Moti Gorin’s Open Letter on Holly Lawford-Smith

Holly Lawford-Smith is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Melbourne. She writes on gender issues – critically – and (thus) she annoys people.

In February 2021, Lawford-Smith launched No Conflict They Said, a website for women to anonymously post stories of gender-sex conflict in regard to “women-only spaces”. In immediate response, a dozen or so UniMelb professors produced a big character poster an open letter, Stop Transphobia, objecting to the website and to Lawford-Smith’s UniMelb subject on feminism. Because, of course, the most important role of academic leaders is to seek to censor other academics.

The open letter was sent to the University leadership, and was subsequently signed by, it would appear, thousands more academics and students. Because, of course, the most important lesson that students can learn is …

The University of Melbourne is reportedly still investigating Lawford-Smith’s “social posts”. The University also recently investigated and cleared Lawford-Smith for her attendance at a rally also attended by neo-nazis. The public campaign against Lawford-Smith continues.

In April 2022, Oxford University Press announced they would publish Lawford-Smith’s book, Gender-Critical Feminism, which subsequently appeared in May. OUP’s announcement inspired two open letters, the more prominent letter by “members of the international scholarly community”, none of whom, it would appear, had read the book. Because, of course, the most important role of the members of the international scholarly community is  …

Philosopher Justin Weinberg reported even handedly about the OUP business on Daily Nous, here and here. Philosopher Moti Gorin wrote less even handedly.

In response to Weinberg’s reporting on the OUP open letters, Gorin published his own open letter, on The Electric Agora. Moti has kindly given us permission to reproduce his letter, below. Readers may not agree with Gorin’s point, but they must acknowledge the possibility that Gorin is correct, and the possibility that the possible is as real and as important as the actual.


Open Letter to Daily Nous, re: Holly Lawford-Smith’s Unread Book

Moti Gorin

CONTENT NOTE: This Open Letter depicts scenes of rhetorical violence and related violences.

As writers who have both consumed and contributed comments on Daily Nous, we are disheartened, disappointed, deflated, and yet simultaneously righteously energized by editor Justin Weinberg’s recent platforming of a letter written to Oxford University Press on behalf of critics of philosopher Holly Lawford-Smith’s unreleased and unread book, Gender Critical Feminism.

By platforming this letter, which, unlike Lawford-Smith’s book, can be read — having been violently ripped from the realm of the merely possible to the realm of the actual — Weinberg promotes inaccurate stereotypes about unread books, such as the stereotype that they can be understood and assessed. Also, he may contribute to reality-oppressive practices, such as the possible creation of a journal dedicated to the review of unread books. The undersigned, as possible writers of possible books, are concerned, and call for a ban on such possible journals.

The possible risks are real. More troublingly, they are actually possible — some of the writers we like would go further and say the possible risks are immanent. Everyone we like agrees that possible risks can be much worse than actual harms of the sort for which evidence can be provided. This is because possible harms are very difficult to locate. They elude even the most intensive textual deconstruction, revealing themselves only in narratives of lived experience/diaries.

Furthermore, Weinberg’s decision to publish the open letter exhibits an unfortunate ignorance of the fact that even when a book is actual, one cannot always know whether one will ultimately disagree with the main conclusions of a book until after one has read it — a secondary form of violence, “chronological violence of the real” — that victimizes in particular those who start at the beginning and work their way toward the end, page by page, and front to back, rather than from back to front. (We understand that what counts as “front to back” will vary and that Hebrew readers in particular may find this phrase alienating or even eliminationist. We hereby affirm that Hebrew readers exist and that they are no worse [nor better] than non-Hebrew readers, and this holds irrespective of whether the Hebrew writing at issue has actually been or will be written or read.)

Moreover, criticism of as-yet unreleased and unread books is exactly like cancer: both are bad, both are violent, and both can spread. More specifically, such criticism can contribute to rhetorical violence (which we need not remind you is always-already there) against future, possible, unread books and their authors, or possible authors and publishers, or possible publishers. Given the (actual) recent bans on books in some US public schools, bans orchestrated by politically reactionary legislatures and school boards, we worry that Weinberg’s promotion of anti-unread book sentiment may in the current political context even lead to the grisly slaughter of future unthought thoughts.

Moving on from these serious, substantive concerns, the undersigned Daily Nous users also have similarly serious procedural concerns about the manner in which Weinberg published the post. Given the emphasis of the embedded letter on publication practices, we would like to know if Weinberg consulted experts on publication ethics. For example, did he even browse any of the posts on the Retraction Watch site? Did he first read the books and articles we like on this topic? Did he consult with any of the people we are friends with before writing and publishing his post? We personally know and are friends with people who work on publication ethics, very serious scholars who have long histories of defending methodologies and conclusions we endorse, which makes them sound and true, and yet Weinberg didn’t even DM them on Twitter. Does Daily Nous really want to be the kind of blog that platforms anti-unread book violence without at least first consulting our ideological soulmates?

We are not calling for the retraction of Weinberg’s post. That would be anti-intellectual and censorious, and we are intellectuals who definitely don’t want to limit thought or speech, since that would be a right-wing, reactionary thing to do, and we are definitely left-wing, progressive people who deeply value non-violent philosophy books. However, now that we have stated our opposition to censorship and thereby proved it, we do have some demands of Daily Nous:

[1] In the future, only publish posts with content that has been approved by people with whom we agree and, ideally, those we count among our friends. At a minimum, content should be approved by people we’ve asked to coffee at conferences and/or workshops. This applies to possible content and possible friends as well.

[2] Always include follow-up posts that center (or “centre”—we see you UK readers!) opposing views, but only when the follow-up posts are written by those with whom we agree. If the original post is written by someone with whom we agree, then a follow-up post is not required (because one should not follow the truth with lies).

[3] Take some of the profits generated by Daily Nous and donate them to causes we personally endorse. You can start with Retraction Watch.

Moti Gorin teaches philosophy at Colorado State University.


14 Replies to “Moti Gorin’s Open Letter on Holly Lawford-Smith”

  1. I work at a university in Melbourne. At the bus stop I once mentioned (to a colleague) about a prominent military historian who had transitioned from male to female. There was no hint of a pejorative tone or disapproval per se, just mild surprise. I was harangued by an earnest student at the bus stop who wanted my staff ID as he wanted to pursue hate speech allegations with the university. Naturally I did NOT engage as this would have been akin to petrol on a bonfire. I got on my bus and left without a further word.
    But I was left wondering what sort of world it is that a comment is now conflated with hate speech and that your career is potentially hanging by a thread if the mob deems you socially unpalatable

  2. This censoring of gender-critical feminists needs to stop. Just because some ‘activists’ deem gender-critical views as transphobic does not mean that Holly Lawford-Smith deserves people criticising her book without even reading it!

  3. This post reminded me of a persuasive oral I had to do for VCE English on cancel culture. I wanted to do something about Holly Lawford-Smith, the University of Melbourne’s campaign against her, and academic freedom in general, but when I spoke to my teacher about doing this topic, she agreed with the university. She said something along the lines of academics should not be allowed to do research that would harm society and compared the situation to race ‘science’ where people try to prove that e.g. one race is inherently smarter than another.

    How could she compare something that has been repeatedly debunked to something that has been hardly studied at all? There is scarce research into the effects of transgender ideology on (cis) women and female-only spaces. Yes, there is research into how transition helps those with gender dysphoria, but there has been little investigation into the effects of allowing biological males into female bathrooms on women and the potential dangers of doing so.

    I am genuinely concerned for the future if people insist on restricting academic freedom like this, and this instance of criticising a book before it has even been released is even more appalling. It’s very nice to see this blog support Moti Gorin’s letter and speak out against censorship.

    1. Thanks, L., but I’m not sure I understand your story.

      You were asked to give a persuasive speech about Topic X, of your choice? Teacher Y then vetoed (or effectively vetoed) X because they disagreed with the view you planned to present upon X? How is that proper teaching, for any value of X?

    2. That’s an interesting story. Before condemning the teacher, could it be that they were expressing their own view on the issue, and not reflect the actual veto-ing or grading of the task if you had gone ahead with the topic?

      From the sounds of it, you were interested in that topic, and so it could have been quite good for a presentation.

      1. “She said something along the lines of academics should not be allowed to do research that would harm society and compared the situation to race ‘science’ where people try to prove that e.g. one race is inherently smarter than another.”
        The old trick – make a false comparison of X to a clearly repugnant Y to support your own personal view of X. And then the teacher can justify down-grading a presentation on X. A wonderful example of social engineering by an authority figure. L clearly understands the situation.

        1. L may understand the situation, but I don’t, and you don’t. That’s why I (and Glen) asked for clarification.

  4. The letter is fun and pointed and very serious. Thanks for the post. By the way, apart from the irritating way that OUP described their reviewers, I thought their response was pretty good.

    1. Thanks, Dr. Mike. I only cooly love Quillette, but Lawford-Smith’s article is interesting, if a bit all over the place.

      For me, the fundamental aspects of the Lawford-Smith debacle are:

      *) The general perversion of Australian society, by what Guy Rundle has written of as the knowledge class;

      *) The general cultural poverty of Australian universities.

      (Of course these aspects are also relevant far beyond Australia.)

      I think Lawford-Smith largely misses the first point. She is right that universities must be considered somewhat differently, with much more tolerance given to “offensive” speech. But *all* professional workplaces are being perverted by identity politics, by the narcissism and the paranoia that it actively encourages.

      On the second point, Lawford-Smith is better, and she points to the fundamental failing here being that of the University of Melbourne. But she doesn’t go far enough or deep enough.

      I’ve been working on a post related to this second point. I have a backlog of “immediate” posts to do, but will try to get it up soon.

      1. Thanks for the quote, Marty. I wasn’t aware of the writings of Guy Rundle and had to spend some time learning what is ‘knowledge class’. The idea is interesting; Matt Goodwin recently published his “Values, Voice and Virtue.” It looks like Goodwin’s thesis of the ‘new elite’ intertwined with the concept of the ‘knowledge class’ of Guy Rundle. It actually explains a few things well. The mechanism of the influence of the ‘new elites/knowledge class’ and especially its economic background rhyme very well with the economy of content.

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