Questions are rarely settled without debate

Kenan Malik points out that discussion is more productive than silencing:

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.

The thing is, those two items don’t have to be in tension, and they shouldn’t be. Gender critical feminists don’t want to deny trans people full rights. It hasn’t generally been considered a “right” to be able to impose one’s own personal “identity” on the rest of the world. That still isn’t considered a “right” except when it comes to a gender that differs from a sex. It’s a new and peculiar “right,” this right to be validated as the gender that doesn’t match your sex. It’s becoming apparent as time goes on that such a right does in fact conflict with women’s struggle to obtain equal rights with men. If affirmative action for women (hire more women, invite more women to speak, give awards to women) starts applying to men who identify as women…that’s a tension.

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”.

There are, obviously, ways of talking about trans people (and any category of people) that do constitute hatred, but it doesn’t follow and it isn’t the case that all discussion of what we mean by “gender” and whether or not anyone’s identity can be treated as binding on everyone else constitutes 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”.

Is there a formula that debate plus time equals settled? There isn’t literally but there can be in practice, to some extent. There can be ratchets in what is still debatable and what isn’t, although strong enough pressure (in the form of Trumps and Bannons and the like) can break even the ratchets – but the ratchets don’t drop into place overnight. I would like it if it were not seen as debatable whether or not women get to work at Google, but we’re not there yet. It’s way too early in the process for any dogma on “gender identity” to be settled.

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