Rationality Rules is a Violent Transphobe

I thought I knew how this post would play out. EssenceOfThought has gotten some flack for declaring Stephen Woodford to be a “violent transphobe,” which I didn’t think they deserved. They gave a good defense in one of their videos, starting off with a definition of violence.

You see, violence is defined as the following by the World Health Organization. Quote; “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in, or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation.”

EoT points out that controlling someone’s behaviour or social networks by using their finances as leverage can be considered economic violence. They also point out that using legislation to control access to abortion can be considered legislative violence, as it deprives a person of their right to bodily autonomy. And thus, as EoT explains,

When you exclude trans women from women’s sports you’re not simply violating numerous human rights. You’re designating them as not real women, as an invasive force coming to take what doesn’t belong to them. You are cultivating future transphobic violence.

Note the air gap: “cultivating violence” and “violence” are not the same thing, and the definition EoT quoted above places intent front-and-centre. EoT bridges the gap by pointing out they gave Rationality Rules several months to demonstrate he promoted violent policies out of ignorance, rather than with intent. When “he [doubled] down on his violent transphobia,” EoT had sufficient evidence of intent to justify calling him a “violent transphobe.”

At this point I’d shore up their one citation with a few more. This decoupling of physical force and violence is not a new argument in the philosophy and social sciences literature.

Violence often involves physical force, and the association of force with violence is very close: in many contexts the words become synonyms. An obvious instance is the reference to a violent storm, a storm of great force. But in human affairs violence and force, cannot be equated. Force without violence is often used on a person’s body. If a person is in the throes of drowning, the standard Red Cross life-saving techniques specify force which is certainly not violence. To equate an act of rescue with an act of violence would be to lose sight entirely of the significance of the concept. Similarly, surgeons and dentists use force without doing violence.

Violence in human affairs is much more closely connected with the idea of violation than with the idea of force. What is fundamental about violence is that a person is violated. And if one immediately senses the truth of that statement, it must be because a person has certain rights which are undeniably, indissolubly, connected with being a person. One of these is a right to one’s body, to determine what one’s body does and what is done to one’s body — inalienable because without one’s body one would cease to be a person. Apart from a body, what is essential to one’s being a person is dignity. The real dignity of a person does not consist in remaining “dignified”, but rather in the ability to make decisions.

Garver, Newton. “What violence is.” The Nation 209.24 (1968): 819-822.

As a point of departure, let us say that violence is present when human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations. […]

The first distinction to be made is between physical and psychological violence. The distinction is trite but important mainly because the narrow concept of violence mentioned above concentrates on physical violence only. […] It is useful to distinguish further between ’biological violence’, […] and ’physical violence as such’, which increases the constraint on human movements – as when a person is imprisoned or put in chains, but also when access to transportation is very unevenly distributed, keeping large segments of a population at the same place with mobility a monopoly of the selected few. But that distinction is less important than the basic distinction between violence that works on the body, and violence that works on the soul; where the latter would include lies, brainwashing, indoctrination of various kinds, threats, etc. that serve to decrease mental potentialities. […]

We shall refer to the type of violence where there is an actor that commits the violence as personal or direct, and to violence where there is no such actor as structural or indirect. In both cases individuals maybe killed or mutilated, hit or hurt in both senses of these words, and manipulated by means of stick or carrot strategies. But whereas in the first case these consequences can be traced back to concrete persons as actors, in the second case this is no longer meaningful. There may not be any person who directly harms another person in the structure. The violence is built into the structure and shows up as unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances.

Galtung, Johan. “Violence, peace, and peace research.” Journal of peace research 6.3 (1969): 167-191.

This expansive definition of “violence” has been influential, Galtung’s fifty-year-old paper from above has been cited from over 6,000 times according to Google Scholar. “Influential” is not a synonym for “consensus,” however.

Nearly all inquiries concerning the phenomenon of violence demonstrate that violence not only takes on many forms and possesses very different characteristics, but also that the current range of definitions is considerable and creates ample controversies concerning the question what violence is and how it ought to be defined (…). Since there are so many different kinds of violence (…) and since violence is studied from different actor perspectives (i.e. perpetrator, victim, third party, neutral observer), existing literature displays a wide variety of definitions based on different theoretical and, sometimes even incommensurable domain assumptions (e.g. about human nature, social order and history). In short, the concept of ‘violence’ is notoriously difficult to define because as a phenomenon it is multifaceted, socially constructed and highly ambivalent. […]

Violence is socially constructed because who and what is considered as violent varies according to specific socio-cultural and historical conditions. While legal scholars may require narrow definitions for punishable acts, the phenomenon of violence is invariably more complex in social reality. Not only do views about violence differ, but feelings regarding physical violence also change under the influence of social and cultural developments. The meanings that participants in a violent episode give to their own and other’s actions and experiences vary and can be crucial for deciding what is and what is not considered as violence since there is no simple relationship between the apparent severity of an attack and the impact that it has upon the victim. For example, in some cases, verbal aggression may prove to be more debilitating than physical attack.

De Haan, Willem. “Violence as an essentially contested concept.” Violence in Europe. Springer, New York, NY, 2008. 27-40.

A major objection to this inclusive definition of violence is that it makes everything violence, creating confusion instead of clarity. One example:

If violence is violating a person or a person’s rights, then every social wrong is a violent one, every crime against another a violent crime, every sin against one’s neighbor an act of violence. If violence is whatever violates a person and his rights of body, dignity, or autonomy, then lying to or about another, embezzling, locking one out of his house, insulting, and gossiping are all violent acts.

Betz, Joseph. “Violence: Garver’s definition and a Deweyan correction.” Ethics 87.4 (1977): 339-351.

The problem with this objection is that it assumes violence is binary: things are either violent, or they are not. Almost nothing in life falls in a binary, sex included, so a much more plausible model for violence is a continuum. I’m convinced that even the people who buy into a violence binary also accept that violence falls on a continuum, as I have yet to hear anyone argue that murder and wet willies are equally bad. Thus eliminating the binary and declaring all violence to fall on a continuum is a simpler theory, and by Occam’s razor should be favoured until contrary evidence comes along.

The other major objection is that while not every human society agrees on what constitutes violence, all of them agree that physical violence is violence. Sometimes this objection can be quite subtle:

Albeit rare, there are cases of violence occurring without rights being violated. This point has been made by Audi (1971, p. 59): ‘[while] in the most usual cases violence involves the violation of some moral right …there are also cases, like wrestling and boxing, in which even paradigmatic violence can occur without the violation of any moral right’.

Bufacchi, Vittorio. “Two concepts of violence.” Political Studies Review 3.2 (2005): 193-204.

That quote only works if you think wrestling is paradigmatic, something everyone agrees counts as violence. Wrestling fans would disagree, and either point to the hardcore training and co-operation involved or the efforts made to prevent injury, depending on which fandom you were querying. Societies definitely disagree on what physical acts count as violence, and even within a single country physical acts that are considered horrifically immoral to many today were perfectly acceptable to many a century ago. This pragmatic argument can also be turned on its head, by pointing out that if violence is binary then we wouldn’t expect a correlation between (for example) hostile views of women and violence towards women. If a violence continuum exists, however, such a correlation must exist.

Studies using Glick and Fiske’s (1996) Ambivalent Sexism Inventory, which contains different subscales for benevolent and hostile sexism, support this idea. Studies have found that greater endorsement of hostile sexism predicted more positive attitudes toward violence against a female partner (Forbes, Jobe, White, Bloesch, & Adams-Curtis, 2005; Sakalli, 2001). Other studies of IPV among college samples have found that men with more hostile sexist attitudes were more likely to have committed verbal aggression (Forbes et. al., 2004) and sexual coercion (Forbes & Adams-Curtis, 2001; Forbes et al., 2004).

Allen, Christopher T., Suzanne C. Swan, and Chitra Raghavan. “Gender symmetry, sexism, and intimate partner violence.” Journal of interpersonal violence 24.11 (2009): 1816-1834.

At this point in the post, though, I was supposed to pump the breaks a little. People have certain ideas in mind when you say “violence,” I’d say, and would likely equivocate between physical and non-physical violence. This would poison the well. Of course you can’t change language or create awareness by sitting on your hands, so EssenceOfThought were 100% in the right in arguing Rationality Rules was a violent transphobe, but at the same time I wasn’t willing to join in. I needed more time to think about it. After finishing that paragraph, I’d title this post “Rationality Rules is a ‘Violent’ Transphobe” and punch the Publish button.

But now that I’ve finished gathering my sources and writing this post, I have had time to think about it. I cannot find a good reason to reject the violence-as-intentional-rights-violation definition, in particular I cannot come up with a superior alternative. Rationality Rules argues that the rights of some transgender people should be restricted, via special pleading. As I point out at that link, Stephen Woodford is aware of the argument from human rights, so he cannot claim his restriction is being done out of ignorance. That gives us proof of intent.

So no quote marks are necessary: I too believe Rationality Rules is a violent transphobe, for the definitions and reasons above.

Equal Rights

The two strongest arguments for allowing transgender athletes to compete as the gender they identify are the argument from biological diversity and the argument from human rights. When I was outlining the latter case, I settled for merely establishing the right to self-identify existed and just assumed everyone would agree to indivisibility.

Human rights are indivisible. Whether they relate to civil, cultural, economic, political or social issues, human rights are inherent to the dignity of every human person. Consequently, all human rights have equal status, and cannot be positioned in a hierarchical order. Denial of one right invariably impedes enjoyment of other rights. Thus, the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living cannot be compromised at the expense of other rights, such as the right to health or the right to education.

Now that I’m some distance from the argument, I can better picture someone rejecting indivisibility. I mean yes, as I pointed out back then, rejecting indivisibility also rejects decades of legal precedent, but leaning entirely on the letter of the law makes for an iffy argument. I should have propped up the argument by pointing out how devaluing one right harms the ability to enjoy every other right.

Trans people routinely face challenges to their basic humanity every day. Their very existence is being contested. How much rights they should be allowed to have is considered a topic for debate. When some group of people are seen as equal in dignity and rights, the rest of the society doesn’t argue about whether they should have the same rights that everybody else takes for granted. […]

Trans people are routinely discriminated by landlords and potential employers. For example, one of Freethoughblogs bloggers is a trans woman who is forced to dress as male at work, because nobody will hire her as a woman. Cis people aren’t forced to present themselves as a gender they are uncomfortable with in order to find a job. […]

I personally have been refused access to healthcare, because several transpobic doctors felt like kicking me out of their offices. Here you can read the full story about that. I am a European Union citizen, The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that trans people have a right to obtain various medical procedures that would change their gender. Nonetheless, transphobic doctors and bureaucrats still figured out a loophole how to de facto deny me the surgery I requested.

Fortunately, Andreas Avester has my back. As one of his debut blog posts, he’s done an excellent job of pointing out all the consequences of rejecting indivisibility. It’s well worth a read, all on its own.

How Was Your Boycott?

I was planning on signal-boosting the YouTube boycott, thanks to a message by Great American Satan, until everyone else beat me to it. For an awareness campaign like this, it’s more useful to space out your messages than doing one big blast, so I deliberately held back. But what is there to do once the boycott’s done, you ask?

Well, some of you might be tempted back to YouTube. There are alternatives out there, though. For instance, Intransitive posted an animated short about the Le Mans crash of 1955. Problem: it was host on YouTube. Solution: it was also on Vimeo! Rather than blindly follow that YouTube link, do a bit of digging to see if any other site is hosting it. I’d also like to plug the Internet Archive, which hosts everything from Democracy Now! to classic cartoons.

You could also contact Google/YouTube directly. Yeah, Google’s support ranges from byzantine to bad, but did you know they post a mailing address for YouTube? Track down that pen that’s migrated to the back of your desk, fish out a blank sheet of paper from the printer tray, and send them a polite but firm message about their new terms of service.

If that all sounds like too much work, why not hit them in the pocketbook? There are multiple YouTube ad blockers available, all of which can be installed with a single click, and these tools are popular enough to keep up with Google’s countermeasures. Just be sure to uninstall it if or when Google relents! It’s what I’ll be doing, now that I can watch PyData videos again.


[HJH 2019-12-14] With the benefit of hindsight, I can see an objection to my last bit of advice. Yes, blocking ads will hurt Google’s bottom line, but it also might hurt the bottom line of YouTube creators. Aren’t I taking money out of their pockets?

For the most part, people aren’t making money off YouTube ads. Some big channels rely on Patreon to keep afloat, while others use paid sponsorships, and neither is significantly effected by a YouTube ad blocker. In both cases it’s easy to make up for any lost revenue due to your ad block.

The entities who do make genuine money off YouTube ads either have a second revenue stream you can drop money into, were already famous and don’t need the cash, or are gaming the system in some way. This last category is the one most hurt by removing ad revenue, and while that would prevent a Baby Shark it also prevents Elsagate. Ironically, this gamification is also the cause of YouTube’s draconian new Terms of Service, because the old one could not satisfy video creators, advertisers, and viewers at the same time. The new one solves the issue by allowing YouTube to crack down on creators however they see fit, should bad press float their way.

Blocking ads does not prevent quality content creators from surviving on YouTube, but it does harm those hoping to game the system and pocket a quick buck. So long as that remains true, blocking YouTube ads is perfectly moral.

A Revealing Experiment

Consider this scenario.

ME: “Hey, thanks for coming over! If you’re thirsty, I’ve got your choice of Pepsi, A&W Root Beer, and Mountain Dew.”
YOU: “I’d prefer Mountain Dew, but I’ll take anything.”
ME: “Gotcha, I’ll be right back!”
ME: [leaves, then returns with a Pepsi]
YOU: “Thanks. Too bad you ran out of Mountain Dew.”
ME: “Oh no, I’ve got tonnes.”
YOU: “… but it was too tough to reach, right?”
ME: “No, the Dew was right next to the Pepsi.”

Have I done anything wrong here? No, at least technically. You said you were fine with any soft drink, and I gave you a soft drink. At the same time, though, you expressed a preference for Mountain Dew over the other choices. I could be forgiven for ignoring your preference if I wasn’t able to fulfill it, or doing so would have been inconvenient for me, but in this fictional scenario both of those were off the table. My choice to hand you a Pepsi instead of a Mountain Dew reveals something about me, most likely that I think other people should prefer Pepsi over other soft drinks. You could point to the ordering of my list as further evidence: I’d be more likely to list my preferred option first, as it would be more prominent in my mind than the other choices, and then rattle off others as they came to me. This isn’t strong evidence, but you’d be justified in suspecting my motives as you enjoyed your Pepsi.

robbe de Boer: Hey EOT, I had a question not related to this video, what pronouns do you prefer? I couldn’t find anything real quick.
EssenceOfThought: They. But I’m fine with both she and he as well. It’s all on the channel description/Facebook page ‘About’ section. 😛

By merely existing, EssenceOfThought has set up a very similar situation. They have a pronoun preference, and when listing their pronoun choices put “he” last, but also say they aren’t offended if you pick another reasonable one. The difficulty in typing two extra letters is practically zero, and “they” as a singular pronoun has been in the English language for six centuries, so there isn’t any obstacle to its use beyond your hang-ups. Hell, even the guy who became famous for refusing to use transgender people’s pronouns is perfectly capable of using singular “they.”

Jordan Peterson: I don’t recognize another person’s right to decide what words I’m going to use, especially when the words they want me to use, first of all, are non-standard elements of the English language and they are constructs of a small coterie of ideologically motivated people. They might have a point but I’m not going to say their words for them.

So if we encounter someone calling EssenceOfThought “he,” we’re justified in raising an eyebrow. While they’re not technically in the wrong, the use of “he” is suggestive that they’d overrule someone’s pronoun preference if they thought they could get away with it.

Steve McRae: Essence of thought bullies Rachel Oates and demonstrates himself to probably one of the worse humans ever to be on Twitter or YouTube.

[12:00] Noel Plum: The truth of the matter is, is that effectively in saying what he’s saying, Essence of Thought has said, to the majority of people who have sided with him, you are transphobes. Your position is, transphobic unless you adopt this position that anyone who identifies as a woman gets to compete in this category, then you are holding a transphobic position. And his masterstroke is that it seems to have done the trick, and nobody’s arguing – none of his supporters are arguing with him.

Rachel Oates: In regards to Essence of Thought calling the police and claiming to be the ‘only one’ actually helping me. It didn’t. He called the police. Who apparently turned up at my old flat, broke the door down and then they wasted hours and many resources trying to find me. Meanwhile, I was at home with my friends around me, having all my Youtube friends send me love and support and check in on me. My family phoned me. People were there for me, helping.

The analogy isn’t a perfect fit. In there, I asked for your choice and received it. EssenceOfThought will mention their preferred pronoun if asked, but does not put it on blast nor do they bother to correct people who don’t pick their preference. Ignorance is more of an option than the analogy presents.

Provided, of course, these people were ignorant. Some of them claim to care about transgender people, though. They should know not to screw up someone’s pronouns, and thus be willing to do a little extra legwork to get things right. Even if they only use “he” because their friends and peers do so, that means their social circle is overwhelmingly dominated by transphobic people or people with a high tolerance to transphobia.

Rachel Oates: Also, I’m really sorry if I got EoT’s pronouns wrong in this thread – I’ve heard different things about which pronouns they prefer & may have slipped up here.

A good way to rule out ignorance is to correct them on EoT’s preferred pronouns. If that person responds with something like this…

Noel Plum: If he drops the “he” then I will drop it too. As it stands he accepts he, she or they. I couldn’t give a toss which he “prefers” as i don’t like him.

EssenceOfThought with their hands raised.… then you’re pretty justified in believing the “cloaked transphobia” hypothesis.

“He” is also a strange choice given how EssenceOfThought presents. You see someone with no facial hair and long flowing locks in front of a transgender flag, and you immediately jump to “he?” C’mon, even Rationality Rules splits the baby and uses “she.” These people didn’t settle on “he” by accident, their choice reveals something about their internal opinion of transgender people, their peer group, or their ignorance.

And it isn’t very refreshing.

Timeline: Rachel Oates and EssenceOfThought

I’ve already covered some of this material, as has EoT, so you might be wondering why I’m repeating myself months after the events in question.

The old stuff hasn’t been well-organized nor placed in chronological order. My own efforts, for instance, were at the end of the second-half of a long blog post where I was pretty harsh on Rationality Rules. There’s room for a more dispassionate summary of the full context of what happened, especially if allegations about this “will be amplified by social media and echo for weeks, months, maybe years.” I’m pretty firmly on EoT’s side, but by minimizing my commentary in favour of direct quotes I can create a summary that Rachel Oates’ supporters will also find useful. The primary bias of this post will thus be via lies of omission, so I’ll try to be as comprehensive as possible. There’s also material that neither EoT nor I have mentioned, most of it focused on Rachel Oates’ side of the equation, so her point of view is better represented.

With that intro out of the way, let’s begin at the beginning. All dates and times are based on Twitter’s timestamp, which I think uses my timezone of Mountain Daylight Time, though it’ll be helpful to know about India Standard Time. Oh, and CONTENT WARNING for transphobia, plus mention of suicide and self-harm. [Read more…]