I’ve been following and writing about the “TERF War” (transgender debate / gender wars) for about 8 years now, since 2015 when I read Alice Dreger’s “Galileo’s Middle Finger“, her book about her expert practitioner – and very personal – involvement in “The Controversy Surrounding The Man Who Would Be Queen: A Case History of the Politics of Science, Identity, and Sex in the Internet Age.” (Pub Med 2008).
That title, pretty much sums up the reason for my original and ongoing interest – the corruption of 21st C science, and human rationality more generally, infected by identity politics and the memetic stranglehold of bad ideas too easily spread by both naive innocents and activists with agendas armed with real-time electronic media. That’s my whole agenda here on Psybertron quite independent of the Transgender, Intersex and Dysphoria subject matter. Amidst all the other woke / anti-woke, identity (and other) polarising politics of the past decade (#Brexit / #Trump / #ClimateCrisis anyone), not to mention any number of actual scientific controversies, #TERFWar was my exemplary cause-celebre. Just an example, but a very important one – a case history to use Alice’s words. So I was pretty vocal in what I wrote and communicated for several years.
I stopped about a year ago, after seeing Kathleen Stock talking sense at what turned out to be a very uncontroversial session at HTLGI2022 and after Alison Bailey winning her employment tribunal. Sense was apparently prevailing, and there were plenty of brave, articulate and well-informed women, gays, lesbians and yes, actual trans, taking the political battle forward in the face of the deranged, cultish TRA ideologues. No-one needs a straight beardy white guy mansplaining – whilst I nevertheless continue to support by sharing and promoting those voices. I could list them all, maybe I should, but you know who you are.
Sense has continued to prevail, though many more brave women have faced the physical and very personal threats of the ideologues. I’m prompted to write some actual content today, by the fact that yesterday Kathleen Stock succeeded in speaking eloquently in Oxford, and by the screening yesterday of Channel 4’s “Gender Wars” (which includes Stock speaking previously in Cambridge) after a year in which we have seen the Tavistock, Mermaids, Stonewall, and the rest getting their come-uppances. Onward and upward.
For me it’s time to ensure the right subtleties get into the dialogues. Despite appearances and the wishes of ideologues, this was never a simple binary battle to be won or lost. Several distinct points I wish to make about how much of the dialogue is cast as a debate about rights.
Firstly, the inane “Trans Rights are Human Rights” mantra. Obviously being humans Trans have the same rights as any other human. But human rights are not unconditional for any of us. All rights come with responsibilities and a duty of care to fellow humans, many of whom have protected characteristics, some of whom are minors. It’s by concensus and convention protected in law that conflicts between different humans and rights are settled.
Secondly, one specific rights example I have found very disappointing.
— The Cambridge Union (@cambridgeunion) May 30, 2023
Freedom of (thought and) expression is very high in the hierarchy of UN protected rights and this has been central to much of the recent conflict. Parties that provide platforms have their own rights about who they invite and who they don’t, but no individuals or groups with counter opinions has the right to cancel or prevent the free-speech rights of others. Other than expressed opinions that stand as “hate speech”, or hateful intimidations in behaviour (or para-military concealed-identities), the one free-speech right that was highlighted here (by Cambridge Union, not Stock herself) was “the right to offend“. An important right sure enough, but very much about the process during dialogue rather than the substantive content. The right to offend is not the same as it being right to cause offence. Dialogue must always aim to defuse offence, and remains incomplete until it does, on both sides of any disagreement. Truth and reconciliation.
Thirdly, the right to exist? Another aspect of the ideology is the idea of “no LGB without the TQI+”. Anyone suggesting that that’s misguided is hyperbolically accused of “genocide” in somehow failing to support the existence of Trans, actively promoting their non-existence. Laughable, but sad, mad and dangerous. It is of course central to the whole dialogue that sex, gender and sexuality (and maturity) are recognised as having distinct biological and sociological reasons to exist. They all exist, but their reasons are different. Lumping them into one alphabet-soup acronym conflates these important differences. #GoodFences.
Fourthly, finally and most importantly imho, another sense of right – the more right-wing end of the political spectrum? We could debate whether left<>right was as useful as liberal<> authoritarian as a political compass these days, but there is a growing left<>right problem in both media and politics that is much greater that this Trans controversy. It’s killing so much democratic politics. Largely because the whole controversy is cast as a polarised rights debate and rights being cast by the woke as response to perceived oppression and injustice, it is inevitable that the more left/liberal parties and media side with the rights at the expense of the many more subtle responsibilities. The whole nazi / bigot accusations arise because the sane and the evil appear to be on the same side against the insane. But they’re against the irrationality for quite different reasons and motives. It is indeed sad that it is the right leaning media and politicians are the only ones that can publicly support the rationally and humanly right side of the subject whilst the left are captured. (See immediate examples below). The solution here is that politics and media must be allowed to address the subtle complexity of the issues in the dialogue, and not reduced to siding in a simplistic, non-existent debate. If for Labour politicians, this is not a big topic playing on the doorsteps, that’s because the topic has been so reduced.
As ever this is a plea for subtle, caring dialogue to displace binary, ideological debate.
And as we go into Pride Month 2023 and the whole LGBTQI+ version of the Pride flag is shared everywhere, two examples:
The left media captured? I give you the Grauniad:
My god they really do believe TWAW don’t they, even the most violent rapists. Shocking article, indefensible pandering. Shame on Zoe Williams and Bragg for this absolute betrayal of women. https://t.co/tkEBFP0d21
— Milli Hill (@millihill) June 1, 2023
(See many more examples in the comment thread below that tweet.)
And The British Library trotting out the “assorted hermaphrodite fish” trope in support of “(Human) Pride”. Utterly bonkers and much shared by TRA’s in support of their inhumanity to (human) women and minors over the years.
This #Pride month, let us tell you about the Māori wrasse (also known as the humphead wrasse) 🐟
But its wondrous forehead isn’t the most magnificent thing about this fish – they are protogynous hermaphrodites, which means the females can later change sex to become males.
— The British Library (@britishlibrary) June 2, 2023
The British Library tweet, got thoroughly “ratioed” about 4:1 with 550 responses not liking it before they switched off replies. And since deleted, so dead link in the Tweet above. Duncan Henry kept screen shots, including an investigation of the capture of the institution by the identity politics of the gender wars.
— Duncan (@DuncanHenry78) June 2, 2023
Fortunately actual Trans people have a sense of humour in the face of the insanity:
We are only 24hrs into Pride month & I haven’t seen a single trans genocide all day. Surely proof of how effective rainbow lanyards really are.
— katøi (@katoi) June 2, 2023
And my Point 4 – about the left/liberal<>right/authoritarian problem – this piece from Matthew Parris in The Times is drawing predictable flak from the lefties, but is precisely the warning we need to heed. The war feeds the right, whichever “side” of the story you think you’re on because choosing sides denies the important responsibility for the subtleties. (Zizek been warning us about this for decades.)
War over trans lobby is manna for the right https://t.co/8yYrUeYVof
— Diana Peek (@TheMoominmama) June 3, 2023
Parris’ version of my “war” point – is spot on – intellectually, Left (Zizek) and right (Parris) agree on this:
“Only obsessive minorities on opposing fringes benefit from a confected combat in which most of us are on the same side.”
And there’s more:
Kenan Malik had a piece in the Guardian which drew quite a few responses. He suggested free-expression included the right of protestors to physically deny or cancel the free-speech of others, and that those of others suggesting otherwise were denying the free-speech of those protestors. Meta, meta, meta. Malik is a subtle commentator, much cited here previously but without the hate / incitement / intimidation angle he’s wrong here. It’s a tough call, but the individual, simplistic, binary, “easy” solution is the wrong one.
“Speech that is intended to silence the legitimate speech of others has a chilling effect on research and education and is not worthy of respect in a democratic society.”
My letter to the Observer in response to Kenan Malik’s piece.https://t.co/MfSSaGuQUR
— Professor Alice Sullivan (@ProfAliceS) June 4, 2023
To be fair Alice does agree that most of Malik’s take is subtle and valid – no surprise there – but he’s wrong on this one point if that’s what he intended? I’d agree. But his main thrust is correct as ever “If you defend free speech, you must defend it all and not silence those you disagree with.” Cuts both ways. Sure enough Kenan was making the distinction between permitting any disagreeable expression with those using cancelling / silencing / intimidating behaviour and hate-speech acts:
Sorry, I disagree. There’s a difference between speech and action, and those calling for censorship (as you do here) should be able to express their views. Ironically, those criticising me for arguing against no-platforming GC voices also use Popper’s Paradox as justification.
— Kenan Malik (@kenanmalik) June 4, 2023
Yet again, the subtleties are what matter, these are not simple binary arguments. I repeat the plea “for subtle, caring dialogue to displace binary, ideological debate“.
June 7 – and sure enough, Doc Stock to the rescue, with a response to the Matthew Parris piece, stating the opposite to what I appeared to be agreeing with “No, gender wars are NOT a gift to the right.”
— UnHerd (@unherd) June 7, 2023
She’s right of course it’s not actually a gift, but the warning is still an important point, precisely because it is this kind of contribution does address the proper nuances. It’s a gift to the mainstream press and party-political voices, who cast the sides as extremes, enemies in a “war” and side along natural partisan lines, even though a sizeable population do indeed care and understand more clearly and are neither extremes. It’s an empirical fact that left media and politicians are hamstrung – labour MP Jess Phillips, (not to mention Starmer) is my exemplar in avoiding siding with GC arguments, even moderate, sane GC positions.
Conversely the “alliance” between right-wing media outlets and the gender-critical camp are there for all to see. The warning is real and needs addressing.
And this is the same point from a cynical US perspective:
Watch out the “I am on the left but Tucker Carlson talks a lot of sense” people are back
— Dorian Lynskey (@Dorianlynskey) June 7, 2023
I could be one of those, but as one of the commenters points out that’s just Tucker’s Luck. The luck of the right-wing that the left-wing are not picking-up the sane, rational position. The gift to the right is not the gender-war per se, but that the left-wing do not have a grip on the rationality of it.