Friday 29 March 2024

What do I think?

My late father, who died when I was only 17, had a keen wit and a sceptical turn of mind. One of his favourite sayings was: 'There are two reasons for everything: the good reason and the real reason.'

I thought of this as I was reflecting on the education programme in the 1970s (I think it was) called Helping Youth Decide. It was based on the then-trendy ideas of values clarification, stemming from the work of Carl Rogers.  Its good reason was to encourage young people to make decisions based on their values - with regard to tobacco usage and drugs, for example.  

Its real reason - well, according to Dr William Coulson, long-time friend and colleague of Carl Rogers, it was funded by Philip Morris, the tobacco giants whose best-selling product is Marlboro. In Coulson's view, the tobacco industry had realised that nobody with a fully mature brain was going to take up smoking, so they needed to get to people whose brains were not fully mature - teenagers. 

Helping Youth Decide (later re-branded as Helping Youth Say No and promoted by the Tobacco Institutewas a way of teaching them, and the adults who should be looking out for them, that adults' views and values are irrelevant to their decisions. Meanwhile, of course, Philip Morris continued to spend millions of dollars inviting them to 'Come to Marlboro country.'  So their commitment to a non-directive approach was, how can we say this, a little selective.

All this came back to me (from a talk I heard William Coulson give many years ago) when I was thinking about the trans issue.

Assiduous readers of my posts may have noticed that I keep circling around this: it troubles me.  In part, it troubles me because I see the toxicity with which the issue tends to be discussed (particularly on social media) and the polarisation (particularly in Higher Education, where most of my work is done) that surrounds it.  But deeper than that, it troubles me because I fear that serious harm is being done.

At this point, of course, it would be easy to dismiss me as a transphobe.

But that is precisely the problem, in my eyes: tactics designed to shut down any discussion, and the reduction of this complex set of issues to a simple goodies versus baddies narrative that loses all nuance.

Yet I think it is complex; and I have no generalised fear of, or hatred of, people who identify as trans (or non-binary or anything else). I only wish them well; but I believe that we must seek truth, as well as offer care, if we are to achieve good ends for them and for society more broadly. That is why I see 'No debate' as a very bad approach.  As the Cass Review's interim report makes clear, 'There is lack of consensus and open discussion about the nature of gender dysphoria and therefore about the appropriate clinical response.

So in this post (and others that may follow) I thought I'd throw caution to the wind, and think out loud about that complexity; and if a nuanced approach offends anyone... well it is of course their right to be offended; but again, I think that the instinct to be offended at ideas that differ from ours is not a helpful one.

One of my concerns, then, is that I think well-meaning teachers who used the Letting Youth Decide programme with teenagers may have done great harm, by withdrawing from their adult responsibilities and teaching teenagers that whether to smoke or take drugs was a choice they should make as autonomous individuals. The result for many: addiction to tobacco (or worse) and the long term likelihood of severe health outcomes.  

Likewise, I think that well-meaning teachers who teach children counter-factual ideas (such as 'sex is a spectrum') may also be doing great harm.

In the first case, they ignored the huge pressures (from Philip Morris' and others' relentless advertising campaigns, and the need to look cool in front of peers) that meant that teenagers (whose brains, remember, are not yet fully developed) were unlikely always to make wise choices.

I fear that in the second case, we may have something similar; distressed teenagers who are under huge pressures (from social media influencers, and a need to find acceptance among their - often online - peer group) may reach conclusions that are neither accurate, nor in their best interests. And the results may be unnecessary double mastectomies and lifelong dependency on a drug regime that may result in sterility, loss of sexual function and other unwanted consequences. How many Keira Bells does it take?...

And for teachers to undermine truth by taking a naive, ideologically-driven approach (albeit with the best of intentions) risks many other serious unintended consequences. One, of course, is to undermine trust, both from parents and children. Another, is to de-stabilise children's sense of their own identity. 

We know that the young brain develops fast, particularly in early years, and again in puberty and adolescence. (The Oxford Brain Story is very good on making the research on this accessible). We should pay serious heed to this well-established knowledge, and banish the notion that children are 'born trans' - a proposition for which there is no evidence whatsoever. Instead, we should offer children clarity about the basic reality that they are born male or female, and that is stable (for the vast majority). Seeking to normalise the abnormal is irresponsible and dangerous. Of course there are exceptions, and they should be dealt with on an exceptional basis.

I return, finally, to my father's dictum, about the good reason and the real reason.  Why is the trans agenda being pushed so hard?  The good reason is that there are genuinely a small number of people who, for reasons we don't know, but most probably springing from damaged psychosexual development at an early age (and again we know the research about Adverse Childhood Experiences...) have a profound sense of dysphoria with regard to the sex they were born - and we should do nothing to make their lives harder. And I am sure that for many, that is also the real reason.

But for others, particularly some of the activists and activist groups (and their financial backers), I do wonder, what is the real reason?  Is it the huge profitability of this market, as some suggest?  Is it the need for those who have gone down this track (for themselves or their children) to validate their choices?  Is it the need for progressives to be progressive, to show that they are at the cutting edge; and for others to try to keep up, so that they are not perceived as lacking in 'inclusion'?  Is it the need for transgressives to be transgressive, come to that? Or some other reason I can't discern? Or some combination of the above?  I don't know - but I think the questions should be asked.

Of course, I could be wrong about any or all of this, and if you think that I am, I would be very interested to hear why you think so.  As I say, one of my major concerns is that we should be able to discuss these contested issues with clarity and charity.

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