When Kathleen Stock came to Oxford

On the 22nd of April, the Oxford Student was the first outlet to publish an article about a ‘controversial gender critical feminist’ coming to speak at the Union. At the time this didn’t seem particularly special, so some of our team didn’t even think it warranted its own story. To be fair, it was a fairly standard story – we just looked through the Union term card for interesting speakers, and reported on the one we thought would be the most interesting. 

I did think it was worth its own story at the time – but I did not predict that it would become the biggest story to come out of Oxford in several years.

It seems strange that the story of Kathleen Stock’s visiting the Union became as big a story as it eventually became. The Union has had, and will continue to have, lots of controversial speakers – indeed just last term there were hundreds of people in protest against the invitation of the Israeli ambassador. Many of these controversial speakers have seen, and will continue to see, pushback by the student body. It’s not a new thing in Oxford – students have long been divided on their opinions about the Union. 

What made the difference here was the attention that was paid to the story by the national media. The national media’s involvement in Oxford stories is usually quite predictable – predictable enough that several student journalists have made budding careers out of their ability to pitch Oxford stories to education editors at national papers. The formula is simple: stories about Oxford which can be related to the culture wars do well. This is down to two factors. Firstly, there is the Oxbridge bias – any story which can be related to Oxford or Cambridge is often viewed as inherently more newsworthy. Secondly, there is the culture war aspect. The increasingly clear failure of right-wing economic policy has led to a much larger focus on less concrete or tangible issues of culture and moral panics – see many columns in national newspapers. With universities, the standard issue is free speech, but this time, however, the free speech concerns were boosted by gender ideology concerns. The combination proved to be massively successful – an Oxford story about freedom of speech over gender issues? It’s a hack’s dream.

In reality, her views are not well argued, and often do not stand up well to challenge.

Thus, a national story was born. What had begun as a regular example of student journalism was now one of the biggest stories in the country. This was all building up to the big event – Kathleen Stock speaking at the Union on a Tuesday afternoon. The event did feel like a big event, with TV cameras and national journalists descending on Oxford to report directly from the centre of the action. The Telegraph even live blogged the event, like it was a Champions League night. So many journalists had come to the event that student journalists were relegated to a bench behind the press bench to make room for the national journalists, who took our usual positions at the front.

Personally, I had come to the event wanting to see for myself if the person who has been championed by so many was as good as they said she was. I will admit that I was sceptical (which isn’t entirely shocking, considering I’m a left-leaning university student), but I was open-minded and genuinely intrigued as to whether she would have anything interesting to say. It is true that there are important policy discussions around some of these issues – as more people identify as transgender, it is important to account for them in policy decisions. 

I came away disappointed by Stock’s arguments. Her supporters often portray her as a calm and rational voice – a philosopher who acts like you’d think a philosopher would act, with well thought out and well argued points. If you were to listen to her explain why so many disagree with her, she would say that she is simply a ‘moderate’ who is painted as an extremist. In reality, her views are not well argued, and often do not stand up well to challenge. On this note, I do want to commend Matthew Dick for doing a good job challenging her – I had expected that he’d be soft on her, but his questions were probing and illuminating.

So what is my issue with her arguments? Simply, I think they are not as well thought as I would expect from a philosopher, despite her speaking in vaguely philosophical language. It means that most of what she says doesn’t seem massively offensive, but doesn’t hold up when pressed into further. For example, one of her main points is about trans women not being in women’s bathrooms. This is because she believes that they are a danger to biological women. When presented with evidence that casted doubt on that, she talked of her own experience – something which she would never accept from people on the other side of the debate.

Leaving aside the fact that this claim is poorly evidenced, her solution doesn’t seem great – as Dick pointed out in the interview. If trans women can’t use the same bathrooms as biological women, they would instead have to use men’s bathrooms – which according to what she has said about male violence, is surely very dangerous for them, he noted. Her solution is to divert the resources given to organisations like Stonewall to creating spaces for people who can’t use either – which is surely a vastly impractical suggestion. Even if this could be done, what happens in the short term? Her insistence on a biologically determinist feminism consistently leads to issues similar to this – like when she told Dick that she could think of herself as a man as much as she liked but ultimately is ‘not going to arm wrestle you very successfully’, as if this would make her a man. As much as she may resist it, there is a reason why so much feminist literature focuses on gender as the social meaning of sex – misogyny frequently does not discriminate between biological and trans women.

…she talked of her own experience – something which she would never accept from people on the other side of the debate.

This isn’t just me thinking her arguments are bad. Many people who are far more well versed in feminist philosophy than me also think that her arguments are not great – Catherine Mackinnon herself pointed out many of the issues with anti-trans feminism. I think Stock’s dismissive comment about her critics being ‘up to their neck in Judith Butler’ is emblematic of a wider approach to feminism for Stock. She speaks in the way you’d expect an analytic philosopher to speak – but uses that as a veneer to make many of the same points that reactionary culture warriors would make. In other words, she is a philosopher, yes, but not a philosopher of feminism – and I think it shows.

Like most people, I think that freedom of speech is important, and like most people, I think that making good arguments is important to freedom of speech. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean that I am required to hear or appreciate bad arguments. This is especially pertinent on issues like gender identity, where arguments not dissimilar from Stock’s can lead, and have already led, to unnecessarily cruel policies. It is for this reason that I will use my freedom of speech to say that I think that Kathleen Stock’s arguments are flawed and ultimately not that convincing. 

However, I could have said that I don’t think her arguments are good without actually having to see her at the Union. She is constantly platformed by various media organisations, so if I wanted to find out what she thought, I could find out. After all the media frenzy, in the end, Stock got her speech in the Union, where she was greeted by hundreds of fans in the chamber, who laughed at every joke and cheered at her biggest points. I am not sure that much was learned from this experience – her fans will continue to be her fans, and her detractors will continue to be her detractors. The event was just a couple hundred people sitting in a room, hearing someone make the same points they’ve been making for years at this point – yet our media had whipped up enough controversy that the Prime Minister thought it necessary to defend her right to be heard. It’s at times like this where my friends would expect me to make the following comment: was it really that deep? The answer, my friends, is no.

Image credit: US Department of State via Wikimedia Commons.

Image description: The Oxford Union chamber packed with people watching a speaker event.