Deirdre McCloskey discusses upcoming debate with Michael Knowles, criticizes petition to cancel event


Image via Wikimedia Commons

Professor Deirdre McCloskey.

By Madison Dean, Senior Staff Writer

As a teacher, scholar, author and trans woman, Deirdre McCloskey said she has been “socially performing” as a woman for 27 years and has gotten involved in controversies about transgender issues. She uses her life experiences to debate about topics for transgender rights. 

“I don’t have to prepare for this debate,” McCloskey, a professor of economics, history, English and communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said. “My life is a preparation for it.” 

McCloskey will debate “transgenderism and womanhood” with Michael Knowles in an event hosted by Pitt’s College Republicans and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute on April 18. The debate is the third “anti-trans” event at Pitt that sparked a petition and protests across campus. 

Knowles’ desire for the government to intervene in family decisions, including those that involve the transitioning and protection of transgender children, is a big reason as to why McCloskey is participating in the upcoming debate. 

“One reason for me to enter into this silly debate and to go to Pittsburgh and inconvenience myself in all kinds of ways, and be threatened by this terrible crowd of people who are going to be there, is that I do think it’s worth raising vividly the issue of what the government should be allowed to do,” McCloskey said. 

While she has agreed to debate Knowles, McCloskey noted that Knowles’ conservative version of Catholicism and ideas about transgender issues are “nasty” and make her skeptical of the outcomes of the debate. 

“I think it’s going to be a silly debate,” McCloskey said. “It’s not going to be a debate at all.” 

A representative for Knowles did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the upcoming debate and his thoughts on student backlash. But Knowles did address the debate on his podcast episode on March 17 and said he chose to debate McCloskey because of her distinguished background. 

“I thought, all right, let’s pick the toughest one to beat,” Knowles said in the podcast. “Let’s pick the most erudite. Let’s have the debate in a way that’s going to be the most effective and present the strongest argument for transgenderism.” 

McCloskey said the debate will likely be a “crazy yelling contest” that fails to influence the audience’s thinking or advance the topics being discussed. 

“Now I’m not going to yell and I don’t think Mr. Knowles is so stupid as to yell,” McCloskey said. “The audience is going to yell. There’ll be pickets outside and blah, blah, blah. None of this is helpful.” 

In regards to Knowles’ thoughts about trans people, McCloskey said the “real cruelties” toward children that cause psychological problems come from starving or beating them, not from allowing them to choose and embrace the gender they feel most comfortable with. She said if a child is born female but wants to be a boy throughout childhood, preventing that child from becoming a boy could cause physical and psychological harm. 

“To make her go through adolescence and have her period, to develop secondary sexual characteristics and so on, and her growth stops earlier than her classmates, her boy classmates, this is real cruelty,” McCloskey said. 

While McCloskey said Knowles calling for the eradication of “transgenderism” is hateful and people should speak against his ideas, she thinks students should “get used to it” when it comes to debates about these topics. 

“That people recommended it’s a good idea to stop open conversation in a university because someone says something they don’t agree with is counter to the purposes, the noble purposes, of the University of Pittsburgh,” McCloskey said. “It’s a complete undermining of the ideals of Western civilization.” 

More than 11,000 people signed a petition to cancel the debate and other “anti-trans” events after trans and queer students raised concerns about their safety on campus. Nicholas Demjan, one student who helped create the petition, feels happy that the petition reached the attention of so many community members and even Pennsylvania lawmakers

“There’s definitely an overwhelming support of the message of the petition and even if the events don’t get canceled on campus, it at least shows the University that 11,000 people reject this kind of rhetoric that these speakers are perpetuating,” Demjan, a senior political science and history major, said. 

But according to McCloskey, universities are “supposed to disrespect people,” and each individual who signed the online petition should be “ashamed.” 

“Do any of these people actually know what they’re talking about?” McCloskey asked. “Ninety-nine percent don’t. One hundred [people] do because they’re transgender themselves.” 

McCloskey said signing the petition and opposing the debate only brings more attention to Knowles and strengthens his views. 

“Opposing him speaking is exactly what he wants because then the cruel conservatives, which he’s a good example [of], can say, ‘Ah, you see, those leftists, they don’t believe in free speech,’” McCloskey said. “That’s the kind of people they are. So you can see how stupid it is to oppose this.”