No Place for Dissent

Eliminating Free Speech in Academia Isn’t Good for Students

In the past few years in the West, particularly in academic circles, assumptions about sexuality and gender have changed drastically. This is to state the obvious. Sex used to be commonly understood as a permanent bodily reality that nature assigned to each individual, with the masculine and feminine “genders” corresponding appropriately. Men and women were regarded as different in body and function. In today’s academy, however, biological sex is not seen as real or even relevant, and gender can be freely chosen, even among children. Judith Butler writes, “The idea of gender opens toward a form of political freedom that would allow people to live with their “given” or “chosen” gender without discrimination and fear.”[1] Butler puts the transgenderism debate into terms of civil liberties, claiming that people should have the freedom and right to choose their gender identity regardless of biological characteristics. Pushback against this new understanding of sexuality and the supreme role of individual choice is considered the old thinking of harmful traditional norms.

Butler and other prominent gender theorists have articulated a historically novel view of human sexuality and gender that has found successful footing in academic discourse. In fact, their views have become so dominant a force in the American consciousness that President Biden enacted an executive order on transgender rights the first day he was in office. However, their position has not gone uncontested or questioned, and religious conservatives are not the lone group in the dissent. Free speech advocates are involved in it too. Jo Phoenix, a criminology professor, was scheduled to give a lecture on biological males identifying as female in women’s prisons at Essex University, where she was shouted down by angry students who “threatened to barricade the hall.” Essex decided to postpone the event. The incident was later investigated by employment and discrimination lawyer Akua Reindorf, who concluded that Essex was in clear violation of Ms. Phoenix’s right to free expression.

Considering this is not an isolated incident, it is worth asking why transgender activism has reached the point where its advocates exclude someone from even speaking thoughtfully on a contentious topic. The new assumptions about sex and gender do not comprise one viewpoint among others, but actually police and restrict every other voice out there. Per the Economist, “After students at Abertay University in Dundee reported that a student had said at a seminar that women have vaginas and men are stronger, the university launched an investigation.”[2] This straightforward understanding, once considered scientific and factual, is off limits. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt notes this is because such social movements are religious: any dissent is seen as blaspheming the sacred despite any kind of opposing evidence. It is all about tribal membership and defending the purity of the group.

While transactivists might delegate dissenting viewpoints to the “alt-right” camp, this is an area where feminists and social conservatives share common ground. Lesbian YouTuber Arielle Scarcella is just one of many unlikely people who have defended biological sex, claiming that if there is no sex, there are no women, and therefore, no women’s rights. Bringing up valid points such as these is crucial on our college campuses today, where students are hearing only one-sided sentiments and are not being challenged to think honestly and critically about subjects that really matter to society. In addition, academia should be boiling over with debates from all sides of the spectrum. Imagine if Marxism, communism, and critical theory were taught not as the essential ways to see the world, but merely options among many other worldviews. What if professors had the freedom to ask challenging questions about literally everything? This isn’t to say biases will disappear, but students would be encouraged to think for themselves and become more confident and reasonable citizens in the long run.

[1] Judith Butler: the backlash against “gender ideology” must stop (

[2] A backlash against gender ideology is starting in universities | The Economist

Peter Biles is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories. He graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 2019 and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications, including Plough, Dappled Things, The Gospel Coalition, Salvo, and Breaking Ground.

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