The Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta, isn’t being very friendly, nor charitable, to Richard Dawkins. This is based on a tweet that Dawkins made comparing “trans-racialism”—as in the case of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who pretended she was black—with transsexualism. Hemant has thus deemed Richard “transphobic” and implicitly demanded that he be removed from the board of directors of the Center For Inquiry (CFI; the Richard Dawkins Foundation is now part of CFI).
Hemant is greatly exercised by Dawkins’s first tweet below.
I do not intend to disparage trans people. I see that my academic “Discuss” question has been misconstrued as such and I deplore this. It was also not my intent to ally in any way with Republican bigots in US now exploiting this issue .
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) April 12, 2021
Now nobody ever claimed that Richard was great in getting his points across in a tweet, which is why he often has to issue subsequent tweets, like the second one above.
Let’s “unpack” the first tweet. First, many of us know the story of Rachel Dolezal, who pretended for several years that she was black, rising to positions of authority in the Spokane, Washington NAACP. She had felt she was black for many years, attended a historically black college, and then simply told people she was black, adopted a black persona as well as darkening her skin, and was an activist in antiracist causes. Her parents (who had adopted several black children) eventually “outed” Dolezal, and she was fired from her position and has been widely shamed.
I’ve always felt some sympathy for Dolezal because her narrative, at least, does parallel that of transsexual people. I don’t think she was lying to gain anything (indeed, if you assume a black identity, Critical Race Theory tells you that you’re losing your privilege and will be oppressed). Rather, as best I can see, she actually felt that she was more black than white. That’s confirmed by an article in the Guardian, which says this:
As she wipes away the tears, it’s hard not to think that she deserved a little of the humanity she has shown to others. Yet behind the pain is a determination not to be forced from the identity she has embraced.
“I really feel it hasn’t affected it at all because I wasn’t identifying as black in order to make people happy or make people upset or whatever. I wasn’t seeking fame. I was being me,” she says. “Of course, it’s affected me in really practical ways of not having a job. It’s really difficult to navigate public spaces. It’s been incredibly hard for my kids. There have been some real experiences, but one of them is not how I identify changing.”
Far from it. Her answer to her critics is to name her unborn son after Langston Hughes, the African American poet and leader of the Harlem Renaissance.
Yes, race is not sex, but there are parallels between Dolezal’s “race dysphoria” and the “gender dysphoria” of transexual people. In both cases you have a cognitive dissonance that causes psychological pain. In both cases you don’t have a choice about how you feel. The source of the dysphoria may have different origins, like hormonal causes for transsexuals and cultural dissonance in transracialism, but in both cases it manifests itself (if you believe Dolezal, which I do) as profound dissatisfaction with your persona and a desire to assume another identity. To do that when you’re white, you have to lie about being black, for you can’t get surgery or hormone treatment to assume another racial identity. But have some charity: it’s not “pretense” or a “lie” in the usual sense: you’re dong what you must to resolve the psychological pain you feel for feeling a identity different from what biology has vouchsafed you.
The parallel between transgenderism and transracialism was the subject of a big fracas a while back, when in 2017 feminist philosopher Rebecca Tuvel from Rhodes College published an article in Hypatia (“a journal of feminist philosophy”) called “In defense of transracialism“, noting the parallels between transracialists like Dolezal and transsexuals. Tuvel was excoriated, just as Mehta has excoriated Dawkins, for being transphobic. But Tuvel’s article was a philosophical one, as she wasn’t even sure that Dolezal’s “transition” was genuine. And Tuvel did say this:
You can read about the article and the upshot here and here. Tuvel was immediately demonized, the journal apologized, vowed to tighten up its review standards, and then the journal’s editor and eight associate editors resigned. But the article is still up, and that is excellent. Such discussion is valuable and should not be suppressed.
What irked people about Tuvel’s piece is that it seemed to them that, despite the parallels, it’s fine to want to change your gender but not at all okay to want to change your race. To me this is a distinction without much of a difference, and the reasons people want to make it a difference speaks powerfully about the hegemony of race above all traits. It’s simply not okay to assume the identity of a black person when you’re born white, even though you’re giving up “privilege”. (It is, however, apparently okay to make the opposite racial transition: the familiar “passing for white”, even though that isn’t based on dysphoria but an attempt to gain social and economic advantage). Many of us have defended Tuvel’s article, including Russell Blackford and other philosophers.
Hemant, however, doesn’t even mention Tuvel’s article. Instead, he vilifies Dolezal for lying and calls Dawkins a “transphobe”:
In 2015, Dolezal became the subject of controversy when it became public knowledge that her parents were both white. That alone wouldn’t be an issue except that, until that point, she had flat-out lied in public about having a Black parent. She passed herself off, on paper, as Black. She already benefitted from the privilege of being white, but decided it wasn’t enough. When confronted about it, she said she self-identified as Black… and it’s that comment that has made her infamous.
She wasn’t simply vilified for identifying as Black (whatever that means) so much as lying about it to gain some kind of edge in her professional career.
Trans people, on the other hand, aren’t changing genders just for the hell of it. They sure aren’t doing it because it gives them some kind of advantage in society. More to the point: They don’t “choose to identify” as the other gender as if it’s some kind of light switch; they are the other gender. If they undergo surgery or take hormones or request a change on their driver’s license, it’s to correct a mistake, not because they wanted to be another gender on a whim.
So back to Dawkins. He’s comparing a liar, whose lie he passes off as genuine, to trans people, whose truths he dismisses. He’s comparing race to gender, as if they’re the same thing, in a way that allows bigots (including right-wing Christians) to use his words as a weapon against trans people. He also defines trans women as “men [who] choose to identify as women” (and vice versa) when that’s not the case at all.
It’s not merely a question. There’s nothing to “discuss.” It’s transphobic rhetoric — red meat for conservatives — that someone who supposedly values reason should know better than to promote. It’s as if he watched the whole J.K. Rowling debacle and thought I want to get in on that.
This is uncharacteristically unempathic of Hemant, toward both Dawkins and Dolezal. I don’t think Dolezal was changing racial identity “for the hell of it”; I think she felt she was born in the wrong race and wanted to do something about it. It was not a “whim” or a “light switch.”
And Dawkins did not, as Hemant claims, “deny the basic humanity of transgender people”. Granted, Richard could have used some better language when he said that “some men choose to identify as women”. Though that’s literally true, the word “choice” implies a frivolous decision rather than a psychological imperative. (We have no “free choice” in such matters anyway.) And Richard could have been a tad more sensitive when saying “you will be vilified if you deny that [transexual people] are literally are what they identify as.” Yes, he’s correct in that statement, but there are nuances here, as we’ve discussed several times on this website. In most ways transssexual people can be regarded as members of the gender they assume, but not in every single way.
At any rate, the idea that Dawkins is denying the humanity of trans people is defused by his “clarifying” tweet, and even without that I don’t see where anyone’s “humanity” was denied. I see a bit of an awkward tweet and a wokeish overreaction by Hemant.
Indeed, Hemant gets so worked up in his post that he almost demands that CFI get rid of Dawkins as a board member (his emphasis):
Here’s a more pressing question: What is the Center for Inquiry going to do about this?
When Donald Trump banned trans people from the military, CFI’s president denounced it by saying “We stand proudly with the transgender community as an ally in the fight for equal treatment.”
Well, the foundation that Dawkins began is now a division of CFI. Dawkins is on CFI’s Board of Directors. In the past, when one of CFI’s affiliates posted a transphobic comment online, the organization acted quickly to take it down and reiterate its support for the trans community.
So what will they do now? Do they stand with Dawkins, who mischaracterizes trans people and suggests that those who reject trans identities are unfairly maligned, or do they stand with trans people?
At this point, they don’t have the luxury of choosing both.
The next-to-last paragraph is a gross mischaracterization of Dawkins’s argument, I think. It is true that people who raise arguments against the acceptance of say, transsexual women as completely identical to biological women are unfairly maligned (viz., J. K. Rowling), and the “unfortunate” word “choice”, which is technically accurate, should be interpreted charitably, not as an attempt to denigrate transsexual people.
These days, a more charitable attitude is needed by many of us, but especially by the censorious Left, which seems gleefully eager to pounce on awkward tweets or even purely innocuous statements and deeds (i.e., wearing Hawaiian shirts!), and then damning the transgressors for good. This kind of reaction will not produce social progress. And it’s sad to see that Hemant, at least in this case, has joined the ranks of the Unempathic Offended.