Alex Byrne is not necessarily the sort of person whom you would have expected to become involved in the ‘culture wars’. After an initial career in advertising, he studied philosophy at Birkbeck, King’s College London and Princeton, and then did a postdoctoral fellowship at the California Institute of Technology. In 1994 he joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as an Instructor in Philosophy in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, where he is now a professor. Up till a few years ago, his research centred on abstract philosophical questions like the nature of ‘colour’.
Byrne became interested in the disputes over the meaning of sex and gender in about 2017, after learning about an early academic furore over the analogy or disanalogy between transgenderism and transracialism. He then had a ‘ringside seat’ in the trans debate, or gender debate as it is also known, when his wife, Carole Hooven, was ‘cancelled’ by certain people at Harvard University for publicly expressing her view that sex is biological and binary. His own book, Trouble with Gender, was under contract to Oxford University Press, but the latter withdrew from the contract last year. He discussed the possible reasons for this in an article for Quillette. Trouble with Gender will be published by Polity on 27 October 2023.
I interviewed Professor Byrne across the Atlantic via Zoom. In the edited transcript below, we explore the origins of his interest in the trans debate and his later experience of it, what the debate is actually about, his reasons for writing a book about it, and how a philosopher can contribute to the debate by making clear distinctions.
We also consider how the atmosphere in philosophy departments has changed in recent years, and whether philosophers have a duty to defend words against their destruction.
On debating the trans debate: polite notice
The Freethinker is committed to open, well-reasoned and civilised discussion, in particular on issues where dogma, authoritarianism or fear have led to the suppression or distortion of certain points of view. We are also opposed to extremism and fanaticism of any kind, considering such qualities incompatible with our guiding principles of liberty, reason and humanity. Further discussion here.
We have endeavoured to find contributors to oppose the views advocated in previous articles on the trans or gender debate, but our invitations have so far been met with silence or refusal. If there is anyone out there who has experience or expertise on this topic, and who thinks that the various arguments put forward by Alex Byrne, Helen Joyce and Eliza Mondegreen are fundamentally flawed, we would be delighted to hear from you. Please get in touch via this link.
As always, any opinions expressed below are the sole responsibility of those expressing them.
~ Emma Park, Editor
Freethinker: How did you get into philosophy in the first place?
Alex Byrne: It was a rather convoluted route. I think that is true of many philosophers. I started off doing mathematics and physics and then I worked in advertising in London for a number of years. And while I was doing that, I went to Birkbeck College in the evenings to study for a second undergraduate degree in philosophy. I had always been interested in philosophy, but in Britain at the time, it was very hard to put a name to the sorts of issues that I was interested in. I did not realise that there was an actual subject that dealt with these problems and questions that fascinated me. One formative episode was when I saw Men of Ideas by Bryan Magee. I also read AJ Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic, and found it completely enthralling. I believed for a while that logical positivism was the solution to all philosophical problems – I was soon disabused of that.
Looking back over your career in the philosophy of mind, epistemology and metaphysics, what are the contributions you have made to these fields of which you are the most proud?
That is a difficult question. You should really ask someone else about my contributions, such as they are. I have done a lot of work on perception, and in particular the perception of colour. Most of this has been with David Hilbert, a philosopher at the University of Illinois, Chicago. We have written many papers together defending the view that colours are physical properties. In particular, they are just ways of altering the incident light. This is quite a controversial view in the philosophy of colour – a little subdiscipline of philosophy. One view that is perhaps more popular than our physicalist view goes back to the ancient Greeks, that nothing actually is coloured. Even though it seems or looks as if tomatoes are red and grass is green and the sky is blue, in fact, this is just some sort of global illusion and nothing is really coloured. Or at best, if something really is coloured, it is an item in the mind, a mental image or picture.
I think it was Democritus who said, ‘By convention hot, by convention cold, but in reality atoms and void…’
Yes. Democritus is the standard source for this eliminativist view. As that quotation brings out, it is not just colour that is supposed to be an illusion or only in the mind or a matter of convention. It is also other perceptible properties like heat, tastes, smells, sounds and so on.
How and why did you move from this rather abstruse subject to sex and gender?
I had always been interested in sex differences and the explanation of sex differences – why males and females of our species in particular differ in some trait. Also I had always been interested in issues of free speech and was temperamentally inclined towards an absolutist position about speech. And then, in 2017, the philosopher Rebecca Tuvel published a paper called ‘In Defense of Transracialism’, which appeared in the leading journal of feminist philosophy, Hypatia. There was a huge fuss about this paper, which essentially argued that the same courtesies and tolerant attitude granted to a transgender person like Caitlyn Jenner should be extended towards a transracial person like Rachel Dolezal.
The whole message of Tuvel’s paper was very progressive, and you might have thought that, within feminist philosophy, her paper would have been praised. But instead, the opposite happened: it was widely condemned as having the potential to cause great harm to various communities. An open letter appeared signed by many academics, including Judith Butler, the author of Gender Trouble, calling for the paper’s retraction. It was not retracted in the end, fortunately, but it brought home to me very vividly that philosophy at that time had an extremely intolerant side, opposed to academic freedom, which I thoroughly disapproved of.
You mentioned Judith Butler’s book, Gender Trouble. Your book is called Trouble with Gender. Is that a deliberate allusion?
Yes. It is also an allusion to Trouble with Lichen by John Wyndham, the British science fiction writer.
You talk about the trouble that Tuvel’s paper caused in academic philosophy. When I was at Oxford in the 2000s, the Philosophy Faculty had a reputation for competitive, no-holds-barred debate. From what I have heard, that was true of many philosophy departments at the time. Is it still the case today? Is frank discussion still possible in university philosophy departments?
Yes, it certainly is, although I think that, over the years, that style of open combat and trying to tear the speaker down has changed. Back in the day, when an invited speaker came to deliver a talk at a colloquium, the attitude of some philosophers was, ‘We have to go into the talk with the aim of humiliating the speaker or destroying his or her ideas, and if we do that, then that is a satisfactory colloquium session.’ Sometimes philosophers went too far in that regard, and the result was that the discipline was less hospitable and welcoming to some people than it should have been.
Now the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction: the emphasis is much more on constructive criticism and telling the speaker that his or her paper was excellent and incisive and a great contribution to the topic at hand. There is much more overt praising of speakers at the end of talks than there used to be. And as far as hot-button topics like sex and gender go, unfortunately it is not possible to have a freewheeling discussion without some people getting offended or hurt. As a result, we do not have no-holds-barred discussions about what women are or whether sex is binary.
This timidity came as something of a surprise to me. Philosophers talk a big game. They say, ‘Oh, of course, nothing’s off the table. We philosophers question our most deeply held assumptions. Some of what we say might be very disconcerting or upsetting. You just won’t have any firm ground to stand on after the philosopher has done her work and convinced you that you don’t even know that you have two hands. After all, you might be the victim of an evil demon or be a hapless brain in a vat.’
But when the chips are down, the philosophers turn out to have been bluffing. When there is the real prospect of being socially shamed or ostracised by their peers for questioning orthodoxy, many philosophers do not have the stomach for it.
In your experience, is that true on both sides of the Atlantic?
Apart from the trans or gender debate, are there any other issues that cause this amount of friction?
At the moment it is mainly sex and gender. Race is another topic with plenty of no-go zones, in philosophy and elsewhere. Interestingly, in the subdiscipline called the philosophy of race, it is perfectly acceptable to argue for a biological theory of race – that what it is to be black or east Asian or white is to have a certain kind of ancient ancestry, a pure matter of biology, in some broad sense.
Why is it that this issue of what a person is, or rather, what a woman is, has become such a huge bone of contention among so many people?
That is a good question. I am not sure what the answer is. The question, what is a woman, was asked most famously by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex (1949). And feminist philosophers have been obsessed with the question ever since. But it has never before had the valence that it has now. I suspect that part of the explanation is that in the UK, for example, organisations like Stonewall started hanging their hat on the slogan that ‘trans women are women’. If they had said instead, ‘trans women are trans women’, or ‘trans women deserve to be treated as women’, there is no reason why the issue of what a woman is would have become so contentious. It is quite surreal the way the ‘what is a woman’ question is now used as a kind of ‘gotcha’ question to ask politicians.
In response to this question, for instance, Keir Starmer, the current Labour leader, said in 2021 that it was ‘not right’ to say that only women have a cervix. Then in March this year, he said that, ‘For 99.9 per cent of women, it is completely biological … and of course they haven’t got a penis.’ Finally, in July, he decided that a woman is an ‘adult female’. And as you point out in your book, ‘woman’ was Dictionary.com’s word of the year for 2022. Is there a sort of fixation on this question? Why is it always about women?
Of course it is ‘what is a woman?’ – rather than ‘what is a man?’ Not because the ‘woman’ version of the question is harder to answer, but because issues of access to various spaces – sporting competitions, prisons, shelters and so on – are really only an issue for women; there is not a corresponding issue for men. Generally speaking, men could not give a fig about whether trans men are included in men-only sporting contests or use men’s changing rooms or are in the male prison estate. In fact, I think most trans men would very wisely choose to be in the female estate rather than the male estate.
This is one of those rare examples, like the Beatles, where the direction of cultural export goes from the UK to the US. The ‘adult human female’ slogan started in the UK, in 2018, when the infamous billboard went up that quoted the then Google dictionary definition: ‘Woman, wʊmən, noun, adult human female’.
It was only some years later that this made its way over the Atlantic, when Matt Walsh, a conservative commentator who is very popular over here, made a documentary called What is a Woman? The answer that Walsh’s wife gives at the end of the documentary is that a woman is an ‘adult human female’. To get to that rather unexciting point, Walsh interviewed many experts – including, memorably, a gender studies professor – who were completely unable to answer the question coherently.
To sum up, what is really at the heart of the trans debate? What exactly is it about?
That is a good question. There are specific questions or specific issues that divide the so-called gender-critical side from the trans-activist side. One question is about the nature of women and men. What is it to be a woman or a man? Another question is about the nature of sex. Are there two sexes or more than two? Or is sex in some sense socially constructed? Is the notion of sex in good order anyway? Maybe it should be completely junked. And another question is about gender identity. Do we all have gender identities? And is a misaligned gender identity the explanation of why some people suffer distress at their sexed bodies?
There are all these specific issues which are hotly debated. And then, of course, there is the even more contentious issue of how to treat children and adolescents with gender dysphoria – whether to give some of them puberty blockers, for example.
But beyond listing these questions, it is not clear to me that there is some sort of overarching issue which is really what the whole trans debate is about. Everyone sensible in this debate thinks that trans people should be afforded the same dignity and rights as everyone else. They should not be discriminated against, they should receive proper health care, they should be treated with respect in day-to-day life just like their fellow citizens, and if some adults wish to transition, they should be able to.
Is the struggle for trans rights analogous to the historic struggle for gay rights?
No, it is not, because there is no particular right being demanded that trans people lack.
Are there points at which women’s rights and trans rights, whatever these are, will inevitably clash, or do you think there is a way of reconciling them?
I would not put it in terms of a clash of rights, but there certainly are points of conflict. The most obvious of these is in sports. If you are a trans woman and you live your life as a woman and are treated by most people as a woman, it is at least understandable that you would wish to join the women’s team or take part in women’s sporting competitions. On the other side, women have an interest in having female-only categories for many sports. So there is a clear conflict of interest there. Another clear conflict of interest is in the case of prisons.
Let’s talk about your book in a bit more detail. In the ‘acknowledgements’ section, you say your greatest debt is to your wife, Carole Hooven, who was a lecturer on human evolutionary biology at Harvard. In 2021, she published T, which was a popular science book about testosterone. Last year, she wrote an article describing how she was accused of transphobia by certain members of Harvard for explaining on Fox News that sex is binary and biological. To what extent have your wife’s experiences influenced your own interest in the trans (or gender) debate and your views about it?
As a result of the episode you mention, Carole is no longer a lecturer in human evolutionary biology at Harvard. She has a position as an associate in the psychology department, in Steven Pinker’s lab. When this whole affair snowballed, it became apparent that it was not feasible for her to continue teaching in her old department. So she left. Carole’s experiences influenced the book a great deal. In addition to witnessing the backlash against Rebecca Tuvel, Kathleen Stock and other philosophers like Holly Lawford-Smith, I got a ringside seat when it came to Carole’s own cancellation over sex and gender.
That experience made me more determined to write a book on the topic. It is not that I am a particularly courageous person, but it did seem to be extremely unchivalrous to stand by and do nothing when I knew that I had things to say. And many philosophers were promulgating various confusions and mistakes which, I thought, I was in a position to correct.
Where would you put yourself politically?
I am a boring centrist. I have no political affiliation to speak of. I have always voted Democrat in the US. Temperamentally, I think I would really like to be a conservative, but I have never found an intellectually satisfactory way of being one. Socially, I have liberal views of the sort held by most academics.
In your introduction to Trouble with Gender, you write that your book is not about the ‘vitriolic political issues’ associated with the trans debate. Nonetheless, it was refused publication by Oxford University Press, after previously having been accepted. Why do you think OUP refused to publish your book in the end?
This is speculation on my part, but it is worth looking at the immediate history, in particular the fuss over Holly Lawford-Smith’s book Gender Critical Feminism, also published by Oxford University Press. Announcement of its publication produced two petitions of complaint. As I discussed in Quillette, one of these was signed by the OUP Guild (the union representing OUP staff in New York). The other was signed by ‘members of the international scholarly community with a relationship of some kind, or several kinds, to Oxford University Press’. The letters protested against the publication of Lawford-Smith’s book and told OUP to change its procedures so this sort of thing would never happen again.
As for my book, it is not as if OUP should have been surprised by what I actually produced, because I wrote a proposal, eagerly accepted at first, which accurately described the final manuscript. OUP’s single formal complaint against the book, namely that it did not treat the subject in ‘a sufficiently serious or respectful way’, is ludicrous. At least, I hope that readers will find it ludicrous.
Do you think that OUP’s response to your book is a symptom of the way things are going in academia at the moment? Is there a cowardice and an unwillingness to deal with arguments that challenge a particularly entrenched view about things?
Yes, for sure. It is a worrying trend. It is the same phenomenon as the philosophers who talk the talk but do not walk the walk. To put it another way, when academic publishing is subjected to a genuine stress test, it completely fails, even though the advertising beforehand was that it would work perfectly. OUP publishes all sorts of controversial philosophy books, which defend views that other philosophers think are ridiculous, misguided, or completely wrong. Often, in the pages of OUP philosophy books, the author will criticise other philosophers in the most uncompromising terms. It also happens that OUP philosophy books are reviewed by other philosophers in an extremely critical way.
So you might think that OUP would gladly publish a book on a hot topic like sex and gender – maybe that book would get trashed by other philosophers, but this is just the way of academic publishing, and nothing to be ashamed of. That is not what happened.
Your book is designed for a popular rather than an academic audience. Did you intend it to stir up controversy or make inflammatory claims?
No. I knew that some of the claims would be controversial. For example, there is a chapter in which the view that women are adult human females is defended. There is a chapter on sex which defends the orthodox view of what sex is and tries to expose various confusions surrounding this topic. There is a chapter which argues that gender identity, at least as people popularly conceive of it, is a myth. All these are inflammatory claims, but I did not intend to provoke or stir up controversy. No doubt I will, though. The book has eight chapters, and each one will annoy some people.
What does your book contribute to the trans debate that has not been said before?
It is a very different book from, say, Helen Joyce’s Trans or Kathleen Stock’s Material Girls. It deliberately does not take a stand on any social and political issues. It is not written from a feminist or gender critical perspective. It just brings the tools of philosophy to bear on the questions that everyone seems to be asking these days and tries to sort things out. The fact that it is not about social and political issues gives me more room to treat these topics in the detail that they deserve.
I would regard it as a success if readers discovered how you can actually argue about these issues. They do not even have to have to agree with what I say; they just have to see how evidence and argument can be brought to bear on questions like, ‘what is a woman?’ or ‘does everyone have a gender identity?’ Normally, in public discussions of these issues, people do not really argue, in the sense that one side presents evidence and reasons and then the other side counters or presents their own evidence and reasons. They start shouting at each other instead.
What can a philosopher specifically contribute to a debate about sex and gender? Should it not be left to the biologists and psychologists?
I hope that my book demonstrates exactly what a philosopher can bring to the table. Philosophers are good at making crucial distinctions, being relatively clear and precise, and being able to set out arguments in the appropriate way, so that you see why the conclusion follows from the premises. It is not possible to master all academic disciplines in one life, so we need contributions from different specialists. That includes the biologists and the psychologists, but sometimes their discussions of these topics are flawed because they lack a crucial tool from the philosophical toolkit. But it must be admitted that philosophers also have their blind spots and weaknesses.
You observe in your book that ‘a concerning feature of debates around sex and gender is the attempt to prevent distinctions from being made by prohibiting or redefining certain words.’ How far would you argue that sex and gender should be distinguished, and why?
In one way sex and gender should not be distinguished at all, because one of the many senses of the word ‘gender’ is simply ‘sex’. That is, ‘gender’ is sometimes just a synonym for ‘sex’; in this sense, sex and gender are the same. Because ‘gender’ has many other meanings, and to avoid confusion, I think it would be a good idea only to use the word ‘gender’ to mean sex. That is my first point.
My second point is that there are all these other things which we definitely want to distinguish from sex. For example, we want to distinguish being male from being masculine. Everyone going back to the ancient Greeks has seen that there is a distinction here. You can be a feminine male or a masculine female, and one sense of ‘gender’ is as a label for masculinity and femininity. We need to distinguish being male from being masculine, but there is absolutely no reason to use the word ‘gender’ to mark that distinction.
Another distinction we would want to make is that between being female and being a woman. There are numerous females who are neither humans nor adults, so there are females who are not women. On anyone’s view, there is a distinction here. You should not identify being female with being a woman, even if you think that all women are female. Now another sense of ‘gender’ is as a label for the categories man, woman, boy, girl. But again, it is a terrible idea to use the word ‘gender’ to mark this distinction between being female and being a woman.
Another distinction is between being female and having a female gender identity. Assuming we can make sense of the notion of ‘gender identity’ in the first place, we need to distinguish between being female and having a female gender identity, because some males can have a female gender identity, for example. Yet another sense of ‘gender’ is ‘gender identity’. But yet again, it is a bad idea to use the single word ‘gender’ to mark the distinction: we already have the phrase ‘gender identity’ and we should use that instead.
It is sometimes argued that the claim that trans people cannot change gender is incompatible with a humane (or humanist) outlook. Or that to require trans people to live in the sex which they are ‘assigned’ at birth, rather than accepting that they can change, is contrary to their human rights. Therefore, it is argued, to be ‘gender critical’ is fundamentally a right-wing, if not extremist, position, and harsh and oppressive to trans people. What would you say in response to this line of argument?
I am not a gender critical feminist, but it is not part of their position that people should not transition. And if people do transition, it is not part of the gender critical position that they should be discriminated against or their human rights should be reduced or downgraded. If you think of transitioning as it was always thought of, as a palliative measure to deal with gender dysphoria, then assuming that this actually works, at least for some people, it is hard to see what objection there could be to it, because it is an effective medical procedure to deal with a troubling psychological condition. It is not that people transition just for the hell of it or to gain access to women’s spaces. They transition because life has become unbearable living as their natal gender or natal sex.
Like many people on the side of free speech in debates of this kind, you quote from George Orwell’s 1984 in your book. You choose the part where Syme, a worker on the Newspeak dictionary, says,
‘It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words … Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.’
In your view, how far is the whole of the trans debate – or gender debate – really a battle about words?
In one way, it is not about words at all. Take the question of what a woman is. That question is not about the word ‘woman’, although of course I have asked it using the word ‘woman’. I am interested in people of a certain kind, women, not in any English words.
But in another way the trans debate is about words. Various trans activist projects concern language: if you can stop people from using various words or get them to use other words or phrases instead, then the various distinctions that the activists do not want to be made, become a lot harder to make. One example of this is the frequent replacement of ‘sex’ with ‘sex assigned at birth’. If you want to get people to stop talking about the fact that we come in male and female varieties, then one excellent way of doing it is to try and enforce a rule where you never say that someone is ‘female’, but instead that she was ‘assigned female at birth’. This has the effect of suggesting that people’s sex is a matter of some doubt or speculation – that maybe no one really knows what sex people are.
Similarly, for expressions like ‘cervix havers’ or ‘uterus havers’ – if you want to avoid the suggestion that any adult female person is a woman, then substituting ‘uterus haver’ for ‘woman’ is an effective way of doing that. Language is extremely important if you are an activist – for the reason that Orwell identified in that quotation.
Do you think that philosophers have a duty to defend words against their destruction?
They have a duty to defend established ways of making valuable distinctions. One very valuable distinction is between males and females. To the extent that people are trying to prevent others from making that distinction, philosophers, I suppose, should step in and say, ‘no, stop, that’s a bad idea’. But that is not to say that anyone will listen to us.
In your experience of academia in the US and elsewhere, how far would you say that free and open enquiry and debate are under threat in today’s environment?
We are going through a bad patch – I do not think there is any doubt about that. But the pendulum will swing back sooner or later. There are already many signs of pushback; books seem to be coming out all the time explaining what went wrong and how we can correct things. I have a book that just came out called The Identity Trap by the Johns Hopkins political scientist Yascha Mounk, all about the origins of so-called ‘wokeness’ – which is of course closely connected to this present cultural moment and the enthusiasm for cancelling speakers and shutting down certain kinds of speech.
So there is already some momentum in the other direction, and, if history is any guide, these things come in waves and recede eventually. But that does not mean that we should just sit back and do nothing.
Do you hope that your book will help to push the pendulum back in the other direction?
I hope that in a very small way it will widen the Overton window and broaden boundaries of acceptable speech to some extent – whether people agree with the conclusions or not.
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On academic freedom, see further:
British Islam and the crisis of ‘wokeism’ in universities – interview with Steven Greer
Free speech at universities: where do we go from here? by Julius Weinberg
And on the trans debate:
‘A godless neo-religion’ – interview with Helen Joyce
‘The falsehood at the heart of the trans movement’, by Eliza Mondegreen