1

In a New York Times article, Dr Sophie Lewis claims without citing further evidence:

[The British anti-trans radical feminists] Ms. Parker and Ms. Long may not know it, but they’re likely influenced by the legacy of the British “Skepticism” movement of the 1990s and early 2000s, which mobilized against the perceived spread of postmodernism in English universities as well as homeopathy and so-called “junk science.” Hence, the impulse among TERFs to proclaim their “no-nonsense” character; witness the billboard Ms. Parker paid to have put up last fall dryly defining a woman as an “adult human female.” Such a posture positions queer theory and activism as individualistic, narcissistic and thus somehow fundamentally un-British.

Is there really any evidence that the scepticism movement in the UK causally contributed to anti-trans sentiment? I am sceptical that there is any link between scientific scepticism and disbelief in gender identity, but have no evidence either way.

7
  • I thought the science, and skeptics in general, were largely supportive of transgender people. I can't get to the article but do wonder what the quotes around Skepticism mean in this case. Aug 7, 2021 at 7:08
  • 2
    TERF apparently is an acronym for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. I don't like unspelled-out acronyms; I had to look it up. Aug 7, 2021 at 8:18
  • From personal experience in the 1980s, radical feminists (for example those who were so separatist that they would not have male cats in their homes) were then uncomfortable with the presence of those who were then called transexual women in what they regarded as women's safe spaces but found it difficult to express that in a reasonable way. Their modern overtly negative reaction to current transgender women who have taken fewer permanent steps to transition seems to be an amplification of that rather than any influence by skeptics (or even sceptics as m UK spell checker suggests).
    – Henry
    Aug 7, 2021 at 12:48
  • 2
    @DavidHammen It's becoming a bit of a slur too... A sexist one usually applied to women with upset or concern about trans issues, as if men couldn't be feminist, or that women should naturally want to support trans issues. IOW, it's pretty loaded.
    – fredsbend
    Aug 7, 2021 at 20:59
  • 2
    @EllieKesselman It is undoubtedly the case that "terfs are banned" from Twitter et al. Virtually any criticism of mainstream trans narrative is aggressively stymied by "Big Tech". Our own SE had this very issue in fall of 2019. A big fall out ensued. You've been around a long time, so you probably know all about it.
    – fredsbend
    Aug 11, 2021 at 23:52

1 Answer 1

3

I see a lot of claims here, but chiefly:

  1. A 1990s "British skeptics movement" was directed against "postmodernism"
  2. Such skeptics are especially "no-nonsense" people (humorless?)
  3. Such skeptics are opposed to "individualism"
  4. "TERFs" are attempting to gatekeep Britishness

To an American all of this seems bizarre. But if we limit our claims to 1 through 3 I think I know what is being talked about here. I previously addressed this mysterious British conception of skepticism in my answer to "Is the skeptical movement an offshoot of the Communist Party?"

To summarize, in the 1990s there was a loose network of British libertarians that emerged from a Trotskyist cult called the Revolutionary Communist Party led by a professor named Frank Furedi. Critics of this network call it the "LM group" although it is not itself a cult -- for example, some people in this network were simply Furedi's PhD students and acquired their ideas from him in a normal academic way.

I'm not aware of an objective description of this network's influence on British intellectual life, if such a thing is possible, but there is a good article about them in the London Review of Books and you can kind of guess from this description how the network's prominence influenced British views of skepticism.

Furedi’s talk has another odd rhetorical habit, which I noticed was copied by other speakers at the [LM group's] Battle of Ideas. ‘You and I as grown-ups’, ‘not just as biologically mature grown-ups’, ‘the experience of grown-ups has become pretty irrelevant’: the IoI adores grown-ups, and being grown-up, and talks all the time about how important it is to treat each other ‘as grown-ups’. The effect is paradoxical, but predictable. If you talk constantly about ‘grown-ups’ it makes you sound like a child.

[...] The one thing, perhaps, that ultimately holds the LM network together is its members’ refusal to countenance the existence of psychic conflict or confusion. People are not ‘hapless, fragile victims’; neither do they struggle to contain ‘the beast within us all’. People run fine on ‘democracy, science, reason’. We are, after all, ‘grown-ups’.

The LM group is harshly critical of postmodernism, in a much more confrontational way than 1990s-2000s American skepticism which was more directed towards the religious right and New Age claims. The strange claim that skeptics oppose "individualism" can also probably be traced to Frank Furedi's critique of "the self-directing individualism advocated by therapy culture" found in his 2003 book Therapy Culture. This anti-psychiatry spread throughout the LM group. (It's a slightly weird use of the term "individualism" by the NYT author -- Furedi champions individualism in the sense of self-reliance.)

I hope this helps you understand the likely context of these strong claims about "the British Skepticism movement." I have no idea whether or not the two women named have unconscious influence from Furedi and the LM group, which is the seemingly unfalsifiable claim being made, and I doubt an objective answer can be provided.

I also don't know what the point is of this unprovable accusation. The libertarian Furedi/LM network was frequently contrarian, but they are not generally seen as a blot on British intellectual life, as far as I know. I don't think the kind of heated political arguments around "critical race theory" in America have emerged around skepticism or libertarianism in Britain. While the "no-nonsense" rhetoric can be seen as a bit condescending (as in the quotations above), I'm not aware that it's considered damaging to feminism, etc.

Finally, claim 4 is separate from this. It emerges from the so-called "TERF" contention found elsewhere in the NYT article that gender dysphoria "has been imported into the U.K. by America". Although it is stated as if it logically follows from claims 1 through 3, based on my knowledge of this British intellectual history, I don't think it is actually related to these claims which are also unproven and seemingly unprovable.

3
  • 2
    I don't like unspelled-out acronyms; I had to look TERF up. Apparently TERF is an acronym for "Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist". Aug 7, 2021 at 8:33
  • @DavidHammen The term TERF is so far disconnected from it's original use by the general public at this point that it's more of an unusually spelled (i.e.., uppercase) neologism as opposed to a an actual acronym. Most people that use the term at whom "TERF" is directed at are unlikely to actually belong to the radical feminist school of feminist philosophy.
    – rjzii
    Aug 8, 2021 at 15:02
  • 2
    @rjzii I had never heard or read the term before. Aug 8, 2021 at 16:29

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .