Michael Biggs: academics need to have the integrity to say what they think

Last week, NEWTON was delighted to host Dr. Michael Biggs at the Management and Social Science Congress. Dr. Biggs, a renowned sociologist from the University of Oxford, gave a thought-provoking lecture on ‘Authenticity and Identity: The Transgender Revolution’, shedding light on the origins and evolution of the transgender movement. His lecture sparked an interesting dialogue on the complexities of gender identity and we are thrilled that he also took the time to speak to NEWTON Today, giving us the opportunity to delve deeper into his research and insights.

Thank you again, Michael, for talking to me this morning. My first question concerns authenticity, the theme of yesterday's congress. I think a lot of people, especially young people, would say that they feel increasing flexibility around their ability to self-define their gender, and that it has increased their ability to live authentically, and to present themselves in a way that aligns with their identity. Is that an opinion you’ve encountered in the research you've carried out on the transgender community?

Yes, that would be the argument. That, with more and more labels, you can find one that fits your authentic self. And I think we have to be a bit sceptical about that, because, the more labels there are, the more obsessed you can become with finding the right label. So you often find narratives of young people compulsive labelling themselves, and this entails interrogation of the self, which means that you are focused entirely on yourself and not on other people or on your social relationships. And, in fact, this also often goes along with parasocial relationships on Twitter. So you [identify as] a ‘demisexual aromantic’, and therefore you get in touch with your network — that is, with other people on social media who have the same identity. But that may not be the same as forging deep social ties of friendship, and familial ties, which are also important in people's lives. So it encourages a kind of rumination on yourself, which may not be helpful. And it also may not be helpful for your mental health, because, along with increasing flexibility, we find young people having worse and worse mental health, and maybe the two are not entirely unconnected.

So do you think the very idea of personal authenticity might be incompatible with being engaged with the community and being outward looking?

Yes, exactly. This is like, “I'm defining myself” and you say that there's an increase in flexibility, but actually there's also a flip side of it that's inflexible, because if I define myself as asexual, you must accept that label, even if I'm doing things that might may contradict that. So, for example, there are people who define themselves as polyamorous asexuals, and that seems a contradiction. But if you were to say that that might be a contradiction, that person would become very upset, because “who are you to challenge my identity?”. So it becomes a unilateral imposition. It's not just “I'm defining myself” but “I'm defining myself and you must support it”. You can't interrogate or question [their identity], or perhaps be a bit more sceptical.

This actually brings us quite neatly onto the subject of freedom of speech. For you, is the right to refuse to use a label someone's given themselves a freedom of speech matter?

Yes. It obviously depends on the circumstances and, generally, I think you should use the label. For example, a woman yesterday said “I'm queer”, and it’s absolutely fine to say she's queer, right? However, there may be times when you don't want to, for example, call a male a woman, because it may be important in certain contexts, like in athletics, for example, or in terms of prison placement. So you might be able to say that this is a male person who identifies as a woman. So it's not a matter of saying “I refuse to use this person's label”, but that I also might want to use other labels that the person may not want me to use.

So for you, this is less a matter of personal freedom of speech, it’s more about being able to have these kinds of conversations at a societal level?

Yes, but I think the two are completely linked, because, in some ways, once you can no longer describe reality as you see it — and obviously my view of reality is not the same as somebody else's view of reality — but, once you're not allowed to actually describe what you see, then you reach situations where can't process social conflicts or political conflicts.

My next question is about academic freedom. Yesterday we heard about a very extreme example of a threat to academic freedom from Dr. Hassan. Do you think academic freedom is also under threat in Europe?

Yes, especially in English speaking countries, I think. Of course, it pales into insignificance compared to the kind of threats that Dr. Hasan was talking about. The threats [in English speaking countries] really come partly because academics don't have the integrity to state what they think, or they're too afraid of losing social relationships, or losing prestige, or being [criticised in the] news [media], or losing students. And I think academics have to be a lot more robust in defending the right to make arguments — not, obviously, to say things willfully to be offensive — but to make empirical arguments, or theoretical arguments that some students might find offensive or upsetting. That's part of what being in a university entails. 

Do you think there is a difference between the way freedom of speech and freedom of expression should be defended on university campuses compared to in the wider world and online?

Yeah, I think universities exist to perceive the truth, so in some sense the freedom to say what you believe, and to interrogate ideas and to discuss things, and to have controversial ideas is absolutely central to their function, because otherwise they just become a kind of propaganda machinery, rather than a [a place to] pursue the truth wherever it leads — and [that entails] the ability to critique, and requires you sometimes to say things that other people will find offensive or upsetting.

So then, do you think there are some things that it’s okay for an academic to say on a university campus, but that it's less okay to say online or in the street? Or maybe there’s a line when somebody maybe directs a statement at someone, rather than talking in the abstract? Where do you think we should draw a line?

I think that's a very good distinction you draw. [If] I write a blog post that says something that somebody finds offensive, that's one thing. But, of course, if I email them or say to their face, “I think it's a load of nonsense when you call yourself a pansexual,” then of course that's very different, and that could be harassment. They could say, “Hey, get out of my face.” But if, as a lecturer, I say, “Well, I'm not sure about the concept of pansexual. What does it actually mean?” then that's very different. So I think that's an important distinction. 
Part of the problem is that, before social media, people would have conversations in a pub and nobody would know about them. They might be saying things outside of work that people might object to, amongst their mates. But now if you're having [that conversation] on Twitter, then anybody can see it.
I think one important principle might be that, if you have a social media account which does not name your employer, then I think employers should not be policing that account. But if you do name your employer, if you say, “this is the Twitter account of Dr. Biggs, University of Oxford”, then I'm getting the prestige of the University of Oxford, so it's fair enough if the University of Oxford [says that I’m not] free to say certain things. On the other hand, [if] I just say “this is the account of Michael Biggs”, then I think there should be much less policing of that by employers, and I think that would be a good rule. 

Thank you very much for talking to me today. Are there any final comments or thoughts you want to share?

No, just, thanks for inviting me here. It's been great to meet the other scholars in the conference and the students as well. So yeah, I've enjoyed it.

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