GenderGate and the Trouble with Yale
Transgender politics will triumph over the efforts of academic centrists.
Long before Charlie Kirk was ever born, William F. Buckley Jr. wrote God and Man at Yale to critique his alma mater. Yale University promoted economic collectivism and religious skepticism to its students but relied on Christian individualists for moral and financial support. To Buckley, this meant that Yale University was swindling its donors.
It was for this reason he panned the idea of “academic freedom.” To the people who defended it, academic freedom was necessary for the free exchange of ideas that led to the truth. They argued that all points of view should be discussed so that the best ideas would win out. But Buckley argued that these claims to “academic freedom” were post hoc justifications. These professors only used the pretense of freedom to defend themselves from scrutiny.
“It is of some interest that the occupation authorities in Germany (and incidentally I have heard no hoots and cries leveled at them for it) unequivocally forbade the use in schools of texts on Nazi philosophy. In effect, Americans, British, and Frenchmen, all of whom can be presumed to harbor profound respect for democracy and hence for the vitality of truth, gave clear-cut evidence that this time they did not, for the nonce, wish to bank too heavily on the emergence of truth in the free arena of ideas. Instead, the children of Germany are being taught the evils of Nazism, and forcefully warned against succumbing to the blandishments of Fascism, in the hope, presumably, that this approach to truth will prove more efficacious.”
(God and Man at Yale, Chapter Four – The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom”, “Truth Will Out”)
Why were American professors not outraged about this violation of academic freedom? Why deny academic freedom to the Germans? The answer is obvious: no college professor would defend giving a Nazi anthropologist tenure. The very idea is ridiculous. But then, so was academic freedom in general. A commitment to the truth doesn't need academic freedom.
In hindsight, Buckley was correct. Universities today dismiss common sense and tradition without a hearing but endorse things like this. These left-wing universities have discarded any pretense of supporting academic freedom. Unless it's their freedom on the line, they don't care. The case of Bruce Gilley demonstrates this. First, Third World Quarterly withdrew his essay on colonialism. After that, Portland State University banned his course on conservative political thought.
Given this, invoking academic freedom to defend against the Left is a fool's errand. But that doesn't stop Centrists from attempting. As Leftism progresses, it ostracizes any non-conformists, including any uppity centrists. Being former leftists, centrists draw upon academic freedom, only for it to fail them. The latest round of this is GenderGate.
GenderGate is the latest episode in a controversy over transgenderism in academia. For years, transgender activists have been making claims to the effect that sex is not binary and that it is socially constructed. The implications of these claims alarm many left-leaning academics. They claim such ideas will harm women and end civil rights. The censorious and anti-intellectual attitude taken by these transgender activists also worries them. The threat posed by these activists isn’t idle either. Given the chance, they will make it illegal to contradict their ideology and persecute any who rejects it. They have the support of many “woke” media personalities, who, as usual, have no idea what’s going on. In other words, it’s the same Brown Scare that the Cathedral uses as a pretense to purge its ideological enemies.
Note that none of these critics of transgenderism are right-wingers of any kind. Rather, these dissenters are leftist academics trying to defend the liberal project and their careers.
Out of this environment, in the pages of the prestigious journal Philosophical Studies, came a paper entitled “Are women adult human females?” Here, MIT philosopher Alex Byrne attempts to refute the view that woman is a "social category" rather than a "biological category.” A woman is an adult human female because sex is not a “social construct” as many activists would claim. In response, Robin Dembroff of Yale University wrote “Escaping the Natural Attitude About Gender”.
Now, it’s no surprise that such a hot-button topic would create a heated exchange. But this is normal. Philosophers are not generally known for being kind and fuzzy people. They will often insinuate that their opponent is unintelligent or use innuendo such as “problematic” to describe whatever they think is bullshit. Yet, at the same time, there is a certain level of professionalism and décor that’s expected of philosophers. Passive-aggressive insults are acceptable, but open slander is rare. It is Dembroff’s deviation from this unspoken protocol that has garnered controversy.
Dembroff's entire paper is full of fallacies from beginning to end. It opens with the accusation that the title of Byrne’s paper “asks a question that Byrne treats as nearly rhetorical.” To treat something as “rhetorical” is to not take it seriously. Given how in-depth Byrne's paper is, this is a textbook example of “poisoning the well." Dembroff then accuses Byrne of being irresponsible. Byrne's arguments have “been championed by anti-trans activists” to promote an anti-trans agenda. Progressives tend to use this argument to shut down political conversations they don't like. To them, political convenience takes precedent over the truth. Dembroff wishes to suppress Byrne’s argument because he is certain that Byrne is wrong beyond a shadow of a doubt. Much as the Allies censored Nazism in Germany, Byrne must self-censor his opinions.
But the most egregious part of the paper, the one that sparked the GenderGate controversy, was a brief passage towards the end of Dembroff’s article. The line begins with Dembroff accusing Byrne of trying “to vindicate a political slogan" that undermines "civic rights and respect for trans persons.” He then implies that Byrne is a bigot trying to advance an ugly political agenda rather than a disinterested philosopher. Anyone who read Byrne's paper knew that this was an unsubstantiated smear. Byrne's article commended the work of trans activists, but you’d never know this from Dembroff. In short, Dembroff's argument is uncharitable and thus unconvincing.
Philosophical Studies accepted Dembroff's paper, its editor-in-chief protested the decision. Dembroff’s paper contained “unprofessional personal attacks." Thus, the journal must remove these personal attacks from the paper and invite Byrne to respond to the paper in question. When his colleagues declined to go along with his wishes, the editor-in-chief resigned. He could no longer associate with a paper with such sloppy standards.
This is the controversy surrounding GenderGate as of now. On one side, you have Dembroff and his supporters, who decry the attempt to “censor” Dembroff’s paper. It had already “been accepted after a transparent and professional editorial process,” so it must be acceptable. Dembroff also claims that GenderGate is a trans rights issue. The other side, meanwhile, claims that Dembroff’s paper violates the spirit of academic freedom. Robust, evidence-based disagreement and appeals to reason should be the norm. If this becomes the standard for academic papers, then moral bullying will endanger rational discourse. They claim that GenderGate marks the beginning of the end of philosophy.
The pro-GenderGate side will lose this argument. Not because they are wrong, but because the situation is much, much worse than they seem to realize. Robin Dembroff is not the beginning and end of the problem, but a symptom of the problem. The academic disciplines of the Western world are corrupt, especially philosophy.
Now, I don’t need to tell you about the insular and bizarre nature of the various grievance studies journals. For all their faults, James Lindsay, Peter Boghossian, and Helen Pluckrose proved that these journals are willing to print absolute garbage in the guise of academic studies. But, like all liberals, these three failed to see their role in creating this problem. The reason why these journals can get away with printing crap is that modern academic literature is not designed to be read but to be cited. Academia encourages people to become careerists and not philosophers. Modern academics would rather preach to a choir than convey ideas to an audience. This is something professionals have been pointing out for years now. In 2003, John Heil said:
Philosophy today is often described as a profession. Philosophers have specialized interests and address one another in specialized journals. On the whole, what we do in philosophy is of little interest to anyone without a Ph.D. in the subject. Indeed, subdisciplines within philosophy are often intellectually isolated from one another…
The professionalization of philosophy, together with a depressed academic job market, has led to the interesting idea that success in philosophy should be measured by appropriate professional standards. In practice, this has too often meant that cleverness and technical savvy trump depth. Positions and ideas are dismissed or left unconsidered because they are not comme il faut. Journals are filled with papers exhibiting an impressive level of professional competence, but little in the way of insight, originality, or abiding interest. Non-mainstream, even wildly non-mainstream, conclusions are allowed, even encouraged, provided they come with appropriate technical credentials.
Similarly, Stephen Mumford wrote in 2010 that:
Since philosophy has become professionalized, I think few stones have been left unturned. Rather than subjects being neglected, I think there are more topics that have received too much attention. Most of the journals are filled with material that but a few people will ever read and which I think will not stand the test of time. The problem is that in various ways professional philosophers are obliged to publish, whether they have anything new and substantial to say or not. I would really like to see the journal editors take a lead in this respect and stop publishing papers on the negative basis of them making the fewest errors or fewest controversial claims and start publishing on the positive criterion of them having something important or interesting to say…
I like papers that offer bold new insights but it is all too rare that one finds them. The system of edited, peer-reviewed journals is an inherently conservative one where paradigm-challenging work is very unlikely to be accepted because it threatens the interests of the editor and referees…
I think contemporary philosophy has become too self-congratulatory, with an arrogant self-assurance that the work we are producing is vastly superior to that of the interested amateurs of the past. But has anyone of late produced as fine and appealing a work as Hume’s Treatise or Locke’s Essay? On the contrary, I fear that in future centuries, the current era will be looked upon as a philosophical dark age where very little of interest was authored.
Success in academia is a mere matter of journal-acceptance. What makes a paper “count” is whether a journal accepts it. And these journals care nothing for precision, clarity, originality, or even scholarliness. Rather, they value things like the number of citations and how it interacts with other works in the discipline. The only people who care about academic philosophy are other academic philosophers, who only read it to look for a “gap in the literature” that they can fill with yet another abstruse, cookie-cutter essay. As a result, academia is stagnant and homogeneous.
So, how does Robin Dembroff fit into this? Well, as CounterPunch points out, “branding” is a popular tactic for young academics. Dembroff needed to stand out to compete in this environment. Writing inflammatory articles to get a reputation as a “controversial scholar” is a career strategy. Judging by the many media appearances on Dembroff’s website, this strategy is working.
People like Dembroff will continue to publish lower-quality work so long as these incentives exist. But don't count on the GenderGate crowd to solve that problem! They are professional philosophers subject to the same incentives. They have no way of fighting this. They can’t jump ship, because, for them, there’s nowhere to jump.
The CounterPunch article also argues that Dembroff’s strident tone won’t help the cause of trans rights. But it doesn’t matter if “Escaping the Natural Attitude About Gender” lacks any kind of intellectual substance because trans activists will cite it without thinking twice. Dembroff’s argument was published in a prestigious journal, and that’s good enough for them. This is how the Cathedral works – through corruption, it uses status it doesn’t deserve to lend credence to politically convenient causes.
And that’s what’s fueling the transgender takeover of academia – political convenience. Because the interests of the Cathedral coincide with the demands of transgender activists, they are useful tools the Cathedral can use to centralize power to itself. For instance, transgender activists want to crush “transphobia” or skepticism of their ideology. Most skeptics of transgenderism are political dissidents - right-wingers or heterodox leftists. Both of these groups are enemies of the Cathedral, so the Cathedral gains yet another pretext for crushing its enemies.
Transgender activists also want institutions to cater to the needs of trans people. They need taxpayer-funded surgeries, gender-neutral legal documents, and prohibitions on misgendering. These things need coercion and micromanagement to work, fueling the centralization of power. Transgender people will be dependent on this new status quo to maintain what they feel to be their rights, so they will be its loyal defenders. This is Bioleninism in action.
Transgenderism also plays into a wider trend of deterritorialization within the market economy. See, the market economy we live in thrives on individualization. It wants to free the individual from tradition and hierarchy and make them nothing more than a consumer. It breaks down things like family, religion, nation, and community. “Don’t look at me as X, look at me as an individual!” is the cry of the individualist. Adam Katz describes this as a psychopathic “system of hostage exchange.” If you were to define yourself against all your friends and families this way, it’d come across as unhealthy. Yet it’s what the market economy demands we do to all social orders.
Now, gender identity as understood by transgender activists is something intrinsic to one’s mind. Not only can it differ from one’s body, but it is also something the body must be made to imitate. So, transgenderism depends on a kind of Cartesian dualism. A man can identify as a woman, or as some gender of his invention, or as a different race, or as a different species. Trans people must define themselves as a thinking substance distinct from their body. In doing so, they must also define themselves against the social order the body is in. This is self-deterritorialization at its finest.
Another aspect is the creation and exploitation of mental illness described by Mark Fisher’s book Capitalist Realism. Fisher points out how we tend not to look for social causes for mental illnesses anymore because of capitalism. Instead, mental illness is seen as a matter of biology that the right medicine can cure. This prejudice blinds people to harmful social realities while pharmaceutical companies profit. We can make an analogy from this to the transgender movement. Consider this Psychology Today article, which talks about the high rates of mental illness amongst transgender people. Though the article blames “discrimination” and “lack of accommodation” as the cause of their mental illness, the act of defining oneself in opposition to one’s physical body is the more obvious culprit. But that’s not a profitable conclusion, now is it? Rather, the solution must be whatever these very wealthy donors say it is. And if there’s a social or political cause for transgenderism itself, there’s no way we’d be able to find out. The money behind this would never tolerate such inquiry.
There’s no way that academic careerists can go against these special interests. The pro-GenderGate side is doomed to failure. Even if they were to get their way, the system would produce a hundred more Dembroffs.
The centrists behind GenderGate talk about academic freedom as if it were some eternal moral principle. But academic freedom is a recent innovation. Starting in the postbellum era, American universities started training students more for practical jobs like those in government and business. Around this time, American academics began “to divorce themselves from the governance of academic trustees and administrators,” thereby grabbing power over these students for themselves. These very academics would go on to shape American politics and, by extension, the world.
The conservative movement has been railing against academic corruption for seventy years now. But if anything, the rot seems to be getting worse. In 1951, academics at Yale pretended to teach Christian individualism while promoting socialism. Today, academics at Yale pretend to promote ideas while promoting their careers.
Anti-progressives should consider things like GenderGate to become more common and more insane as time goes on. But the one good thing that’ll come out of this is the end of the university’s pretensions of being a bastion of truth and learning. The sooner academia discredits itself, the better.