Kathleen Stock is known as a feminist activist with a commitment to maintaining the biological, sex-based notion of what it is to be a woman. She has endured ‘cancel’ campaigns by students at her university and nationally, but has remained steadfast in her belief that biological sex matters and that one does not become a woman by identifying as one.
Her book Material Girls is a punchy, polemical read that examines the following four principles of gender politics and trans activism: everyone has an inner gender identity; our gender identity might not match our biological sex; gender identity is what makes you a man, a woman or another gender; and, perhaps most crucially, the existence of trans people means that everyone is morally obliged to acknowledge and legally protect gender identity instead of biological sex.
She considers the origins of these ideas and why they have such traction today. She also looks at the problems that arise when activists dictate a change in language-use to others who do not share their assumptions.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say I admire Kathleen Stock enormously. As a postgraduate student in her department of philosophy at the University of Sussex, I have seen the malign allegations against her and felt the oppressive effect of an environment in which intellectual disagreement is reduced to personal insult. Whatever you think of Stock’s arguments, you have to concede it takes guts to endure the opposition she faces. And her department deserves credit for supporting her. After all, academics today are not known for sticking to their guns when criticised by students.
That Stock is a philosopher means she is ideally placed to take on those now insisting we change the language we employ in relation to men and women. This is because philosophers, particularly in the analytic tradition, take language and its relationship to concepts seriously. They do so not because they want to be annoyingly nit-picky, but because words, and their precise relationship to meaning and concepts, matter.
Language is at the heart of far more than how we communicate with others – it shapes our thoughts and, through this, our consciousness. It is no exaggeration to say that our language shapes how and what we think, and even who we are as individuals.
This, after all, is why trans activists are so determined to change language. They claim that for as long as we think in the binary terms of man (as exclusively male) and woman (as exclusively female), we are ‘othering’ those who identify as trans – those, that is, who are set apart as being a bit queer (in the sense my mother used it, which is to say ‘peculiar’).