Debate the way it should be

November 2, 2022 • 3:39 pm

Here’s an archived article from the Torygraph about an interview at Cambridge University involving Helen Joyce, a strong opponent of trans activism, and her interlocutor,  Cambridge economist Sir Partha Dasgupta.

The author of the article below, and arranger of the debate, is Arif Ahmed, OBE, a philosopher at Cambridge’s Gonville and Caius College.

An excerpt:

I had arranged a public discussion between the journalist Helen Joyce and the eminent social scientist Sir Partha Dasgupta. I had booked a hall in my college, Gonville and Caius, Cambridge. But then several students, mostly women, told me that they felt afraid to attend. This was not necessarily because they were frightened of violent protests. In a way it was worse than that. They were afraid of ostracism by their student peers, and even by academic staff. I therefore booked unobtrusive spaces where they could stay for up to three hours in advance, so that they could enter the hall without being seen.

According to Varsity, this event was to be an interview of Joyce by Dasgupta, and I have no idea whether his questions were critical or probing (as they should be), or simply softballs. I haven’t read any of Joyce’s arguments, but reading about her views I’d say that she comes closer to being a “transphobe” than others who object to trans activism. For example, Wikipedia says this:

In June 2022 PinkNews reported that Joyce had spoken in favour of “reducing or keeping down the number of people who transition” and that “every one of those people is a person who’s been damaged” and “every one of those people is basically, you know, a huge problem to a sane world”.

I wouldn’t agree with that, and those are very strong words. Regardless, people shouldn’t be barred from hearing Joyce, especially in an interview where someone asks critical questions. But even this event raised fear in those who wanted to go. That’s known as “the chilling of speech”:

It’s hard to convey the reality and the extent of this fear, which stalks the halls of academia. Many people will know what happened to Kathleen Stock, who was subjected to violent intimidation and harassment following her interventions on the Gender Recognition Act, starting in 2018. Her former employer, the University of Sussex, admitted as much in a statement in October 2021, though by that point the police had advised her to avoid her own place of work, to employ a bodyguard if she did venture onto campus, and to install CCTV outside her home.

Her case, unfortunately, was not unique. And it was against this background that I arranged the Joyce-Dasgupta event. Helen Joyce, author of a bestselling book on sex and gender, has been the subject of repeated accusations of transphobia. She also faces protests, cancellations and blacklisting for her views.

I thought it important to show that, even in British universities today, some places are prepared to defend free speech and open, robust debate, because those are the best routes to the truth, or at least reconciliation, on so many topics.

And yes, there were the usual troubles and threats:

But as soon as I started advertising, there was an immediate and powerful backlash at Cambridge. Open letters were circulated. Students wrote of their hurt and “disappointment” with the fact that anyone should even attempt to engage with Joyce. Senior figures in the university circulated letters that did not name me personally, but which expressed dissatisfaction that a lecturer should have tried to “platform” this debate, at this time, in this place.

There were threats of protests, and even a surprise visit from a very helpful police officer, with advice about how to manage potential violence inside and outside the room.

But the discussion went off, and views were aired. There were hostile questions asked of Joyce (presumably by the audience), and that’s the way it should be.

In the end, however, the event was a great success. There were protests —  screaming, chanting and banging at the door —  but we ignored them.

Helen Joyce herself raised many interesting points. But the best thing was that she welcomed, and responded to, quite hostile questioning. I had hoped that it would be a chance for people to challenge her. I was delighted that some people turned up who plainly disagreed with her book, Trans, often quite forcefully. Everyone there was brave to show up, but perhaps especially those people were. My only regret is that there were not more.

Because what the event revealed was the almost magical power of free, open debate. Nearly all animals would settle disagreements by force. But we have invented words, and by face-to-face verbal discussion we can come to agreement, or at least mutual recognition. Words are not a form of violence. They are an alternative to violence. Without that distinction we are lost.

This is debate the way it should be. The purpose is not to reach agreement, but to let each side air its views in a civil manner. That alone, as Mill noted in On Liberty, has many salubrious effects, including knowing what the best arguments of your opponents are, and, if you don’t agree, helping you sharpen your own critical views.

Ahmed shouldn’t have to say what he says below, echoing the famous statement of Hillel the Elder, but given the tendency of university people to act like children and try to silence their opponents, it needs to be said. I’ve put the most important words in bold:

To those students who say that the event should never have taken place, I say: watch the video (when released) and see for yourself. To the senior staff who have said the same, I say: contentious debate on things that matter is literally the whole point of a university education.

If you can’t do it here, where, and when, can you do it? And if you can’t do it here, why do we even exist?

I’ll put up the video when it comes out (it’s not up yet).

h/t: Jez

20 thoughts on “Debate the way it should be

  1. Excellent! Another quote from Mr. Ahmed that should be in boldface, and engraved in
    in stone at the entrance to every academic institution:
    Words are not a form of violence. They are an alternative to violence.

    1. Yes and “….Nearly all animals would settle disagreements by force. But we have invented words….”. Thanks Jez and Jerry…excellent!

      1. This statement about animals doesn’t give evolution enough credit. Settling things by force can have grave consequences, even for the victor. I’ve watched the Brown Bears on camera at Brooks River for years. They seldom actually fight and tend to settle things with growling, posturing, bluffing, yielding, or running away. Of course, they do fight on occasion – this year’s “Fat Bear Champion,” who is the biggest, most dominant bear on the river, had his ears removed by another bear early this season.

  2. In June 2022 PinkNews reported that Joyce had spoken …

    To fill out those remarks (since it’s hard to interpret intent from phrases, rather than full sentences), I did a quick bit of Googling. The remarks are from this interview [edit to add: the relevant bit is not that far in, it’s at 4:45 in this video]. A fuller version of the above quoted remarks is:

    “And in the meantime, while we’re trying to get through to the decision-makers, we have to try to limit the harm and that means reducing or keeping down the number of people who transition … That’s for two reasons – one of them is that every one of those people is a person who’s been damaged. But the second one is every one of those people is basically, you know, a huge problem to a sane world […] If you’ve got people – whether they’re transitioned, whether they’re happily transitioned, whether they’re unhappily transitioned, whether they’re detransitioned – if you’ve got people who’ve dissociated from their sex in some way, every one of those people is someone who needs special accommodation in a sane world where we reacknowledge the truth of sex. And I mean the people who’ve been damaged by it – the children who’ve been put through this – those people deserve every accommodation we can possibly make, but every one of them is a difficulty …

    … and I mean I know that sounds heartless I’m trying to say exactly the opposite of sounding heartless, I’m saying every one of those people for 50, 60, 70 years is going to need things that the rest of us just don’t need because the rest of us are just our sex, so the fewer of those people there are the better in the sane world that I hope we will reach… “

  3. Pink News, cited by Wikipedia, is very partisan on the transgender debate. Joyce’s views are not extreme, although she is very critical of gender ideology especially with respect to the medical transition of children.

    So that you can judge what she said in context, here’s the full clip from Wine with Women: ep. 4: Helen Joyce. It’s all worth a listen, but the quoted section starts 4:50 minutes in:

    Her book Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality is excellent and a more considered explication of what she believes.

    1. The misunderstanding of Joyce’s position comes I think from a failure to recognize the live possibility that “being trans” may not be a core aspect of inborn identity which overrides the significance of sex, but an amalgamation of social & psychological factors acting upon cultures and individuals. Joyce has also come to realize that given the nature of the first scenario there’s no compromise possible: either single-sex spaces hold the line on sex or they are all eliminated. This informs her goals.

      Trans Activists seem to uniformly interpret “the fewer of those people there are the better” in terms of genocide, fascism, internment camps, and forcing people into closets instead of better therapy and more reasonable assessments. I’d personally like fewer religious people in a sane world. The ones who’d misinterpret that as a threat assume God’s existence and see their relationship with Him as a core and necessary aspect of their identity.

      And, in turn, when I read of Christians looking forward to a “world without atheists” my first thought is that they expect conversations, communion, and conversions as opposed to sending out the death squads. We can’t evaluate the intentions of people who disagree with us by assuming they agree with us.

      I also recommend Joyce’s book Trans.

    2. I came to say that one should be very careful at taking anything written in Pink News at face value. That organ has an agenda, and isn’t afraid to distort, smear and lie to further it. It makes the old Gay News seem like a paragon of rectitude.
      Helen Joyce, should you choose to read her, goes no further than commenters here in decrying automatic affirmation, irreversible medical and surgical interventions on minors, the failure to consider mental health issues in kids’ distress, and the frankly homophobic preference for trans children over gay children. In short, she’s a good ‘un.

  4. Her book is a model of reasonableness, and because it’s so good she has become the No. 1 target of the more extreme trans activists, and has suffered relentless attacks ever since the book came out. Her prime driver was the number of children undergoing transition, and she feels so strongly about it she left her well paid job at TheEconomist to set up Sex Matters
    with Maya Forstater to campaign “to establish that sex matters in rules, laws, policies, language and culture”. Being highly visible and enemy No. 1, and although usually calm and collected, she inevitably frays at the edges occasionally.

  5. The distinction between adults and children in this topic needs more emphasis. Shrier does it well, and independent of the “trans” phenomenon but with regard to youth – Haidt and Lukianoff are clear on this, I think – our feelings and emotions can be unreliable drivers of decisions.

  6. To previous commenters re Pink News: I would say that all legacy and previously mainstream LGBT organizations and media are fully woke and promote gender identity ideology almost exclusively. They label anyone who dissents a “transphobe.” Even at LGBT events like Pride, it’s all trans (and drag queens) all the time. I’m truly shocked by the large numbers of very young women sporting double-mastectomy scars like badges of honor. So whenever outlets like Pink News call someone a “transphobe,” that someone is probably a dissenter or simply reasonable.

    I was (un)lucky enough to witness the following exchange at a local Pride. A high-school aged girl, standing with a group of her friends, draped in a blue and pink trans flag, sorrowfully exclaimed “I wish I could be trans! But I’m just a girl!” I think she speaks volumes about gender identity extremists.

  7. Jerry, Ahmed is ‘one of us’; a secular humanist/atheist. He has numerous debates under his belt against high profile religious apologists like WLC and, has debated alongside Richard Dawkins. He is calm, clear, witty, intelligent and effective. And handsome too!

  8. I add, in lieu of a proper “trans” post/discussion, a relevant title suggested here by Leslie MacMillan I just got and must read :

    From Paralysis to Fatigue
    A History of Psychosomatic Illness in the Modern Era
    Edward Shorter
    The Free Press

    Chapter 4 :p.69-94
    Gynecological Surgery and the Desire for an Operation
    -Pelvic organs as a supposed cause of insanity
    -Gynecological Surgery to Cure Nervous and Mental Illness

    … seems relevant in the “have we seen this before” category.

  9. Hi Jerry, you can see the whole interview when Helen Joyce is interviewed by Helen (?) on Wine With Women. As I heard it Joyce was saying that we need to slow down the rate of encouraging people to trans (eg Tavistock Clinic) because such an approach was storing up problems for those very people. Be interested to hear your take, though..

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