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Is There Such a Thing as a Good Academic-Activist?

The problem isn’t that some academics are activists. It’s that some academics do activism badly.

· 9 min read
Is There Such a Thing as a Good Academic-Activist?
Wikimedia Commons photo of American professor Susan Stryker, speaking at San Francisco’s Trans March in 2017.

The first article I ever wrote for Quillette, in late 2019, was titled “How The Trans-Rights Movement Is Turning Philosophers Into Activists.” I noted the bizarrely un-academic behaviour of certain academic philosophers who’d contributed to an online symposium about transgender issues, and the extent to which their behaviour contradicted the values I associate with being a good philosopher.

Three contributing trans activists, two of them philosophers, had deplatformed themselves from the symposium while making a great fuss on social media about how their contributions had (to their horror) appeared alongside those of “TERFs” (a term of abuse, commonly used in these activist circles, indicating “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists”). They also characterized the contributions of these “TERFs”—who more typically, and certainly less pejoratively, self-describe as gender-critical feminists—as “acts of violence.”

Good philosophers tend to value intellectual collaboration; avoid ad hominem attacks (which is to say, arguments that serve to insult your opponent rather than refute his or her ideas); and commit themselves to charitable readings of their opponents’ views, which in turn means avoiding hyperbolic or misleading characterizations. My article pointed out how the behaviour of these self-deplatforming philosophers violated these principles; and argued that these philosophers shouldn’t have been behaving as activists—or, at least, shouldn’t have let their activism overwrite their responsibilities as academics. The immediate aftermath of that symposium brought with it my first serious run-in with activist academics, although there would be more to come.

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