Richard Dawkins (Photo by Don Arnold/Getty Images)

Welcome to the TERF wars

In response to Richard Dawkins’ recent cancellation, Maya Forstater welcomes the scientist into the ongoing “TERF wars”

Artillery Row

Dear Richard Dawkins,

Welcome to the TERF wars. I am so glad you are here.

I am sure you don’t need advice on how to survive being cancelled (again). Your insouciant response to the American Humanists Association pathetically revoking a 25-year-old award “with immediate effect”, after you tweeted a call to discuss gender self-identity was pitch perfect: “Thinking to do my duty by deleting the entry, I opened up my CV. Only to discover that there was nothing to delete.”

This stuff — the hair trigger response to any questioning of how far society should bend to accommodate some people’s self-identity, and the hyperbole that this is “debating someone’s existence” — deserves to be laughed at.

I am cock-a-hoop that the “four horsemen” of the old New Atheism movement are standing with you; Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett have tweeted, and Christopher Hitchens is surely sitting on a cloud eviscerating it all. Stephen Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein are taking it seriously, writing to the AHA calling for them to reinstate the award and to promote discussion of the questions you raised.

It is perhaps easiest for those whose career runway is mainly behind them, and who are not dependent for their financial survival on an institution or a tribe to speak up.

The pressures on those for whom being cancelled means career suicide are fearsome and effective. Few can stand up to it. Myself, Allison Bailey, Kathleen Stock, Donna Hughes are just some of the many people (mainly women) who have been smeared, persecuted and punished for trying to discuss these questions with seriousness. Our institutions turned against us and failed to protect us in the face of whipped-up outrage.

In 2018 Professor Simone Buitendijk (then Vice Provost of Imperial College) issued a grovelling apology for wanting to discuss gender identity (she had followed and liked the wrong tweets, leading to a multi-signed letter from students to her university). She said:

“Although I support the freedom of academics to follow and engage in debate in all areas, including on social media, on this occasion I now realise that social media is not the correct forum for such sensitive debates. I have elected to stop all engagement with these accounts and apologise for hurt caused to members of our community.”

Hers is just one of many such letters and apologies. Museums, politicians, magazines, associations, and businesses have lined up to apologise for causing offense for discussing gender identity without the proper deference. Public bodies, charities and universities put people through internal disciplinary processes that make them afraid to speak.

I don’t think you will back down and apologise. But I hope you don’t go silent, or remain with the discussion in abstract terms, whilst trying to make a clear space between yourself and those who have been called “bigots”.

Being evicted from your tribe hurts at a visceral level. Across our evolutionary history it would likely have meant death for the rejected individual. No wonder it hurts.

But it is naive to think that those seeking to cancel you have misconstrued your intentions, and that you can negotiate with those seeking to banish you.

You tweeted in May 2015:

  • Words are our servants not masters. But reality masterfully demands words to respect objective distinctions. “Social constructs” have limits
  • Thus, it is polite & praiseworthy to refer to trans people by pronoun of choice. But not when talking of, say, chromosomes or anatomy
  • No matter how neutral, objective, disinterested, or just plain true your statement, someone will be deeply (& offensively) offended.
  • Anthropologists respect a culture by, say, synonymising “brother” & “cousin”. But we must acknowledge scientific distinction as more real.

This is pretty much the position for which I lost my job at an international development think tank, and which was deemed by a judge to be “not worthy of respect in a democratic society”. It is the position for which JK Rowling has been deemed a terrible transphobe, and disavowed by the Robert F Kennedy Foundation, who also revoked an award.

Meaning matters when words are used to make, or break, the rules by which society operates

I imagine you got some pushback at the time, but not of the ferociousness that women face when they say this. And maybe not enough to spark a recognition that this is an authoritarian faith that has taken hold of our enlightenment institutions; complete with a catechism (“trans women are women, trans men are men, non-binary people are non-binary”), heresy laws and an inquisition. It has corrupted and corroded the systems for data collection, sense making and rule formation, for safety, cooperation, and collective endeavour.

In October 2015 you tweeted: “Is trans woman a woman? Purely semantic. If you define by chromosomes, no. If by self-identification, yes. I call her “she” out of courtesy.”

Courtesy is nice, but meaning matters when words are used to make, or break, the rules by which society operates. Is a “trans woman” a woman when it comes to women’s prisons, women’s refuges, women’s rugby, women’s athletics, the request by a woman to be seen by a female doctor, the rules around being searched by a police officer or a prison guard of a particular sex? Should statistics and medical risk assessment defer to courtesy or stick to facts?

I think you see it now. What is being asked is not just day-to-day courtesy, but replacing sex with self-identified gender in every situation and punishing those who refuse to comply (or who even ask to discuss).

Thank you for speaking up. Please keep doing it.

Choose your allies based on judgment — not labels. Those of us who have spoken up have been called “bigots” too often to take that smear seriously.

I hope you push your existing allies — the institutions that you are connected to including your own foundation and Humanism UK — to allow and encourage public discussion on this subject. You have the power to do that. I also hope that you connect with some of the new organisations that are creating these spaces: Project Nettie is an online and regularly updated record of scientists, medics and those in related disciplines who assert the material reality of biological sex and reject attempts to reframe it as a social construct (talk to Dr Emma Hilton). Sex Matters is an organisation we have co-founded together with lawyers Naomi Cunningham and Rebecca Bull to reestablish clarity about sex in law, policy and culture.

Sex Matters in law and in life. It shouldn’t take courage to say it. Discuss.

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