Academic mobbing needs to be challenged, both inside and outside the institution
Holly Lawford-Smith is a senior lecturer in political philosophy at the University of Melbourne. She’s currently writing a book about radical feminism. This article appeared on Feminist Current
Academics should be standing together in defence of universities’ fundamental values: the pursuit of truth, evidence-based research, and academic freedom. They should not be joining in when identity groups mob their colleagues.
In 2003, American psychologist and professor Michael Bailey published The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender Bending and Transsexualism. The book’s cover notoriously featured a pair of masculine calves in a pair of high heels. Bailey was mobbed by transactivists in response; partly because in it he reaffirmed Ray Blanchard’s earlier typology of transsexuality as falling into two main types: effeminate gay males who opt to live as women rather than come out, and autogynephilic males, meaning, men who are attracted to the idea of themselves as women.
In her 2008 paper published in Archives of Sexual Behaviour, Alice Dreger presented the history of Bailey’s treatment at the hands of activists. Three transwomen — Lyn Conway, Andrea James, and Dierdre McCloskey — set out “to ruin Bailey professionally and personally.” Two of these transwomen were academics: Conway was a computer scientist at the University of Michigan and McCloskey was a distinguished professor of economics, history, english, and communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Their tactics against Bailey included lodging charges of scientific and sexual misconduct; securing media attention to amplify these charges; protesting against the book’s nomination for a prestigious LGBT award; attempting to alienate Bailey from his colleagues; devoting websites to criticizing and mocking him; and (in James’ case) harassing Bailey’s children, ex-wife, girlfriend, and friends. Dreger says explicitly:
“… The history [of the Bailey controversy] is worth tracking… in order for scholars, journalists, politicians, funding agencies, university administrators, publishers, and others to appreciate what can happen in an Internet-rich age of identity politics when a university-based researcher takes a controversial public stand, especially if that stand relates to sex, gender, or sexuality.”
Bailey is far from the only academic to run into problems with activists. In her book, Galileo’s Middle Finger, Dreger details a number of other cases in which scientists had similar experiences: Craig Palmer, who researched the biological basis of rape, and was subject to a massive media frenzy and threats to personal safety (“Things were so bad that the police told me to take some precautions, like checking my car for car bombs every morning and varying my routine. I was even provided a special parking place on campus they thought would be safer,” he told Dreger); Ken Sher came under fire for his editorial work at a journal that published a paper showing that the impacts of childhood sexual abuse are, in some cases, less impactful than standardly assumed (the paper was eventually condemned in Congress); and Napoleon Chagnon, an anthropologist who researched the Yąnomamö people, was “treated by his peers as cancerous and contagious, portrayed by his friends as a martyr and by his enemies as a Nazi,” according to Dreger. Wild accusations against Chagnon became the subject of a book by a determined detractor and made front page news. There are even more cases like these surveyed in Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianhoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind, and Russell Blackford’s The Tyranny of Opinion.