Of course people change, learn and often shift their positions. Most do so quietly, generally after others have done the heavy lifting. But one problem of changing societal positions so swiftly is that unexplored, even unexploded issues and arguments are left behind in their wake.
The Madness of Crowds
Despite the ferocity with which the debate around pronouns and gender has been raging over the last few years, I, for the most part, have refrained from entering the fray. The primary reason for my reluctance here has been the simple fact that I did not feel well enough equipped to evaluate the legitimacy of the assertions, or to hold a solid grasp of the relevant terminology being thrown in all directions as part of the wider discussion. I hasten to add that I also underestimated how consequential this issue might become, and thus thought better of spending the time necessary to try to understand something which seemed to directly affect so disproportionately-small a segment of society.
I choose to enter it here not labouring under some misapprehension that I have fully grasped all the issues at hand, but rather in the spirit of acknowledging that I haven’t, and that crucially, in all likelihood, nobody else has either. The main thrust of my piece here is to call for caution in the face of a revolutionary conception of premises—one so deeply ingrained in our culture and psychology as to make the haste with which we shift largely unprecedented—and to ask that we acknowledge that we might well be better-served playing the long game, than in jumping on bandwagons in some misdirected effort to appear politically-correct.
I am prompted to share my opinions now, catalysed by a societal shadow cast by the looming clumsiness of the state as it wades into the discussion. On October 16th, marking International Pronouns Day, Cheshire Police Deputy Chief Constable Julie Cooke (who is not incidentally the NPCC lead for the LGBT+ portfolio), shared a video in which she says, “being misgendered can have a huge impact on somebody and their personal wellbeing. It also can be used as a form of abuse for somebody, and that just isn’t right.” She continues, “Today is about raising awareness, getting people to have conversations, and understanding why it is so important to understand the pronouns that someone wishes to be used for them.”
You will find no strawmen here. Nothing contained herein requires an ascription of bad faith or malevolent intentions to Julie Cooke in particular or to the police in general. I acknowledge at the outset that nothing within the video calls misgendering a crime or threatens police action in response to allegations of it. Furthermore, I take no issue with the claim that misgendering might be hugely impactful to the person being misgendered, and agree that the action can of course be implemented as a form of abuse.
However, there are lessons to be learned from history, both incredibly recent and far less so, which show that pernicious outcomes can arise, with a compromise here and there, from what are charitable and utterly benign intentions. As Gary Kasparov wrote in Winter is Coming, “If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then compromises on principles are its streetlights.”
Many have found the trans discussion to be all but impenetrable in part because this one word is expected to capture so much under its umbrella. “Today a great many things have got caught together under this label.” Wrote Douglas Murray in The Madness of Crowds, “Trans has—just in recent decades—been used to describe a range of individuals, from people who occasionally dress as members of the opposite sex to those who have undergone full-blown gender-reassignment surgery. And just one early confusion about all of this is that some aspects of tans are far more familiar than others.” There is clearly a spectrum to which an individual may wish to be recognised as a given gender, or to no gender at all, and yet this ought not, but does indeed, say something of the ontological claim that they actually are the gender (or absence thereof) by which they wish to be recognised.
I am in no way sceptical of the phenomenon of feeling oneself to have been born in the wrong body, with the wrong appendages, and in keeping with a superbly-useful delineation made throughout Murray’s book, this leads to a conception of the phenomenon as arising from hardware rather than software: “Hardware is something that people cannot change and so (the reasoning goes) it is something that they should not be judged on. Software, on the other hand, can be changed and may demand judgments—including moral judgments—to be made.” It is worth quoting the next paragraph at length, if only to prevent unnecessary misrepresentations of Murray’s work here.
For instance, if a person is an alcoholic or a drug addict then people may regard them as having a failing over which they should be able to exercise some control. If they fail then this is a consequence of their own weakness, bad decision-making or some other moral laxness. If on the other hand they cannot help their behaviour then they are not to be blamed but rather to be regarded as victims of circumstance and to be understood as such. An unrelenting drunk may be a pain to everybody around them, but if he is said to have been born with a proclivity towards alcoholism—or better still to have an ‘alcoholic gene’—he may be viewed in a very different light. Instead of some degree of criticism he may be regarded with varying degrees of sympathy.
Needless to say, the gender by which an individual chooses to self-identify, seems on its face to have very little impact on my life or my choices, or those of everyone else in society. This becomes difficult to reconcile as a matter of rights, however, as rights and duties are inextricably linked. A right that an individual identify, and be identified, as a given gender or by a given pronoun, imparts an axiomatic duty on everyone else. It imposes a demand that other individuals coming into contact with them must act and speak accordingly. I submit, that in a free society, such a right would infringe the rights of others (to speech), and would thus be wrong in principle and unworkable in practice.
I make no pretence at this example capturing anything like the emotional or psychological implications of misgendering, but the principle (concerning rights and duties) holds. My first name is always mispronounced upon meeting someone new, and almost always thereafter despite an initial correction. It begins with a J, and contrary to its Germanic origin, is, by my South American family who named me in any case, pronounced with a hard J (as in Jack), not a soft J (as in Jacques), and not a Y-J (as in Johannes). In fact, one of my better-received anecdotes concerns why I happen to actually have a beaming smile on my face in my framed photograph taken while being presented with my Detective Constable certificate at New Scotland Yard some years ago. The DCI running the ceremony had asked for anyone with a name which she might pronounce incorrectly to tell her in advance before walking on stage to shake the AC’s hand. I whispered in her ear and walked up the steps to accept the certificate, only to fail miserably in my efforts to mask an ear-to-ear grin as she announced, “And congratulations to Hard J [surname]!” There are worse nicknames to stick, I’ll admit.
My point is that however much I would like others to pronounce my name correctly, it would be absurd to claim this as a right. I am free to take what steps I wish to ensure people know how to pronounce it, and even to dissociate from people who ignore me, but I cannot claim a duty upon anyone else to address me as anything, be it a name, a title, or a pronoun. I, incidentally, would in all likelihood take no issue with the request of anyone to address them by the pronoun they wish (though, it’s worth acknowledging that when employing pronouns, the person is never actually being addressed directly, but is rather being spoken or written about). I still try to maintain a habit of addressing people when in uniform as “Sir” or “Madam”, and on the few occasions when I’ve been unsure of how to address a trans individual, I’ve simply asked.
But as an individual living in a free society, removing the variable of my job and internal policies completely, it must remain my choice to use what language I wish to describe or address whomever I choose. Nowhere is this now more relevant than when discussing pronouns, because the implications and factual assertions are now neither tacit nor latent. Again, at very great speed, the discussion has shifted focus to no longer just be about how an individual might wish to identify, but to whether this identity has ontological implications. It is now vogue to assert that a biological man who identifies as a woman is in no way not a woman, and vice-versa.
The practical implications of these assertions were obvious before they began to manifest in the real world, but the logical exploration of the issues was almost invariably shut down out of hand. Now, we are beginning to witness the adverse effects of policies which have steamed ahead without sufficient thought. For instance, the recent domination of male-to-female transgender athletes in women’s sports, and the implications for female athletes, are now impossible to ignore. Perhaps we should have considered the arguments, and the claim that testosterone levels might just have an effect on athletic ability in given disciplines, more deeply before we found ourselves in this quagmire.
In another example of how Social Justice activism shares quasi-religious properties, these statements—“men can be just as much women as women are”—intrude overtly on the realm of science. They dismiss biology as a variable in determining matters as whether someone is a man or a woman, and some might argue, quite understandably, that such assertions simply aren’t true. Thus, any compulsion to use particular pronouns, given the implications that the pronouns now hold as the debate has shifted, is a compulsion to utter words which may not be true, and which the utterer may not believe to be true. Leaving aside the fact that an argument against compelled speech need not rely on the factual accuracy of the speech in question, I see no need to insult you (or bore you by resorting to cliché) by spelling out why this is so creepy.
I have spent much of my time on this blog cataloguing examples of how our laws are ill-equipped to protect a right of free expression. There is a theme running through all the examples I have explored, however, which is again relevant here. The infringements never come about as a result of nefarious cunning at the hands of evil politicians or corrupt officials. Furthermore, such hypotheses add nothing useful to a phenomenon which is understood parsimoniously at the level of good intentions and myopia. These two elements suffice to explain much of goes wrong in our world, both large-scale and small-. Mark Meecham wasn’t convicted because someone wanted more political control, but because people felt offended and sincerely thought that Jews needed protecting from hurtful jokes, and the implications weren’t considered. Liam Allan wasn’t prosecuted because corrupt police officers wanted to frame him, but because irreconcilable policies about “believing the victim” helped generate a culture of overlooking the importance of proper disclosure, and the implications weren’t considered. Paul Grange wasn’t convicted because evil lawmakers wanted to ban comedic t-shirts, but because people found it disrespectful and offensive to the Hillsborough families, and the implications weren’t considered.
The list goes on, and I sincerely fear that however good the intentions, however sincerely the police care for the hurt feelings of individuals being misgendered, and however rife the problem of misgendering harassment is online, that the big boot of the police wading into this discussion will have been a net loss to the project of dealing with these issues soberly and trying to figure out how to best uphold and manage the rights and expectations of everybody. The word “hate”, as with the “crime”, next to which it can so often be found, has evolved very quickly in widening its application. In keeping with the thrust of policy in combating hate crime, supplemented by the importance of LGBT+ minorities being protected by a force that failed them in generations gone by, and with the ass of a law that is s127 of the Communications Act 2003, we find ourselves poised to witness prosecutions attempted and perhaps the act of misgendering being made a de facto offence.
It is of note that a stipulation exists in the Public Order Act of 1986, inserted in 2014 by the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, which says: “In this Part, for the avoidance of doubt, any discussion or criticism of marriage which concerns the sex of the parties to marriage shall not be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred.” This was an example of lawmakers showing great understanding of how important the conversation on Gay Marriage was, and how the law governing it should be informed bottom-up, not top-down. We have no such stipulation anywhere for the very pertinent discussion on gender and pronouns, and the police are hindering the project of a societal conversation by stepping in and making declarations on it. Let us instead acknowledge that there is a great deal yet to be understood about the issue at hand, and that we should perhaps be patient in allowing this understanding to trickle in. We should also reject political motivations to make pronouncements, especially from the state, and especially from the police. The implications, as always, are well worth considering.
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