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.