Trans symbol

This essay, on the transgender debate, was my Observer column this week.   (The column included also a short piece on the war on terror). It was published in the Observer, 25 November 2018, under the headline ‘Debate ends when we label views we simply disagree with as ‘hatred’’.

‘It is better to debate a question without settling it,’ observed the 18th-century French writer Joseph Joubert, ‘than to settle a question without debating it.’

How naive that sounds today. In this age of echo chambers and filter bubbles, it is, many insist, better to settle a question than to debate it, better to be certain that one is right than to risk being proved wrong.

On perhaps no issue has the question of what can or cannot be debated been more sharply contested than that of transgenderism. How should society, and the law, look upon people who were born male but see themselves as female? Trying to answer that question has led to bitter confrontations between trans activists, determined to secure full rights for trans people, and ‘gender critical’ feminists worried that the notion of what it is to be a woman is being transformed to the detriment of women’s rights.

In Britain, the government’s consultation on proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act ended last month. At its heart was the question of whether trans people can decide for themselves what should be their legally defined gender.

For trans people, the freedom to define themselves is vital. To question, as many feminists do, whether a trans woman is ‘really a woman’ is, activists insist, to threaten the individual’s identity. It does irreparable harm by subjecting trans people to mental trauma and giving succour to violent bigots. ‘I deeply resent the idea that my identity gets to be ‘debated’ in the first place,’ wrote the American activist Jennifer Finney Boylan.

Many feminists insist, however, that there is a difference between acknowledging that trans women see themselves as female and counting them as women in a legal or social sense. To accept the trans viewpoint, argues the philosopher Kathleen Stock, is to view female biology and reproduction as only ‘contingent features of womanhood’. Yet, for most natal women, ‘it’s central to their sense of self-identity’ that ‘they have a female body’. Feminists object, too, to the idea that someone who may be biologically male but self-identifies as a woman should be allowed into female-only spaces, whether changing rooms or women’s prisons.

There are reasonable arguments on both sides of the debate. There are also unreasonable arguments on both sides. That’s what makes it a difficult issue.

Simply saying this, however, is itself taken by many to be transphobic. It is bigotry, trans activists insist, to question the validity of self-identification or to object to trans women being allowed into women-only spaces.

Woman’s Place is a feminist group dedicated to defending the idea of women-only spaces. Its meetings have been disrupted by protesters and banned by local councils as ‘providing a platform for hate speech’. When another feminist group, Liverpool ReSisters, put up stickers proclaiming ‘Women don’t have penises’ on Anthony Gormley statues on Crosby beach, they were investigated by the police for possible hate crimes and condemned by the city’s mayor, Joe Anderson, for their ‘hateful’ actions. The Canadian feminist Meghan Murphy recently tweeted ‘men aren’t women’ and asked: ‘What is the difference between a man and a trans woman?’ Twitter shut down her account for ‘violating our rules against hateful conduct’ and forced her to delete her tweets.

The issue is not whether Stock or Murphy or the ReSisters are right in their views. I agree with some of their arguments, disagree with others. The issue, rather, is whether it is valid for them to raise the issues they do or whether the very act of doing so constitutes ‘hatred’.

If it is ‘hate speech’ to question a particular definition of what it is to be a woman, or ‘bigoted’ to express concern about non-natal women being allowed into female-only spaces, the very notion of public debate is transformed. There would seem to be little one could say on most difficult issues that could not also be construed as hatred.

To suggest that the kinds of questions posed by Stock or Murphy should not be asked is to suggest, contra Joubert, that it is better to settle questions than debate them. The trouble is, questions are rarely settled without debate.

Stock and Murphy raise certain issues not because they are bigots but because of the realities facing women in society. Whatever one thinks of their arguments, these realities will not disappear simply by labelling critical feminists ‘hatemongers’. All it does is to cheapen the meaning of hatred, making life easier for the real bigots and to eviscerate public debate. Joubert’s observation has rarely seemed more vital.


  1. damon

    The days of discussing things are over pretty much.
    Trying to talk with the mainstream radical left is anyway, if you bring in points of view that are critical of what they’re talking about. You’ll quickly be shown the door.
    That’s been my experience on a few left wing blogs.
    The one called “Open Democracy” will delete nearly all critical comments.
    Even ones where you might have tried not to sound antagonistic – but just critical.
    On issues like this one over transgender, or on Black Lives Matter, or even on the issue of opposing “racists” like Steve Bannon speaking at the Oxford Union.
    One of the most ridiculous ones has to be “Zelo Street” which is obsessed with Tommy Robinson and Nigel Farage, but if you write something critical of their line, it’s not even published.

    An example was Nigel Farage mentioning George Soros the other day. For silly lefty bloggers, this was the chance to proclaim in a blog post headline that Farage was being anti Semitic.
    What can you do with a left wing like that? Where they will also refuse to engage with you if you tell them that you disagree. And if you persist, you’ll be getting called a fascist yourself before long.

    • Andrew

      You make many a valid point and spoil it by bring up Farage & Soros. Orban (and much of the European authoritarian right) long ago tipped over into dog whistle anti Semitism with their Soros conspiracy theories. Fargage is free to go down that particular rabbit hole, and the rest of us (many who despise the anti free speech hard left) free to draw the obvious conclusions.
      Implying there’s no anti Semitic under tones to the attacks on Soros and it’s all some left wing attempt to silence debate, is a best silly.

      • damon

        The thing is, I very much doubt that Nigel Farage was being anti Semitic by mentioning Soros.
        That would be like saying criticising Benjamin Netanyahu was anti Semitic.
        Soros is a major founder of the left and is therefore “a player” in the politics game.
        It’s a bit odd if you can never mention him, even when he’s funding the groups that he does.

        While there is plenty of anti Semitism about, I’m highly suspicious of those who bang on about it all the time. The Corbyn/Labour anti Semitism debacle was a great example of why. It was mostly nonsense.
        A sectarian fight between political enemies who were using anti Semitism as a way of attacking each other.

        Here’s an articulate but dishonest leftist in full flow. It would be interesting to hear Kenan’s view on the way this guy makes his attack on those he sees as his absolute foes.
        He calls the Proud Boys “white suprematists” and racists, even though they are a multi racial group.
        You don’t have to like or respect that group to see a disturbing trend in leftist deceitfulness.

        • Andrew

          It’s entirely possible to criticise Soroswithout being anti Semitic, but you’ve chosen to entirely ignore the fact the Orban’s attacks are undoubtedly anti Semitic, and if Farage is wants to avoid the implication then invoking Orban is about the dumbest way possible.
          As for the Labour Party, the idea that it was ‘most nonsense’ simply isn’t born out by the most cursory look at the facts.

  2. bruce

    your short essay is brilliant which highlighted the violence of these two “sensitive snow flakers”
    There was the furore erupted after some students at Cardiff University called for feminist Germaine Greer to be banned from speaking in 2015 for her comments on trans women and basically she said that a person with a penis is not a woman. This comment was also made at Durham University by a feminist student who was then removed from an editoral of a magazine. About 6 months ago there was also a feminist meeting to be held at Milwall football club and the local transgender activists got it cancelled .Last Wednesday there was programme on Channel 4 “Trans Kids: its time to talk” which was presented by an author Stella O’Malley . As a child she was convinced that she should have been a boy but she is now married with two kids. She was looking at the massive rise in the number of people embarking on gender transition going up from a few hundred to nearly 3000. But at the end of the programme she decided to go to a feminist meeting and she was horrified to see the violence of a large transgender trying to stop this feminist meeting. With regards to these two groups the transgender activists “sensitivity” has now become very violent against any feminist movement which is what Jonathan Haidt talks about in his new book “the Coddling of the American Mind “

  3. bruce

    I forgot to mention on woman’s hour on Monday “The law on sex on gender ” was discussed and interestingly Alex the female transgender barrister refused to have a discussion with professor Rosa Fredman on this issue

  4. Frederick Peterson

    Although Kenan Malik is of course correct in asserting that disagreement is not hatred I’m afraid he’s pissing into the wind in a legal sense. The current legislative state-of-the-art dealing with ‘hate crime’ is reflected in the CPS’s Guidance on prosecution of such crime in general and of homophobic, biphobic and transphobic crime in particular.

    In this context, and following from the Lawrence Inquiry-inspired definition of what constitutes a ‘race hate’ crime the police and the CPS have agreed on the following:

    A (transphobic) hate crime is “Any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice, based on a person’s … transgender identity or perceived transgender identity.”

    The meaning of ‘criminal offence’ extends well beyond actual violence or criminal damage to any behaviour that might be perceived (by the victim or anyone else) as intimidation or harassment. It seems that both of the incidents discussed in the original article could qualify for prosecution assuming the reactions of the ‘victims’ have been reported correctly.

  5. bruce

    I was listening to tonight radio 4 moral maze and topic was “the morality of friendship “. Michael Buerk , who host the programme ,started the programme to say that there is a new intolerance in our public discourse with increasing tendency to regards those who have a different point of view which is not just wrong but ill-intentioned and down right evil!!
    Buerk said there was politics and also the transgender and feminist violent interaction. Buerk mentioned that a transgender activist refused to be in the same radio 4 studio as a feminist!! Clearly this disagreement appeared to be hatred ?

  6. damon

    I’ve just been listening to James O’Brien on LBC radio, and he’s gone and again described Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster of hundreds of migrants streaming into Western Europe a couple of years ago as: “Nazi themed incitement to racial hatred. With echos of Joseph Goebbels work”.

    That is where we’re at with the left today. No one will even pull him up for saying that.
    The poster, unveiled at the height of the EU’s failure to do anything positive about the crisis, is (as far as I’m aware) an undoctored photograph of real migrants all trying to get into the EU.
    It may have been in “poor taste”, but it was a real picture of what was happening and what the EU were so spectacularly failing to deal with. So it could have also been seen as “fair comment”.

    But for the modern left today, anything they don’t like from the right, has the possibility of being labled “Nazi”.
    It’s a real problem, but few people are speaking out against it.

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