My Views Were Cringe. But I Learned from Them.
I found an angry letter I wrote to Sam Harris in 2015 for criticizing gender ideology, and it's pretty bad.
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I have been a staunch critic of gender ideology for about 6 years, though I didn’t write or speak publicly about my views until 2018. But I wasn’t always opposed to gender ideology; in fact, I was largely sympathetic to it prior to 2016. By “largely sympathetic” I mean that I bought in to some early versions of the ideology before it started overtly trespassing on biological reality. For instance, I remember being told, circa 2010, that sex and gender were different, and that while the terms male and female referred to someone’s biological sex, the terms man and woman referred to their “gender identity.” Because of this, a male could be a “woman,” and a female could be a “man.”
Early on, I mostly accepted this framing. Since I wouldn’t budge on the biology of male and female, using different terms to describe a person’s identity separate from their biology felt like an acceptable compromise. I viewed sex and gender identity akin to Stephen Gould’s non-overlapping magesteria (NOMA) regarding science and religion. As long and gender identity remained firmly in its lane of subjective feelings and did not spill over into making claims about objective reality, I felt no need to protest.
I was therefore happy to accept the phrase “trans women are women” as true, because it was if you accepted the above premise. All my liberal friends accepted it too, and I didn’t give it much more thought. I took offense when people “misgendered” trans people, not just because it was rude, but because I accepted the conceptual split between males and females on one hand, and men and women on the other. And since people arguably weren’t denying biology at the time, I didn’t yet feel any cognitive dissonance.
In 2015 I was a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh studying evolutionary behavioral ecology (I transferred to UC Santa Barbara in 2016). I was somewhat proto-woke, yet began to have fledgling concerns about some anti-science trends in the Left-wing circles I was noticing. It was becoming increasingly difficult, and sometimes nearly impossible, to talk about any sex differences in humans. Even entertaining the ideas was seen as problematic. Backward narratives surrounding race and racism were also starting to concern me.
I remember finding an outlet in the Rubin Report, which had its inaugural episode on September 10, 2015 with Sam Harris, a long-time hero of mine who I started following closely in 2006 after reading his book The End of Faith. While Harris’ recent views on Big Tech censorship surrounding COVID-19 “misinformation,” Trump’s Twitter ban, and the suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story depart dramatically from my own views, Harris has nevertheless had a huge influence on my thinking.
The early Rubin Report is where I first heard the term “Regressive Left,” which resonated strongly with me as a description for the progressivism turned on its head that I was noticing in my own social circles. The show also introduced me to several thinkers I hadn’t known before, one of them being Douglas Murray, who I continued to follow.
When Sam Harris hosted Douglas Murray on his Waking Up (now Making Sense) podcast, I made sure to tune in. The episode ran on November 22, 2015. I remember really enjoying the podcast until the 30-minute mark when Murray began a long rant about gender ideology, which I’ve timestamped and transcribed below.
MURRAY: This whole thing, the weirdo sexual obsession, transgender, trans-poly-gender, identify cis, “I’ve got a penis but I can still win Glamor Woman of the Year award, and who are you if… And not only do you have to respect me as a woman, if you say I’m not an entire woman despite the fact that I’ve got a penis still, you’re a bigot!” And then you’ve got to find Caitlyn Jenner attractive. If you don’t find them attractive, if you don’t even want to sleep with Caitlyn Jenner you’re an even bigger bigot. This is what, and actually because to cite the other person you just said would trigger you Sam Harris, Mark Stein said this the other day: “This is the conversation we’re having when the Mullahs will nuke us.” Everyone will be discussing whether somebody is transgender despite the fact they’ve not had any operation.
There’s a woman in Britton called Jack Monroe, a fatuous far-Left wing so-called “anti-poverty” campaigner. Totally talentless individual. This blogger has recently come out as transgender. She says, by the way, she’s not going to do anything about it, we just have to call her transgender and regard her as transgender, but she is not going to get a penis put on her and she’s not going to have her breasts reduced or taken off or anything, and she’s not going to… We just have to start calling her a non-sexual pronoun. Now it’s “theirs.” The Pink Newspaper, okay I read some of this crap, the Pink Newspaper ran a story about Jack Monroe becoming transgender because she says she is—I think she just wants a bit of publicity—they run a piece about her and they’ve got to say “their.” “Jack Monroe wrote a piece on their blog.” Saying “When they was younger.” I mean, it’s assault on the language apart from anything else. Anyone who cares about our delicate and beautiful language should turn away now.
But we’ll all be discussing whether somebody who hasn’t got a penis can be a man, or whether somebody who has got a penis can be Glamor Woman of the Year when the Islamists come in with kalashnikovs. It’s pathetic! It’s a break-down in our society and you have to rectify it.
HARRIS: That is hilarious.
When I first heard this rant back in 2015, I found it incredibly offensive. Murray had denied the identity of transgender people, something I still clung to at the time. And to hear Harris chuckling throughout, and even calling Murray’s rant “hilarious,” enraged me even more. I was so upset that I wrote a letter to Harris, which I published on my blog on November 24, 2015, two days after the episode aired. I also sent the letter to the Contact email listed on Harris’ podcast at the time.
I had completely forgotten about the letter until I stumbled across it after I recovered my Wordpress password from an old email address I haven’t used in years. I had unpublished everything on my old blog in 2016 because I was starting to apply for postdoctoral positions and was worried that something I wrote might be discovered and counted against my job application.
In the spirit of sharing a snapshot from a time in the not-too-distant past when I thought very differently than I do now, I have reproduced my original letter to Sam in its entirety below. I follow my cringe-inducing letter by explaining some pivotal moments that caused me to completely change my mind.
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