Picture credit: Jorm Sangsorn

Cancel culture in academia

Umut Özkırımlı in conversation with Laura Favaro

Artillery Row

I admit, I was lured by the title. An article on how “researchers are wounded in academia’s gender wars” sounded simply too intriguing to ignore. Then again, something was off. I knew from personal experience that anyone who ventured into the sombre waters of the “gender wars”’ would likely end up like the sailors who are transfixed by the thrilling song of the Sirens — “heaps of corpses rotting away, rags of skin shrivelling on their bones”, in Homer’s chilling description. How did Laura Favaro, the author of the article, survive this? How could this be published in Times Higher Education (THE), a respectable yet mainstream outlet, without fear of repercussions?

I dug into it. It turned out that the article was an exposé of the findings of over two years of research on the gender wars in feminist academia, funded by City, University of London. Fieldwork included fifty semi-structured interviews with academics who define themselves as feminists and work in the field of gender studies from all sides of the dispute. The article was for degustation purposes only, but the little that was shared was ominous enough, even for someone like me who survived a state-sponsored cancel campaign and was writing a book on the degenerations of identity activism. I needed to know more about these findings, so I reached out to Laura Favaro three days after the THE article was published.

Unfortunately, I was already late. 72 hours is a long time in Cancel-land (usually cancel campaigns are launched within the first 24 hours), and the sirens had already started circling around the “traitor” who dared to hold a mirror up to academic feminism. The opening salvo came from Alison Phipps, a Professor of Sociology at Newcastle University. She outed herself as one of the participants in the research, an experience which she “now thoroughly regret[ted]”, she said in a vituperative Twitter thread, as it made her feel “violated” and “incredibly exposed”. “I apologise to the trans community for participating in this research, which is going to cause damage,” Phipps concluded, without telling us why she didn’t withdraw her consent after such an “excruciating” encounter, or why she waited until the findings were published in a widely-circulated magazine to raise her concerns. Once the floodgates were open, others swarmed in, true to the script of any run-of-the-mill cancel campaign. The intentions were clear. “Hmmmm, As we suspected … ,” wrote Sally Hines, Chair of Sociology and Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Sheffield, in reply to Phipps’ thread. “We can still act!” she added. “Let’s chat when I’m back from hol in 2 weeks xx.” Phipps agreed.

That was the most brazen and unscrupulous cancellation attempt I had seen in academia so far, against a migrant junior female colleague and a fellow feminist no less. The ringleaders wanted heads to roll; their followers responded to the call, cheering from behind the safety of tenured positions or their anonymous Twitter accounts: “There should be consequences for her.” “End their career!”

Why do they hate us so much?

Laura was a bit apprehensive when I first spoke to her — who could blame her? — but confident in her research. Even a cursory glance at the methodology section, which she kindly agreed to share with me, showed that her confidence wasn’t misplaced. I tried to assuage her concerns, telling her that the university would stick by a project it itself had funded and, more importantly, granted ethics approval. I was wrong. “A lot is going on,” she wrote when I tried to contact her again a few weeks later, “and I don’t feel like talking about it right now.” I was worried, of course, but I didn’t insist.

Genderism expects full submission even from those external to its doctrine

Laura vanished into thin air — just like that. Her Twitter account was deactivated; emails started to bounce back; text messages remained unanswered. I was happy when she resurfaced several months later, only to find out that she had lost her job, her data, her friends and her mental health in the interim. Now she was struggling to make ends meet and provide for her family. She had no option but to take her former employer City, University of London to an Employment Tribunal for discrimination, harassment, victimisation and whistleblowing detriment. I knew that the legal process would restrict what she could write or say, but this time I insisted. We had to make this public — share her ordeal and ponder why her findings had to be suppressed at all costs. What was so ghastly that even her colleagues at City, University of London felt the need to rush to Twitter to condemn the university for granting ethics approval? “Wtf? Why do you hate me so much?” said Sahra Taylor from City’s Department of International Relations, claiming that Laura’s research “clearly intended to cause harm”. Who did Laura hate? If she indeed intended to cause harm to people like Taylor, why didn’t they simply let her publish her findings so that we could decide for ourselves? Could it be the other way around? Perhaps they were the ones who hated Laura and anyone who put a spoke in their smoothly running wheel?

We started conversing and asking questions. We discovered commonalities both in our academic research and in our personal experiences, as well as areas of difference and disagreement. In the end, we decided to take things to the next level, embarking on a journey to trace the mechanisms of cancel culture in academia and expose the “reactionary progressives” who are its foremost practitioners.

Police your own

UO: In my book, Cancelled: The Left Way Back from Woke, I identify three justificatory discourses on cancel culture within the identitarian Left. The first, and most populous, group simply denies that cancel culture exists, treating it as a “pseudo-crisis” or a moral panic instigated by the reactionary Right. The second group admits that it exists, but trivialises its impact, and claims, for example, that it doesn’t have any real-life consequences. Finally, there is a third group who openly defends cancel culture. For this group, cancel culture is about accountability and agency, a way of dismantling existing power hierarchies. I think both your research findings and your personal experience show that none of these arguments hold any water. What do you think?

LF: These discourses have served their political purpose well, but thanks only to the accompanying no-debate tactic. Not only are they evidently contradictory, but ultimately they don’t stand up to scrutiny. Take the denialist discourse. We have substantial evidence that there is a widespread culture — in academia and beyond — of suppression and even persecution of those who question in any way what I call “genderism”. Let me quickly clarify my terminologies. I used the terms gender-critical and gender-affirmative feminism to refer to the main orientations in the sex/gender dispute as a sort of heuristic device while I was collecting the data. After the analysis of hundreds of documents, thousands of Tweets and hours of interview material, it became clear to me that the latter consisted of a set of ideas and goals distinct from those of feminism. To start with, the political subject is not women. Rather, it’s a movement for all those (who feel) subjected to gender oppression, redefined as lack of individual choice and external affirmation relating to gender identity, which is a purely internal sense of oneself that can change even over the course of a day. Yet this is still prioritised over sex, which is understood as a social fiction (notably of colonialism), a malleable biological spectrum, paradoxically both or, simply, a transphobic dog-whistle. Conversely, feminists use the term gender to refer to the set of roles, behaviours and attributes that a given culture determines as appropriate for people by virtue of their sex to enforce patriarchy, a political system partly rooted in men’s interest to control women’s reproductive capacities. Therefore, feminism recognizes that sex is a biological reality that matters in certain contexts, whilst striving to abolish the oppressive social construct that is gender. In sharp contrast to this, we have genderism: a queer theory-inflected movement that is sex-critical and pro-gender. Gender is a “vast and wonderful landscape”, unique to each person, “like a snowflake”, write Alex Iantaffi and Meg-John Barker in their book How to Understand Your Gender: A Practical Guide for Exploring Who You Are. “Nothing is more important for transgender people,” Judith Butler says, than “to have their freedom and desire affirmed by the rest of the world”. This evokes one of the most problematic aspects of genderism: it expects full submission even from those external to its doctrine. What is worse, this is done largely via manipulation and coercion. In terms of my research on academia, some interviewees had experienced threats of extreme violence and physical intimidation for voicing feminist views, whilst being ostracised by colleagues, subjected to malicious complaints at work and to vitriol online has become commonplace for very many of us. In addition to expunging dissent, this serves the purpose of keeping all those watching in line. “You see what happens to other people,” my interviewees would note when justifying their decision to “hide in the shadows”. “We are all so afraid.” It may sound like material from a dystopian novel or a faraway totalitarian state, but it’s happening in UK universities — and I had unique data to prove it.

UO: I am interrupting you but, also judging from my own experience, I know that women are particularly and disproportionately affected by these campaigns. “Police your own,” as your former colleague Sahra Taylor once said on Twitter. In fact, this is how I was myself introduced to the gender wars. When I published the documents that proved the fabricated nature of the allegations that were perpetrated against me, those who stood on the side of truth and justice were all women. And they were accused of being TERFs even though my case had nothing to do with transgender rights. In fact, most of them didn’t even know what TERF meant!

These public expressions of hostility are the tip of the iceberg

LF: Absolutely, and feminists in particular; women with a track record of fighting against social injustice that are raising well-founded questions about women’s rights, the safeguarding of children, the misogynistic, homophobic and (obviously) financial interests driving the gender market, or stressing the importance of collecting sex data, of evidence-based discussion and protecting academic freedom. These are the concerns that someone as influential as Judith Butler disavows as “rich fantasy” and reflective of our anti-intellectual times. These are the women that my genderist interviewees compared to white supremacists, fascists or Nazis. These public expressions of hostility are the tip of the iceberg of what is happening in academia. As one sociologist who positioned herself as somewhere between the feminist and genderist position told me, the latter’s current hegemony “produces actual material effects on people’s careers [and] gets enforced in extremely violent ways”. It’s for this reason that so many interviewees were “terrified” of saying “something wrong” or that “sounded TERFy”, thus their decision to follow the command of the doctrine (e.g., adding pronouns to signatures), avoid at all costs the topics or even leave gender studies altogether. “I just don’t feel safe,” said one scholar in feminist cultural studies with “fairly middle ground” views when explaining how she was considering no longer teaching her gender-related course. Breaking into tears, she went on: “It feels so alienating because [academia] should be about discussing and exchanging ideas, and it’s not. It’s not in our context. And it’s not just alienating. It’s also incredibly anxiety-provoking because I don’t want to lose my job”. As my own experience has shown, even conducting research that includes all perspectives by experts in the relevant areas is deemed unacceptable. Several genderist academics refused to take part in an interview and in the online survey, because I wasn’t excluding those deemed to be involved in a “eugenicist approach to transness”.

No qualms in silencing people

UO: I actually find this mind-blowing. It was none other than Judith Butler who told us in a recent essay on academic freedom how “no democratic public life is possible without the practices of careful reading [and] interpretive judgment”. She was raising these concerns in the context of right-wing authoritarian regimes such as Hungary, Russia and Turkey. But censorship is a problem in Western academia, too, and not always perpetrated by right-wing actors wielding state power such as Ron DeSantis or ideologues like Christofer F. Rufo, but so-called progressive activists who use their positions as cultural gatekeepers to impose a certain hegemony on knowledge. Anyone who strays from the consensus is then branded as “fascist”.

LF: As regards my research topic in particular, to say that sex refers to binary and immutable biological categories, and gender to a set of cultural norms and stereotypes, gets you accused of complicity with the far right, capitalism and colonialism — moreover of hate speech and denying people who identify as transgender the right to exist, indeed of a project that is genocidal. This, in turn, is considered part of “the white feminist war machine”, as Alison Phipps puts it, which additionally includes “anti-trafficking and modern slavery initiatives”, where feminists are equally denounced for their “border policing”, “conspiratorial lobbies”, “women tears”, “survivor stories” and “invest[ing] trauma in the outrage economy”.

UO: Note the element of psychological projection here. Wasn’t it Phipps herself who said that she felt “violated” after her interview with you and “conspired” publicly with Sally Hines to “act”, whatever that means? And not only Phipps. Joanna Drugan of Heriot Watt University and Amanda Rogers of Swansea University referred to your research as “abuse” even though they weren’t part of the study; Laura C. Carter of the Ada Lovelace Institute and Victoria Cann of the University of East Anglia claimed that you were “aiming to legitimise discrimination and hate” and “harm trans liberation”. Talking about “women tears” and “conspiratorial lobbies” … I cannot help but notice that all these names are also white. One wonders whether this is the “the white feminist war machine” Phipps alludes to.

LF: The strategy of projection pervades the genderist discourse, to be sure. But the point I wanted to make is that the current dispute around transgender is part of a broader conflict, and it’s linked to other issues. Genderists also repudiate the feminist analyses of prostitution as sexual exploitation and of surrogacy as reproductive exploitation (and child trafficking), in the name of “bodily autonomy” and “self-determination”. The most cited concern by my interviewees who were “afraid to open their mouths” was the “medical experiment” on children, not least due to the high risk of irreversible harms. In today’s academic culture, it’s not possible to raise these issues without being associated with “think of the children” conservative rhetoric. Then there is the ever-present charge of “political whiteness”, or accusations of bigotry against non-normative sexual orientations (which increasingly includes the — allegedly — queer population that are MAPs: minor attracted persons). Basically, the current conflict around transgender is one piece of a bigger puzzle with a history, related to a broader stifling of feminism in academia. As the wall of no-debate continues to be knocked down, this will be more widely understood.

There cannot be a dialogue

UO: You showed me a Twitter exchange between Sally Hines and the Berkeley Professor Grace Lavery. “I have no qualms in silencing people who need to hush the fuck up. In fact, I’ve put the slog in to be able to do just that,” Hines tweeted. “You and me both sis,” responded Grace Lavery. This is something I tried to highlight in my book as well, this eerie similarity between this new form of identitarian activism and the reactionary Right — and not only with regards to questions of gender and sexuality. The same Manichean mentality which sees the world through a black-and-white lens, as “us” versus “them”, and a contempt for critical thought — to the point of rejecting science, I’d say. Honestly, I don’t see what is progressive about “silencing people who need to hush to fuck up”. How is this different from regressive attitudes these theorists are so eager to repudiate? Who are the real “bigots” or “fascists”, those who ask questions or those who want to muffle critical voices, indeed eliminate them? After all, that’s what’s they’ve done to you. Condemning you to social death.

LF: In her influential 2015 blog, Sara Ahmed declared that TERF is not a slur but a position that aims to “eliminate people”. The blog was a response to an open letter published in The Guardian, denouncing “a worrying pattern of intimidation and silencing of [ … ] feminists critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists”. Ahmed depicted this letter as not only giving “false impressions” but as a “mechanism of power”, whilst paradoxically declaring that when it comes to TERFs, “there cannot be a dialogue”. On the contrary, she was “aiming to eliminate the[ir] positions”. With reference to those who challenge her with “evidence that trans activists are violent or incite violence against TERFS”, she responded that “power is asymmetrical”, and that one can “unbecome” a TERF. To me this reads like, if you want the (male) violence to stop, then (women) stop thinking the wrong thoughts.

The current conflict around transgender is one piece of a bigger puzzle

UO: That blog post by Ahmed — the whole glib and highly marketized “feminist killjoy” project in fact — is a gem, in that it showcases all the problems inherent with identitarian thinking. It’s based on a static understanding of power relations, assuming that the roles of “oppressor” and “oppressed” are fixed and immutable. This may well be true at a systemic level, but it doesn’t explain individual cases. Power dynamics change even at the systemic level. Transgender people are still a disadvantaged group, especially if they are also non-White and working-class, but there is now an influential movement and powerful lobbies (including big pharma) that promote a pro-trans agenda. Even more importantly, this static view of power conceals the protagonists’ own privileged positions. Almost all outspoken defenders of the no-debate position are themselves prominent scholars, not hapless victims of systemic oppression with no other platform than an anonymous Twitter account. Of all the names we have cited so far, only Sara Ahmed doesn’t have a tenured position at a university, and that’s because she could afford to resign from her position at Goldsmiths in protest of the university’s slack harassment policies. But she has a brand (“feminist killjoy”) and a very influential blog; her books are published by prestigious university presses, and she has a Twitter account with over 82,000 followers. With one tweet, she can end careers. That to me is power, pure and simple.

LF: We should also remember that for genderists, there is equivalence between physical violence and symbolic violence. In this case, disagreement with gender identity theory is considered to cause harm or (symbolic) violence against people who identify as transgender, and this is considered as equivalent to — or even worse than — actual threats and acts of violence against feminists by transgender activists. Incitements to kill, decapitate, rape or punch TERFs in the name of trans power have become all too familiar online, but also increasingly offline. Yet genderist academics would still equivocate, including those working on violence against women. One sociologist explained during our interview, “My priority are the people who are being harmed by this debate, who I perceive to be trans people.” Thus follows the disturbing discourse of legitimate retaliation: “I can understand the backlash. Like, if I had been personally affronted, I can understand the want to retaliate,” a PhD student in Criminology told me. This builds on ideas, as disseminated by Ahmed and other genderists, about unequal power dynamics and an existential threat. “We need to think and ask ourselves, who is holding more power [ … ] still cisgender women hold relatively more power than trans people,” a sociologist told me. Another said, “These gender-critical feminists, they are intellectualising [sex and gender], and I think it’s harmful.” Yet she later admitted her complete ignorance about the nature of their arguments: “I stay out of their way”.

UO: But, as I said earlier, this is itself an act of power. The “no-debate” position or the infamous “the right side of history” twaddle deprive critics of their status as legitimate conversational partners by equating them with “fascists”, even imputing “genocidal” intent to them. This is a stunning reversal of the presumed power hierarchy. It’s Sara Ahmed who gets to first decide what is worthy of debate and who is worthy of having a dialogue with, then tell us that “no citation can be a feminist policy”.

LF: One important finding from my research is that no-debate is also an internal policy in genderism. Engagement with any ideas external to their “echo chambers and bubbles” must be avoided at all costs, as must “honest conversations”. Rather, the mandate is “be for your team and toe the party line”, as a late-career academic in Education expounded. It’s therefore not surprising that genderist interviewees struggled, or were discomfited, when asked to provide their own definitions of sex, gender and (particularly) gender identity. Remember, these are the experts in these very topics: journal editors, programme leaders, PhD supervisors … Some spoke about an “intuitive” sense of being “on the right side”, whilst others trusted that (other) leading thinkers had considered the “complexities”. My research suggests that this is not the case. After all, the objection to feminism is political, a journal editor explicitly told me, and part of “a political battle over an institutional space”, as an interviewee who identified as a trans woman put it. “Universities are not democratic spaces,” asserted another interviewee to justify the use of security and physical intimidation to remove Julia Long from the infamous 2019 event at City, University of London.


UO: This has already been a long “conversation”, so it’s time to slowly wrap it up. I think the episode with Julia Long you just mentioned is a good place to end. This is something you referred to in your talks at Women’s Declaration International and Open University Gender Critical Research Network, right? This, and the concept of “academentia”. Oh, and before someone jumps on this … These talks are given at platforms founded by mavericks; they only reach a niche audience. And Laura is still looking for work, and cut off from her own research data.


LF: That’s right. “Survivor of academentia” was how Julia Long described herself in the interview consent form, inspired by the late Mary Daly, who once said: “Of course in patriarchal education the mind is stultified. What else would you expect?” But there is more to how powerfully Long’s phrase captures what I have documented and experienced in the field. It points to the exodus of feminists from gender studies, for reasons that include self-care and escaping “scholarship that is Thought Police”. It evokes the state of scholarly paralysis by all those fearing repercussions. Also resulting from the strict application of poststructuralist ideas is a sort of conceptual nihilism. Consider the response to my question “how do you understand gender?” by a journal editor: “But I don’t. I’m a post-structuralist, so I don’t understand gender. I don’t understand any of the words I use per se.”

The term academentia usefully connects the subjective with the systemic, reminding me of the one area of consensus across my participants: there is a toxic atmosphere in academia with serious detrimental effects across the board, resulting from processes of neoliberalisation. The only recent writing on academentia I have found is precisely a critique of university governance today. The term is used to describe how the takeover of managerial and neoliberal ideologies has led to “a state of organisational insanity” that negatively impacts the ability of academic workers to function as scholars and educators. Much has been written about the fast-paced, market and metrics-oriented cultures of the contemporary university, where on top of generalised precarity, academic workers endure excessive workloads and ever-growing scrutiny, pressures and competition. These structural transformations have led to a decline in solidarity, a rise in unethical behaviours and “a psychosocial and somatic catastrophe amongst academics”. Added to this mix is the increasing penetration of elements from social media cultures: antagonism, the outrage economy, sound-bites and bubbles, celebritisation Thus emerges an environment that fosters compliance, groupthink and scholarly mediocrity or timidity, where narcissism, bullying and despotism find fertile ground. Rather than knowledge production, evidence, critique, innovation or debate, this is an academia of safe hot topics of the day and compelled speech with populist inclinations (as interviewees themselves put it).

Gender studies is a hotbed, but not the only area affected. Although I was never able to analyse the over 600 survey responses by academics across the social sciences, I can recall other topics being mentioned in the section on censorship for reasons that included job loss. Amongst these were politics in general, religion, race/ethnicity, disability and mental health, along with different aspects relating to children. Brexit, the COVID pandemic, China, Palestine and Israel were explicitly named a number of times. Survey respondents were also self-censoring on topics that could upset students or attract complaints, along with their criticism of working life in higher education and its management. I collected this data over a year now …

UO: And this data has been taken away from you. Honestly, I don’t have enough expletives in my vocabulary to express my anger. Cancel culture thrives because of institutional complicity. I thought nothing could surprise me anymore after what I went through. Your case shows that the problem is much more pervasive and endemic. Well, whatever the case, we’ll continue our conversation. After all, we are the cancelled: we have nothing to lose but our Twitter accounts!

The quotes from the interviews used in this article are those that are already in the public domain (since Laura is denied access to her own data by City, University of London). An academic version of this text has been submitted to Teknokultura: The Journal of Digital Culture and Social Movements, and is currently under peer review.

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