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Friday, Mar 24, 2023

I was praised for my “civility” after I disagreed with Dr. Peter Kreeft. Reality is more complicated.

“I believe in God, and the right to self-determination of transgender people. Do you see a contradiction in my beliefs? Can I still be a Christian?”

This is the question I asked Dr. Peter Kreeft, a recent campus speaker who was invited by the Newman Catholic Club, and whose views I deeply disagree with. Dr. Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College, has recently become known for addressing “transgenderism” at Catholic forum events. His words attempt to portray trans people, and what they do with their own bodies, as repulsive and immoral.  For example, Kreeft has described gender transition as “surgical mutilation.” His personal website also showcases his opposition to gay marriage, the equality of women and men in the Church, feminism and abortion.

My goal in engaging Dr. Kreeft was to engage with those attending the presentation by modeling an alternative to his bigotry. I often describe myself as a progressive Christian, and I see the unconditional uplifting of marginalized peoples as a central pillar of my faith. As a gender-nonconforming person, the exploration of my gender identity and my gradual liberation from shame has brought me closer to divine love, not separated me from it.

Dr. Kreeft’s invitation undermined a Middlebury community in which transgender people are valued, respected and treated as equals. All difficult conversations require a baseline of mutual respect that Dr. Kreeft repeatedly failed to meet. During our exchange, Dr. Kreeft repeatedly questioned my cited statistics about the epidemic of violence against trans people — particularly Black and Indigenous trans people of color. He even went so far as to ask me why he hadn’t read about these murders in the Boston Globe — although the Globe published a list of murdered Black trans people just a few months ago.

While I personally found Dr. Kreeft’s ignorance unsurprising, I found his resistance to new information to be genuinely irresponsible and shocking. When I told him that his presence on campus had made LGBTQ+ students feel unsafe, he scoffed at me. He then labeled trans-ness a “controversial issue” and asked: “Why should that controversial issue make you feel unsafe?” In resisting empirical facts and rebuffing my vulnerable and honest account of my community’s feelings, Dr. Kreeft proved himself unworthy of Middlebury’s academic environment, which prides itself on evidence and care.

I know that Dr. Kreeft’s presentation will provoke yet another round of the free speech debate on campus. My personal feelings on the free speech debate are complicated. Before I came out — that is to say, before I publicly held a marginalized identity — I’d often wish that members of opposing groups on campus could just find a way to get along, or at least seek civil discussion. Today, I understand that however much some may complain about excessive “wokeness,” campus discourse is often tilted against the marginalized.

If you’re skeptical of that last point, try thinking of it this way: In the current paradigm of academia, it can be easier to call into question the basic rights of a group of people — to make those rights “debatable” — than to consistently and actively humanize that group. Due to the very nature of the profession, it’s sometimes easier for academics to “deconstruct” the debate over trans rights into a series of arguments, philosophies or data sets than it is to affirm trans people’s fundamental humanity. This year, we’ve seen this attitude reflected in the anti-trans actions of state legislatures across the country.

In practice, this deconstruction is aided by three factors: first, a reluctance to empathize; second, the weaponization of ignorance — I’ve never heard of that, and I think I’m well-informed, so how can you be right?; and third, an overreliance on hard, decontextualized “data” that too often reflects biased power relations and marginalization more than truth.

All three of these deep flaws of intellect form the foundation of Dr. Kreeft’s anti-trans arguments. For example, when I told Kreeft that LGBTQ+ people were uneasy about his presence on campus, he refused to empathize with me. When Kreeft questioned my statistics on violence against transgender people, he attempted to weaponize his ignorance against me.

The last of Kreeft’s argumentative flaws — his reliance on decontextualized “data” — requires a bit more recap from our conversation to explain. Kreeft’s introductory argument against trans people relied on a convenient separation between the body and the mind. According to Kreeft, “the only two possible solutions” for an individual uncomfortable with their gender “are either to change the mind or to change the body — which of those two is the more irreversible?” This is a convenient position easily disproved by the fact that the brain and body are deeply connected in ways we are just beginning to understand. Kreeft also conflated one’s sex chromosomes and the gender binary— another scientific “fact” that is actually far more nuanced (sex determination in humans is not a binary process).

Both of these rhetorical points — just two in a patchy web Kreeft attempted to weave during our debate — derive their power from decontextualized, outdated assumptions. It’s clear to me that the only thing stringing that “data” together was ideology. Flaws in academic thought make it all too easy for bigots like Kreeft to prioritize such ideologies of supremacy over the truth of equality. We must demand, and commit ourselves to, a healthier relationship with evidence.

But wait, I can hear some of you saying, aren’t many arguments in favor of trans rights intellectual in nature? Yes, some of the more academic arguments for trans-ness respond to the need to defend trans rights in a dehumanized setting. But trans people’s accounts of their experiences, and the positive outcomes of their being treated how they wish, should be evidence enough for what side is correct here.

I won’t argue that Dr. Kreeft should have been barred from speaking; I don’t believe that. Rather, I wish he’d never been invited, that the Newman Catholic Club’s leadership had entertained the most basic of consideration for their LGBTQ+ peers. If we are going to exist in a community with one another, we all should put our best foot forward in inviting open-hearted, respectful speakers to campus — traits Dr. Kreeft did not display during his (virtual) time here. In practice, this means taking the time to properly vet speakers and asking them difficult questions. Are you willing to have your mind changed during your presentation? Will you bring your full and vulnerable self to the table in addition to your intellectual arguments?

Finally, for those eager to criticize the backlash against Dr. Kreeft, I’d only ask that you take a moment to think about any marginalized identities you might hold and how you’d feel if a vocal opponent of your identity visited campus. Then proceed with your critique. You have a right to your opinion on this, and I have a right to mine.

But next time this happens? If you want a civil, free exchange of ideas, choose your speaker carefully, and please pick a better candidate than Dr. Kreeft.

Hazel Culwell is a member of the class of 2023.5.