Equal Tweetment: Twitter TERFs and Bad Faith Arguments

Content warning: discussion of transphobia, mention of CSA.

Compare the following tweets composed and sent from my personal twitter account which has, alas, around 300 followers:

“Each week I prepare a current affairs lesson for the Yr9 pupils in my school. This week we’re looking at how great @rachelvmckinnon is. If you get a bunch of follows from UK-based 14 yr olds, this is why. Stay rad, Dr McKinnon!” (10th of March 2019)

“Every Monday I do a current affairs thing for my tutor group. This week, it’s on the XR Protests in London. Stay awesome, @GretaThunberg.” (30th of April 2019)

Both tweets, read uncharitably (which one of them was), could be interpreted as saying that I was pushing an ‘agenda’ at the school in which I work. One of these tweets received several hundred comments, retweets, likes for comments and likes for retweets with snarky remarks. One of these tweets provoked direct messages, and comments on the thread, in which I was called a paedophile, a rape apologist, a racist, a child-molester enabler, a participator in ‘male narcisstic rage’, a person who was ‘grooming’ children, a child abuser, a propagandist, an indoctrinator, and a bad teacher. None of these people knew the content of the lesson, and none of the people had ever seen me teach. None of these people knew me personally, nor had many, if any, even tried to enter into a good faith discussion of the issue. Several of these people were prominent (twitter verified) sports personalities, professional philosophers, and ‘public intellectuals’. The rate at which people were commenting, and commenting on the comments (seemingly ad infinitum) was accelerating rapidly and I soon lost track of the overwhelming, and overwhelmingly negative, thread. Several of these comments threatened to report this as a ‘safeguarding’ issue (that is, an issue that deals with a threat to a child’s safety or well-being), and, indeed, three people did exactly this with the express intention of getting me fired – of course, if I had been fired for ‘safeguarding’ concerns I would have been unable to get employment in any other school, so I’d have to give up a career I love, a job I’m good at, and the associated material security that comes with having a non-precarious (but , alas, still poorly paid) job. This serves to indicate how seriously harmful they considered my tweet to be.

Can you guess which tweet provoke this level of outrage? The tweet that led my insignificant twitter account to logging literally thousands of notifications on my ‘phone was, of course, the tweet in which I said I’d be discussing Dr Rachel McKinnon.

Rachel McKinnon had just won the world cycling championship, had celebrated with her opponents and her team-mates, had been internationally recognised as an outstanding female athlete, and been the target of some of the most aggressive, poorly-argued, keyboard mashing, transphobic bigotry I have ever seen. Sadly for Dr McKinnon, the story about her athletic success quickly became a raging debate about the status of trans women, and their suitability to compete in women’s sports. That I dared to offer my congratulations, and state that this was going to be the topic for a current affairs lesson, drew some of the twitter rage in my direction.

Luckily, none of the parents of children at my state secondary school complained (the complainants seemed to be random people with no connection to the school whatsoever), nor did the feared media storm emerge. My school’s leadership were incredibly supportive, with one member of staff saying ‘of all the tweets you write, this is one of the least spicy’ (a comment that tickles me to this day).

Now, the current affairs session I run lasts fifteen minutes and is given to my tutor group at the beginning of the week. The preceding Friday and Saturday had been punctuated by various transphobes being platformed on BBC Radio4’s ‘Today’ programme. They (all of whom, without exception, were white, middle-aged, cis gender men) argued that certain biological advantages were retained by trans women, even post-medical intervention. When asked by the interviewer to give an example of such an advantage, the interviewee responded by saying “err, well, height for one”. So, there we have it. Trans women shouldn’t be allowed to participate in sport because they are taller. This fact was a revelation. I hadn’t realised before that all men were taller than all women. Indeed, I was shocked to learn that I – a very manly 5ft7” (on a good day) – was actually taller than my partner, despite evidence suggesting that she is around 5ft10”. I presented my tutor group with this information and they, unkindly (they are teenagers, after all), laughed! Indeed, a few of the girls in the group would – on sight, appear to be taller than me! Perhaps the argument presented on the BBC, indeed, on one of the most listened-to current affairs programmes in the United Kingdom, was not as robust as its proponent might have thought – and go on thinking since it had gone unchallenged (as these absurd remarks often do on the BBC).

Wondering if they could do better, I posed a simple and clear question to my tutor group: ‘do elite trans athletes benefit from any biological advantages?’ - now, there are lots of reasons to not accept the terms of this debate, but I thought if we could dispassionately examine this question, and it turns out to be nonsense, then this won’t be something they’ll be persuaded by when they hear it ‘in the wild’.

Of course, no advantage could be found (the classic ‘testosterone’ was floated as a potential candidate, but it turns out trans women who become elite athletes have their testosterone levels closely monitored and medically kept artificially low (even when compared to cis women)). I gave the class a week to do their own research and, as of yet (and several months have passed) they’ve produced no further evidence (and I know some of them researched this in good faith). Indeed, Dr McKinnon herself argues the facts persuasively in her paper on the ethics of trans people in sport (available here).

I think this is probably as fair a way of dealing with this question as possible, if anything it concedes too much (as it presupposes that only biological considerations should be taken into account when deciding who gets to compete as a woman). Being confident that what I was doing was fine, I saved the lesson onto the school’s shared drive, sent an e-mail to all tutors in the year group (many of whom use my resources on a Monday morning), and included the Head of Year. I detailed what was in the resource and a vague outline of the ‘discussion’ on Radio 4. I got zero complaints, zero comments, zero funny looks in the corridors - nothing. Twitter was still raging, but my school was a tranquil lake, by comparison. Schools are normally prone to extreme caution around so-called ‘sensitive subjects’ (i.e. subjects that could bring the school unwanted attention) so I knew the material struck the correct tone.

Tuesday came and went, and there was still no comment from anyone. Finally, Wednesday came (as it is prone to) and I arrived at school at the normal time (circa 07:00). The Deputy Head came to my classroom and informed me that they had received ‘several’ complaints from people about one of my tweets. This made me feel anxious about my job security and my safety. My twitter account is deliberately semi-anonymised so that pupils at my school can’t find me (thus allowing me to use language that might described as ‘inclement’, and political views that might described as ‘extremely communist’). I do not mention the school I work at in my twitter bio, nor is a school e-mail address ever listed. Yet these people had found out what my name was, where I worked, and who the safeguarding leads were at my school. In short, I got doxxed.

If the complainants were acting in good faith, aiming to prevent a teacher from abusing his position to ‘indoctrinate’ children about an issue by giving an unbalanced, one-sided, account of an argument, then I am amazed that they didn’t also complain when I posted the tweet mentioning the (incredible) Greta Thunberg - a tweet that has, to this day, received a dizzying three likes (all from friends). That the complainants didn’t re-complain at this suggests something else: they’re not concerned with the integrity of the education system, or with teacher impartiality – they just plain don’t like trans people being discussed.

By not commenting, or caring, about the Greta Thunberg tweet twitter TERFs had revealed that their complains about impartiality and fairness, dispassion, disinterest and ‘what education is for’, were all – without exception – made in bad faith. They didn’t care about any of these things. They care about the anti-trans agenda, they care about their transphobia, they care about their bigotry – and this is literally all they care about. They could only have come by my tweet by routinely searching for people who mention anyone trans. They have appropriated and weaponised the language of feminism to make their transphobia opaque, and to silence anyone who disagrees with their persecutory position.

TERFs search twitter deliberately, carefully, actively. They seek out and engage anyone who mentions a trans person, then they mobilise their TERF followers to attack and doxx them. These are the mechanisms of persecution, these are the tactics of bigoted bullies.

I am a cis gender male and my experience of transphobic abuse is (correspondingly) infrequent. I found this glimpse into transphobia confusing and intimidating – I cannot even begin to imagine the sheer scale, the gushing torrent, of rage Rachel McKinnon (who was mentioned and involved in this twitter thread throughout the episode) herself must receive. And while I admire her, and indeed all trans people, for dealing with this so bravely, and so damned gracefully, I certainly wish it wasn’t a problem they had to confront in the first place.

But this isn’t the world we currently live in, and while Twitter is fuelled by hatred, all is not lost; organisations like MAP play a vital service in supporting philosophers from marginalised communities, which is of particular importance given how many philosophers are vociferous participants in the anti-trans debate. By normalising mutual respect, by recognising people as what they are, we stand in solidarity with all LGBTQI+ people, people of colour, women, and differently abled people. We will, through having these conversations, expose TERFs for what they are – loud transphobes with a platform.

Will Sharkey completed his PhD in Moral and Political Philosophy before training to become a school teacher. He now works in a secondary school in Andover. Pronouns: he/him.

He has also written a post about accessible teaching here. You might also be interested in Puck Spicer's post here on their experiences as a trans person in philosophy.


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