Sunday, 15 March 2015

"Clarksonism" and Natacha's Middle Finger.

Since the Nuremburg trials of the late 1940s, all scientific endeavour has been required to abide by a strict code of ethics regarding the way it carries out research involving human subjects (or "participants" as they should now be called). The merciless  horrors of Mengele’s hideous Nazi “experiments” on human beings were never to be repeated. 

Unfortunately these ethical considerations have been regularly flouted in the last 65 years, and research involving trans people is one of the areas that has been disproportionately affected by these ethical violations. It has only been in the last decade that institutions have become a bit stricter with academics about research ethics.


Off the top of my head I can think of 6 major pieces of research about trans people (or as transphobic academics like to call us, “transgenderism”) by people like Raymond, Garfinkel, Jeffreys, Bailey and Money that are, in my opinion, unethical in important aspects. I suspect there are plenty more examples one could add to this list.

The disprortionate level of ethical problems with scholarship and research related to trans people is surpassed only by the way other research about trans people has been discrdited for other reasons. In short the scientific/academic community has treated trans people disproportionately badly over the years. I guess there have been a large number of people researching in this area who appear to suffer from a culturally-induced tendency not to regard trans people as human beings. It would also seem that some people publishing in this area are also transphobes who have used academia as a platform for political hate campaigns as anti-trans activists. I believe much of Janice Raymond’s output on trans people fails on ethical standards. Arguing that trans people should be “morally mandated out of existence” is in my opinion an incitement to the current bullying, abuse and harassment of trans people by TERFs on social media, offline and in mainstream media. In my opinion on this count alone she fails ethical consideratiuons by publishing what I believe to be an open incitement to transphobic hate-crime. I also believe, as do many people, that her intervention in political decision-making to deny trans people in the United States access to medical care has indirectly resulted in the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands of trans women. I also believe she should be held accountable, in a court of law, and if necessary at The Hague for her actions.

So this is the background to Alice Dreger’s book “Galileo’s Middle Finger” reviewed in Salon.com. First of all a disclaimer; I haven’t read the book, only the review in Salon and those of people on Amazon who were given pre-publication copies to read, along with an Amazon free sample, and to be bluntly honest after that I have no intention of wasting my time and money on it, so this post is based on these pieces of information. One of the reasons for this is that it strikes me as little more than a strop, a rant at trans people for getting in the way of the “truth”, about trans people, a point I will return to in a moment.

Also, after reading some of the reviews on Amazon, my worst fears were confirmed;









Yes, the title is misleading according to these reviewers. It appears to be more of a highly partial, subjective memoir than what it is marketed as. To be honest I thought, from reading the title; "Galileo's Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science" that it would be a detailed historical investigation of the great scientists who struggled against oppressive regimes to reveal the great scientific discoveries of our world. Alas no, it seems to be little more than a tirade against a highly marginalised group of people who are trying to stop the sustained and harmful abuse by science which harms and oppresses us.

However, one further point I would like to make first is to put this publication in its historical context. The earlier research on trans people was carried out in a time, in the middle to late 20th century, when trans people had little or no voice, and were culturally and socially marginalised to a much greater extent than we are today. As such it was easy to regard us as other than human, as people suffering from a problem or a defect. Defective human beings who, therefore, do not have any rights. In the time before the internet it was extremely difficult for trans people to work together to counter these cultural misconceptions, which were, in some instances, deliberately fostered by researchers. That changed in the late 1990s and first few years of this century, when the internet became available and trans people worldwide became able to support each other and form active groups in order to fight for our rights and against transphobic bigotry, abuse, harassment and discrimination. Unfortunately it does not appear to have changed the research community’s practice very much, as Gavi Ansara's and Peter Hegarty’s award-winning study of cisgenderism has shown. 

So, cisgender people used to be able to engage in pathologising, unethical and harmful research into trans people, and face little opposition or critique. These days, when they do, they find their work critiqued by well-informed activists, discredited by other academics, including trans academics, and their ethical violations exposed. How they must long for the day when academic freedom to research trans people meant that they were not accountable for their actions to the population they were researching. 

It is in this context that we need to judge Dreger’s defence of her colleague J Michael Bailey. One of the main things Dreger seems unhappy about is that Bailey’s central theme, that of trying to pin the label of “autogynephilia” onto trans women, should not be as badly discredited as it is. Her central thesis seems to be that his theory of autogynephilia is somehow “the truth”.  As far as the content of this book is concerned, it would seem that Dreger actually offers little no evidence to support this, something this reviewer also picks up on; 


This is where most academics’ alarm bells, if they hadn’t been tinkling already, would be clanging away on full blast. Any academic, especially a social scientist, who claims to be searching for “the truth” is, in my view, either not very good, or has a very suspect understanding of epistemology. Indeed searching for “the truth” has connotations of vaguely religious extremism, as in the Halleluja right-wing “Christian” zealots. In the view of most people I know, “autogynephilia” only exists in the imagination of Bailey and the abusive output of TERFs. Dreger seems to think he was right in carrying out his “research” because he believed he was right. Quite why she comes to this opinion I don’t know, other than she seems to cite his own self-belief. When this is compounded by little or no evidence to support her central claim, one can only wonder about the value of this book.


In addition Dreger, engages in the practices with which trans people are fully familiar these days, of putting words into our mouths and setting up straw man arguments;

In fact the number of trans people I know who consider trans as a kind of intersex is tiny, indeed there are almost certainly a far greater proportion of trans people who are firmly in the social constructivist camp than cisgender people. Of course it helps her case to reduce all trans people’s arguments to just one, but it is also profoundly misleading.

The Salon article, written by Laura Miller, as far as I can see an otherwise OK feminist historian also includes the following assertion;

“The tragedy in this contretemps is that both sides want the best for trans women and both ended up expending huge amounts of time battling people who essentially share their own goals.” 

I have to take issue with this. I have met no trans people who think Bailey’s or Dreger’s actions have ever demonstrated that they want the best for trans women. In my opinion what is good for trans women should be decided by trans women and not cis psychologists whose work results in our further pathologisation and marginalisation.

One of the problems, which doubtless Dreger ignores, is a very important piece of research by Moser published in 2009, which revealed that 93% of cisgender women in his study fit the criteria for autogynephilia, a figure which effectively makes a mockery of Bailey’s and Dreger’s claims, as if they haven’t been subject to enough discrediting anyway. One has to start questioning the motives behind those, largely cisgender male, researchers associating "autogynephilia" with trans women when the majority of cisgender women also fit the criteria for autogynephilia. So if "autogynephilia" is present in the overwhelming majority of cis women, why are people like Bailey focusing so intently on trans women? Of course, people like Bailey and Dreger, when talking about "autogynephilia" tend to leave out a whole lot of research, including my own, about trans children. The idea that a 5- or 7-year-old is "autogynephilic" would be verging on the comic, if these people didn't take it so seriously.

One can only come to the conclusion that their "research" is motivated predominantly by a desire to objectify and Other trans people and present us as different from everyone else in ways we are not. Doubtless this would then become a useful justification for further unethical research into trans people. One might even come up with a name for this tendency, or syndrome, or condition. Obsessive Transfemininity Fetishization Disorder. I can see how OTFD can apply to a number of people, from the cisgenderist psychologists of Midwestern America to rightwing toilet obsessives to hardine, penis-fixated TERFs.

Additionally once one reads Talia Bettcher’s excellent piece of scholarship  “When Selves Have Sex: What the Phenomenology of Trans Sexuality can Teach about Sexual Orientation.” it becomes apparent that the way we regard sexuality is strongly influenced by a cis, white, male, western, Abrahamic epistemology, and that sexuality is considerably more complex than Bailey or Dreger could possibly imagine. 

So the way I read this article, and the way I would approach this book, if I could ever be bothered to read it, is that it represents a strop. A strop by an old-school paternalistic researcher who misses the old days when academics could get away with publishing any old crap about trans people, in the knowledge that it would go unchallenged into the annals of classic scholarship, and would help to keep trans people firmly in our place. The whole thing seems to me to be a full-on, toys-out-of-pram, face-down on the floor, red-faced, kicking, screaming and stamping tantrum, “I want my theory! I want to be famous for discovering something! I want people to take me seriously! I’m not useless! I’m going to scream and scream and scream until I get what I want…! It’s Not Faaaaaair! Waaaaaaah!”.

This is, of course, a state of affairs not unlike the current TERF strop in mainstream media about "right" to tell lies about trans people to university students. Indeed the recent high-profile mainstream media campaign by TERFs to have transphobes allowed to speak in universities, bears more than a passing resemblance to Dreger's tantrum. Until the late 1990s the mainstream media narrative about trans people was dominated by the TERF point of view, a point of view largely unchallenged because, in a similar way to that which I have described above, trans people had not emerged and coalesced as a set of online communities able to exert pressure and present our side of the story. Now that has changed the TERFs are crying all sorts of foul, largely "censorship!", when what they really mean is "Oh no, our hate is now being challenged and it doesn't stand up to trans people's criticism!"

Mainstream journalists and editors are, however still churning out column inches of anti-trans propaganda, and faux victimisation narratives from people with access to national and international news platforms claiming to be "censored".  

This represents a tendency, in recent times, for those in the mainstream establishment with the most power in any given situation to pretend to be mavericks, plucky outsiders, fighting against an oppressive...errr... whatever.  These faux mavericks, fake outsiders are in essence, central establishment figures, people who are not just on the side of the oppressors, they ARE the oppressors. They are the ones silencing those with less power, they are the ones claiming to speak up for common sense in a world of political correctness. I call this "Clarksonism"; millionaire TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson, friend of the prime minister and journalist for right-wing newspapers, is as central an establishment person as you are likely to get, yet he pretends not to be. Other Clarksonists include former banker Nigel Farage, Bea Campbell OBE and establishment insider Guido Fawkes. People who carefully, and with the help of the media establishment, construct a position in which they present conservative arguments as "radical and iconoclastic" coming from people who, despite being in positions of power and influence, present themselves as heroic revolutionaries fighting against an oppressive system (of people less powerful than themselves... only they don't mention that bit). Of course trans people are used to Clarksonism on more than one level, when people who present themselves as trans allies, actually turn out to be TERFs.


Fortunately the academic world has moved on a little bit from those bad old days and research about trans people is subject to a bit more scrutiny, and that is the way it should be. This is why Dreger's book seems so oddly out of place, so vacuous, pointless, Clarksonist and hopelessly biased. This is why “Galileio’s Middle Finger” gets Natacha’s Middle Finger.


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