This is a long essay. It has to be, because the errors made in reporting the Stock story are many and consequential. The upshot is: Adam Tickell, the VC of Sussex University, should be fired; the UK media desperately needs to hire trans editors; and Kathleen Stock has this week conspired to defame a student.
For the last two weeks, Sussex University (my alma mater) has been rocked by crisis. A clear picture emerges from reporting on Sussex in the Guardian, the Times, the Daily Mail, and on the BBC. It goes as follows: Prof. Kathleen Stock, a respected “gender critical” feminist philosopher, has been forced out of her academic job by bomb-lobbing masked students, who are offended by the strong critical stances she has taken on the conflicts between trans rights and women’s rights. Despite the ubiquity of this version of events in UK media, every one of its claims is demonstrably incorrect at the level of fact. By repeating this story until it has been widely believed, the UK media has amplified some of the most extreme and frightening positions within the contemporary debate over civil rights for trans people.
The most crucial aspect of the story, and the most frequently misreported, concerns the nature of academic freedom. In fact, Kathleen Stock’s academic freedom has never been infringed, nor even challenged by the students who are protesting her employment. On the contrary, it is the protestors themselves whose academic freedom has been shamefully undermined by Sussex University itself.
To understand this reality, it is important to understand what the phrase “academic freedom” actually means. It is often treated as indistinguishable from the vaguer principle of “free speech,” but particularly reserved for academics. But in fact “academic freedom” has a specific and definite meaning in a university setting: it is the collective right asserted by those working in universities to conduct research without interference by interior or exterior forces. Many people––myself included––consider ourselves absolutists on the question of academic freedom: we do not believe that there should be any limits on what an academic like Prof. Stock should be able to research and publish. Free speech, on the other hand, is by definition a limited right—most legal systems control for libel, breach of copyright, threats, and the kind of speech act that in his judgment in Schenck vs. United States, Oliver Wendall Holmes called “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater.” UK law also has an additional suite of controversial controls on speech, including a law against “incitement to religious hatred.” Academics are not exempt from these laws, and “academic freedom” neither covers nor is intended to cover their remit.
Indeed, scholarship on the subject tends to present academic freedom as a right in competition with free speech, rather than an extension of it. Two recent books on the subject, one by Joan Scott and the other by Hank Reichman, make versions of this argument. Scott and Reichman are by no means young firebrands: they are both emeriti scholars at Princeton and Cal State respective, and both former chairs of the American Association of University Professors’ longstanding Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure. At the core of their argument is the observation that, in recent years, academic freedom has been under threat from the far right, who have consciously attempted to replace the academic’s freedom to research, with a broader right to say what one likes. This then serves to undermine faith in the public university, turning scholarly judgment into mere opinion-generating punditry, and serving the policy goals of those who seek to defund public education altogether.
Think of the idea of “diversity of opinion.” A generation ago, conservatives used to insist that academics should “teach the controversy” regarding evolutionary biology, rather than allowing scholars the right to determine how our own curricula should approach the subject. Of course, for evolutionary biologists, there is no “controversy” to speak of; the controversy only arises when religious conservatives attempt to interfere with, and ultimately to override, the academic freedom of scholars.
Clearly the same is not true of trans civil rights, where there is controversy––concerning, for example, the nature and relative stability of biological sex; the relationship between sex and gender; the nature of sexual orientation, etc. etc. A quick glance at the list of Prof. Stock’s publications, listed on her Sussex profile, amply proves that she has published her views on gender and trans civil rights very widely and prolifically. Sure, the protesters disagree with many of her claims––some of them, they find outrageous. But her capacity to research and publish has never been impacted.
Compare, for example, the case of Prof. Rabab Abdulhadi of San Francisco State University (SFSU). Last month SFSU upheld a complaint against University administrators, who failed to protect Prof. Abdulhadi’s academic freedom when the videoconferencing platform Zoom intervened to prevent a scheduled webinar on the “Zoomification of higher education.” This was a straightforward breach of academic freedom: Prof. Abdulhadi’s capacity to conduct research, in the form of scholarly exchange with colleagues, was compromised by an external force, against which her employer failed to defend her. None of this has happened to Prof. Stock, whose freedom to research and publish remains unfettered. Is it offensive to those whose academic freedom is truly under threat––especially those whose research involves Palestine––that Stock appears so keen to steal their valor?
(Added 9pm, 10/18: I should have said that the reason Zoom gave for shutting down Prof. Abdulhadi’s seminar was that they opposed the inclusion of Leila Khaled on the call. Khaled was part of two teams that hijacked planes in 1969 and 1970, and Zoom claimed that her participation constituted “material support” of a terrorist. Khaled is a highly controversial figure, and I’m not trying to take a position on her here, merely to point out that successful academic freedom complaints invariably involve the successful suppression of research in one way or another.)
One might consider this too fine a distinction: didn’t students want to infringe Stock’s academic freedom, after all? No, they didn’t. Sussex University Student Union (SUSU) trans and non-binary officer Amelia Jones made clear the nature of students’ complaints in a recent interview with the BBC. There are two: students oppose Stock’s leadership of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Alliance (LGBA), of which she is a trustee, and claim that her signature on the Women’s Declaration of Sex-Based Rights (WDSR), a manifesto circulated by the Women’s Human Rights Campaign (WHRC), creates an atmosphere of unsafety for trans students on Sussex campus. Neither of these have any bearing on Stock’s research (nor, therefore, her academic freedom).
Rather, both are aspects of free speech that are otherwise the legitimate grounds of disciplinary action by employers. This point is underlined in Sussex’s own “Code of Practice on Academic Titles” (CPAT) which states that “academic title holders must not bring the university into disrepute,” which it further defines as follows:
Those that demonstrate hostility towards, or could reasonably be expected to generate hostility in others towards, individuals or groups of individuals by reason of a protected characteristic (as defined in the Equality Act 2010).
Again, it is important to note that CPAT does not limit a scholar’s capacity to research the correct limits of the Equality Act, which is an issue on which feminists have different ideas––or indeed any other aspect of it. The only limitation is that faculty must not “demonstrate hostility towards” or “generate hostility in others towards” a group of people “by reason of a protected characteristic.” And there is no doubt that the cited Equality Act 2010 protects trans people––or at least, some trans people; the language is a little tricky to untangle:
A person has the protected characteristic of gender reassignment if the person is proposing to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone a process (or part of a process) for the purpose of reassigning the person’s sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex.
So the question is whether Sussex students are right to claim that Prof. Stock’s leadership of the LGBA and her signature to the WDSR “demonstrate hostility towards, or could reasonably be expected to generate hostility in others towards” those with the protected characteristic of gender reassignment. These claims are worth taking separately, since they don’t function in the same way.
Does the LGBA “Demonstrate Hostility” Towards Trans People?
The LGBA website describes the group’s mission as contesting “new ideologies conflating biological sex with the notion of gender identity,” a conflation that, in their view, “eras[es] same-sex sexual orientation.” Though the website, reasonably enough, doesn’t name any such “ideologies,” a recent essay of Prof. Stock’s in Quillette elaborates this theme with references to “French post-structuralist Michel Foucault” and Judith Butler, who, Stock thinks, claims that “biological sex categories” are “socially constructed, historically contingent, and culturally located.” As someone who has published work on both Foucault and Butler, I have to say that I find these accounts rather ill-informed: I wouldn’t call Foucault a post-structuralist (though some besides Stock might, I suppose), and it is hardly a matter of debate that “biological sex” pre-existed the discovery of the chromosome––which is no more than anyone means by saying that “biological sex categories” (my emphasis) are historically contingent. But clearly, this is hardly an especially hateful or objectionable line of thinking. And it would be ludicrous––not to mention sexist in the extreme––for someone to claim that Kathleen Stock was demonstrating hostility to trans women merely by asserting that she isn’t sexually attracted to us.
Yet the LGBA is regularly referred to as a “hate group” in the LGBT press, a sentiment that was recently echoed by Matt Lucas, the (gay) presenter of The Great British Bake-Off, formerly of Shooting Stars and Little Britain:
This characterization has two bases, one of which is all-too-predictable: the LGBA’s conduct on Twitter. The LGBA Twitter account, @ALLIANCELGB, regularly posts outrageous and very obviously “hostile” tweets either directly comparing trans people to paedophiles (or “MAPs,” minor-attracted persons) and trans claims of personhood to bestiality. Here, for example, is a tweet along these lines and a reply to a tweet of mine about it:
And here is someone defending the above tweet against the charge of “transphobia”:
Gender critical activists (GCs) frequently call themselves “dinosaurs,” as distinct from the new-fangled “unicorns” of the wider LGBT movement. The disguise of hostility is only wafer-thin here: we aren’t saying trans people are like pedophiles, we are saying that including them in LGBT organizing opens the door to pedophiles. Indeed, it is impossible not to hear an echo of Antonin Scalia’s famous dissent in Lawrence v. Texas, in which he argued that banning anti-sodomy laws removed legal protections against bestiality:
State laws against bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity are likewise sustainable only in light of Bowers’ validation of laws based on moral choices. Every single one of these laws is called into question by today’s decision; the Court makes no effort to cabin the scope of its decision to exclude them from its holding.
Prof. Stock seems to have been influenced by the account of trans life proposed by Ray Blanchard, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, who has claimed that some portion of trans people (specifically those who tend to be sexually attracted to women) are victims of a “paraphilia” or “fetish” which leads them, as he argues in his own recent interview in Quillette, to become erotically fixated on menstruation, pregnancy, and other aspects of female embodiment. Blanchard has compared transition to demonic possession:
In short, Blanchard does not seem concerned to hide his obvious hostility to trans women. Prof. Stock is more circumspect, saying in one thread in 2018 “I don’t wish to stigmatise AGP [autogynephilia].” But the language is no less hostile, and clearly seems to have picked up from Blanchard the notion that this “paraphilic” subgroup of trans women are a distinctively malicious group of people:
Full disclosure: that latter tweet was addressed to the journalist Jesse Singal, but was concerned with me––I had published an essay on the Bell v. Tavistock case, which Prof. Stock referred to as a “revolting” “spectacle.” I am sexually attracted to both male and female people.
(Added 5.45pm: To say something that may not be immediately obvious: if “sexual orientation” is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, and “trans status” is a protected characteristic under the same act, then it follows that a hostility specifically aimed at trans women with a sexual orientation towards women is clearly protected too. It is no defense to argue “I only hate trans-women-who-love-women”; any more than one could use “I only hate elderly Buddhists” as a defense under an Act that prohibits discrimination on the basis of age and religion.)
I suspect most fair-minded people would call these tweets “hostile”––but probably not grounds for termination on their own. The other aspect of the student complaint about the LGBA is less predictable. The LGBA supports conversion therapy: an extremely controversial and dangerous practice whereby Christian ministers encourage gay people to “pray the gay away.” Now, some anti-transgender campaigners argue that providing trans-affirming care to teenagers is itself a form of conversion therapy, because (they claim) the teenagers in question would grow up to be cisgender homosexuals. That claim has been widely contested by the medical establishment. But in any case, that is nothing to do with the kind of conversion therapy that the LGBA supports. As their website makes very clear, they believe that ministers should be free to conduct “therapeutic” relationships with cisgender gay patients, aimed at helping those patients to suppress their homosexual desires:
Why on earth would a group that is supposedly arguing for the defense of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people leave such people exposed to the predatory advances of religious zealots? Because, as has been widely reported, many of the LGBA’s members and allies have deep ties to conservative and religious organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, the Alliance Defending Freedom, and the Centre for Bioethics and Culture, who are using anti-transgender activists in the gay and lesbian community to advance a Christian and conservative movement against trans people.
Is the LGBA hostile to trans people? If I were still a student at Sussex, I’d be concerned.
(Added 9.30pm: A friend has drawn my attention to this evidence set concerning the LGBA’s reputation as a hate group; it’s much more comprehensive than the sketch I offer above.)
Does the WDSR “Demonstrate Hostility” towards Trans People?
The case against the Women’s Declaration is much easier to make, and it is in relation to student concern over the WDSR and the group that wrote it that Stock this week, and for the first time, made a choice that in my view warrants termination of contract: she conspired with the Daily Mail to libel Amelia Jones, the SUSU officer who appeared on the BBC. The issue is whether Article 1c) of the WDSR is “eliminationist”—that is, whether it aims to eliminate trans women in law. The relevant section calls for:
“[t]he elimination of that act and practice of discrimination against women which comprises the inclusion of men who claim to have a female ‘gender identity’ in the category of women.”
The matter is complicated by some differences in usage of the term “eliminationist.” There seem to be three:
1. removing all legal recognition and protection of trans people;
2. preventing trans people from accessing transition-related care;
3. murdering trans people.
To take the most dramatic first, clearly neither Prof. Stock nor anyone in her circle wants to murder anyone, though she has some supporters who seem to think that that’s the only salient form of “elimination.” The form of eliminationism relevant to the WDSR would seem to be #1. But this is a little more complicated than it appears. On their website, the WHRC stipulates that they do not believe their policies would “cause any person not to exist.” By which I presume they mean, die. Yet in the submission the WHRC delivered to the UK Parliament on the 27th November 2020––which, to be clear, Prof. Stock did not sign––the elimination on display looks more like #2, the denial of transition-related care to trans people:
The Convention calls for the ‘elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women’ (Article 5). We consider that the practice of transgenderism clearly falls under this article because it is based on stereotyped roles for men and women.
The submission clearly states that “transgenderism” must be “eliminated” as a “practice.” The reasoning is that “transgenderism” is one of the “practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.” Such practices must be, the WHRC argue, “eliminated.”
But the important point is that the WHRC submission requires us to understand the “elimination” in question not merely as the removal of any legal recognition for trans people, but the prohibition of medical transition, or even social transition, in toto. In that sense, the WHRC echoes the famous + contentious phrase of Janice Raymond’s: “I contend that the problem with transsexualism would best be served by morally mandating it out of existence.” There’s a cunning dimension to all of this. Just as the WHRC argues “of course we don’t want to murder trans women, we just want to remove their legal existence”; so Raymond goes with something like: “of course I don’t want to murder trans women, I just want to prevent them from transitioning.”
Trans feminists, including Roz Kaveney and Morgan Page, have likened eliminationism to genocide. Article 2 of the Genocide Convention reads as follows—and nb this article restricts itself to “national, ethnical, racial or religious” factions—so not women, trans or otherwise:
Article 2 of the Convention defines genocide as
… any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
It would be a fair response to Kaveney and Page (and me; I’ve said this) that “genocide” should not be extended to cover sexual minorities. Yet LGBT people are often targeted in state-sponsored campaigns of terror. The complaint is reasonable, but not in my view dispositive. Otherwise the key phrase is “deliberately inflicting on the groups conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Clearly that is Janet Raymond’s explicit goal, the explicit goal of the WHRC, and the implied goal of the WDSR. In other words, to the extent that the WDSR affirms the position of the WHRC, it may be thought of as a genocidal manifesto.
My understanding is that in genocide law, the toughest part to prove is that the policies under consideration were intended to cause the destruction of the group in question, rather than its dispersal. The WHRC: “the elimination of […] the practice of transgenderism.” Please note—this is the key point—that the Genocide Convention does not require killing (2a) or even assaulting (2b) any class of people in order to adjudicate genocide. The imposition of “conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction” (2c) is adequate.
Someone might ask whether the eliminationist position isn’t humane: to remove the desire to transition could be construed as no more genocidal than the pledge to “make poverty history.” The value of this position is that it forces those of us who want transition to be possible in the world to defend it as a positive good. The downside is obvious: a large majority of trans people would not detransition unless compelled to do so.
Kathleen Stock and the Women’s Declaration
Kathleen Stock does not deny signing the Declaration; nor has she explained why she wants to contest the above account of it (as far as I know—I could be wrong about this). But she has said that she supports maintaining the GRA:
So why sign it? I can only think of three possibilities: either she didn’t realize that the manifesto entailed replacing the GRA; she has changed her mind; or she is conflicted in her beliefs. Any of these would be grounds for student concern. However, Prof. Stock’s responses to students this week have been far more troubling than anything she had done to date.
On October 13th, last Wednesday, Amelia Jones claimed on the BBC that Prof. Stock had signed a Declaration that would eliminate trans women in law. Not only was Jones’ statement an accurate statement of fact, but Jones demurred from making the more critical claim––that the Declaration is in fact intended to prevent trans people from accessing care in general. But there is no question that Prof. Stock signed the Declaration, nor that the Declaration would abolish the GRA, which is the only existence that trans women presently have in law.
On October 14th, Prof. Stock baselessly referred to Jones’ statement as a “lie,” saying that she hoped to get a “correction”:
Later on the 14th, apparently at Prof. Stock’s urging, the BBC offered the following statement:
“Yesterday on Politics Live, we discussed the issue of freedom of speech on university campuses. We talked about the case of Prof. Kathleen Stock, an academic at the University of Sussex who has been accused of transphobia. Yesterday we spoke to a student union officer at the University, who said Prof. Stock had signed a declaration which wants to eliminate trans people in law. Prof. Stock has contacted us to point out that she supports the protection of gender reassignment, saying the text of the declaration does not amount to the claim that trans people should be eliminated in law. She says “my arguments are about the precise legal form protections for trans people should take, and how they should interact with protections for other groups. I do not want to stop all teaching of trans rights or trans identities in British schools, and I have never said this.”
The argument would appear to admit the WDSR is designed to replace the GRA in practice, but to protest that there might be other opportunities for trans people to be granted existence in law. Prof. Stock is of course entitled to that position––though, as we’ve seen, it flatly contradicts the views of those who wrote the Declaration she signed––but one could hardly call the BBC’s statement a “correction,” let alone uphold Prof. Stock’s defamatory claim that Amelia Jones had uttered a “lie.” Indeed, the reply that Prof. Stock gave to the BBC amounts to a minimally-nuanced concession of Jones’s central claim––that the establishment of the WDSR would entail the abolition of all actually-existing legal protections for trans women. Prof. Stock’s agitation on this topic on Twitter amounts to nothing more than a smear on an officer of the Sussex University Students Union.
I can think of no other case in academic history of a scholar who has libeled a student in such a way. I would be interested to hear examples if anyone can think of any.
But it got worse. After Prof. Stock had persuaded her Twitter followers that the BBC had “corrected” Amelia Jones, her backers in the UK media escalated the lie even further, with the Daily Mail yesterday publishing a story under the headline “BBC is forced to apologise to feminist professor for allowing students’ union office to falsely state she had signed a ‘declaration to eliminate trans people in law’ during live broadcast.”
Of course no apology was given, let alone warranted. I have written to Jacob Thorburn on Twitter to inform him that this statement is libelous and possibly unlawful, but have not received a response. All I can say is that if Kathleen Stock wished to correct the slanderous treatment of Amelia Jones, she should do so at once.
(Added 8.30pm, 10/18: When I published this story yesterday, I was happy to take Prof. Stock’s clarification of her position about the GRA on its own terms––I had already read her book Material Girls, and I couldn’t remember any specific calls either for its retention or repeal. At Christa Peterson’s urging today, I have returned to the book, and find that while Stock doesn’t clearly say that the GRA should be repealed, she certainly doesn’t make any case for retaining it. Stock describes the GRA most fully in Chapter 6, and she paints a picture of it as what she calls a “legal fiction,” by which she seems to mean a mere convention, that none of the involved parties hold to be literally true. A naive reader would, I suspect, come away from Material Girls believing that Stock believed that the GRA should not have been passed; that, once passed, it should not have been enforced; and that, in general, it would be better if the GRA placed no obligations on anyone except the transitioning person. This position is indeed fully consistent with the WDSR, for the simple reason that it amounts to the elimination of trans women in law.
The relevant passages read as follows:
If, as I have argued, people can’t literally change sex, what exactly did the 2004 Gender Recognition Act make available to people that they didn’t have before. My view is that the GRA, and the Gender Recognition Certificates that go along with it, jointly put in place what is known as a legal fiction about the possibility of sex change. […] Looking at debate transcripts, it’s a good question what exactly legislators thought they were doing by seeing this bill into law.
A second problem is the cost to freedom of speech. An individual’s choice to get immersed in a fiction or not is precisely that: a choice, falling into the realm of autonomy and individual conscience. Even if we sometimes get immersed in fictions given exposure to the right sort of prompts or props, we can usually choose to pull ourselves out of them. Non-hateful speech shouldn’t be compelled. It’s not hateful in itself to refuse to immerse yourself in a given fiction and to choose instead to refer to facts. It is perhaps considered rude to refuse in some cases, just as it can be rude to point out facts about someone’s weight, or that they’ve gone grey, or look aged––but ‘hateful’ it is not. And when trans women like Debbie Hayton, Miranda Yardley and Fionne Orlander refuse to enter into the fiction that they are women, and state that they are men, they are not being ‘self-hating.’
In other words, not only did Kathleen Stock lie about Amelia Jones, she lied about her own book. I do not have any plausible explanation for why she might have done this.)
Watching this story unfold this week has been a surreal experience. Journalists across the spectrum of media from right to left have published laudatory essays about Prof. Stock, portraying her as a valiant warrior for academic freedom, rather than someone who has wholly undermined academic freedom by reducing it to mere opinion, and attempting to use it to cover genocide apologism and labeling one’s critics “revolting.” Nobody has thought to ask Prof. Stock questions about why she thinks the WDSR is compatible with the GRA, when the Declaration was written explicitly to displace the Act; nobody has raised a peep about the systematic attempt to destroy Amelia Jones’ reputation after she had said no more than the literal truth: that Prof. Stock signed an eliminationist manifesto. Nobody has questioned whether a “smoke bomb,” as the Brighton and Hove Albion called it, is really the best way to describe this:
And for all the moral panic about “masked” protestors, nobody has wondered what steps they might take to oppose genocidal ideology, if the Vice Chancellor of their University was saying something like this:
“Pressuring the University to terminate [Prof. Stock’s] employment” is “disturbing”? Please. You’re Sussex University, students have been pressuring you to terminate the employment of faculty they don’t like since you opened in 1959.
(Added 5.45pm: These tweets, indeed, amount to an infringement of students’ rights to academic freedom, since the University administration has made it clear that they are “disturbed” and planning to retaliate, to “take any action necessary,” against those who publish––i.e., put up posters of––arguments for the suspension of Prof. Stock.)
Sussex University needs to start acting like a University again. Adam Tickell, who misunderstands academic freedom and who issues vague threats against student protestors, needs to lose his job. I realize that Tickell’s en route to a new position as VC of Birmingham University. He should lose that job too. Admin should begin disciplinary proceedings against Kathleen Stock for her role in the libel of Amelia Jones (who has, predictably, had to close her social media accounts after attacks from Prof. Stock’s supporters). And the British media needs to grow a spine, swallow its pride, and hire a bunch of trans editors, any of whom could have seen this coming a mile off.
Just for the record, I am happy to offer a right of reply to Kathleen Stock or anyone else who wishes to speak for her in this space. I do not want to silence anyone. Prof. Stock has my email address if she wants to reach out; if anyone else wants to respond to these claims, you can either DM me on Twitter or reply to this email. I’m going to restrict below-the-line comments to paying subscribers to the newsletter, because experience suggests that otherwise they become swamped with irrelevant personal attacks. — GEL