8 October 2021

Taking on the identity mob: let’s hope the defence of Kathleen Stock is a sign of things to come

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The runaway trans-orthodoxy express unexpectedly hit the buffers yesterday.

Professor Kathleen Stock, a feminist philosopher at Sussex University, had been tied to the rails for having the temerity to challenge the received wisdom that biologically male people could wish themselves women merely by saying so. Stock is certainly no bigot: she has written extensively on the subject of sex, gender and the immutable differences between them in a calm, rational and compassionate way. In our age of extremity, however, that’s more than enough to get you cancelled at a UK university.

Stock was subjected to a tirade of mostly anonymous online and on-campus trolling with a hysterical and vicious campaign of harassment to get her fired for holding gender critical views that are, let’s not forget, protected by law. But for once, academic leadership didn’t hide, cringing, in a corner.

The outgoing Vice Chancellor of Sussex University, Adam Tickell, condemned this putrid inquisition in no uncertain terms:

Everyone at the university has the right to be free from harassment and intimidation. We cannot and will not tolerate threats to cherished academic freedoms and will take any action necessary to protect the rights of our community.’

If you’re wondering how you can heat your home this winter, these antics will seem pretty esoteric to say the least. Yet the attempts to silence Professor Stock for having opinions that, in essence, represent main street Britain say something profound about basic freedoms that we take for granted. These rights are being corroded by censorious mobs who want to impose an absolutist view on aspects of reality that will have real-life consequences beyond the junior common room. In Professor Stock’s case, her distinction between the biological inevitability of sex and gender preference has been twisted into a malign desire to hurt and reject trans people. 

Between these ideological trenches,  the people who went after Stock with their pitchforks imagine scorched earth littered with the bodies of trans people. Quite apart from the fact the statistics on harm suggest the opposite, most ordinary people occupy this centre ground. I think the journalist India Knight’s memorable composite, ‘stout woman’, would be baffled by the new lexicography of identity politics that has replaced her instincts of respect and tolerance for how others want to live their lives.

But the people who tried to destroy Stock’s reputation and livelihood have no time for such bourgeois nuance. The idea that changing gender identity immediately confers all the entitlements of sex identity has become rooted in the institutional psyche not because it is right, but because those in charge are largely too cowed or too cynical to make – or even tolerate – a counter-argument. 

There will be a price to pay for this cowardice. There always is. If you buy the fashionable US export that words are literally violence, the thought police will eventually come for you too. If you think rampant ‘safetyism’ on campus that shields students from any view they might not like will produce the next generation of critical thinkers, I have a bridge to sell you. If you’re happy with online lynch mobs, but only if their views conform with yours, stay on your horse, you’re going to need it. If you think this row is an abstraction then you need to consider the implications of self-ID in prisons, toilets, domestic violence shelters and changing rooms where long held sex-based protections for women are under fire. 

Perhaps Adam Tickell felt brave enough to take on the Twitter identity Stasi because he’s leaving Sussex at the end of the year. At any rate, his defence of Professor Stock came only after a huge online counter-punch from her allies, many of them feminists, who have had enough of being smeared as ‘transphobic’ for merely asserting the rights and reasonable expectations of women as adult human females. 

It’s too early to say whether the defence of Professor Stock signals a welcome turning point in the discourse. Though I suspect I’m damned anyway, it is also right to underline that trans people are marginalised, do suffer unfair discrimination and should be treated with compassion. The fact that some radicalised students will not see these views as compatible is at the heart of a problem that government needs to get involved in, particularly on academic freedom, asserting the primacy of women’s rights to sex-specific spaces in the Equality Act and curbing the proliferation of ideological screening tools for new students masquerading as ‘inclusion’. This morning’s statement from minister Kemi Badenoch on Twitter is a welcome sign.

I’m just a ropey old dinosaur with a Y chromosome, but the women who have stood up with and spoken out for Professor Stock are a formidable opposition. They won’t be erased so easily. The ‘cervix havers’ have had enough.

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Professor Ian Acheson is a former prison officer and Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.