Obligations, Social Media, and Standing Up for Trans Rights

I’ve been co-director of MAP UK for coming up to two years now, and in that time the thing that I’m most proud of is my part in putting together the MAP UK and MAP International Joint Statement about the Aristotelian Society talk. It’s important for our organisation to challenge bigotry - and sometimes that takes the form of punching up, and publicly (and vocally) letting people know what we stand for, and when we feel like another organisation is doing something wrong.

But, even though I knew about the talk, and I knew about the hostility that trans people are facing in philosophy, I wouldn’t have thought to issue the statement on my own. If it were just up to me, I might’ve stayed silent. And I’m incredibly grateful to the people who encouraged me to speak up, both on twitter and from within MAP. In particular I owe a lot to Puck Oseroff-Spicer for their encouragement, and to tweets I saw by Christa Peterson that called for more action.

Because it was easy to forget that I have a voice, and that I have some power to speak up for my friends and colleagues. More than that - I have an obligation to do so.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what form that obligation takes. When there are outspoken anti-trans activists in your discipline, and they are publishing in popular venues and speaking at prestigious events - what do we do? How do we even begin to meet our obligations to stand up for what’s right?

The first thing to do is to avoid the pitfall of thinking that we should ignore the problem. And I can see why it’s tempting to do - it’s tempting to think that bigots are just seeking attention, and to not want to give it to them. But that’s not something we can afford to do. Puck, when they were co-editor of the MAP UK blog, wrote about their experiences as a trans and non-binary person in academia. It’s my favourite post on our blog - and what really stood out to me the most is this:

Over the last few months a vocal minority of anti-trans academics have become louder, with appearances in national media and a solid presence on the internet, particularly on networks such as Twitter. I have felt silence from senior academics and departments across the UK and US in the face of intensifying anti-trans rhetoric, and in the face of graduate students being harassed by senior academics for having spoken in support of trans rights. After a while, silence begins to look like complicity. It is vital that academics across the discipline do what they can to support trans students and staff.

So it’s clear that we need to do more. What can we do?

Some answers are easier than others. For example, (1) we need to challenge bigotry when we see it, and this applies to bigotry against the trans community as well as for sexism, racism, ableism, etc. (Not that many of us succeed in even those cases- take Teresa’s story here as another example of philosophers failing to take a stand against sexism).

And we can be mindful about the way we speak up. As a cis woman I recognise that I’m in a position of relative power when compared to my trans and non-binary siblings, and (2) when I speak up I should use my voice to elevate the voices of members of these marginalised communities. To recommend works, writings, experiences of theirs. To listen myself, and then to recommend that others to their voices too.

And when we do have these positions of power - such as the position to invite people to give talks to our departments, to our undergraduates, to our graduate communities - (3) we need to make sure that the people we invite aren’t going to create a hostile environment for the members of these departments and communities who are already marginalised.

But in some ways (1)-(3) are fairly simple, and they're also not enough on their own. After all, the bigotry in academia, and in philosophy, continues whether or not we see it. And it will still exist if we never go on social media, if we never read philosophy blogs, and if we never engage in these communities.

Ignorance doesn’t seem like a good excuse, and silence can seem like complicity. We don’t just have moral obligations to challenge what we see - we have obligations to see more. So I think our obligations extend to (4) taking part in and engaging in wider philosophical communities.

What does that mean? It will look differently for different people. For some people they find the best way to do this is to follow conversations on twitter, for others it’s to participate in communities like MAP, SWIP, or other cross-institutional graduate communities.

It’s difficult to look around at our colleagues and think they have obligations to stay active in communities that they just don’t know where to find, or to be aware of issues that are talked about in circles they don’t move in. To expect people who don’t even really know what twitter is to know which figures in philosophy have a reputation for behaving a certain way around women, or making anti-semitic comments, for aligning themselves publicly with alt-right groups, or for making regular public attacks against the trans community. But I think they do. And that’s one way a lot of our academic community are failing in their obligations.

Of course the obligation doesn’t fall on us all equally - we need to be mindful of how weird and exclusionary our philosophy communities can be. Not everyone can make it to the pub after every lecture or talk, not everyone can work the same hours, not everyone has the same amount of ‘free time’ - and people who don’t have as much will often belong to marginalised communities already. And members of under-represented groups also already face a disproportionate burden of engaging with these communities, when they're asked or expected to justify their identities in ways that others aren't.

But it’s certainly the case that more of us have this obligation than are currently fulfilling it. And if/when in certain circumstances we do find ourselves to hold these positions of relative power, that’s something we should be aware of.

We need to do more to be active listeners. And we need to be willing to hear negative stories about people we respect. If we mean to fulfill our obligations to protect our students and colleagues from hate, we need to know how. And, to do these things, we need to be active in philosophical communities - online or offline - when we can.

Lizzy Ventham got her PhD at Southampton University, and is currently a Teaching Fellow at Trinity College Dublin. Follow her on Twitter here.


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