FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Can We Talk? How Dogma Degrades Democracy

“There’s a disagreement in the planning group, about inviting you,” an organizer told me, hesitantly, during a phone call this spring to finalize the details of my speaking slot in a “diversity-and-inclusion” event.

I sighed and prepared to respond, knowing that the objection to my participation likely had to do either with my writing after September 11, 2001, that was critical of the U.S. empire or more recent essays challenging the ideology of the transgender movement from a radical feminist position.

This time the problem was 9/11; one of the sponsoring groups pulled out rather than be associated with an event that included me, a reaction that was common in the years following the terrorist attacks. The debate over transgenderism has been contentious more recently; earlier this spring, a talk I was scheduled to give was canceled when someone objected and another talk was interrupted by protestors who hoped to shout me off the lectern.

These incidents are a minor annoyance in my life, hardly worth attention except for what they reveal about the culture’s difficulty engaging in coherent and constructive arguments about issues that generate strong emotions. The health of a democracy depends on people’s ability to argue—to propose public policies and articulate reasons why others should adopt those policies. Democracy atrophies when substantive arguments are sidelined by dogma, when claims are asserted with self-righteous certainty but not defended with reason and logic. There’s nothing wrong with people being emotional about politics, so long as it doesn’t shut down dialogue.

After several months of furor over high-profile conservative speakers who have been thwarted in some way on college campuses (Milo Yiannopoulos, Charles Murray, and Ann Coulter all made news this way), it’s illuminating to reflect on the far less dramatic challenges to my writing, which have come from both the right and the left. My focus is not on concerns about my constitutionally protected freedom of speech (it has never been significantly impeded) but rather on the danger of a political culture in which critical self-reflection and thoughtful debate become more difficult, perhaps impossible in some times and places.

One of those times and places was the United States after 9/11/01. Like many in the anti-empire movement—a grassroots global justice movement challenging U.S. military and economic policy and demanding that policymakers take seriously our shared moral principles and international law—I argued that a mad rush to war would be counterproductive. When an op-ed making such an argument—that the United States consider a more rational course of action, and that we reflect on a history of U.S. crimes in the developing world—was published in a Texas newspaper a few days after the attack, I was the target of an ad hoc campaign (thankfully, unsuccessful) to get me fired from my teaching job at the University of Texas at Austin.

A decade later, a series of online essays about the transgender movement (available here, here, here, and here) led to another ad hoc campaign to exclude me from left/liberal spaces because I argued that the intellectual claims of the trans movement appear to be incoherent and the political program that flows from it undermines feminism. Like many in the radical feminist movement who take such a position, I didn’t contest the experiences that transgender people describe but offered an alternative analysis that I believe provides a more compelling account of sex/gender politics.

These two cases are dramatically different in many ways, of course, but some similar features deserve attention.

Challenging the foundational mythology of the United States—the claim that we have always been the moral exemplar of the world and today are the only force that can ensure a safe and stable world system—provokes a predictable reaction from most of the right and center in U.S. politics, which has made acceptance of those myths a litmus test for being a “good American.” When one invokes history to challenge the myths, conservatives rarely attempt to engage in real debate, preferring to dismiss critics as the “blame America first” gang and label any debate over policy as a failure to “support the troops.”

Challenging the biological claims and underlying ideology of the transgender movement—the claim that reproduction-based sex categories are somehow an invention and that cultural gender norms can be challenged separate from a feminist critique of patriarchy—provokes a predictable reaction from most of the liberal and left end of the political spectrum, which has made acceptance of those claims a litmus test for being “progressive.” When one invokes basic biology and a radical feminist critique of the transgender movement’s individualist gender politics, left/liberals rarely attempt to engage, preferring to dismiss critics as TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) and label any disagreement about policy as bigotry.

Because I work for a public university, I believe it is part of my job to take my research and teaching into public. Because I’m a tenured professor, I can engage in public debates without much fear of losing my job. In that public writing and speaking, I don’t shy away from provocative statements when I believe they are justified by the evidence and are important to democratic dialogue, striving to support the claims I make with evidence and logic.

I don’t mind being criticized and invite challenges to my ideas. What’s disturbing in both cases is that I was routinely denounced as being morally and/or intellectually inadequate, but rarely did those denunciations include a response to what I actually was writing.

For months after 9/11, any critique of U.S. foreign policy was rejected out of hand, taken by many as evidence that critics were colluding with terrorists. It wasn’t until the failure of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were undeniable that such critiques were taken seriously, and even then the debate focused mainly on failed tactics rather than the fundamental question of why the United States pursues global power through imperial strategies.

Radical feminist critiques of transgender ideology continue to attract denunciations, especially after the Obama administration issued rules about transgender students’ rights, which seemed to settle what the liberal position should be. Conservative/religious objections to that policy have been widely debated and covered by journalists, but the more substantial analyses of radical feminists are largely ignored in the mainstream and vilified in left/liberal circles.

All of this is troubling, but even more disturbing for me has not been what is said in public but what people tell me privately. After 9/11, a number of faculty colleagues took me aside and told me that they thought the UT president’s denunciation of me was inappropriate, but only a couple of them spoke out publicly. The faculty council and the faculty committee charged with defending academic freedom were silent on the university president’s clumsy ad hominem attack on a professor.

Similarly, after a local radical bookstore issued a statement declaring me unfit for future association with the store, many left/feminist friends and allies told me privately that they disagreed with that decision, but to the best of my knowledge none of those people publicly challenged the store’s statement. Rather than risk similar denunciation, people found it easier to say nothing.

Reasonable people can disagree respectfully about many things, including the appropriate analysis of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and how best to understand the claims of transgender people. But in a democracy, weighty public policy decisions—such as going to war or endorsing the treating trans-identified children with puberty blockers—should emerge from the widest possible conversation in which people provide reasons for their policy preferences and respond substantively to good-faith challenges.

If that process is derailed, whether by forces from the right or the left, the deterioration of responsible intellectual practice undermines democracy.

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men, published by Spinifex Press. He can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu or through his website, http://robertwjensen.org/.

More articles by:

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men. He can be reached atrjensen@austin.utexas.edu or online at http://robertwjensen.org/.

September 24, 2018
Jonathan Cook
Hiding in Plain Sight: Why We Cannot See the System Destroying Us
Gary Leupp
All the Good News (Ignored by the Trump-Obsessed Media)
Robert Fisk
I Don’t See How a Palestinian State Can Ever Happen
Barry Brown
Pot as Political Speech
Lara Merling
Puerto Rico’s Colonial Legacy and Its Continuing Economic Troubles
Patrick Cockburn
Iraq’s Prime Ministers Come and Go, But the Stalemate Remains
William Blum
The New Iraq WMD: Russian Interference in US Elections
Julian Vigo
The UK’s Snoopers’ Charter Has Been Dealt a Serious Blow
Joseph Matten
Why Did Global Economic Performance Deteriorate in the 1970s?
Zhivko Illeieff
The Millennial Label: Distinguishing Facts from Fiction
Thomas Hon Wing Polin – Gerry Brown
Xinjiang : The New Great Game
Binoy Kampmark
Casting Kavanaugh: The Trump Supreme Court Drama
Max Wilbert
Blue Angels: the Naked Face of Empire
Weekend Edition
September 21, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Hurricane Florence and 9.7 Million Pigs
Andrew Levine
Israel’s Anti-Semitism Smear Campaign
Paul Street
Laquan McDonald is Being Tried for His Own Racist Murder
Brad Evans
What Does It Mean to Celebrate International Peace Day?
Nick Pemberton
With or Without Kavanaugh, The United States Is Anti-Choice
Jim Kavanagh
“Taxpayer Money” Threatens Medicare-for-All (And Every Other Social Program)
Jonathan Cook
Palestine: The Testbed for Trump’s Plan to Tear up the Rules-Based International Order
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Chickenhawks Have Finally Come Back Home to Roost!
David Rosen
As the Capitalist World Turns: From Empire to Imperialism to Globalization?
Jonah Raskin
Green Capitalism Rears Its Head at Global Climate Action Summit
James Munson
On Climate, the Centrists are the Deplorables
Robert Hunziker
Is Paris 2015 Already Underwater?
Arshad Khan
Will Their Ever be Justice for Rohingya Muslims?
Jill Richardson
Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault
Dave Clennon
A Victory for Historical Accuracy and the Peace Movement: Not One Emmy for Ken Burns and “The Vietnam War”
W. T. Whitney
US Harasses Cuba Amid Mysterious Circumstances
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
Things That Make Sports Fans Uncomfortable
George Capaccio
Iran: “Snapping Back” Sanctions and the Threat of War
Kenneth Surin
Brexit is Coming, But Which Will It Be?
Louis Proyect
Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9”: Entertaining Film, Crappy Politics
Ramzy Baroud
Why Israel Demolishes: Khan Al-Ahmar as Representation of Greater Genocide
Ben Dangl
The Zapatistas’ Dignified Rage: Revolutionary Theories and Anticapitalist Dreams of Subcommandante Marcos
Ron Jacobs
Faith, Madness, or Death
Bill Glahn
Crime Comes Knocking
Terry Heaton
Pat Robertson’s Hurricane “Miracle”
Dave Lindorff
In Montgomery County PA, It’s Often a Jury of White People
Louis Yako
From Citizens to Customers: the Corporate Customer Service Culture in America 
William Boardman
The Shame of Dianne Feinstein, the Courage of Christine Blasey Ford 
Ernie Niemi
Logging and Climate Change: Oregon is Appalachia and Timber is Our Coal
Jessicah Pierre
Nike Says “Believe in Something,” But Can It Sacrifice Something, Too?
Paul Fitzgerald - Elizabeth Gould
Weaponized Dreams? The Curious Case of Robert Moss
Olivia Alperstein
An Environmental 9/11: the EPA’s Gutting of Methane Regulations
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail