Angelos Sofocleous: Free Speech, Political Correctness, and Academia

Angelos Sofocleous: Free Speech, Political Correctness, and Academia

Scott Jacobsen speaks to Conatus News editor Angelos Sofocleous about free speech and political correctness in academia and society.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Angelos, you got in trouble, recently. It was over a phrase tweeted from an article, an article included in the controversy as well. You, due to the created circumstances, resigned as the president-elect of Humanist Students and were fired as the assistant editor of Durham University Philosophy Society’s journal, Critique, and as co-editor-in-chief of The Bubble, a university magazine. Let’s start: what was the tweeted statement?

Angelos Sofocleous: As part of some gender-critical articles and comments that I had made in the previous months, I retweeted a tweet which read “RT if women don’t have penises”. The original tweet also had a screenshot from an article by The Spectator titled ‘Is it a crime to say ‘women don’t have penises?’ Apparently, as I have experienced, it is a crime. Christopher Ward, who was Chair of LGBT Humanists in the past, tweeted about my retweet, pointing the fact that I, as president-elect of Humanist Students, was tweeting, in his words, ‘transphobic shit’. He had also pointed out that he had faced a lot of ‘transphobic’ behaviour when he was involved in Humanists UK. He did not give any evidence for his claims, nor he engaged into a conversation when I asked him to and failed to provide counter-arguments in the arguments that I had made supporting my position following his tweet. Calling me a ‘bigot’ and as ‘suffering from cognitive dissonance’ was certainly not a way to have a fruitful discussion. I had calmly tried to engage him in a conversation by linking him to a recent article that I had written, in which I explain my position on sex, gender, and the transgender movement. He ignored it, basically revealing that his real intentions were to make a fuss about his view of Humanists UK.

Following that, I was blamed, by Humanists UK officials for ‘disreputing’ the organisation. They didn’t hold any discussion about it and did not show any willingness to engage in a civilised debate about the political statements that I had made. Given their insensible reaction and also the fact that they demanded, in the future, that if similar controversies arise, I have to ask what the official stance of Humanists UK is before I voice my opinion, I felt compelled to resign from my position. This was not a point to which I wanted to reach. However, I couldn’t cooperate anymore with people who, despite their claims that they belong in an open-minded organisation which is driven by science and rational thinking, their actions have proven that, in certain cases, Humanists UK cannot avoid dogmatism.

Humanists UK, Angelos Sofocleous
Angelos Sofocleous resigned from his post as president-elect of Humanist Students after the backlash within the organization due to his retweet ‘women don’t have penises’.

That week, I had also been appointed Assistant Editor of Durham University Philosophy Society’s journal, Critique. A few days after I was appointed, I received an email from Ryan Lo, the President of Durham University Philosophy Society, telling me that I was fired from my position as my comments ‘belittled trans experiences’.

A few days later, I got an email from my co-editor-in-chief at The Bubble, a student magazine at Durham University, in which I was informed that I was removed from the position of co-editor-in-chief due to the recent controversies.

In October, Durham Students’ Union had ruled that my firing from Critique and The Bubble was unfair and undemocratic, as they did not follow the procedures outlined by Durham Students’ Union, did not give me an opportunity to explain my views, did not gather a vote of no confidence from their members, and did not give me an opportunity to appeal the decision.

The reactions from the three organisations unveiled a big problem with freedom of speech in academia. As shown in a petition started by Conatus News a few days after my firings, dozens of academics expressed their concerns about where academia is heading; academics who had experienced fierce criticism for their views. Political correctness has, indeed, gone too far in universities, especially when it is combined with identity politics.

Jacobsen: What was the intended message of the tweet? What was the interpreted message from the tweet?

Sofocleous: In that tweet, and in my previous statements and articles, I expressed some concerns for the transgender movement, offering, at the same time, some suggestions for improvement. I agree with one basic principle of the transgender movement: that gender stereotypes need to break. But my critique is on their actions; particularly on the fact that the transgender movement makes gender stereotypes more concrete instead of getting rid of them. And that critique was not well-received, evidently.

Therefore, I made the retweet as part of the critical statements in which I pointed out that we need to distinguish between sex and gender. Based on this distinction, I claimed that one could not claim to be a woman solely based on how they feel, or behave, or act, or dress, or ‘identify’.

This is the crucial point in the discussion and in my criticisms. We need to define what it means to identify as a woman or a man. I have not received a satisfactory answer to that question yet. All answers that I receive are either a) Circular, i.e. ‘a woman is anyone who sincerely identifies as a woman’, or b) Promoting gender stereotypes, i.e. ‘A man is whoever performs/feels/behaves like a man’. This is what I wanted to address with the retweet and my gender-critical statements. Remember, we do not speak about individuals who have undergone surgery and claim to have become women and, thereby, female. Some claim to feel like a woman or claim to be a woman because they behave like a woman or have some behavioural aspects that are normally associated with being a woman. Thus, they enforce the stereotypes. Intersex and transsexual individuals, however, are often left out of the discussion.

So, with this retweet, I wanted to challenge the notion of ‘feeling like a woman’. There is no such thing as feeling your gender, or sex, or age, or any part of our identity. True, you might actually feel some things which are stereotypically associated with an identity. But, I want to say three things here. One, aren’t we supposed to get rid of these stereotypes? If you conform to certain stereotypes, it is damaging if at the same time you claim to belong to the identity group to which those stereotypes apply. Two, in case you claim to not belong to any identity group and be, instead, gender-fluid or non-binary, then you must understand that by leaving your group (man/woman) you actually strengthen the stereotypes that apply to those groups as the only individuals who belong in that group after you left are individuals who satisfy the stereotypes. Three, following from the previous two points, if you are going to challenge stereotypes associated with your identity group, it is incredibly important that you stay in your group while fighting these stereotypes. Women who feel marginalized are not doing any favour to themselves by calling themselves ‘womxn’. If you actually believe that you are oppressed by other women, as a woman, then express these challenges from within your group. By alienating yourself from the group, you only confirm your beliefs about the group itself. But this only takes place because you have decided to alienate yourself from it.

Gender, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity, age. We just are those things. There is no separate feeling that is associated with any aspect of one’s identity.

People, I believe, should be able to express themselves in any way that they can. There is no reason to have men’s clothes or women’s clothes, for example. One should be able to wear whatever they want to, without having to worry that they identify as something. Any label you put in your behaviour is restrictive, especially when this label hijacks science.

Jacobsen: Of those individuals who read the tweet and the full article, so far as you can tell, what was the interpreted message by them – those who took the time to understand the arguments and statements within the specific context?

Sofocleous: Unfortunately, those who have read the article were much fewer than those who just saw the retweet. But a general criticism I have gotten is concerning individuals who have gender dysphoria and, even though they are males, for example, they feel like they are women. To deny their claim means, for them, denying their existence. However, no one denies anyone’s right to exist. Trans individuals are human beings and, as human beings, they deserve to be treated with love, respect, and kindness. Me not agreeing on how you label yourself has nothing to do with your existence.

The comments were not at all on the personal level but purely on the ideological level; they were not based on attacking any particular individual.

I believe that the transgender movement would be much more able to achieve its aims not by creating more genders but by eliminating gender as a concept.

Angelos Sofocleous
“If you conform to certain stereotypes, it is damaging if at the same time you claim to belong to the identity group to which those stereotypes apply.” Image: Green Biz

Jacobsen: In one of the first responses, you gave the reasons as to the resignations and firings. Outside of the philosophy journal, the student magazine, and the president-elect position, what were other resignations or firings at this time?

Sofocleous: No. But I faced further problems at University. At the beginning of the academic year, I was worried about the reaction of the philosophy department here, and whether the events would impact my studies and academic career, as I know that the department is not particularly friendly to my views.

I met with this lecturer who is an assistant professor. Before the meeting, she had told that she was open to gender-critical views within the department. At the meeting, I realised that that was not the case. She tried to lecture me on what freedom of speech was, and that my retweet did not fall under freedom of speech. This affirmed what I think about some transgender activists. They police some things people think or say.

She had also said, “You had misgendered someone in your Twitter account.” It goes beyond the academic and into scolding someone in a personal capacity based on what they said in their Twitter account. The fact that she actually went back into my Twitter feed and found an instance where I had ‘misgendered’ someone, and told me off about it, is beyond me. Furthermore, when I said that ‘we should distinguish between the personal and the ideological’ she said that ‘it’s easy to say this when you’re privileged’, twice. It’s a tactic of anti-gender-critical individuals, to shut down speech because of someone’s ‘privileged’ position. They start the discussion with a privilege check and they will deny you the right to speak or voice your opinion if they find that you are too privileged.

Of course, she did not care to ask anything about my background, my past, my ideas. It is extremely sad that some people shout ‘privilege!’ on their sight of a white heterosexual male, and discussion stops there.

We need to have conversations on gender, on race, and other controversial issues without having the debate shut down because some people take it personally. Facts do not care about your feelings.

As a threatening act, she also had the Gender Identity Policy of Durham University in front of me when I entered the office. The Policy reads:

Transphobic abuse, harassment or bullying (refusing to use a correct pronoun, ignoring a person because of their trans status, intrusive questions) will be dealt with under the University’s Respect at Work or Respect at Study Policy and may lead to disciplinary action which could include expulsion/dismissal.

It is like going to Saudi Arabia and have them showing you the part in their Criminal Code which says that it is an insult to criticize Islam. It is the same thing. Someone showing you a legal document or a penal code and not getting to the root of the discussion or the debate, of whether it is right to insult the Prophet Muhammad or to have a discussion on gender issues. The radical left’s tactics are incredibly similar, if not identical, to religious fundamentalism. In today’s political climate, the radical left and the far-right are connected through this wormhole of similarity of tactics.

Further to that, I had expressed the view that when a foreigner, such as myself, comes to the UK to study, s/he is often unaware of the beliefs, customs, and traditions of the UK. Therefore, even if Brits disagree with a foreigner on an issue which they think that they are absolutely right, they should take the time to explain why they are right, and not just force their opinion. Their colonial past certainly does not help – they’re used to forcing their traditions and their views. Coming from a country which suffered from British colonialism, and which still suffers from it, it was particularly ignorant of her that she simply dismissed my statement by saying “I know, I’m from Ireland”.

Jacobsen: John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, made a point. He made many points. One of the points made was the idea of someone wanting to restrict the right to freedom of expression of another person. The idea being: the person who wants to restrict the person’s freedom of expression believes they have some absolute knowledge ahead of time about what is a correct answer on the topic to be discussed.

With the threat of expulsion from a university, especially for someone about to enter graduate school, post-graduate work, can be particularly threatening coming from the department. Also, you made a point about a separation between the personal and the ideological. In a philosophy department, in particular, a person should have the capacity to speak on even sensitive issues at an ideological level through critical thinking and logical analysis rather than this being ‘misgendering’.

This is the big separation and the point you’re making insofar as I can tell.

Sofocleous: Exactly, it’s quite worrying and concerning that this took place in the philosophy society and the philosophy department, when the general aim of philosophy is to discover the truth through debate and discussion. I see that their approach was wholly wrong. But, which is the right approach? Let’s take a step back. Let’s say you have a dangerous view or a view considered dangerous in your community. How do you deal with that view? How do you deal with a threatening or an immoral view?

Let’s take someone who is a white supremacist, or someone who argues that women are subordinate to men. Confronting such views is a three-dimensional process. The first is changing the mind of that person and like-minded people. The second is stopping the harmful view from spreading into society. And the third is spreading the right view into society, not through enforcement, but through society itself finding the right approach.

What happens, however, is that white supremacists, for example, are simply punished. Of course, in punishing those individuals we assure that their views are blocked from spreading into society. But, we do not change the mind of those individuals and we do not make sure that the right view spreads in society. Punishing those individuals does not reveal to them what the right position to take is. They are not convinced that their ideas are wrong. In fact, by punishing them, you even make them believe in the ideology more deeply. Getting at the issue in this way, we are not getting to the core of it. Punishing someone does not ensure the idea goes away.

Their punishment, which might just be physical punishment or punishment affecting their mental wellbeing is received in a way in which those who are punished want to fight back.

Dangerous ideas must be taken to be a virus. However, they can’t be treated just like a virus, for the following reasons:

One would think that we need to restrict the idea to a certain area in society in a way that it cannot spread through society, as we would do with a virus. The thing with viruses is that they are not able to organise themselves in a way which is similar to how human societies organise. A virus can simply be marginalised to a certain part of the body where it affects healthy cells at a minimum level, and subsequently be exterminated. The viruses themselves are not going to organise and fight back to the healthy part of the body.

But with human individuals, if you restrict or marginalise a group in society, those individuals are still given the opportunity to organise themselves and fight back against the healthy part of society. Of course, our first inclination when we face a dangerous idea is to punish and marginalise it from society. However, simply marginalising a dangerous view does not help. It helps no one; neither the individuals, nor their groups, nor society.

Angelos Sofocleous
A dangerous idea can’t be treated just like a virus. If you restrict or marginalise a group in society, that group is still given the opportunity to organise itself and fight back against the healthy part of society. Image: TexTerra

What is the right approach, then? Education. The right approach is educating those individuals and trying to convince them through healthy debate that they are on the wrong side – if they actually are on the wrong side. There is a caveat here, however. If we debate or discuss with those individuals, where do you put the boundary? Do we need to make this a debate between a creationist or an evolutionist, or a human rights activist and a white supremacist? I do not think it goes to that level where you need to put both in a boxing ring let them fight each other through debate and see which side wins. However, even if those ideas are not debated publicly, individuals who hold those views must not simply be punished, but one should approach them conversationally and convince them of the wrongness of their ideas or show where their way of thinking is fallacious.

There should be a debate or a discussion, or understanding, of my ideas. If those individuals believe I am wrong, I am open to them convincing me otherwise. There is a concern when some individuals are not allowed to voice ideas which some deem controversial. Because you do not know what their controversial ideas or opinions are if you do not allow them to voice them.

You can only attack the ideas when you know what the ideas are. It is important. We cannot treat a dangerous view simply as a virus. We should debate those individuals in the public sphere and the private sphere to convince them of our ideas if we are so confident that we are right.

Jacobsen: Looking forward, what is happening with the student union, the publications, and so on? What is happening with this public dialogue at this point around a particular colleague of mine, Angelos Sofocleous?

Sofocleous:  Durham Students’ Union decided to uphold my complaint by concluding that my firings from Critique and The Bubble were unfair and undemocratic. However, the investigation said that my freedom of speech was not violated, which is not the case. Freedom of speech means you are free from consequences related to your speech. There’s no free speech when you face the consequences for what you say.

It is, however, saddening on the personal level as well. I knew the people who were involved in the two publications and considered them good friends of mine. We have a lot of common interests, views, and ideas. This is the first time in my life that I am not on speaking terms with someone. It is simply sad that people reach this level in their relationships simply because they disagree on some issues. I do wish they would be more accepting of people with different views.

As regards other stuff that has been happening, this gave me the opportunity to talk to other organisations or groups about freedom of speech, transgender rights, and where academia is heading. A few weeks ago, I gave a talk in the UK about whether academia has been impacted by political correctness and people who have been policing what has been happening in academia.

[P]eople are scared to be hurt, to be offended, to have their ideas criticized and their worldview shaken.

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?

Sofocleous: I would like to touch on the subject of truth, especially in philosophy. We have reached a point where feelings seem to matter more than facts and conversation on some subject is shut down based on the feelings of some people because the conversation is seen as too controversial.

We should not fear threatening opinions or even dangerous ones, but be ready to oppose them and support our ideas against the ideas of the other. But, sadly, this does not seem to be the case in academia. This environment is creating people who are too fragile. Or, anti-fragile, as Jonathan Heidt puts it as young people today are overprotecting themselves by being scared to be fragile – people are scared to be hurt, to be offended, to have their ideas criticized and their worldview shaken.

They feel that there should be someone who protects them all the time. It is the law or some policy. However, I would say: it is a good thing to be offended. When someone is offended, they know that they have gone outside of their bubble. We will, of course, feel offended outside of our bubble.

It makes you visit other bubbles and try to convince other people of your truth. Even if we can be open, we can be challenged and change our views on some issues. But, of course, this will not happen if we keep residing inside of our bubble. We should be welcoming to other people’s views.

We should value the duty of having a conversation with people whom we have opposing views. Because this is not only an opportunity and to listen to the other person’s views. But if we care about the truth, then we can convince them of what the truth is.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Angelos.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.

Article Discussion

  • Posted by Soymujer

    8 December, 2018 at 5:49 am

    Great interview! I hope Angelos is able to rebuild his academic career. This is making me want to forget my graduate school plans :/

  • If philosophers are not permitted to discuss 'difficult' ideas, who amongst us can?

  • Posted by Bunny Whisperer

    6 December, 2018 at 7:38 am

    What is ahppening at Universities has actually changed the very purpose of the university, and is opposed to the kind of intellectual development and freedom they are supposed to encourage. Mr. Sofocleous is not alone if being marginalised for merely attempting to engage in a piece of innocent analysis. I applaud his courage, however, and his fortitude in standing up to these fascist bullies, who cannot win an argument if they are actually made to engage in one, which is exactly why they must prevent debate from happening. "It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought…should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words." – George Orwell, 1984

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