Language, truth and logic

Talking to Stella Creasy is never easy

Artillery Row

In an interview published in the Telegraph on Friday, Stella Creasy MP talked about feminism, transwomen, JK Rowling and a host of related matters. She said, “I am somebody who would say that a trans woman is an adult human female”. And she cited the suffragette slogan “deeds not words”. I take that at face value: in her interview Creasy is not just saying something, she is also doing something. What, exactly, is she doing? Creasy would say that she is standing up for transwomen. She’s proud of taking a controversial view (and, as she modestly describes herself, of “breaking cover and being controversial”).

But I think that what Creasy is doing — whether she realises it or not — is re-engineering the concept “female”. And I think this is a mistake.

There is a growing approach in philosophy called “conceptual engineering”. It’s a cool name for an interesting project. Indeed, one of my colleagues at the Open University is heavily involved as a conceptual engineer. They look at our concepts and see if they are doing good work — if they are functioning well. If not, then we should try to improve them (“ameliorate” is the key term). The chief thinker behind this is Sally Haslanger; the title of her main work Resisting Reality: Social Constructions and Social Critique gives you a flavour of what she is up to.

This approach is applied to lots of different concepts, and some of this discussion is not particularly contentious. I had a long discussion with Mark about this paper of mine, whether the concept of “cheating” should best be moralised — that is, whether an essential feature of the concept was that cheating is always (definitionally) wrong. There is philosophical discussion about “coercion” in the same way. Other concepts which are thought to be up for conceptual reengineering are much more contentious — “Woman” and “Misogyny” are two. (I’m opposed also to the re-engineering of “woman” but I’ll leave that aside here, to focus on the new, more extreme case.)

So far, the term (and concept) “female” has seemed relatively immune from such attempts. The term “female” is straightforward. It’s generally accepted as an ordinary scientific and biological term. You can see that it is unambiguously a sex term rather than a gender term by realising that it applies across species: we don’t have woman squirrels, but we do have female squirrels.

It’s a good thing that we have some fixed and simple terms that apply to regular and important features of the world. It enables us to describe those features of the world in straightforward ways. To have the term “female” is a help in describing features of the world that matter — sexed features. That there are such features of the world seems to me important, and obvious. You only need to look at the work of Caroline Criado-Perez to see why, and the emergence of organisations like Sex Matters is part of a political move to focus on those features of the world where, well, sex matters.

The term “female” then, applying to biological features of the world, offers a benefit to democratic, public discussion. Re-engineering it away from a biological term into an identity term is a harm to such discussion. If that happened, the term would need replacing. Maybe the harm would be temporary, because we would get used to using terms like “generators of large static gametes” and “generators of small motile gametes” or “Possessors of Homeostatic Property Cluster 1” and “Possessor of Homeostatic Property Cluster 2”.

Such technical terms — which Creasy describes as “gobbledegook” in her attack on me — are the terms we would be forced to use if the project of reengineering “female” were to be successful. 

Creasy, and others, want to decouple “female” from the reality of biological sex. That project I find intellectually disturbing. It’s lots of other things — I think it’s politically damaging to the party we both support, I think it’s an affront to women, and I think it radically distorts the discussion. In policy, I think a redefinition of “female” would be disastrous, most obviously in health care. In the words of Keir Starmer, it generates more heat than light.

Creasy is blunting the tools — the words — that I need

But my concern is in some ways quite narrow. I write about sport, and sex categorisation in sport. Here, it is obvious that sex matters. I have to be able to refer to biological sex in order to do my job. Creasy, then, is blunting the tools — the words — that I need. I argue for this claim: it is unfair for people with male advantage to compete in female sport. I try to give reasons for that view, to argue for it with governing bodies, to work out ways to apply it to sport policy. Whether people agree or disagree with that substantive view, this is legitimate academic work. In order to do it, I have to use a term to refer to biological sex. If Creasy succeeds, I will have to reorder my position. I will have to say that “it is unfair for people with advantages accruing from Homeostatic Property Cluster One to compete in sport designated for people with Homeostatic Property Cluster Two” or something similar. If we reached that point, there would be a loss to public debate. It would become obscure and technical.

The jargonising of debate has been skewered by lots of people on the left including Pierre Bourdieu, who writes about the restriction of argument to those with “cultural capital”. But closing off the debate to wider public scrutiny is a loss, and there is a kind of elitism at play here.

Many people reading this will be thinking of the brilliant dialogue between Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Alice in Wonderland:

When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

This is a kind of linguistic colonialism

“Which is to be master?” captures it. What Creasy is doing is a power move. De-sexing the word female is to the advantage of some and the disadvantage of others. It is a further step — after pushing the slogan “Trans Women are Women” — to move on, establish a new bridgehead and open a new front. These moves are not just statements about the meanings of words. They are, as Alice Sullivan explains here, demands. Creasy is making a big point — look at her statement: she doesn’t just say: “a transwoman is an adult human female”, she says “I am someone who would say …” She is identifying herself with the project, planting a flag, standing up to be counted. 

This is a kind of linguistic colonialism. One big problem with “conceptual engineering” is called the “problem of implementation”. Even supposing that you have managed to make a case for the re-engineering of the term female (and no such case has been made), how do you get everyone to go along with it? Something that might seem necessary is the consent of those who are referred to by the terms: do currently-called-females consent to the re-engineering of the term “female”? Should there be a vote? Should representative females have a say? What about people on the sidelines, like me, for whom this creates, at the minimum, some intellectual hassle? Critically, this re-engineering does not take place through consent. Rather, it happens through illocutionary acts — doing by saying, asserting, demanding, not by giving reasons. This is what Creasy is doing.

I’ll end by saying something about Creasy’s response to me when I raised these issues on Twitter. It wasn’t great, to be honest. Creasy said that she feared for my students, and that she had worries about the quality of my teaching. Instead of engaging in debate, she attacked my professional competence and accused me of talking “gobbledygook”. The way to direct such concerns — if they are serious — is to send them to the Open University, of course. If they are not serious, and if they don’t rise to a formal complaint, why make them?

That’s all a shame, but it makes me think that she doesn’t realise what is at stake here. This isn’t an attack on her intellect, but a point about her preparedness and thoughtfulness. Possibly, she is out on a limb and thinks that “female” is a social term, one that is up for grabs, not a scientific and biological one. If so, I think she is just wrong. Possibly, she hasn’t thought through the debate. Her response reminds me of students who turn up to a seminar not having done the preparatory reading. Reader, I’ve been that student. I’ve been all at sea in a seminar, struggling to keep up and ill-prepared. I tend, in those circumstances, to keep my head down, do my best to work out what is going on, and resolve to be better prepared next time. 

But if I were pretty arrogant, I could say, “Hey, this is all gobbledygook! What are you on about? This is terrible teaching! I fear for your students!” So far, in thirty years of teaching, no one other than Creasy has said this to me.

Of course, Twitter is not a seminar. There is no required reading. Despite that, I do sometimes have a working assumption (which takes a bit of a daily battering) that people will argue in good faith and will avoid ad hominems. Since my main objection was that this move to de-sex “female” was intellectually disturbing, I have to say, I’m more disturbed at this aggressive reaction. 

Here’s my response. I plan to use some of my fee for this piece to buy a copy of Material Girls by Kathleen Stock (who argues this sort of stuff much better than me) and send it as a present from me to Stella Creasy at the House of Commons. 

We’re all pushed for time, but I really hope she does the reading.

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