It must be said that in the months this post took to write, the moral panic against trans people has accelerated a breakneck pace. Maya Forstater made headlines for arguing she had a right to abuse trans people at her workplace, a paper in Australia published 68 articles rooted in anti-trans conspiracies, half a dozen faceless astroturfing campaigns mysteriously appeared with swanky websites and generous, unsourced financial backers. And, as you guessed, Murphy launched a speaking circuit where she will no doubt repeatedly state how censored she is–a contradiction that she and her fellow travellers will quietly ignore.
Trawl the hashtag #TakeBackTPL (Toronto Public Library) on Twitter, used to track the protest against Murphy’s speaking piece for TPL, and another curious dichotomy will begin to emerge: Meghan Murphy’s supporters will consistently make platitudes about the principle of free speech (whilst remaining vague and unclear as to what, precisely, Murphy’s speech is); and trans people and our supporters will tell you exactly what Meghan Murphy has said, even if we aren’t always clear about why it’s immoral to say it.
Consider the statement, “I’m in pain.” Right now, I am in pain! I’ve been struggling with a flare-up of tennis elbow which may or may not be a chronic condition. At the height of a flare-up, the pain can be quite debilitating. But can I prove it? What happens when you ask me to prove it? What neutral, measurement-based evidence can I provide to support the claim? There exists no tool to stick in my arm and declare “she’s measuring at 4.5 whines out of 10.” I could double over and hold my arm, complain when asked to use it, drop groceries or dishes to make my point–but there is nothing stopping you from replying that it’s all an act.
How do I know it to be true? I feel it. It’s quite intrinsic. I didn’t need to perform pain by dropping dishes or groceries to prove that I felt it to myself–the act of feeling it made it true. But how do you know it’s true? The skeptic could reply, “you’re clearly exaggerating!” and I would have no empirical way to dispute that. Everything I could do to try and reinforce the fact that I am feeling pain in my elbow, from grimacing to crying, can be handwaved away as further play-acting. How do you know it’s true, the same way you know it’s true my pen will drop to the floor when I let go of it?
You don’t. The information is unknowable to you except by the act of my telling you, either in words or body language. In comparison to gravity, the closest you can ever achieve is a sneaking suspicion. I can know it to be true whether I am in pain, and you can know it to be true whether you believe me, but these views cannot be reconciled with observation and experimentation (“BASIC SCIENTIFIC FACT” as the rhetoric goes) to “break the tie.”
That entire process I walked you through is a good analogy for the Meghan Murphy dialogue. I started with a claim about morality, which I will defend in a moment. But the dialogue pivoted without being explicit about it. We switched from a claim about ethics, to a claim about ~epistemology~– or instead of talking about “morally right” and “morally wrong,” we started talking about “factually right” and “factually wrong.” This unspoken gear-change is why so many people don’t “get it” or can’t explain the protest against Meghan Murphy. I’m asking for assistance taking my groceries up the stairs because I can’t bear a load with my fingers, and she’s telling me to prove it, then accusing me of lying when I try to honour such an awkward request. The pain of my tennis elbow is immaterial to someone who has decided it is not true, and they have the option to unilaterally decide it is not true because I am the only one feeling it.
The crux of the matter, then, is the morality of making that unilateral decision, intertwined with the politics of credibility and the meeting point of knowledge and ethics. This is why it is incorrect to describe opposition to Murphy solely in terms of factual disagreement (though she is also factually incorrect at times)–the claim, at least some of the time and in particular in #TakeBackTPL, is that her work is morally objectionable, not merely inaccurate: