Apparently, there’s a bit of a row going on over in the UK because Cambridge University is planning to impose a policy that would require Cambridge’s academics, students and visiting speakers to treat others and their opinions with “respect”. This is bugging a few people, who don’t want to respect others, and they want to change the word “respect” to “tolerate”, which is in itself a revealing bit of jiggery-pokery. I mean, really, asking people to treat others with respect is not an onerous demand: I’ve listened to creationists and Republicans speaking on campus, and managed treat them with respect even while regarding their ideas as horseshit, and being able to tear into them with questions. It’s not hard. It’s also a demand with a strange context.
Supported by the actor Stephen Fry, who read English at Cambridge, and Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering, Ahmed fears the new code could be used to stifle views deemed to be “disrespectful” on subjects such as transgender rights, anti-vaccination, religion, race or climate change. They fear it could lead to academics who satirise certain views being sacked.
Mock away! The only restriction I see that might be in place is that you don’t get to dehumanize people over their gender, their politics, their religion, or their race. What I see here is typical right-wing paranoia — a fear that they might be abused in the same way they abuse minorities.
As usual in these academic matters in the UK, we just have to get the opinion of Richard Dawkins. So he appeared on this radio program (skip ahead to the 1:44 mark to hear Dawkins), and just totally embarrasses himself.
The radio host brings up a message from a listener, Zoe. Zoe says “as a post-op transsexual woman married to a man and being a respectful member of society, I would hope to be respected as a person rather than being merely tolerated, otherwise incorrect assumptions and bigotry will thrive,” and akss what Dawkins would say to Zoe. This is his reply.
I would say if she wants to be called she, I am very happy to call her she. That’s a matter of courtesy. But if she wants me to say she’s a woman, when she has an XY karyotype, then as a biologist, then I would say that I would define a woman, as a biologist, as a member of the species Homo sapiens with XX karyotype. That’s a matter of definition. People can say what they want to be called, and I’m happy as a matter of courtesy, I do this myself, a person who was a man who becomes a woman, I’m happy to use pronouns like she, but I’m not happy to be dictated to and told that you must use this pronoun as a matter of law or coercion.
First problem: that doesn’t address the point at all! He’s rambling off on a tangent that has nothing to do with the issue brought up. Does he understand how someone might see “tolerance” as a minimal expectation? Zoe wants to be respected as an equal member of society, not as some aberration to be tolerated.
She’s not asking about what pronoun she’d prefer. He’s not being particularly magnaminous by conceding to address her as she wants, as if we should all appreciate his graciousness. This is minimal courtesy he is offering.
WHat does he do next? He offers some unasked-for pedantry, telling us how he, as a biologist, defines “woman”, as a way of saying that he does not regard Zoe as a woman. Very respectful!
He’s also wrong. “Woman” is a complex multifactorial entity, and it is not identical with “reproductive female”, as he is using it. As a biologist, I would not analogize womanhood with the function of one half of a breeding pair of fruit flies or spiders or zebrafish or mice. Furthermore, I would not make the mistake of correlating even that with a simplistic version of chromosome organization. A biologist should know better.
He’s not particularly consistent. He calls Zoe “a man who becomes a woman”, right after tellins us that she isn’t really a woman. He needs to get his story straight.
Finally, this petty declaration that he doesn’t like being dictated to…is he also being dictated to when polite convention tells him address a woman (even the ones he recognizes as a True Woman!) by masculine pronouns? No one is talking about legal impositions, and the only coercion is the same kind that compels us to behave in mutually respectful ways as members of a civil society.
So let’s get it straight: what the Richard Dawkinses and Stephen Frys want is to be able to exclude transgender men and women from their civil society.