The Academy, Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists, and Cultural Hegemony

Updated: Feb 3, 2019

“For it does happen that the state is afraid of philosophy as such, and when this is the case it will try all the more to draw to it philosophers who will give it the appearance of having philosophy on its side - because it has on its side those men who bear the name of philosopher and yet are patently nothing to inspire fear.”
Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, 1873

Throughout history, philosophers, scholars, and most importantly, people who the distinction of critical thinker is bestowed upon, have always seemingly agreed near universally that, no matter the philosophical or political foundations and expression, one ought to be critical and stand firm against the status quo. Go into almost any intro to philosophy classroom’s first day, and you’ll hear professors or teaching assistants state this as one of the ‘many benefits’ to the discipline, as if the very task of critiquing what is ‘common sense’ or ‘normal’ is seen as crucial, either as an absolute imperative or even an individually enticing praxis to get otherwise bored and unimpressed students into being little rebels towards their parents, customs, traditions, or society at large.

For better or worse, the idea of being the outsider railing against the common view was always a ‘thing’ for specific scholars in academia, those professors even wearing (almost subconsciously) this status with something like pride. However, contemporary trends in the Western academic institutions and areas seem to be anything but that. ‘Trans-exclusionary radical feminists’ that pervade digital and social media spaces, seemingly can pat themselves on the back with a new ally: the philosophy professor in Academia. From Twitter to Tumblr, so-called ‘TERFs’ make it their life’s mission to fight against the very existence of trans and non-binary individuals by weaponizing their interpretation of feminism. Some scholars in the ivory tower of academia have all but jumped on this train.

The following series will look critically at the general talking points of those who are seemingly advocating academically validated anti-trans behavior [1]. I aim to provide serious insight into the issue of how hatred is legitimised in academic spaces in a political world dominated by the President of the United States’ routine Twitter trash-posts at the wee hours of the morning.

The motivation behind this task is to shed light on a small, but quickly growing, action within academic circles that is a mere example of the overall structural issue of Western academia. The series will not be limited to just anti-trans sentiment, but will hopefully branch out into a number of behaviors and mannerisms that are, overall, pretty well described through the lens of Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s writings on cultural hegemony. Gramsci’s work sparked one of the better known methods of cultural analysis used today. This Marxist critical thinker’s take on how the state and the capitalist class (the bourgeoisie) install and uphold cultural institutions--in order to maintain power in capitalist society--will be a great way to shed some light on these recent and alarming issues within the academic world. This echoes back to, and expands upon, Marx’s important words from The German Ideology (1845) that the “ideas of the ruling class are themselves the ruling ideas”, and that those “ruling ideas” are but the material power relations (as Foucault would later expand on) between bourgeois states, their “state philosophers” (as Friedrich Nietzsche described them) and the people they actively and egregiously oppress.

The “state philosopher” remark originates from one of Nietzsche's earlier works, Schopenhauer as Educator in Untimely Meditations (1876). In this work, the future famous (uh, okay, maybe INfamous) philosopher goes into detail on why his early inspiration, Arthur Schopenhauer, is, well, to be frank, better than you (not sorry). Quite simply, Nietzsche’s task in Schopenhauer as Educator is to set us up for his views on culture, the problem of the then Late-Modern academic-scientific world, the role of the educator, and why Schopenhauer was--and IS--that educator. Consequently, no one then (and basically now, if we’re keeping it 100%) is good enough when compared to Schopenhauer. In fact, according to Nietzsche, if you’re not Schopenhauer you’re the opposite of an educator or a thinker. This is reflected quite strongly in his negative views of the state and its puppet the “state philosopher”--a position he abhorred quite strongly. Nietzsche’s talk in Schopenhauer as Educator about how the state philosopher is basically a loser creep who wishes he was good at life like Wagner (which is kinda true?) is more than just him being a hater. It describes both a disposition and also, crucially, a relationship, between an institution and the people in a state, which inevitably rears its ugly head online amongst “progressive” minds today. Ironically, and uncomfortably, these writings conveniently provide us with the template (if not, a whole caricature) for the ‘TERF’ in academia of this series, supplementing quite a bit of Gramsci’s later analysis.

My hope in this endeavor is to use my own privileges to shed light on the ethical ramifications of legitimising hateful rhetoric under the veil of their ‘feminism’. Being cisgender myself, I will not make any claims about the experiences of trans academics or being trans in academia and I implore anyone reading to let me know when and if I do. Instead, my focus will be on the impacts, potential and otherwise, of the actions exhibited by those who believe in giving hatred an intellectual facelift, in giving validity to hatred and masquerading it as progress. The very notion of mere ‘progress’ itself is a shroud, a euphemism for white-knighting age-old rhetoric, hateful propaganda, a defense of the status quo, and maintaining the material relationship of bourgeois states and those they actively oppresses: us.

This series will point out that the philosopher of the West is not opposing its regimes, as Nietzsche wanted, but passing off hateful and abusive power relations as plausible and almost neutral, yet ethically sound and logical (lol), arguments. If this is not combatted, we’ll be calling each other “state philosophers” with pride as we bash Pride from the comfort of our ivory towers.

[1] I will not use the term “transphobia”, as I believe it suggests an ableist assumption that hatred is in the same category as legitimate and traumatic phobias.

A former philosophy research assistant at St. John's University, Maxaïe Belmont (he/him) is currently an independent, Gadamer scholar and writer in the field of phenomenology and aesthetics. His work revolves around aesthetic play and culture formation.

This post is part of a series that will be released in the following months. Like this post? Please read the experiences of Puck Spicer, a trans student in philosophy.


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