Cancel War Stories
By Robert Jensen
Published in Front Porch Republic · January, 2023
January 2, 2023
In three decades of academic life, I stumbled into my share of skirmishes in what a new book calls the “Cancel Wars,” sometimes ducking rhetorical bullets from both sides. Depending on the issue and the critics, I’ve been accused of both pushing an anti-American agenda and being a bigoted reactionary on the wrong side of history.
Being denounced from a variety of political angles doesn’t prove that one is insightful—“the right hates me and the left hates me, so I must be onto something” is a shabby defense. But I think my war stories indicate the flak that must be dodged if one offers a radical analysis of power and a robust defense of freedom of expression.
As with most everything important in human affairs, reconciling these political and intellectual principles is hard. For understandable reasons, people often want to ignore the complexity of that process, downplay how often interests conflict, and avoid confrontation. In this essay, I suggest we throw ourselves into the mess and hash it out—respectfully, in public, based on shared intellectual standards.
I’ll start by describing the most publicly visible shots fired at me, which came a few days after 9-11, when people criticized me for articles I wrote that sharply criticized U.S. foreign policy and argued strongly against going to war in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
My most vocal detractors immediately branded me a coward, a traitor, unpatriotic, and unmanly. A few weeks later, as public pressure to fire me intensified, the president of the University of Texas at Austin weighed in, publicly calling me “an undiluted fountain of foolishness.” (Be kind in judging the rather ineloquent phrase; he was a chemist, not a poet.) Almost all my faculty colleagues ducked for cover rather than defend academic freedom, let alone publicly acknowledge that they might agree with an antiwar analysis, but tenure protections proved hardy enough and I continued teaching at UT until retirement in 2018.
Those months were a particularly tense time, but I was on familiar ground. By then I had already been denounced by various people and groups for supporting Palestinian rights, criticizing capitalism, arguing that racism was still a defining aspect of U.S. society, and challenging men’s sexual exploitation of women in pornography. Those critiques would continue, coming from the right, center, and left, depending on the issue. Sometimes intellectual debate was possible with critics, sometimes not. But even during the fraught months after 9-11, I never felt canceled.
That changed in 2014, when I wrote my first article challenging the ideology of the transgender movement. Over the next few years, a local radical bookstore that I had long supported sent an email blast (without talking to me first) announcing that it was severing all ties with me. Trans activists came to a few of my public lectures to protest or try to shout me down, even though the talks weren’t about transgenderism. Several groups that had invited me to speak about such topics as the ecological crisis withdrew invitations after complaints. And, of course, I can’t know how many people who might have wanted to include me in an activity declined to invite me just to avoid hassles.
These negative reactions to my writing came almost exclusively from liberals/progressives/leftists, including from people I counted as friends. Other friends and colleagues often told me, privately, that they agreed with my analysis and found the attacks unfair but that they dared not articulate their views or support me in public, lest they become a target. The only consistent public support came from fellow radical feminists, but even some of them told me that they were keeping quiet in public to avoid jeopardizing other important projects, a motivation I certainly understood.
When people ask me how I feel about this, I point out that I am a white man with a Ph.D. who was a tenured full professor at a large research university living in the U.S. empire with adequate retirement funds—it’s hard to imagine anyone with more advantages. I voluntarily wrote and spoke about topics I knew were controversial, believing that tenured professors at public universities have not only a right but an obligation to weigh in on the issues of the day, which I continue to do in retirement. Unlike people who have no job protection but speak out, I wasn’t fired. Unlike women who refuse to back down, I have never been threatened with rape. There were a few times I worried that someone might take a swing at me at an event, but I have never been physically attacked.
I don’t need people to feel sorry for me; I’m doing fine. My only concern is about the way intellectual inquiry and political debate are being curtailed in this atmosphere. Well, that’s my main concern, but it’s also true that there was something strange about being attacked by people who offered mostly invective instead of rational arguments and then accused me of being hateful and bigoted. It was even stranger when friends and allies with whom I had worked for years piled on or were silent—all because I dared to argue that biological sex is a material reality, that gender-identity theory reinforces patriarchy, and that girls and women have a right to single-sex spaces and activities in a hostile culture.
Such experiences lead me to Cancel Wars: How Universities Can Foster Free Speech, Promote Inclusion, and Renew Democracy. (Yes, I know, that was a long introduction to a book review.)
My assessment: The book is thoughtful and fair-minded about a subject that too often generates self-righteousness. Sigal Ben-Porath recognizes that it’s tough to balance concerns about the harms and potential harms of speech (which are real because words can, and often do, hurt us in ways that society should proscribe) with the need for the expansive freedom of thought and speech required for meaningful intellectual inquiry (which is essential to truth-seeking and democracy).
“If a form of expression excludes some people on campus, it is the institution’s responsibility to correct the outcomes of that speech,” she writes, but typically “this does not mean censorship, firing, or ‘canceling’ but rather other types of action taken by the institution to ensure that equity and continued dialogue are both preserved.” The recommendations for this balancing that she offers, focused on proactive measures rather than punishment, should be considered by students, faculty, staff, and administrators.
But what struck me as odd was the almost complete absence in the book of discussion about the conflicts over gender-identity theory and transgenderism. Yes, I have a dog in that fight because of the reactions to my writing, but the issue provides an important case study of academic freedom on university campuses. Through email, Ben-Porath told me that she had considered writing more about the trans debate in the book and is still assessing whether it was the right call not to do so. Just as in her book, over email she was thoughtful and fair-minded.
But I can’t imagine a book in 2023 about the Cancel Wars that doesn’t consider the transgender issue. So, I will take the book’s thesis forward to deal with this contentious debate, reflecting my analysis, of course. The bulk of that analysis elaborates on the radical feminist critique in which I have worked for more than three decades, though I’ll conclude with reflections on the ecological implications of trans philosophy.
Risks and Safety on University Campuses
Ben-Porath is concerned about speech in various settings but focuses on universities, which she argues have a duty to ensure “legal and democratic protections for speech” while also “attending to the burdens that they create,” those very real harms and potential harms that can come from speech. “If some members of the community are hurt, silenced, or pushed out by permissible speech,” she writes, “the institution needs to take as its responsibility the assertion of their belonging and the enacting of policies that reflect their equal standing.”
This balancing involves what Ben-Porath calls “intellectual risks and dignitary safety”:
The search for knowledge depends on the willingness to take intellectual risks, to leave behind existing beliefs and accepted knowledge, to assume that new answers are possible. On the other hand, civic relations and the learning and exploration that they enable depend on dignitary safety: the assurance that all participants in an exchange are valued as equal contributors to the shared endeavor.
Ben-Porath leans toward a traditional liberal view that tries to create the maximal space for expression, arguing that subjective claims about harm cannot alone be cause for punishing or restricting speech. (I agree, and I often told students that their experience—and their understanding of that experience—can be the beginning of inquiry, but that simply reporting one’s experience doesn’t constitute an analysis.) But she also argues that institutions should act when the dignity of members of the community is attacked, with attention paid to a speaker’s intention, recognizing the difference between “intentional bigoted harm and a flat-footed joke.”
She realizes that free-speech libertarians will think she gives too much ground, while many social-justice advocates will object that her balancing offers inadequate protection to marginalized people. She concludes the book with a fair-minded analysis:
When some students say that they oppose hosting a racist speaker, are they rejecting the principles of the First Amendment, or are they looking for ways to ensure that a diverse student body feels welcome and able to speak on campus? Even if the tactics that students employ or support are sometimes unhelpful, or even inappropriate, students’ views should not be dismissed out of hand. Their views are interpreted by some as authoritarian or anti-democratic, but I suggest that they can be interpreted in many cases as an effort to expand the scope of democracy. The generational change around open expression might best be described not as intolerance to diverse views but rather as embracing diverse people and an effort to reconcile that embrace with protections of intolerant speech.
After eight years of enduring ad hominem attacks about my analysis of trans ideology—a lot of “unhelpful” and “inappropriate” tactics pointed my way, not only from students—I’m a little less willing than Ben-Porath to excuse the anti-intellectualism of many trans activists, who have not only discouraged critics but undermined the political work of fighting patriarchy.
Challenging the Trans Narrative
In one of the few references to the trans debate, Ben-Porath asks:
Does it make sense to discuss whether the earth is flat, whether there are innate differences among races, or what the relationship between sex (as assigned at birth) and gender is? Are some questions irrelevant, already resolved, or even beyond the pale? Does free inquiry and open-minded exchange require that diverse views on pressing questions always be considered, or are some questions raised in bad faith, to promote bigoted perspectives and thus should not be entertained?
First, a small but important quibble about language. Sex is observed at birth, not assigned. The only potential uncertainty about the sex of newborns come for the small portion of the population born “intersex,” with what are now called Disorders of Sexual Development (some prefer Differences in Sexual Development). So, the term “sex assigned at birth” is inappropriate in light of the stability of the categories of male and female, evidenced by successful human reproduction over millennia.
In other words, sex is binary and biological. Male and female are marked by the kinds of gametes we produce, sperm or egg. Not every person born has the capacity to reproduce (there are anomalies) and not every person will reproduce (people make choices). But that does not change the fact that male humans can participate in reproduction only when their small gametes come together with the large gamete of a female human. Trans activists work hard to convince people that holding onto these biological realities puts one out of step with contemporary scholarship and research, without producing a coherent alternative perspective. (It’s worth noting that the scholar who is often cited as having demonstrated there really are five sexes has since said that she wrote that article with “tongue firmly in cheek,” intending to be provocative.)
Complicating the picture are right-wing politicians who routinely choose the most inflammatory language to express their disagreements with the trans movement, leading many people to assume they must choose between accepting trans ideology or being lumped in with reactionaries. But a wide range of scholars and researchers—not only radical feminists but also philosophers, biologists, and doctors and psychologists—reject those claims of the trans movement that are at odds with material realities.
There are other scholars and researchers who embrace the trans arguments, of course. But contrary to what trans activists assert, there is no consensus among people of good will about defining and explaining transgenderism. There is not even agreement among people who support the trans movement about definitions of terms, let alone the etiologies of the growing list of different trans identities.
Transgender has become an umbrella term for claims that are often internally contradictory. Is transgenderism the product of psychological distress, hence requiring medical treatment such as drugs, cross-sex hormones, and surgery to remove or alter otherwise healthy tissue? That is the basis for the promotion of gender-affirming care for those who report experiencing gender dysphoria. But the movement also demands that trans people not be pathologized, which suggests that no medical intervention should be necessary. If one isn’t ill in some way, why would one need such treatment? Simply saying there are lots of different types of trans people doesn’t get us any closer to understanding what the terms mean.
A quick digression: This is why the analogy to the lesbian/gay experience is inappropriate. Lesbians and gay men have long argued that their sexual orientation is not pathological and that they do not need treatment but simply need to be left alone. That’s why the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans) label is confusing—the L, G, and B have little in common with the T. Adding more letters, such as QIA+ (queer, intersex, asexual, and many other terms) confuses more than clarifies. Lesbians and gay men, along with everyone else, can support the transgender movement’s goal of ending discrimination in such things as policing, employment, and housing—what should be basic human rights for all—without being tied to the confusing ideology of the trans movement. Progressive politics do not require that anyone support risky medical treatment or claims by males (no matter how they identify) to have a right to crash single-sex female spaces.
Central to the position I take, rooted in radical feminism, are clear definitions of “sex” and “gender.” Starting in the 1970s, feminists challenged patriarchal claims that men’s domination and exploitation of women are “natural” because of biology, distinguishing biological sex from cultural constructions of gender. Only female humans bear children; that’s a biological reality. Suggesting that because they bear children, women are not competent to participate in politics is a patriarchal gender norm. Patriarchy turns biological difference into social dominance, enforced by rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms. Gender is connected to our sex differences but reflects the unequal distribution of power between men and women over the past few thousand years.
Some intellectuals supportive of trans activism argue that sex and gender both are socially constructed, but trans activists increasingly argue that gender is an innate characteristic and that biological sex is socially constructed. People who in good faith are trying to understand trans politics often tell me they simply can’t make sense of these claims.
That’s not surprising.
Are males who identify as trans claiming to be female? Or are they only claiming to experience themselves as female? If there is such a thing as an innate gender identity that should determine one’s sex category, is it located in the brain? If so, what does it mean to say “brain sex” is different from “body sex,” since we have no reason to think there are dramatic differences in male and female brains that would make such a claim intelligible? Or does gender identity reside in an immaterial soul? If so, that’s a theological claim about a non-material realm of existence, which is not open to biological, scientific study.
In the absence of plausible answers to any of these questions, the longstanding feminist distinction between sex and gender remains compelling. To sum up: Gender is best understood as the social meaning (captured in the terms masculinity and femininity) ascribed to biological sex differences rooted in reproduction (male and female). Sex is a function of the kind of animals that we humans are, and gender is how we human animals make sense of sex differences. Sex is biological, and gender is cultural. In patriarchal societies—which is to say, virtually all the contemporary world—gender is a weapon to control girls and women in the service of institutionalized male dominance.
Fears of Patriarchy: Why Trans Ideology Is Attractive
This sex/gender framework is important in trying to understand why so many in the liberal/progressive/left political world—who are usually supportive of, or at least sympathetic to, feminism—have embraced transgender politics and ignored or demonized feminist critics. Why do these left-of-center folks ignore material realities in favor of an ideology that even they will admit is hard to understand?
If the gender norms that many of us want to resist are a product of patriarchy, then the obvious target for political organizing should be patriarchy, used here as a term for varied systems of male dominance in the family, economy, politics, and culture. If patriarchy forces us into rigid boxes, represses our ability to experience our full humanity, and fosters a reactionary politics, then let’s go after patriarchy, right?
The problem is that fighting patriarchy is hard. It is the oldest of the oppressive social systems, going back several thousand years in human history, compared with several hundred for white supremacy and capitalism. Patriarchal ideas and modes of behavior are so woven into the fabric of everyday life that they can be hard to identify let alone eliminate. Feminist organizing has forced some changes, such as improved laws against rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment. But striking at the core of male dominance, especially at men’s sexual exploitation of women, produces intense backlash.
I learned this working on the feminist critique of pornography. The most hostile reactions to an analysis of the sexist and racist patterns in pornography came from liberal/progressive/left folks. I found that confusing at first, until a friend made a point that now seems obvious to me: When we critique pornography, people know it’s not just a critique of movies and magazines (this was years ago, before the internet ended the market for pornographic magazines) but of men’s assumption that they should be in control, as well as the ways we learn to be sexual within a patriarchal culture. And people are nervous about surrendering control and giving up methods for finding sexual pleasure, which I know because it scared me when I first encountered the critique, and I still struggle with the enormity of it all.
Why has the trans movement made such deep inroads on the left, to the point where challenging trans ideology can get one banished from progressive spaces? My working hypothesis is that embracing transgender politics gives the appearance of challenging patriarchy without actually fighting male dominance in all its forms. Instead of confronting male power, trans activists most often embrace patriarchal gender norms, implicitly or explicitly, or refuse to challenge those in the trans movement who do so. Supporting the trans movement gives the appearance of feminist politics without facing the most vexing issues.
Whatever one’s politics, does the critique I’m offering make sense and merit a response? I obviously think so, but many trans activists have told me that they will not engage these kinds of arguments because they are prima facie evidence of transphobia. If that’s defined as fear and/or hatred of people who identify as trans, I see no evidence of transphobia in my work and can report that I have no transphobic feelings. As a child, I was short, skinny, effeminate, and late to hit puberty, and I grew up in an abusive household that made impossible any semblance of “normal” development. I have empathy for people who don’t fit in conventional categories and face ridicule or violence for being different, in part because I have experienced those struggles and threats.
Nothing I offer here is in “bad faith” or promotes “bigoted perspectives,” the legitimate concerns raised by Ben-Porath. Radical feminists do not minimize people’s suffering because of patriarchal gender norms but rather offer an alternative for dealing with the psychological distress and social alienation experienced by people who identify as trans. Over the more than three decades I’ve been involved with feminism, some of the most courageous and dedicated people doing battle with patriarchal gender norms and male domination whom I have known have been radical feminists—the very people the trans movement seeks to marginalize. Radical feminists were non-binary before non-binary was cool, challenging social norms which demand that men and women fit into patriarchal boxes.
Using Ben-Porath’s terms, my analysis of transgenderism involves neither “intentional bigoted harm” nor “a flat-footed joke.” I am not arguing that folks like me should be allowed to articulate views that may be harmful but rather that we are presenting a positive program rooted in concern for all involved. I believe the radical feminist critique is an example of taking intellectual risks (in this case, challenging liberal/progressive/left dogma) while protecting the dignity of all (girls and women, and those who identify as trans). Nothing in what I have written here, or anywhere else, denies anyone that dignity. And yet as I and others have experienced, articulating these views often results in efforts to silence us rather than to respond with reasoned arguments.
Public Policy and Intellectual Standards
People who agree with my analysis of transgenderism have asked, why does this matter? Maybe trans ideology is hard to understand, but trans folks are just trying to get by. Can’t we let it slide?
No. The most obvious reason is that trans activists not only ask people to accept their identity claims but also policies that impose costs on girls and women. That comes when men who identify as women demand a right to enter single-sex spaces, from bathrooms to domestic-violence shelters to sports competitions. Some women who once identified as men, known as detransitioners, may have changed their bodies in permanent ways, such as breast removal, but later come to realize their problems were not the result of how they feel but how society treats women. The use of drugs and hormones on children raises serious ethical questions, as does the increasingly accepted surgery on children. Yet any space given to people wary of gender-affirming care is met with dismissal and accusations of collusion with right-wing ideologues.
Let’s take a simple example of how this can play out: A high-school boy decides to identify as a girl and asks to shower and change in the girl’s locker room after a physical education class. That request is based on that boy’s internal subjective experience. In the name of inclusion and tolerance, many liberals/progressives/leftists demand we accept this policy. The presence of that boy who identifies as trans causes anxiety and fear in one or more of the girls in that class, but their internal subjective experience is trivialized and discounted, in the name of inclusion and tolerance. But it’s even more disturbing because many girls have experiences of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Such trauma comes not from a purely internal and subjective experience but a material reality they have lived through, experiences that are so common that in any high school class we should assume there are a number of such girls present. Whom do we care about if we elevate the internal subjective experience of one boy who identifies as trans over the routine abuse experienced by girls? The boy who identifies as a girl can be accommodated without imposing costs on the girls, if we care enough about the girls.
From there, we could make a similar assessment about men who identify as trans being housed in women’s prisons, even when they have histories of sexual offenses and violence; or men who identify as trans competing in women’s athletics, retaining advantages even after medical intervention; and on and on. But my primary subject here is intellectual life and expression, not the public-policy debates. Another reason to challenge gender-identity theory is to uphold intellectual standards.
Let me offer what should be uncontroversial rules for intellectual life, phrased as “I” statements (that was a small joke, referencing the common admonition in family and marriage therapy to not accuse others but to speak about one’s own experience):
–I will advocate for a position only after responsible study and evaluation to construct, to the best of my ability, a compelling analysis of reality.
–I know that my analysis could be wrong, because all human knowledge-seeking in a complex world is incomplete and fallible.
–I will adopt a different analysis when it’s demonstrated that my arguments are unsound or that another analysis offers a better account of reality.
–I will not adopt a different analysis simply because of institutional demands or peer pressure that do not attempt to provide mutually intelligible reasons but instead rely on official or informal coercion.
Based on those principles, I remain committed to the critique of transgenderism that I have articulated in articles and a book. People offering this kind of critique should not be shut down by either institutional sanctions or pressure for social conformity.
This is why the trans debates matter so much. If freedom of thought and expression are discarded as bourgeois notions that must always be subordinated to the current understanding of social justice of a group, then it will become increasingly difficult to make some arguments, even if they are backed by evidence, proceed logically, and are made in good faith. That is not only a danger to intellectual inquiry and freedom of expression, but a threat to social justice itself. It’s difficult to imagine a society in which such limitations would consistently lead to justice.
Many of us have been told we are “on the wrong side of history,” as if that assertion negates strong arguments. Trans activists’ claim to be holding the moral high ground, based on a set of contentious and sometimes incoherent assumptions and assertions about gender identity. That is not an indication of a commitment to justice but rather an expression of self-righteousness, inconsistent with good intellectual practice.
Like Ben-Porath, I understand that people holding such positions may not see themselves as authoritarian but rather as trying to expand the scope of freedom and democracy. I think they are wrong about the consequences of their actions. I have no problem entertaining the possibility that I am the one who is wrong, but I will accept that conclusion only when someone presents reasons for me to doubt my account.
Many political disagreements emerge from different foundational values, such as when trans activists tangle with political and religious conservatives. But transgender ideology also puts allies on different sides of policy debates. I don’t enjoy the conflict with comrades and don’t like being shunned, but I believe it’s important to defend not only the radical feminist critique but also to remind ourselves that we must live within limits.
Trans ideology is inconsistent with an ecological understanding that is necessary to challenge the industrial worldview and digital obsessions of contemporary societies. Starting with agriculture, which was the first major drawdown of the ecological capital of the planet beyond replacement levels, humans have been on a trajectory that has led to widespread rejection of any limits on the expansion of population and consumption. More recently, material surpluses and the dense energy of fossil fuels have led many to think that any intervention in the larger living world or the human body that we can do is “progress.” The increasing dominance of online culture has made it harder for people to understand the living world.
Has this preference for high-energy/high-technology solutions to all problems, what some have called “technological fundamentalism,” led to an expansion of human creativity and freedom? Has it made it easier to create sustainable societies? Just the opposite. As I have written elsewhere: “Real freedom is not found in the quest to escape limits but in deepening our understanding of our place in a world with limits,” which should lead us to “consider different ways of living within the biophysical limits of the planet.” Earth is not a machine that we built and control. Our bodies are not machines to be reconfigured.
If there is to be a decent human future, a vibrant feminist movement has to be part of the challenge to the domination/subordination dynamic that defines so much of our world. If there is to be any human future at all, we have to accept the limits that come with being part of the larger living world.
Robert Jensen is Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and collaborates with the New Perennials Project at Middlebury College.
Jensen is the coauthor with Wes Jackson of An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity (University of Notre Dame Press, 2022) and author of The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson: Searching for Sustainability (University Press of Kansas, 2021). He is the editor of From the Ground Up: Conversations with Wes Jackson, published by New Perennials Publishing, based on the interviews from “Podcast from the Prairie, with Wes Jackson.”
Jensen’s other books include The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men (Spinifex Press, 2017); Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully (Counterpoint/Soft Skull, 2015); Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue (City Lights, 2013); All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film “Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing” (Media Education Foundation, 2009), which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist.
Jensen can be reached at [email protected] and his articles can be found online at http://robertwjensen.org/. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html. Twitter: @jensenrobertw.