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.
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).