The Attempt to Toxify Debate – Kathleen Stock and the Oxford Uni Fresher’s Fair (15/11/2021)

Earlier this month, Kathleen Stock quit her role as a professor of philosophy at Sussex University. Stock’s gender-critical beliefs had made her the subject of a three-year defamation and harassment campaign led by students and colleagues. That campaign has now succeeded in forcing her out of the institution she has served since 2003. 

Her crime? To assert that biological sex is immutable, that it should sometimes take precedence over gender-identity, and that simply declaring oneself to be the opposite sex does not make it so.

As those well versed in the sex-gender-identity debate will already know, this trifecta of heresies is more than sufficient to be branded a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) by some LGBT campaigners. Student activists at Sussex claimed that Stock ‘endangers’ trans people. When she was awarded an OBE earlier this year for services to higher education, Stock’s opponents published a letter which claimed she was helping to ‘encourage the harassment of gender non-conforming people, and otherwise reinforce the patriarchal status quo’.

But Stock believes that that trans people – like all human beings – have ‘a right to lives free of harassment and discrimination’. She has said this countless times. She is also a lesbian, so hardly gender-conforming herself. As an academic focused on feminism, her career has been dedicated to exposing power-imbalances in a male dominated society. It is safe to assume that she has done little to support the ‘patriarchal status quo’. Nonetheless, Stock faced such persistent harassment that the police advised her to teach her classes remotely, and to install CCTV outside her home. 

In mid-October, the campaign against Stock intensified when nearly one hundred balaclava-wearing members of ‘Anti-TERF Sussex’ gathered on Sussex’s open day to light flares, daub graffiti, and hand out leaflets with messages like this:

“[Stock] is one of this wretched island’s most prominent transphobes” who contributes to the “dire unsafety for trans people in this colonial shit-hole.”

The statement they released after Stock’s resignation was equally pithy:

“Good f*****g riddance. This is a monumental victory” 

This was accompanied by a meme showing the Wicked Witch of the West and the caption “Ding-dong the witch is dead”.

The students who wrote these messages – and the academics at Sussex who called them ‘intelligent’ –  believe that debating any issues arising from transgenderism equates to a violent threat against trans people’s very right to exist. The language of the protesters is couched in terms of ‘threat’, ‘safety’, ‘discrimination’ and ‘abuse’. But Stock is the opposite of a violent person. Unlike her opponents, she has never sought to defame and harass those she disagrees with.

She wants to ensure that predatory men cannot gain access to women’s-only spaces just by stating that they are the opposite sex. She points out that many of feminism’s achievements are built on levelling a playing field made uneven by biological realities, and that ignoring those realities could threaten that progress. These are not unreasonable positions. That Stock has been chased out of her workplace for espousing them is a disgrace.

Unfortunately, Stock’s case is far from unique. In October, a letter published in The Sunday Times – and signed by 200 academics – claimed that ‘universities are creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating and offensive environment for staff and students’. The signatories – from institutions as disparate as Edinburgh, Cambridge, UCL, Essex, King’s College London, York and Manchester – spoke of the death threats and intimidation which routinely accompany the expression of opinions deemed unacceptable by student activists.

Selina Todd – professor of modern history at this university (St Hilda’s) – was one of the signatories. For expressing views similar to Stock’s, Todd has been subject to violent threats from Oxford students. They were judged serious enough for her to be given protection at her lectures. I remember arriving at Oxford as a fresher and immediately being emailed a petition calling for Todd to be ‘removed from student-facing roles’. To refuse to be taught by someone with whom you disagreed struck me as absurdly small-minded.

This instinct – which favours the exclusion and silencing of opponents rather than engagement – was on full display at this year’s Oxford freshers fair. A group of students from the Oxford Feminist Society attacked the stall display of Oxford Students For Life. According to a report from The Oxford Student:

‘The contents of the stall were placed in a black bin which was then dragged outside, before the protestors were loudly and aggressively stopped by security.

As with the anti-Stock protestors, the OU Feminists justified their actions with the language of ‘threat’ and ‘safety’. This is an extract from their statement on the incident:

“Oxford Feminist Society takes a firm stance against the pro-life organisation being promoted at the SU’s Fresher’s Fair. The stalls’ ideology is a threat to the safety, health and autonomy of women.

The argument made by all these student activists – anti-TERF and pro-choice alike – is that debating these issues is dangerous in and of itself. The language of ‘safety’ is designed to toxify debate and elevate the contested topic into a stratosphere beyond regular discourse. The stakes are so high, say the activists, that the normal rules of free expression should not apply. This attitude poses a serious challenge to the principle of free expression.

Defending open debate is important for so many reasons. Here’s just one: There may come a day when you find yourself an outcast, not in the comforting throng of the majority, but a holder of the reviled minority view. Defending free discourse now is a plea for similar magnanimity in future. The students who attempt to silence those they disagree with are assuming that the whip-hand will always lie with them. This is arrogant and short-sighted. If you help to create a society in which people can be judged as ideological heretics, then there are no guarantees that the enforcers of ‘acceptable thought’ will not eventually come hunting for you.

In her statement on the freshers fair incident, the president of Oxford Students For Life did say that most of the stall’s interactions with freshers had been constructive: 

‘Many students from all sides of the abortion debate have engaged positively with our stall over the Fair, and we’ve had a huge amount of compassionate and respectful conversations about these ethical issues’

This, at least, is encouraging. It should make reasonable people even more outraged that a small group thought they had the right to deny that chance for positive engagement to everyone else. Because this is exactly what the enemies of debate intend to do. It is not enough that they have their own right to speak – when it comes to the ‘wrong’ opinions – they want to make sure you don’t have the right to listen. Free expression is a two-sided coin. In its active sense, it grants the right to rebuke, espouse, argue and oppose. It is often forgotten that it also grants the listener the chance to hear, learn, empathise and understand. 

A concerted effort needs to be made to lower the temperature of these campus disputes. Students should realise that the presence of people who hold alternative views does not, in fact, put them in physical danger. The line between cognitive dissonance and actual violence – so blurred by frenzied hyperbole – needs to be reasserted. 

The threat to free expression is now an endemic problem in UK universities. Student unions – including Oxford’s – are pathetically weak in defending the right to hold diverse views. Most university administrations remain feeble in their efforts to stand up to ideological intolerance. 

In the meantime, the hounding of those who hold ‘unsafe’ opinions carries on. At Sussex University, the ‘Anti-TERF’ campaigners are celebrating the resignation of an eminent gay female philosopher. And they call it progress. 

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