Tues, 14th Jan 2020

Discrimination in the Name of Equality

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Photo by: 
Rob Coates on Unsplash

- When tolerance becomes assimilation. -

‘You’re a bigot, Joanne’ and ‘Troll, troll in the dungeon!’ read two of the many online attacks hurled by disgruntled Harry Potter fans at their ex-favourite author. Now charged with everything from being a ‘TERF’ (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) to joining the ranks of the Death Eaters, J.K. Rowling has fallen low in the eyes of many for defending Maya Forstater, a researcher who infamously lost her job for expressing a conservative stance on gender identity.

While maintaining her right to criticise the proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act, which would radically simplify the process of receiving a Gender Recognition Certificate, the employment tribunal ultimately ruled against Forstater, claiming that her ‘offensive and exclusionary’ language was ‘not worthy of respect in a democratic society’.

Yet in addition to a flurry of reciprocal insults and shallow debate on social media, the case has forced us to revisit several fundamental questions about social relations. How does a tolerant society treat the intolerant? Can and, perhaps even, should tolerance and pluralism succeed when seemingly their main beneficiaries are themselves intolerant? And, more broadly, how do we respond to the apparently conflicting aims of various marginalised social groups?

Before I go on, I wish to stress that I have no intention of playing the infamous ‘reverse racism’ card or lamenting my plight as a heterosexual white man. Neither will I claim that the transgender community or anyone else has gone too far in asserting their rights to equal treatment. What I will argue, however, is that diversity needs to be managed carefully, with due care to avoid compromising the needs of any group and without the cultish mindset which today seems to engulf many of us. Above all we need to learn to ask questions, to disagree respectfully and to stop conflating tolerance with assimilation. Failure to do so will only perpetuate and inflame latent tensions in society.

Returning to Forstater, however, where many observe rightful suppression of unforgivable prejudice (as well as the defilement of Harry Potter), I see the unnecessary poisoning of an important discussion with one vulnerable group being heedlessly brushed aside to make way for another. As Jodie Ginsberg, chief executive of the Index on Censorship, has said, Forstater has done nothing ‘other than express an opinion that many feminists share – that there should be a public and open debate about the distinction between sex and gender’.

The debate which Ginsberg refers to is vital not just for women, but also for older generations, immigrants, religious minority groups and arguably the transgender community itself. There remain fears to be allayed and important questions to be answered. Will rape victims, for instance, be able to request counsellors of their own biological sex without a long and awkward conversation at the reception desk? What provisions can we make for the elderly if they refuse to be washed by a transgender care assistant? How will we accommodate people – Muslim women, for instance – who might be uncomfortable with sharing changing rooms or homeless shelters with visibly male-bodied service users?

This plethora of unanswered questions recently culminated in a bizarre and terrifying law suit. Jessica Yaniv, a Canadian transgender activist, pressed charges against a number of beauticians, of whom many belonged to religious and ethnic minority groups, for refusing to wax her scrotum. Although common sense prevailed and the court ruled against Yaniv, the very fact that several non-white women – by any measure, a ‘historically oppressed group’ – had to defend their right not to handle male genitalia against their will in a 21st century courtroom is surely a clarion call for reflection.

We must also have a sober and open-minded discussion about those who began the gender transition process and then discovered that they made the wrong decision such as the tragic story of Nathan Verhelst, who was born a woman but hoped to gain acceptance in a loveless all-male household through gender reassignment. His new body brought him immediate disappointment and despair. Not wishing, as he said, to live as a monster and enduring ‘unbearable psychological suffering’, Verhelst chose to be euthanized by lethal injection aged only 44. Contrary to the prevailing rhetoric, we still know very little about transgenderism. Even the medical cause of gender dysphoria remains unknown, to say nothing for the long-term consequences of putting youngsters on hormone treatment. It defies belief that transgender individuals and their families are best served by a cult of firebrands and yes-men who never take the foot off the accelerator.

There is no implication here that either of these scenarios showcases behaviour – or fate – typical of transgender people. They do, however, indicate a need for a nuanced and uncensored discussion, unhampered by fears of subsequent unemployment and crucifixion by an online mob, about protecting transgender rights without compromising those of others or dismissing legitimate concerns. Transgender people unquestionably deserve empathy and must be accommodated by society as much as possible. Yet silencing the sceptics, discouraging questions and brushing aside the needs of other groups is hardly conducive to achieving social harmony or a sustainable future for the transgender community.

This isn’t just a question of accommodating gender identity. Most marginalised groups are ‘intolerant’ in one way or another and yet are themselves in dire need of protection. Many are reluctant to embrace social change whereas some find each others’ customs mutually unacceptable. To promote true equality, we cannot abolish these differences or indeed expect anyone to make unilateral concessions while extending unchecked tolerance to others. Those who, for instance, believe in freedom of religion insofar as religious groups accept a whole list of terms and conditions ranging from female ordination and same-sex marriage to making sure the Flying Spaghetti Monster gets a mention in Christian prayer books, fundamentally misdiagnose the problem and sow the seeds of future backlash.

Firstly, this approach subordinates the rights of some vulnerable groups to those of others, effectively telling them to ‘get with the times or get out’. Secondly, and perhaps more sinisterly, it serves as a tacit acknowledgement that tolerance is impossible and should be abandoned. Tolerance, by its very nature, involves accepting those whose customs may be alarming and disagreeable to us. When it is made conditional upon vast internal transformation within each community, leaving in place only insignificant and unoffending markers of identity, it ceases to exist and is instead replaced by a procrustean drive for assimilation.

The path to social harmony and tolerance does not lie in establishing a homogeneous, secularised and androgynous society where most identities are watered down beyond all recognition and only a select few are given a green light on steroids. A good starting point would be to turn the heat down and to stop applying vigilante justice against those who ask questions or hold dissentient views, often the very same views that the lynch mob would have proudly espoused a decade earlier. Depriving today’s heretics of a civilised avenue for discussion is neither fair nor expedient, breeding clandestine discontent and alienating potential allies. Moreover, silencing views simply because they are deemed hurtful or offensive would essentially make all debate on a sensitive subject like social justice impossible. It is also vital that we pick our battles wisely. It seems far more productive to confront genuine injustices like forced marriage and the gender pay gap than engaging in some petty squabbles over why Santa is male.

Finally, we need to acknowledge that communities disagree amongst each other, often quite sharply, but that these disagreements need not result in mutual hatred or disrespect. This principle, that we should be able to disagree respectfully while preserving our own identities, has always been a fundamental tenet of tolerance. Remembering this today is long overdue.