By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)
* Note: this article was first published online at Quillette magazine.
Alice Dreger, the historian of science, sex researcher, activist, and author of a much-discussed book of last year, has recently called attention to the loss of ambivalence as an acceptable attitude in contemporary politics and beyond. “Once upon a time,” she writes, “we were allowed to feel ambivalent about people. We were allowed to say, ‘I like what they did here, but that bit over there doesn’t thrill me so much.’ Those days are gone. Today the rule is that if someone—a scientist, a writer, a broadcaster, a politician—does one thing we don’t like, they’re dead to us.”
I’m going to suggest that this development leads to another kind of loss: the loss of our ability to work together, or better, learn from each other, despite intense disagreement over certain issues. Whether it’s because our opponent hails from a different political party, or voted differently on a key referendum, or thinks about economics or gun control or immigration or social values—or whatever—in a way we struggle to comprehend, our collective habit of shouting at each other with fingers stuffed in our ears has reached a breaking point.
It’s time to bring ambivalence back.
A Fatal Retraction
Given the state of politics these days, Dreger’s remarks could have been triggered by just about anything; but as it happens, she was reflecting on a controversial decision by the editors of Everyday Feminism, a popular online feminist magazine, to pull an essay of hers on sex education. The essay had earlier been published by Pacific Standard with the provocative title, “What If We Admitted to Children That Sex Is Primarily About Pleasure?”
The essay wasn’t the problem. In fact, the editors liked the essay: they had reached out to Dreger to ask her permission to republish it, which is how this whole episode began. Instead, the problem was some other, unrelated material that Dreger had published elsewhere—a kind of “guilt by association” with her own work.
This is how the editors explained their decision (key bits in bold):
What happened was that we decided to pull the article from circulation shortly after it went up. When we asked permission [to republish] it we weren’t aware of some of the articles you’ve published on trans issues and after a reader brought it to our attention [we] looked into them.
Trans issues means transgender issues. The editor went on:
We … realized that while we very much valued the information in the article on teaching children that sex is about pleasure, the views expressed in several of your other articles directly conflicts with the work we’re trying to do in Everyday Feminism. For that reason, we decided to pull the article.
If you aren’t familiar with Dreger’s work, you are probably wondering what she’s written about trans issues that the editors found so troubling—troubling enough to retract an unrelated essay. And if you are familiar with Dreger’s work, you are probably wondering even more. This is because Dreger is widely regarded as being a supporter of trans rights, as well as rights for intersex people, for gender non-conformers generally, and for other marginalized groups, all of which seems broadly consistent with the aims of Everyday Feminism.
Dreger’s support for sexual minorities is not idle. Instead, she has devoted the better part of her professional career to blowing up narrow-minded gender identity norms, against sometimes huge resistance, and to fighting oppressive attitudes about sex and gender within the more traditional corners of science and medicine. Her work on intersex ethics has been especially influential.
So what could be going on behind the curtain?