also entertained the mind-bending hypothesis that you can’t change biological sex.)

As Stock has gained prominence (she bagged an OBE in the New Year’s Honours), the campaign against her has intensified. Back in January, she was denounced in a nasty open letter signed by six hundred academics. They averred that the feminist philosopher contributes to “harms” faced by transgender people, and thereby helps to “reinforce the patriarchal status quo”. (If anyone’s working to uphold the patriarchy, it’s feminists.)

Hilariously, the denouncers stipulated that they “believe in the principles of academic freedom”. In their eyes, getting a few hundred people together to launch a personal attack against someone is what academic freedom’s all about. (This is like the racketeer who turns up at your business with a posse of goons to tell you he “believes in the principles of non-extortion”.) Stock’s denouncers must have known their unfriendly missive would have the effect of chilling speech – if not on Stock herself, then on her junior colleagues who don’t yet have tenure.

Encouragingly, a counter-letter was put together, and signed by four hundred people. These counter-denouncers were, as you might expect, slightly stronger on the logic front. As they pointed out:

The letter implies that Professor Stock is one of those academics who are “using their academic status to further gender oppression” ... No evidence of any kind is offered in support of these allegations. Undoubtedly, some people feel offended by what Professor Stock has written and said, but this is true of a great deal of what philosophers write and say. Many devout Christians will be offended by those arguing for abortion rights, and those who favor affirmative action are likely dismayed by arguments against it.

It’s almost as if academics don’t have to gang-up with their friends and write Mean Girls-style denunciations of someone they don’t like. There are already channels through which scholarly communication takes place: books, lectures, articles, blog posts; perhaps even a face-to-face conversation. And if these channels are good enough for scholars debating abortion rights (or any other topic that arouses significant passions), they ought to be good enough for those debating who’s allowed in the women’s bathroom.

In between the preceding brouhaha and now, Stock published a new, cleverly titled book: Material Girls. Her book criticises the notion that “we all have an inner feeling known as gender identity, and that this feeling is more socially significant than biological sex.” (I haven’t read it, but I’d bet it’s pretty good – especially if you’re a feminist.) The book’s publication obviously didn’t draw activists’ attention away from Stock. And once the new term began in September, things really kicked off.

Aside from expressing my solidarity, comrade, with Professor Stock, there are two aspects of the campaign against her that I want to comment on. It’s been widely reported that Stock’s “critics” (i.e., harassers) claimed that she “makes trans students feel unsafe”. Indeed, posters stating this in capital letters were plastered around campus. And one of Stock’s colleagues at the university, an art historian, claimed that the “virulent and oppressive implications” of her ideas “have made many people unsafe in the university and beyond”. (That individual may have inadvertently coined the slogan for an anti-woke Buzz Lightyear.)

What should we make of this? As I noted on Twitter, claiming that Stock’s mere presence makes you feel “unsafe” is nothing short of delusional. Driving at 100 miles an hour on a motorbike might make you feel unsafe; taking cover in a basement during an airstrike might make you feel unsafe. But sharing a university campus with someone who holds a different viewpoint belongs in a wholly separate category. (So far as I’m aware, Stock does not prowl the quadrangles with a baseball bat, looking for people to roughen up.)

There probably are students who, having come of age in a culture of safetyism, are genuinely scared of encountering Stock (or at least believe that they would be scared). However, one suspects that others had more cynical motives for claiming that “Stock makes trans students feel unsafe”. Indeed, the technical term for this particular gambit is “playing the victim card”. And the real question is why anyone would take it seriously. Given that Stock is not a baseball-bat wielding maniac, the only possible way she could make trans students “feel unsafe” is if physical proximity somehow enabled her ideas to disperse psychic harm.

The second aspect of the anti-Stock campaign that warrants attention is the fact that activists have explicitly invoked their status as fee-paying customers to justify their demands. According to The Times, there were posters stating, “We’re not paying £9,250 a year for transphobia — fire Kathleen Stock.” One student who spoke to the Guardian elaborated: “She gets paid to be here. We are paying to be here. To pay nine grand a year, people deserve to feel safe and accepted.” This student had apparently gotten their university confused with a very expensive support group.

But the student can hardly be blamed. After all, universities do increasingly resemble very expensive support groups. Rather than being informed about values like truth, argument and free inquiry, incoming students are told that what matters is “feeling included”. Now, there’s nothing wrong with building organisations around the notion of inclusivity. That’s just not what universities are for. As I said, we already have organisations in society that are designed to make people feel included: they’re called support groups.

The response to this might be: Who are you to say what universities are or aren’t for? If some institutions want to create a product that’s part education, part support group, and then flog it to students for nine grand a year, shouldn’t they be free to do so? My answer: No. A university degree is something relatively well-defined, and the definition shouldn’t be expanded to accommodate whatever left-wing activists want it to mean. In the UK, where universities are subsidised by the taxpayer, they have to actually be universities. They can’t be support groups; or centres for “anti-racist” activism; or anything else that doesn’t put truth-seeking front and centre.

Incidentally, the invocation of “my rights as a consumer!” by entitled student activists clearly demonstrates that the marketisation of higher ed is one factor behind the Great Awokening. In this regard, the old system where only 10% of people went to university but the cost of their degrees was covered by the state arguably made more sense than our current system, where every young person has the right to get scammed into reading Critical Plant Studies.

To Sussex University’s credit, they’ve so far stood by their woman, rather than throwing her under the bus to placate the black hoody-wearing mob. This is less than can be said for the local branch of the University and College Union, which called for “an urgent investigation into the ways in which institutional transphobia operates at our university”. Battalions of philosophers and legal academics have also rallied to Stock’s defence. With the university and a decent number of colleagues behind her, she should survive this round. But that doesn’t mean the problem’s gone away.

Image: Evgeniy Podkopaev, Chichester Cathedral, 2012

The re-cancellation of Carl Linnaeus

If you assumed that cancellation was subject to some kind of statute of limitations, and that scholars writing back in the 18th century might therefore be exempt, you were mistaken. Last year, an extremely ugly building at the University of Edinburgh, ‘David Hume Tower’, was renamed on account of that philosopher’s problematic remarks about race. And the Entomological Society of America opted to rename its intercollegiate competition, the ‘Linnaean Games’, because of the Swedish botanist’s grossly outdated racial classifications.

Now it appears that Carl Linnaeus has been re-cancelled. Gustavus Adolphus College (a private liberal arts college in Minnesota founded by Swedish immigrants) has decided to rename the ‘Linnaeus Arboretum’, a popular garden on campus. Rather than renaming it after some other Enlightenment scientist, who could turn out to be just as problematic as Linnaeus, they came up with the highly original name: ‘The Arboretum at Gustavus Adolphus College.’ By way of explanation, the chairman of the board of trustees noted:

In recent years, and especially since George Floyd’s murder, we have strengthened our efforts to pay attention to underrepresented voices and discovered how painful Linnaeus’ name and legacy are for some of our students and visitors.

Truly, there is no pain like that of seeing the name of an 18th century botanist displayed openly in the middle of privileged, private university in North America.

The Daily Sceptic

I’ve written three more posts since last time. The first argues that the recent House of Commons report ignores the risks of a suppression strategy. The second examines whether Denmark achieved focused protection in the second wave. The third considers why Western countries locked down in the spring of 2020, despite no mention of lockdown in their pandemic preparedness plans.

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