Sat here diagonally opposite the psychiatrist in a beer garden pretending this is a normal way to arrange ourselves for a pint. I briefly ponder using the PPE mask as an ethanol filter before removing the Covid precaution, knowing that the government says you can’t catch the killer virus if you’re spending money, especially if the consumption of alcohol is involved.
I don’t know him. Let’s call him Dave. We were introduced before lockdown when he told me his story of being cancelled for writing a paper in a medical journal about a patient that had had a sex change and regretted it. He swears down he had zero intent of using the real-life issues his client faced as anything other than a case study to inform people in his profession of the particular circumstances he documented. He says he certainly wasn’t advocating that this was an outlier in the Transgender world. He says he knows that data supports the thesis that it is rare. Nonetheless, a shitstorm of abuse came his way for advocating transphobia. A campaign against him forced him to close his practice and relocate house.
Of course you can’t actually cancel someone, but you sure can make them pay a price for what they’ve done.
We discussed the ‘Cancel Culture’ letter that was published in Harper’s Magazine. The one that never mentioned cancel culture (It was called the “Letter on Justice and Open Debate”) but that those whom the letter offended wanted to cancel nonetheless. We discussed that it was signed by writers of many different races, political positions and sexualities.
Were they claiming bad ideas should go unchallenged? Even their own? It didn’t seem so, Dave explains. Were they saying bad ideas are exposed by debate? “Pretty explicitly,” Dave said. Chomsky, Rushdie, Gladwell and Atwood, along with 146 other writers, attempted to support “a nuanced debate that reductive and polarised virtual lynchings are an ironic ‘final solution” Dave believes.
Maybe Dave is wrong? Maybe it is up for debate?
What happened to debate I wonder? Used to be you weren’t entitled to your opinion, only what you could argue for. That was the standard at University. Reason and data would win the day. Well, that and charismatic oration of course, which was always the Achilles heel to this liberal endeavour I guess.
Us students were told debate should yield developed understanding – the aim ought to be to educate and learn. Allowing people to change their perception, yourself included. To imagine there is no value at all in this form of free speech is obviously blinkered. Sure, hate speech is clearly crossing a line and deserves to have it’s platforms robustly interrogated. What is the purpose of having blatantly racist or homophobic opinions aired? Isn’t there a danger of propagating dangerous ideas? Surely giving untenable views a voice on a regarded platform legitimises them if the challenge to those ideas doesn’t destroy them?
The BBC’s attempts to balance debates are a classic example of how to build something to fail. Whilst scientific consensus on Climate change is 99% in favour of proving man-made global warming is a thing, the BBC pits one climate denier against one scientist. I’m sure if they accurately added another 98 scientists to the mix, the charlatan would be routed out easily, but instead, the pair end up only preaching to their own bases and the echo chamber deepens.
This is no good. We need to destroy the charlatan, right?
The day before the beer garden, I had a conversation with someone on a Facebook forum about racism and they wanted to “destroy racism” which obviously sounded fair enough. Though actually their resolve was to destroy racists…
One wonders if such hatred will only breed more racism… Shouldn’t the purpose of engagement be to educate and learn? Racism is learned after all. And there are many examples of it being unlearned. On the 5th June an LBC caller bravely admitted how ashamed he was of his desire to join the National Front before he went to University and realised how indoctrinated he was. Daryl Davis is a black Blues musician, who has spent 30 years managing to convince 200 Klansmen to burn their KKK membership rather than crosses (figuratively if not physically), including a Grand Wizard. All of these achievements gained through calm debate.
Doesn’t this pinpoint exactly what should happen through debate and conversation with people whose views are untenable? Or even if their views are just subtly different to your own?
Cancelling those 201 people wouldn’t bring about real change, but would – arguably – stoke the fires of division. Wouldn’t it? To be fair, the platform for all of these educations was the real world, not some grandstanding University platform. Which is worth considering.
Dave understandably brings up JK Rowling. She also signed the Cancel Culture letter. JK’s signature was one of the reasons a letter debating the need for debate was called to be cancelled. Her position has been described by many inside and outside of the Trans community as being transphobic. Something she strongly denies.
“The idea that there aren’t issues to discuss on this subject is odd.” says Dave. “It’s not like the technology to physically transition has been around for very long, and the effects long term are unknown”.
JK cited the 2019 paper entitled ‘Freedom to think: the need for thorough assessment and treatment of gender dysphoric children’ as one cause for concern. Marcus Evans summarised that “Referrals (particularly natal female) to gender identity clinics have increased significantly in recent years. Understanding the reasons for this increase, and how to respond, is hampered by a politically charged debate regarding gender identity.” The reaction to her tweet was as incendiary as it has been every time she has spoken on the issue.
Dave says that reading the paper asks important questions about “what changes are needed to ensure patients receive the appropriate treatment”. He says this seems like a fair point.
Having now read the article, it has a well-referenced account of how the current system may need to be examined further. An example from the former Head of Nursing and Associate Clinic Director of the Adult and Adolescent Departments, Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, London writes:
“Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) adopted a superficial approach that was in danger of colluding with the child’s belief that all their problems will be solved if only they could change gender… (they were) ’fast-tracking’ young people into life-altering decisions without fully assessing their personal histories…. the GIDS team is being asked to engage with and assess complex and difficult cases within a highly constrained time frame. The (parents) believed that their children had been indoctrinated as a result of online websites that recruited the child into membership of the trans community.”
Now I’ve no belief that all points of view are valid. Nor that “we’ve had enough of experts” as Michael Gove once said of Brexit. “Expertise is hard earned through study, work, experience, and aptitude” as I’ve quickly googled Albert Einstein Tweeting. But here is an expert asking important questions about a system of child protection possibly failing. “Seems reasonable to ask questions about this. But you’ll be slaughtered for it.” says Dave.
Of course the outrage was palpable. Cancel Harry Potter. “Burn the books.” was one ex-fan’s response with zero sense of irony.
I’m not saying JK’s right about this being some kind of ‘conversion therapy’ by the way. The debate surrounding transitioning requires much more open discussion to understand. Destroying those that ask questions however, results in what many have called a witch hunt – “Their ideology becomes a religion, anyone who doesn’t puppet their views are seen as an apostate, a heretic or a traitor, and moderates in the middle are annihilated.”
I’ll get to who said that in a minute. It wasn’t Dave.
I tell Dave that a gay friend posted on Facebook that “Trans women are women, die mad about it” in a broad reaction to the JK statements.
Dave says “if you query the sudden lack of pride in the word ‘Trans’ as a prefix on gender identity you will get burned at the stake in this town. Yet we have the brilliant and celebrated Trans Pride here in Brighton. It’s baffling.”
It seems to Dave the semantic battle to define one’s identity by the paradigm of patriarchal role-play isn’t nearly as progressive as those who identify as male or female think it is. “In these days of body-modifications the physicality may be augmented but the biology isn’t, so what are kids suddenly imagining they belong in a different body really about? Isn’t it just their idea of what the other sex is? Or is the male and female brain theory really a thing?”
To be fair, Dave struggles with this concept which he sees paradoxically born of conformity.
He says he has no problem with anyone having consensual sex with whoever they like – nor dressing/acting however they please – piercing, tattooing, cut ‘n’ slicing or upgrading their bodies with tech are all personal choices we should all have open to us as adults.
However, he says the words being used to brand their identity thereafter are born of a world shaped by men with non-progressive views on sexuality and behaviour.
“The words ‘male’ and ‘female’ have a simple biological function relevant to medicine. There’s a reason the Olympics is divided between sexes that become farcical if these biological definitions aren’t ‘real’”, Dave says. “Don’t they need better words to describe their identity if they need to define it? Words not born of old ideas of how to behave? It’s one thing if you are part of the 1-2% estimated people defined as Intersex and you’d rather not battle a prejudiced establishment, but if you are a proud Trans-gender person what is wrong with the prefix?”
Being a heterosexual white male, he clearly knows what he’s talking about. The question is, is he allowed to question these things?
Is the debate concluded? Maybe it is decided by those affected. Maybe Munroe Bergdof is right; “JK Rowling is not a scientist. She is not a doctor. She is not an expert on gender. She is not a supporter of our community. She is a billionaire, cisgender, heterosexual, white woman who has decided that she knows what is best for us and our bodies. This is not her fight.”
Having said that, Dave is working in that field again, and he needs to understand it to provide the care he has spent his career providing. So what is the answer?
Jennifer Finney Boylan was one of several transgender people to sign the ‘Cancel Culture’ letter alongside JK Rowling. Having publicly revoked their support for the letter precisely because JK co-signed, Boylan said “I thought I was endorsing a well meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming. I did know Chomsky, Steinem, and Atwood were in, and I thought, good company.”, before signing off, “The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.”
“I am so sorry”. Cancel Boylan?
Which brings us back to the quote; “Their ideology becomes a religion, anyone who doesn’t puppet their views is seen as an apostate, a heretic or a traitor, and moderates in the middle are annihilated.”
Margaret Atwood said that. The author of ‘The Handsmaid’s Tale’ controversially said it of the #MeToo movement. Her fear was that if it is not properly channeled, it will end in a system of kangaroo courts and excommunications.
This lead to her fall from feminist hero to “problematic fave.”
Nick Cave joined the debate, echoing Atwood’s words in his Red Hand Files series: ”As far as I can see, cancel culture is mercy’s antithesis. Political correctness has grown to become the unhappiest religion in the world.”
“Its once honourable attempt to reimagine our society in a more equitable way now embodies all the worst aspects that religion has to offer (and none of the beauty) – moral certainty and self-righteousness shorn even of the capacity for redemption. It has become quite literally, bad religion run amuck.
“Cancel culture’s refusal to engage with uncomfortable ideas has an asphyxiating effect on the creative soul of a society.”
It’s a compelling argument. What is the purpose of Cancelling? Isn’t there a better goal?
Flawed Ex-President Obama looks pretty ideal these days. He spoke on the issue in 2019; “This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff. You should get over that quickly. The world is messy; there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you.”
In this reach out for change he added “I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media, there is this sense sometimes of: ‘The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people, and that’s enough.”
“Like, if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, cause, ‘Man, you see how woke I was, I called you out.’”
“That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change,” he said. “If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.”
There’s an argument that an inability to discuss issues not only shuts down debate, but hampers change. Redemption is a powerful thing and the very best of human capacities. Destroying people doesn’t work. They don’t disappear. Look at Farage or our Prime Minister. Their base gets more entrenched.
Nick Cave signed off: “Compassion is the primary experience – the heart event – out of which emerges the genius and generosity of the imagination.”
Sure it’s aspirational, and there are many lost causes, but shouldn’t the aim be a little more nobel in the face of ignorance? Aren’t we all ignorant to some degree? Or are our egos all now out of the box and rampaging as rabid dogs hunting to be right rather than righteous?
Dave finished his pint and we elbowed goodbye. I didn’t hate him, I thanked him for his candid thoughts. He thanked me for mine. And we both left knowing we had learned something and had much much more to learn.