Wednesday 10 April 2019

What is not discussable?

Recently I was at a talk at a University by a transgender campaigner. This person (let's say Sam as nicely sex-ambiguous name*) made a very articulate and passionate case for a worldview that included the closing down of discussion, adding passionately: ‘I will not debate my right to exist.

Of course, Sam has every right to say such a thing on a university campus. What disturbed me rather more was that Sam was introduced with such a eulogy by a very senior member of the academic community, that it was clear that it would be foolhardy to express any view, or ask any question, that suggested that one did not subscribe to the ‘inclusive’ agenda as propounded.  But of course, nobody was proposing to debate Sam's existence - that was mere rhetoric. What some may have wanted to debate was Sam’s interpretation of Sam's, and others’, thoughts and behaviour (Sam made a very damning accusation of those who disagree with that worldview).

I find this severely problematic for at least two reasons. One is that the whole trans philosophy seems remarkably ill-founded to me. I don’t know what it feels like to be a man - only to be myself, who happens to be a man. I can see many ways in which I conform to some of the stereotypes about manliness, but many others in which I diverge from them. Indeed, as a boy I was subjected to much bullying for not being ‘manly’ enough. Given that, it is far from obvious to me how I could possibly ‘know’ that I was a woman? And I simply do not believe that it is possible to change from a man into a woman - or vice versa.

And that is particularly true, of course, of the young. We know that we all experience emotional turbulence and confusion during puberty and adolescence. The fact that there has been a sudden, massive surge in the number of teenage girls suddenly recognising that they are ‘really’ boys should at least give some pause for thought. Much of the trans agenda, at least as expressed by some activists, seems to me to be about conforming (or not) to stereotypical ideas of masculinity and femininity. Further, we know a lot about the malleability of the brain, and about social contagion. It is not for nothing that journalists and other commentators are very careful about how they report on suicides: social contagion is a real risk.  But some trans activists seem to be weaponising the risk of suicide recklessly, in pursuit of their agenda. 

Moreover, the whole issue of self-identification is profoundly problematic. To say that some may abuse such a system, whether it is men who want access to vulnerable women in hostels (or even prisons) or teenage boys who think sleeping in tents with teenage girls might be appealing, or not-quite-top sportsmen and athletes who see a sudden route to fame and riches, is to say nothing whatsoever about people who genuinely suffer from gender dysphoria. It is merely a reflection on the venality of some people and it is naive in the extreme to suggest that would never happen.

However, to raise these concerns is to be greeted with the accusation of transphobia: the debate is being shut down. Monday's articles in The Times have already resulted in strident accusations of that thought-crime.

And that is my second problem. I may well be wrong in my scepticism about the trans movement. But if we can’t discuss it in a civilised, intellectual, and coherent way, then I, and doubtless many others, will never be convinced.  We may be frightened into silence (I probably won’t be…) but that is not the same thing - and is in fact very dangerous. And surely, universities, of all places, should be where such issues should be discussed and debated. But so often, in an effort to show how inclusive they are, they have signed up with no intellectual scrutiny to the Stonewall agenda - one that many see as profoundly problematic on this topic. And then, discussion is stifled, as the academic at Bath found, who wanted to research (from a sympathetic viewpoint) those who detransitioned, and was prevented for doing so, because it might bring the institution into disrepute.

The stakes are high. If I am right, then there is a real risk that significant numbers of children are undergoing life-changing surgery, resulting in a life-long dependence on medication, sterility, and little likelihood of relief to their real and profound emotional and psychological distress. If I am wrong, then of course I should be educated - but by real research and evidence-based argument, not by a strident rhetoric, and accusations that I am a bigot for asking honest questions.

* I refrain from using any personal pronouns or other gender-specific language in this account, as on the one hand, I don’t want to be bullied into seeming to subscribe to an ideology that I do not share, but on the other hand, do not wish to be offensive. In passing, I note that in another verbal sleight of hand, ‘preferred’ pronouns are in fact being made compulsory pronouns…

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