On a winter’s day in 1553, in the plain of Champel at the gates of Geneva, Michael Servetus was burned alive by the city fathers, with the enthusiastic support of the religious reformer John Calvin.
His crime was to reject the doctrines of the Trinity and infant baptism as unbiblical.
The Inquisition also burned his books in effigy, to annihilate not only the heretic but also his heresy and his influence.
In the 21st century, burning people is no longer an option – but trying to butcher them and incinerate their ideas certainly is.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the dispute over the status of transgender people, especially transgender women – who are physiologically male but experience themselves as female.
Two recent incidents have highlighted the return of medieval-style speech control on this subject: an attempt by the University of Cape Town students to muzzle Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; and the hunt for philosophy professor Kathleen Stock at the University of Sussex in the UK.
Servetus was condemned by Catholics and their Calvinist enemies, pointing to the impulse of all state religions to force adherence to dogma – by shedding blood, if necessary.
This may be an echo of the sanctions of primitive societies against individual deviants who, by provoking divine wrath, were perceived as threatening the collective. In Sophocles’ famous play, the plague strikes the city of Thebes after the unholy transgressions of Oedipus.
The decisive departure came 1,500 years later with the great rationalists of enlightenment — Voltaire, Locke, Jefferson and others – who democratized the pursuit of knowledge by emphasizing observation, rational argument, and the testing of ideas through public debate.
Truth would no longer be the prerogative of a cabal of ignorant clerics. By promoting freedom of inquiry, the Enlightenment paved the way for a flourishing of scientific understanding and technology.
Darwinian evolution may be a matter of scholarly consensus, but Wahhabi Saudi Arabia will not allow it to be taught. Many American evangelicals would also ban his teaching if the Constitution, an Enlightenment document, did not stand in their way.
Seven US states still ban atheists from holding office; 13 countries, all Islamic, carry them out.
Then, the “New Left” shifted the focus of class politics back to a growing preoccupation with race and gender, setting off a new cycle of what Islamists call takfir- the denunciation of apostasy.
UCT students tried to shut down Adichie’s address because she thinks “trans women are trans women” — in short, biologically male. Stock, a lesbian feminist, has resigned from the University of Sussex after ‘a horrific time for me and my family’, including placard protests demanding ‘Stock out!’, ostracism, death threats and abuse in line.
Stock and like-minded people think sex is inescapable. Men who “feel” they’re female and want to transition can’t – and surgery doesn’t make a difference.
Against them are LGBTQ+ adherents who talk about gender rather than sex and who deny that femininity is biologically determined. They see the exclusion of trans people as a form of secondary victimization.
The Lesbian, Bisexual and Gay Alliance, of which Stock is a director, is controversial, with some Labor Party members accusing it of “transphobia”.
She denies being transphobic and is said to respect her trans students and their personal pronouns. In her writings, she affirmed the right of trans people “to live their lives free from fear, violence, harassment or… discrimination”.
But she insists that, primarily for political and legal reasons, “gender transition” cannot change the underlying biological reality.
The substance of the controversy is not addressed here. What is at issue is that Stock was harassed for expressing her ideas.
His tormentors didn’t deny it – in fact, they seem to be proud of it. “A massive win for LGBTQ+ students in Sussex today… Let’s take a minute to appreciate this,” an Instagram account representing trans students gloated after his resignation.
The campaign against her goes beyond a handful of Sussex students. When she was awarded the OBE for services to education in 2019, 600 academics signed a letter of protest.
Significantly, Stock describes his experience in Sussex as “medieval”, telling The Guardian that “instead of arguing with me, using reason, evidence, the traditional academic method”, hostile colleagues inflamed students by calling her a bigot on social media and telling them “I’m hurting to trans students.
Incitement to violence and demonstrable risk of harm are widely accepted limits on freedom of expression, and many trans people have faced attacks.
But the university found no evidence. Clearing Stock – who had 18 years of service – of “serious falsehood”, she complained that she had not been granted the right “to work … without bullying or harassment”.
A curious contradiction is that protesters in Sussex, intensely gripped by trans rights, have been unmoved by the years-long harassment of a lone academic.
The anonymity, to which the Internet lends itself, has reinforced the effect of intimidation. During the placard protests, students reportedly wore masks.
Another characteristic of heresy hunting is the dehumanization of the heretic through caricature and “defamation.” Activists barricaded a recent conference to cries of “Terf [trans-exclusionary radical feminists] fascists out of our streets!
The fascists Stock and Adichie? Please! South Africans who have lived there know what fascism does: it hangs prisoners from ninth-floor windows by their ankles, and sometimes lets go…
Intellectual freedom remains a tender flower in human society and is suppressed or besieged in large parts of the world.
Besides Servetus, its many historical martyrs include a Renaissance scholar Giordano Bruno, burned by the Inquisition on a pile of his own books, and the English Puritan William Pryne, marked on the face with the letters SL – “seditious libeler” – and his pierced tongue.
In Britain, the Stock saga played into the Conservative Party’s ‘culture war’ strategy – right-wing tabloids and universities minister Michelle Donelan predictably climbed on top of it, attacking ‘the toxic environment” from Sussex.
By contrast, the Labor Party kept its lead well below the parapet. The only recorded response was an evasive statement from Shadow Equality Minister Taiwo Owatemi that she was “concerned” about Stock’s tutelage over the LGB Alliance, but was not passing judgment on her academic work or n called for action against her.
Nothing about his ordeal or his academic freedom.
One would think that attempts to stifle a basic human right would concern the modern democratic left, just as its Enlightenment ancestors fought against autos-da-fé and burnt books.
In fact, he gave up the field to his far-right opponents, allowing them to pose, improbably, as champions of freedom of thought and expression.