Win A Copy Of “Trouble With Gender: Sex Facts, Gender Fictions” By Alex Byrne
Plus, a sorta-review
I’m thrilled to be able to give away three copies of MIT philosopher Alex Byrne’s book, Trouble with Gender: Sex Facts, Gender Fictions. If you already know the basic story of this book, already know you want a copy, and don’t want to read some of my own thoughts on it and the surrounding controversies, feel free to search down to “Contest Rules/Entry Instructions.” Also, whether or not you enter, you should order it if you’re in the UK or preorder it if you’re in the U.S. or Canada. By the end of this post it’ll be clear why I’m recommending this book so enthusiastically, and it’s very important, especially in the context of this particular book, to send the publishing world a strong message that of course readers want honest, thoughtful work on these sorts of subjects. (Update: Apparently if you have a Kindle you can read it immediately in North America by ordering it in that format!)
I have read Trouble with Gender and it is excellent. I know like a breath of fresh air is perhaps the cliché-est cliché in all of Clichésville, but the fact of the matter is that our national conversation about sex and gender and gender identity is completely hamstrung by dumb and incoherent language games. Some of the biggest and most influential players in this space often refuse to even define their terms, let alone use them consistently, or to even try to make clear exactly what they’re arguing when they argue. Often that’s a feature, not a bug. “Gender” has become this bloated area of public pseudointellectual life where mediocre activists and academics gain clout and speaking fees babbling nonsense and shouting half-baked slogans.
Trouble with Gender is, in part, an attempt to simply fix that — to make arguments about sex and gender and gender identity based on careful definitions and rigorous philosophical thinking (in part by acknowledging that the very concept of “gender” now means a trillion different things and is often quite useless at explaining any of them). Byrne succeeds wildly. Unlike all too many philosophers, the dude can seriously write for a lay audience, and as a result Trouble with Gender is a pleasure to read, whether he’s discussing the history of transgender medicine, critiquing Judith Butler, or digging into biology.
Some of my favorite bits came early on, during a searing critique Byrne levels against his own field. As he argues, you’d think if anyone could help us sort through the ongoing gender revolution (or “revolution”), it would be philosophers. Yet, with scant exceptions, their response to this moment has been anything but productive: many have maintained complete silence (perhaps of the terrified variety), while others have actually worked tirelessly to sabotage any substantive conversation about a host of new (or newly popular) claims, many of them societally significant, that deviate from a very essentialist progressive orthodoxy.
I mean, just read Byrne’s own account of the gauntlet he had to run to even get this book published — it’s insane! It was supposed to be published by Oxford University Press, but some of the worst elements in left-of-center philosophy got involved, attempting to raise a hysterical ruckus. It worked. Eventually, after submitting the full-length manuscript, Byrne was told by his publisher Trouble with Gender wouldn’t be published at all because “the book does not treat the subject in a sufficiently serious and respectful way.” OUP pointed out no errors, and Byrne was not allowed to do a round of revisions, as would normally be customary at this phase of the academic publishing process.
Thankfully, Polity stepped up, and we’ll all benefit as a result. If the final product bears even a second-cousin–level relationship to the manuscript Byrne submitted to OUP, the idea that he did not “not treat the subject in a sufficiently serious and respectful way” is calumny. Well, I guess not technically calumny since it was a private utterance Byrne chose to reveal, but calumny is a good word and I’m not going all of 2023 without using it.
Anyway, don’t take it from me that this book is worth reading — take it from this blurb written by an up-and-coming Ivy League psychologist who I think has some real potential:
Alex Byrne masterfully does what philosophers are supposed to do: clarify words and concepts, identify which ideas follow from which other ones, and distinguish what is from what ought to be. And despite the now incendiary subject matter, he accomplishes all this with a light touch and an appealing voice.
Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of Rationality
I cosign every word of that.
Now, I should acknowledge that over the years I’ve become friends with Byrne through our discussions about various aspects of this subject. He also invited me to give a talk about youth gender medicine at MIT about a year ago, which I did and enjoyed. In addition, he cites me in Trouble with Gender and thanks me in the acknowledgements. I’m a human being so there’s always the potential for bias, and when my preexisting relationship with someone I’m writing about reaches a certain threshold, you, the reader, have a right to that information. But I do think this book is excellent and will be right up the alley of many of my readers.
A final point before we get to the contest rules and entry instructions: I mentioned on Blocked and Reported that I was disappointed, at my recent UCLA talk on youth gender medicine, that none of my critics there asked me any tough questions, despite the fact that they were on the scene (tabling outside, and two apparently sitting in the back) and had attempted to get the event canceled. They seemed to be mostly grad students — who better to intelligently challenge an invited speaker and expose him as a charlatan, or at least as ill-prepared? And yet not a peep.
I do think the present, extremely sorry state of philosophy when it comes to sex and gender can be partly explained by the contagious allergy to debate and discussion of difficult subjects that has been contracted by so many thinkers and activists, especially younger ones. One particular low point of the meltdown within philosophy that Byrne recounts in his book came when three scholars who are on the progressive-orthodox side of the gender-identity debate, two of them philosophers, retracted their contributions to an online debate on sex and gender and gender identity, complaining of the “non-consensual co-platforming” they had endured. In other words: their words had appeared online, alongside other words they disagreed with written by another philosopher.
You can see why that would be deeply upsetting to a philosopher; I hope they’ve all recovered. You can also see why there are so many silly arguments thriving in this ecosystem — fewer and fewer people are meaningfully testing their ideas in “competitive” settings!
Contest Rules/Entry Instructions
Polity has generously agreed to give away three copies to Singal-Minded readers. You fill out this 30-second form (edit: entries closed! link deleted!), your info goes on a spreadsheet, I use a random number generator to select rows, I check to make sure the corresponding email addresses are actually subscribers, I connect the winners with Polity, badaboom. I can guarantee you your entry will be considered if you send it in by midnight between Tuesday and Wednesday, but not if you send it in later. E-books are doable if and only if you’re cool with the following, which Byrne sent me via his publisher: “As far as giving away e-books, we’d need to send something DRM-protected for security, and this would come in the form of an e-book compatible with the Vital Source platform (this is what Wiley uses for all e-books purchased or comped directly through them, so we don’t have much choice in that regard). We can’t give away the sort of Kindle version that someone would download from Amazon because that type of giveaway would have to come from Amazon, not us. So the options would be either hard copies or a Vital Source e-book.”
You have to be at least a free Singal-Minded subscriber to win a copy, and you have a slightly better chance if you’re a paying subscriber, because the final copy is only going to someone who shows up as a paying subscriber. What better time to upgrade? Plus, it’s almost Thanksgiving, and as all my American readers know, it’s a long-standing tradition to buy your loved ones newsletter subscriptions for that holiday.
The contest is open to U.S., UK, and Canadian readers. One nice perk of this particular giveaway is that according to Byrne, North American winners will probably get their copy before it’s even out — he told me it’s fair to say they will get their books before Christmas, even though the listed U.S. pub date is January 3.
Enter! And also order — if you win, you can always give someone your extra copy as a Christmas/Hanukkah/gender reveal gift.
Questions? Comments? Non-consensual co-platforming complaints? I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org. Image: “Hands holding pink female symbol and blue male symbol - stock illustration” by Malte Mueller via Getty.