Bodies of the West: Part 3. Transgender politics and Wrong Bodies
By Greg Scorzo –
This is another danger of the modern West; the push to create an increasingly civilised society where people don’t physically and emotionally abuse each other can easily transform into a society that’s self-deluded; a culture that creates etiquette norms against pointing out that certain behaviours and habits are generally unhealthy. These norms can ironically enable emotional abuse, provided that the target of the abuse is the person pointing out the unhealthiness of behaviours that hashtag movements are demanding unconditional respect for.
The same West that wants people to feel safe and happy can become weirdly authoritarian, insisting that “vulnerable groups” never experience any psychological pain. Today, there are quite painful social punishments and penalties for causing them pain. One of them is the twitterstorm; the barrage of snarky, disapproving, and vitriolic comments that are typically far more hateful than the remarks or deeds that provoked them.
The classic example of such a Twitterstorm was the deluge of spiteful and intimidating remarks that LGBT activist Peter Tatchell faced when he lent his signature to a letter showing support for the right of trans-critical feminists to speak at universities.13 The letter was a broader protest against no platforming, a practice whereby universities prevent speakers from visiting a campus when said speakers have views outside the ideologies the university deems acceptable.14 The reason given for no platforming is typically that of protection.
If a speaker makes statements condoning bigotry, negative stereotypes, or inequality, that speaker supposedly constitutes a danger to the student population, if not the world. Tatchell signed a letter in protest of this practice; on the grounds that no platforming is undemocratic, illiberal, and in violation of freedom of speech.15 Tatchell was then subjected to a torrent of about 5, 000 hostile comments from angry trans activists, over the course of a weekend. Many tweets accused Tatchell of being, “hateful and abusive” while other tweets called him a “homo”, a “foreigner”, a “mysogynist”, and a “nutter.” There was even a tweet which read, “I would like to tweet your murder you fucking parasite.”16
What’s interesting about this twitterstorm is how utterly swamped in hypocrisy it is. Its goal is to protest the psychic harms that trans-critical feminist beliefs will incur upon the transgender population. The method of protest? A digital tidal wave of relentless complaints, hateful insults, and vicious threats. Intrinsic to this hypocrisy is a twisted conception of harm; a conception whereby the views of trans-critical feminists are so harmful to transgender people that the psychological bullying of even those who support their right to free speech is somehow necessary.
I am not a trans critical feminist and neither is Peter Tatchell. But the idea that allowing them to speak at universities is more harmful than twitterstorms of the kind Tatchell received is mind boggling. It suggests that transgender people are so psychologically frail that if anyone disputes the way in which they self-identify, this is a psychological violation on par with actual violence.
More recently, feminist firebrand Germaine Greer was scheduled to give a talk at Cardiff University on November 18th about women and power. In an attempt to no platform her, a petition was drawn with over 2, 965 signatures.17 The reason for this no-platforming was that Greer uses inflammatory language against trans women, does not believe them to be women, and denies the existence of transphobia.18
Although Greer was not asked to speak on trans issues, her presence was still protested on the grounds that she holds hateful views that are dangerous to the trans community. Greer was later interviewed on Newsnight where she stated she is not opposed to sex re-assignment surgery and will use the desired pronouns when speaking to transgender women. However, she was insistent that she has a right to hold the opinion that transgender women are not really women.
In some ways, this was a watershed moment in transgender politics. For the first time, transgender activists protesting transphobia were rebutted by many voices on the left. Traditionally left wing papers and columnists, for the first time, complained en masse that the no-plaforming of Greer’s views was a violation of her freedom of speech.19 Most of these articles also tried to distance themselves from her views; stating either that we need to be able to hear views we deplore, or that Greer’s views, though mistaken, are not as hateful as they look.
My views on this subject would definitely be considered hateful by many of these people. Is it because I hate transgender people? Nope. Is it because I think they shouldn’t be allowed to be transgender? Nope. Is it because I think they shouldn’t be able to look how they want to look? Nope. Is it because I think they shouldn’t be able to have the names they want? Nope. Is it because I’m in favour of them having to put up with unfair forms of discrimination in the marketplace? Nope. Am I in favour of them being bullied on the street? Nope. Is it because I don’t have empathy for their pain? Nope. Do I think male to female transexuals have some connection to cultural mysogyny? Nope. Do I think Caitlyn Jenner is trans merely to steal the limelight from the female co-stars of her reality show? Nope.
I’m sure many trans people feel suffering that’s far beyond anything I have ever experienced. And I’ve suffered a lot. I know what it feels like to suffer from depressions, to be unable to get out of bed. I know what it’s like to be subjected to violence and humiliation. I know what it feels like to hate how you look, to be uncomfortable in your own skin. I know what it’s like to feel like you can’t be yourself. I know what it’s like to feel misunderstood, mocked and belittled. I know what it’s like to feel completely and totally unloveable. I know what it’s like to want to die. And for the sake of argument, I’m assuming trans people feel all of that more than I ever did.
The best way to help anyone who experiences suffering like this is to believe in them; to believe that they can grow, that they can alleviate their hardships within the perameters of reality, all the while respecting the rights of everyone else.
This is why I agree with Germaine Greer about transgender people. I’d like to live in a liberal democratic society that contains free speech, free thought, dissent, and gender fluidity. I’d also like that society to include transgender people. Germaine Greer’s view of transgender people allows for all of those things. She believes transgender people are people who should have the freedom to physically and socially mimic a gender they are not. I would add to this that transgender people should be able to do this without facing any kind of harrassment, discrimination, or bullying.
This view is, despite what Greer’s critics say, incredibly pro-transgender. The reason it’s pro-transgender is it does what the standard view of transgender people cannot do: it doesn’t placate transgender people. It respects the rights of wider society. It preserves the values of liberal democratic discourse. It’s not sexist. It’s not wildly authoritarian. And in being all those things, it gives transgender people much more freedom and respect than the standard view does.
According to the standard view, acceptance of the preferred identity of a transgender person is something like a civil right. That’s completely incompatible with free speech. It implies that by stating her views on gender, Germaine Greer is depriving transgender people of their civil right to acceptance. Greer can’t respect this right by failing to contest sex reassignment surgery. She can’t respect it by using certain pronouns. She can only respect this right by not contesting any transgender person about the nature of their gender identity. There’s no room for dissent. The rights of the trans person wind up extending to Germaine Greer’s words and beliefs.
This is a view of civil rights that demands much more than mere equality or freedom. It demands unconditional agreement. It demands you only think certain thoughts and say certain things. In fact, it is the instantiation of a new and very fashionable political principle: In order not to violate my civil rights, you MUST see me, at least in one way, the way that I see myself. Such a principle goes much further than, “You must treat me as your equal”, or “You must allow me to participate in something that was previously forbidden to me.” With these conventional civil rights demands, what is expected is only that you treat someone a certain way; not that you think of them a certain way.
When the demand is that you think of them a certain way, this requires you to refrain from acknowledging any skepticism or questions you might have about whether this way of thinking is actually true. Expressing or having any such skepticism is already failing to meet the demand. When any demand is incompatible with you being allowed to have any suspicions about a claim, this demand is authoritarian. It’s not compatible with freedom of thought. It’s designed, explicitly, to shut down freedom of thought in at least one area.
Sadly, this demand doesn’t originate with trans activists. It originates with the way the medical industry treats transgender people. The entire practice of sex reassignment surgery presupposes that a person who suffers from gender dysphoria (feeling one’s emotional and psychological identity as male or female to be opposite to one’s biological sex) has true beliefs. Why? Because if gender dysphoria patients are treated as though their beliefs are true, they tend to be more functional, and have lower rates of depression and suicide.20
Sex reassignment surgery isn’t generally performed merely to make a patient feel more comfortable. It is performed both as a validation of the beliefs of the patient, and as a way of making it harder for society to believe that the patient’s beliefs are false. The trouble is, if patients are treated as though their beliefs are true and their well being depends on the acceptance of these beliefs, it’s not just patients who are getting a diagnosis. You’re getting a diagnosis too.
Your diagnosis is that you are a medical danger to the trans community, unless you share their official beliefs about gender. That is, you are a danger unless you don’t think certain thoughts. This diagnosis is not merely stating that any transgender person has true beliefs about gender that wider society should accommodate in some way. This diagnosis assumes the well being of the transgender person depends on YOU agreeing with those beliefs. Hence, the mere presence of dissent constitutes a psychic harm to the transgender person. Dissenters become medicalised and pathologised; dissenters are a danger to trans people just like milk is dangerous to the lactose intolerant.
What constitutes dissent?
It’s the the common sense ascriptions of humanity regarding gender; the belief that, generally speaking, boys are people born with penises and girls have vaginas; the belief the you cannot change your gender any more than you can change your race or age; the belief that your gender is not a mental state. What the gender dysphoria diagnosis does is implicitly diagnose these common sense ascriptions as medical harms. Of course, it may turn out that these common sense ascriptions are false. But in general, we should accept common sense unless it’s proven to be false. We shouldn’t reject it merely because it deeply upsets a group of people.
What the medical industry ignores (that trans activists have not) is that the gender dysphoria diagnosis has political consequences: If you openly disagree with transgender party lines and express this dissent in public, you’re engaging in something like assault. It’s like forcibly pouring sugar down the neck of a diabetic. When the expression of common sense opinion is pathologised as a medical harm, we’re no longer in the land of liberalism. When this diagnosis of common sense becomes a reason to view common sense as a sign of hatred and intolerance, we’re also lacking a crucial element of any healthy democracy: the ability to disagree with conventional wisdom, without your dissent being seen as a de facto expression of hatred.
This is the direction we’re heading in, unfortunately. These days, disputing the view that gender is a mental state isn’t like disputing socialism or libertarianism, or even the foreign policy of the Middle East. It’s just like declaring you’re a nasty, spiteful, and venomous piece of shit. You’re hateful, an intolerant bigot, the modern version of that guy that wanted blacks to sit at the back of the bus, before Rosa Parks defied him. When people believe you are those things, they tend to be incredibly cruel. They do whatever they need to do in order to get you to shut the fuck up. And it normally works. Bullying is highly effective when the bullying announces itself as being the latest stage in a civil rights tradition.
In 2015, you don’t give reasons for thinking Caitlyn Jenner is brave and inspiring. Believing she is brave and inspiring is becoming etiquette; like it’s becoming etiquette never to say that being morbidly obese is a form of self-harm. You’re proud of Caitlyn in much the same way you don’t spit at strangers. You don’t think about it, because if you did, you’d have to ask yourself how it’s possible for her to actually be a woman. Then, in defending the view that gender is a mental state, you’d be acknowledging it’s a point of contention, a public question for which there is not yet a clear cut answer. You won’t be able to do that soon.
You’re implicitly allowing a space for dissent.
Empathy and Deception
Interestingly, this has happened not so much because of science, but because of empathy. The medical industry, like the wider world, sympathises with the extreme anguish transgender individuals often face. Most compassionate people (whether or not they are doctors) want to do what they can to alleviate this pain. When transgender individuals request to be believed when claiming they are male or female, it seems cruel to insist that they are deluded. It seems inhumane to force them to exist in bodies that cause them discomfort, when they feel their bodies don’t truly express who they are. Most of us can imagine feeling like that in our own bodies. In other words, we imagine feeling the way many fat people already feel.
But this empathy, much like the empathy displayed in Sean O’brien’s party, is not what it seems.
The painful feeling of being in the wrong body is not only experienced by transgender people. Transgender people don’t have a monopoly on this kind of suffering. This is important because the intense empathy felt for transgender people does not typically arise when “wrong body” anguish is experienced by someone else.
That is, we don’t feel the same empathy for the 75 year old who wants to identify as 30, demanding surgeries that reassign his or her age. We don’t feel the same empathy for the black man who self-identifies as white, and wants numerous cosmetic surgeries and skin bleaching operations to make the world see him as having always been caucasion. We certainly don’t feel the same empathy for the woman who experiences anguish because she feels like she’s a parapelegic trapped in the body of a person with a functioning spinal chord.21
That isn’t to say we don’t feel any empathy for these people. We just don’t have an empathy which makes us tell them their beliefs are true; or that their requested self-identifications are civil rights. Perhaps we don’t tell them these things because we respect them more than we respect transgender people. Perhaps we respect them enough not to want to delude them in order to make them happier. Perhaps we believe in these individuals; we believe in their capacity to face reality, despite their unusual and sometimes agonising difficulties getting a grip on it. Perhaps we care about them enough not to patronise them, not to see their happiness as legitimate even if its born out of lies.
It sounds harsh to say people’s happiness is less important than their ability to grapple with reality. It only sounds harsh when we don’t consider all the cases where we put this principle into practice; that is, in nearly every case. The only case where the institutions of society have flagrantly abandoned this principal is in the way we treat transgender people. This is yet another way that empathy towards transgender individuals is deceptive.
It appears inhumane to tell a man who feels like a woman that he is a man; it feels like there is some deep-seated moral principle about people being allowed to self-identify in the manner of their choosing. The reality is, we mostly don’t allow people to self-identify in ways they would prefer-especially if the identifications rail against common sense or known facts about the world.
We don’t typically allow them this capacity, even when they experience extreme forms of distress. If we did, the world would be a pretty scary place. We couldn’t describe the world as it is, without living in terror of being condemned as a danger to others who feel strongly that the world is some other way. The only acceptable truths would be truths that didn’t cause any vulnerable group to feel distressed. Truth, in general, would take a backseat to self-identification and self-identification would come from satisfying desires; not learning to cope with the realities of the world. When truth functions like this, one doesn’t live in a free society. As Orwell’s hero Winston Smith famously remarked, freedom is the freedom to say 2 + 2=4.22
Of course, not every transgender person adopts the authoritarian party lines of contemporary transgender politics. Some transgender people actually understand they are simply people who like to express themselves by creating a physical appearance that society associates with a gender they are not. They may identify with the gender they are not, in much the same way that many writers identify with Orwell (knowing full well they are not Orwell). Such transgender people may choose a name that’s typically given to a person of another gender; they may ask friends and relatives to refer to them with certain pronouns. But they don’t believe they are literally born in a wrong body because they understand that there are no wrong bodies; gender is fluid precisely because no sexed body needs to couple with any mental disposition.
There are brains in men and women, but there are no male and female brains. This isn’t because there are no generalised differences between male and female brains. It’s because no deviation from these generalisations can kick you out of the category of male or female. No amount of gender atypical thinking stops you from being male or female; neither does any amount of self-loathing or distress. The fact that you can’t get kicked out of your gender is something you should celebrate, if say, you like gay rights. The homophobia that prohibited society from accepting homosexuality was motivated by the idea that same sex desires were perverse. They were seen as perverse because they were mental dispositions that didn’t belong in certain sexed bodies.
The acceptance of homosexuality came about, largely because society accepted that there is no moral relationship between the body of a certain sex and the mind that should be in it. No male or female mind, no matter how eccentric in its desires and dispositions, can ever be ‘wrong.’ The denial of this claim is one of the interesting upshots of the view that transgender people were born in the wrong body. If your body is wrong because it doesn’t match your mind, that means your mind is wrong too. It’s wrong because, in some way, it’s not suited to the sex of your body. It’s failing to conform to the demands of your sex (demands to, in some way, be more masculine or feminine).
But it’s easier for activists and doctors to explain the wrong body view without mentioning this upshot. I suspect it creates awkwardness to mention it. After all, if a person’s mind is wrong because it doesn’t have the mental dispositions of a certain sexed body, this implies gender isn’t fluid. That means if you start out as male, you can’t have too feminine a mind without at some point breaking the rules of maleness. If you’re a man and one day you find yourself feeling girly, be careful. You might start to also feel like you’re less of a “real man.” Here, your feelings of not-belonging could be evidence that you’re simply not masculine enough to keep your penis.
This illuminates what the wrong body view actually amounts to. It’s another way of saying that if you lack a gender typical mind, you may be disfigured. If you feel discomfort over being in the wrong body, your discomfort is caused by the ways in which, mentally, you’re too masculine or feminine. If this is the case, there are no such things as gender stereotypes. Or at least, gender stereotypes are no longer anything negative. They are merely reasons to think a person isn’t disfigured.
Of course, many proponents of the wrong body view will say that this is a characature of their view; that really, you must have deep seated and agonizing feelings of being in the wrong body in order for those feelings to be legitimate. You can’t simply be gender atypical. Especially if you feel happy being gender atypical. No proponent of the wrong body view wants to force people who feel comfortable in their bodies to change them. So the proponent of the wrong body view believes she is not, by any means, making value judgements about people who have non-gender typical minds.
The problem with this response is what it overlooks: the feeling that one’s body is “wrong”, in virtue of its sex, is a value judgement. It’s a value judgement that the mind of a person requires a certain sexed body that isn’t yet there. If what makes this claim true is the distress of feeling like one is in the wrong body, that doesn’t mean there is no implicit value judgement about certain minds being too masculine or feminine for the bodies that house them. It just happens to be the case that most people who support the standard picture of transgender individuals are left-wing or centrist, in their social views. People like that tend not to want to make value judgements about what bodies go with what minds.
Unfortunately, they are.
If the wrong body view is true, a non-gender typical man is not disfigured insofar as he isn’t gender typical. But he is disfigured if he feels that being gender atypical is a disfigurement. When he cites reasons for feeling this way, what reasons can he possibly give? The reasons will have to be claims about what kinds of minds properly couple with male or female bodies. He can’t, for instance, claim that there should be a candle or a finger in place of his penis. Even if his pain over his desire for a candle in place of his penis is extraordinary, no doctor will see his pain as a legitimate reason to graft a candle on his testicles.
The doctor takes him seriously when he wants a vagina in place of his penis. The doctor hence, is taking seriously that certain penises shouldn’t be on certain bodies that house certain brains. In feeling there should instead be a vagina, the doctor and the patient are both implicitly making some value judgement about what genitals go with what minds. You can’t make this kind of value judgement unless you cite reasons that, on some level, pathologise minds that are too masculine or feminine.
Here, you might ask, what about a transgender person that doesn’t have any views about what minds go with what bodies? We can imagine a transgender person that feels their body is wrong in a much more primal and instinctive way, like the intensely painful feeling that one should have a smaller nose. Such a feeling, it seems, need imply nothing about anybody else’s nose. It implies nothing about masculine or feminine minds. It’s only a feeling that a body needs to be male or female, that the absence of the desired sex causes discomfort. Couldn’t this feeling have no value judgements built into it about anyone else’s body?
This question prompts yet another important question. Is this a transgender person who really feels they’re in the wrong body? Or is this a transgender person whose body merely makes them feel extremely uncomfortable? It seems the latter, since their pain seems to have no value judgements built into it. In order for a body to be ‘wrong’, there has to be some moral reason why the sexed body is not suited to the mind inside of it. It doesn’t make any sense to say that a body is ‘wrong’ merely because the mind that inhabits it feels extreme discomfort, wishing the body were different in some way.
For instance, if a person felt very strongly that the long shape of their fingers was wrong, this feeling wouldn’t be a terribly convincing reason to think they were disfigured. It only becomes convincing if you supplement it with some moral view about what kind of fingers ought to go on certain bodies. That latter view is what transforms this hatred of one’s fingers from a neurosis into a medical condition where finger reshaping is the treatment.
If we allow this moral view to legitimize the wrongness of the person’s fingers, we’re tacitly condoning this moral view. It doesn’t matter if we don’t wish to perform surgery on people who are happy with their long fingers. As long as we allow corrective surgery to those who hate their long fingers, we are tacitly endorsing the reasons they believe their hatred is justified; that is, we are tacitly endorsing the reasons they believe long fingers aren’t suited to their body; that they are disfigured insofar as they have long fingers.
The wrong body view is thus analogous to telling a black composer, “It’s fine to be black and like classical music, if that’s what makes you feel comfortable. But if you feel that liking classical music isn’t properly aligned with your black body, you need corrective surgery! You’re disfigured! You need to be reassigned as white! But you know…only if that’s what would make you feel comfortable.
This has still another interesting implication. When the black composer in this scenario feels like she is in the wrong body, the only reasons she can cite are racist claims about what music black people ought to like. Something similar is true of the transgender person who feels like they are in the wrong body. The only possible reasons they can cite for feeling like their body has the wrong sex are claims about how men and women should think or feel. Claims about which genitals ought to go with what brains are claims about how men and women should think and feel.
Now, what kind of claims are these? You guessed it. Sexist claims.
It’s true that very few clinicians would want to say that a man can be a transgender woman because his femaleness is grounded in his love of Sex and the City. The trouble is, there’s nothing in the wrong body view that prohibits this. Some proponents of the wrong body view might respond by insisting that you need to have a certain brain structure in order to be legitimately transgender.23 That way, throwing like a girl or admiring the shoes of Carrie Bradshaw can’t be a valid for reason for thinking your body has the wrong sex.
On this view, being transgender has nothing to do with how gender typical or atypical your mind is. Being transgender just means you experience extreme discomfort because you have a brain structure that only allows you to feel comfortable when your body has a certain sex. But of course, this now gets rid of the main party line in transgender politics: gender is a mental state. Gender is now no longer about feelings and instead about neurological structures. If we take this view, patients who feel agony over having a body with the wrong sex will be asked by doctors to have brain scans. If they have cisgender shaped brains, they may be told they are deluded and asked to go home.
That’s the antithesis of what trans activists want, as they are fighting for a conception of civil rights that involves transgender individuals being able to demand that their deep seated feelings always result in social agreements about those feelings. If transgenderism is only about brain structures, anyone who lacks a trans brain but believes very strongly that they’re in the wrong body is just mistaken. In fact, this mistaken person may experience more anguish over feeling in the wrong body than somebody who actually has a transgender brain.
And then there is an additional problem: What about people who have transgender brains but who feel very strongly like cisgendered individuals? Will they be told they are deluded? That is, will they be told that their natural genitals are actually deformities that could benefit from corrective surgery? Of course, no one who believes transgenderism is reducible to brain structures would want this. But their desire to avoid this implication isn’t terribly consistent with what is supposed to be their position. An implication of their position is that your feelings about your gender don’t determine your gender; you’re not a real man if you don’t have the right shaped brain; that is, you’re not a real man if you don’t have the brain that’s typically found in men. Your gender is less about how you feel than how the grey matter inside your head looks.
Of course, a proponent of this view may reply that it’s not enough to merely have a transgender brain. You need to feel transgender, in addition to having a transgender brain, in order to have a truly transgender identity. But this raises other more difficult problems like: If being transgender is about the shape of your brain, why is it that the feelings (and not the brain) legitimize the transgender identity? Moreover, if feelings can legitimise a transgender identity, what relevance is having a certain shaped brain? If transgender feelings are what’s needed to validate the transgender shape of your brain, why are those same feelings invalid if you have a cis shaped brain? If transgender feelings can validate a transgender identity in the presence of a cis shaped brain, why bother grounding the identity in brain shape at all?
No matter how you deal with these problems, the idea that a body can be ‘wrong’ because of its sex is fundamentally at odds with the very gender fluidity that allows people to be gender-atypical. That is, it’s at odds with the very values in society which allow a space of inclusion for the transgender person. This is yet another way in which transgender politics are authoritarian.
In order to have the freedom to be gender atypical, gender eccentricity has to exist without it being demonised or pathologised. Feeling like you don’t fit in your gender can’t be seen as evidence you need to leave; that your gender has rules you’ve broken by feeling something unusual, appearing unusual, doing something you associate with the other gender, or having a very atypical brain.
There’s nothing you can be that your gender can’t encompass. To suggest otherwise is just a pathway towards self-hatred; or a conditional love where the conditions are bad. It’s not liberating to tell people they can be kicked out of their gender; that their painful feelings or unusual brain structures are somehow evidence that really, male or femaleness doesn’t include them. It’s no more liberating than telling a self-hating gay men that maleness can’t include strong desires to have sex with men. No amount of earnestly felt distress can make it liberating.
Because of transgender activism, showing empathy for transgender people has become a mandate to accept a kind of self-loathing; the idea that for a class of vulnerable people, they have every right to hate the relationship between their mind and body, that in order for us not to hate them, we must never question what they insist upon: that their natural genitals and hormone distributions are disfigurements, that they have always been men or women, that they need drugs and surgeries in order to just be themselves. We must accept the upshots of this self-loathing; the lack of freedom of speech for everyone, the intolerance of dissent, the lack of gender fluidity, and even the sexist claims. Otherwise, we’re all just sadistic and intolerant bastards. Even those of us who are trans.
Here, we can ask some uncomfortable questions. What empathy do transgender activists have for the cis world? What empathy is there for liberal democracy and those who cherish it? What empathy is there for those who don’t want to sacrifice their freedom of speech? What empathy is there for those of us who want to live in a tolerant society that doesn’t demonise dissenters of conventional wisdom? What empathy is there for those of us who want to live in a world with gender fluidity; where we don’t have to worry that our feelings of self-loathing can become evidence we need surgery, that our bodies are wrong? What empathy is there for those of us who want to cherish our mental dispositions, even when they make us feel frustrated, uncomfortable, and confused, even when they make us feel like our body might have born with the wrong sex?
If there is any empathy for us, it’s not coming from the transgender activists of 2015. They mostly bring hate. And we tolerate it, because we want them to see us how we see ourselves. We see ourselves as tolerant progressives, as kind-hearted and welcoming citizens, benevolent and inclusive. We hence want to be seen as people who are civilised, people who can empathise with the trans community, people who treat them as our equals. We can’t bear the thought of them thinking we’re not these things.
We can’t bear the thought of them thinking we’re like the Klan, the BNP, the men protesting the rights of women, or the people who wont bake cakes for gay weddings. It hurts when trans activists bully us on twitter because we believe the things they say. We believe them when they swear at us, threaten us, call us transphobes and bigots. We believe them when they say we’re priviliged and owe them not just our compassion, but our total surrender to their extreme demands, a surrender that includes huge elements of our liberal democratic tradition.
Perhaps we should say no to them, for once. Perhaps we should stop feeling guilty. Maybe they should feel guilty, for a change.
In the liberal democratic tradition, we have evolved the best laws and cultural norms we have precisely because people were allowed to challenge others; not just what they believe, but the way they see themselves. It must have been a blow to the self-esteem of many slave owners to know many people would literally die to stop them from carrying on what they thought was a respectable family tradition. It was probably a blow to the mental health of many Christians when Darwinian explanations of biology became part of public knowledge. The 60s probably caused many parents to have nervous breakdowns.
Who knows how many suicides were born of these political changes? Who knows how much suffering was born of being exposed to skeptics about something, whether it be the existence of God, the good of a tradition, or the judgement calls of an institution? If said suffering was a reason to refrain from expressing such skepticism, we wouldn’t have the modern world we live in. You couldn’t be black, gay, an atheist, a socialist, a libertarian, divorced, or childfree without being pushed out of mainstream society in quite strident ways. Every social change which is positive is a product of debates where people challenge how other people see themselves.
Distress cannot be so important, in a liberal democratic society, that it requires contestable claims to be unassailable, where skepticism about any party line is treated like hateful and cruel oppression. Your civil rights don’t extend to the beliefs of other people. If that causes you pain, it’s good you have access to resources that help you manage it. But you shouldn’t demand that you never experience this kind of pain. The pain of having your beliefs disputed is a precondition of living in any healthy liberal democracy.
As a citizen, you need the psychological strength to listen to people who have deep and profound disagreements with you. You have to be able to hear these points of view without crumbling in existential dispair. You don’t have to be friends with these people. You don’t even have to like them. However, you can’t create an etiquette norm which threatens them because of these disagreements. We all have to live with each other.
We all have to live with each other and everyone is deeply wrong about something.
Moreover, everyone has the capacity to change, to become more nuanced and sophisticated, more compassionate, more able to correct their moral, political and personal mistakes.
In order for change to be possible, you need to be able to live in a society where false beliefs don’t automatically ruin your life; that is, you need to be able to believe in falsehoods without being socially ostracised, jobless, friendless, or a person no landlord is ever willing to rent a flat to. It’s not merely the law which facilitates you believing in false claims without your life being destroyed. The etiquette of civil society facilitates this as well. This is why toleration and dissent are such important parts of liberal democracy.
This lack of toleration over dissent may be most perspicuosly seen in transgender politics. However, it’s also infecting other social discourses; particularly the conversation about how we treat fat people. Awareness about obesity is ceasing to be awareness about its harms and how to manage them. It’s becoming awareness of how, under no circumstances, are you allowed to upset fat people. This is why, for all the callous insensitivity of Nicole Arbour’s Vlog, I am certain that the social media reaction to her was far far worse than anything she said. This is because Nicole Arbour (or those who hold similar views) are becoming pathologised in much the same way as people who dissent from the view that gender is a mental state.
This pathologising is aided by new factoids that are becoming part of the obesity conversation; factoids like the North American Association for the Study of Obesity study that showed obese people were 2.7% more likely to be depressed.24 There’s also an interesting study from the journal Depress Anxiety which shows that among 2,436 people, extreme obesity was associated with 21 times greater risk of suicidal behavior and 12 times greater risk of suicide attempts.25 These factoids make people much more inclined to see Nicole Arbour as a public health problem; not merely someone they disagree with, someone whose words they find callous. Nicole Arbour could easily be seen as a threat to the well being of fat people in much way that many people see Germaine Greer as a threat to the well being of transgender people.
When Freedom Knows No Pain
Unlike the fat kid on the plane, Nicole Arbour’s Vlog prompts most viewers to care about that kid much more than they care about Nicole Arbour. That, of course, facilitates the vicious twitterstorm, just as much as an enthusiasm for free speech might. This is paradoxical, as Nicole Arbour’s defenders often cite free speech when claiming she should be allowed to say what she says without legal sanction or social ostracisation. However, this same passion for free speech can be used to claim we should feel no empathy for Arbour’s potentially hurt feelings. It’s more important that her detractors say what they think than it is for the targets of online vitriol to feel any psychological comfort. If one were inclined to think this way, one might say:
“If you make fun of fat people in a Vlog, expect a fucking twitterstorm! If you can’t handle the backlash against the controversial things you say, you shouldn’t have made the fucking Vlog! Take some responsibility, bitch! ”
But alas, this isn’t something I would say either. Like Banksy, this kind of thinking is utopian. It presumes we can easily have a healthy liberal democratic culture even when there are massive psychological incentives for people not to be controversial or say unpopular things. If the price you pay for saying something controversial is an international media storm of hateful and nasty invectives, its unlikely many people will be brave enough to challenge conventional wisdom.
Therein lies one of the complex difficulties of free speech; it only works if most normal people feel some degree of comfort. More specifically, it works when most psychologically normal people feel comfortable disagreeing with eachother; when they feel they can be somewhat controversial without always prompting extreme forms of psychological humiliation.
The twitterstorm, the way it is currently practiced, is not merely a protest against controversial ideas. Nor is it merely a challenge to the way people see themselves. It’s a digital tsunami of spite drenched venom, typically directed at one person. It reinforces the idea that if you are controversial in public, you should expect a barrage of hate that might make most normal people spend a few days in bed. Or get months of therapy.
Of course, there are some individuals who are immune to the psychological pain something like a twitterstorm may bring about. But these individuals are not the norm of humanity. Expecting the majority of humanity to develop this level of psychological strength is not just unrealistic; it’s inhumane. Concepts like “cruelty” and “abuse” wouldn’t exist if every individual was completely responsible for any psychological pain they experienced through another’s behaviour. Like it or not, part of being a decent and kind human involves accepting an awkward partial responsibility; we are all partially responsible for the emotional well being of our fellow human beings.
This responsibility is partial because it has obvious limits; we aren’t obligated to delude people or even agree with them to keep them feeling good about themselves. But we are obligated, when telling them unpleasant truths and contesting their deepest convictions, not to be cruel. The absence of cruelty can’t be legislated by law, for the most part. Freedom of speech unfortunately involves freedoms to display cruelty that are morally repugnant. Pointing out these repugnancies is sometimes confused with an attack on free speech. Encouraging people to avoid cruelty in the speech we use is also sometimes confused with a reactionary push towards self-censorship. But, of course, it is none of those things. It is a way of making free speech actually work.
We can only have functioning free speech if there are also social expectations that demand people not be cruel or abusive. The difficulty is, mere dissent from a popular view can’t be what counts as cruel or abusive. Cruelty has to be more than mere callousness; it has to be recognised as speech deliberately designed to cause psychological harm in one’s opponent. Germaine Greer, Peter Tatchell, and Nicole Arbour are, at their worst, perhaps callous. But they aren’t cruel. They don’t say what they say for the explicit purpose of causing anyone to experience pain and humiliation.
Unsophisticated free speech absolutism can induce one to defend a cruel person without even noticing the cruelty. It can also induce one to care nothing about the psychological consequences for someone being thrashed by a twitter storm, particularly if the thrashing was motivated by angry tweeters who believe their target is dangerous. Such absolutism can even make it seem like fat people are pathetic and weak if being called disgusting ever hurts their feelings. On this way of thinking, there should be no catering to any kind of psychological vulnerability in normal human beings. Merciless bullying should be seen as being on par with offensive language or contested political opinions. You’re just weak if you can’t take it. You’re pathetic.
If this is what defending free speech amounts to, free speech isn’t particularly suited to human beings.
Because free speech obviously does suit human beings, it can’t be completely incompatible with limited forms of social stigma and self-censorship. Liberal democracy may depend on citizens having the psychological resiliency necessary for being able to have their deepest convictions challenged. But it does not demand more than this; it doesn’t demand that a person be so strong that they are expected to be unaffected by cruelty.
You shouldn’t be belittled or disapproved of, because you feel pain when you are on the end of someone else’s verbal abuse. That pain isn’t just a product of you being oversensitive, or having an inability to practice the art of the stiff upper lip. Nor is catering to this pain through social etiquette a potential threat to the free expression of ideas. An etiquette that discourages cruelty doesn’t stop deep convictions from being challenged. It doesn’t impede art with offensive content. It doesn’t even demand that the person being cruel be officially censored.
This etiquette is, however, unofficially demanding that people not practice cruelty when responding to speech or ideas they dislike. In a good society, it is expected that people behave decently; that they voluntarily choose not to bully, harrass, intimidate, or degrade others. Society effectively internalises this expectation only when it takes a clear stand against casual cruelty. Unlike asserting a contestable political view or making offensive art, casual cruelty is the sort of thing that should make you lose friends and be socially ostracised. You can only engage in benevolent relationships with other humans on the proviso you don’t make a habit out of hurting them for the sheer joy of it.
The problem with society’s current obsession with punishing cruelty is it confuses cruelty with all the things it is not; unpopular political opinions, challenges to the way people see themselves, offensive remarks, or true assertions that create shame and discomfort in those who could benefit from hearing them. Of course, there are cases where it’s difficult to establish a conclusive judgement as to whether or not an assertion belongs in the above categories or is simply an instance of cruelty. But most of the controversial assertions that produce outrage these days are normally things that should be said. They should be said without any pressures to self-censor or any social stigmas preventing them from being heard.
People often forget that pain is distinct from cruelty. While cruelty should be flatly discouraged, many forms of pain are necessary conditions of social change, free speech, and liberal democratic culture. This is because growth is always painful, to some extent. That’s the unspoken assumption behind Western civilisation and all the ways it makes us more comfortable and free.
When you love liberal democracy, it is a kind of tough love. It just can’t be so tough that society no longer has access to its benefits. Social progress is, among other things, the project of finding that space between cruelty and hypersensitivity; the balance between expecting enough of people not to delude them, but not so much that one ceases to exhibit compassion for their pain.
I understand the need for this balance, to some extent, because I was a fat kid.
- See Grant, Katie. “Sean O’Brien: Dancing Man Takes Steps Forward to Promote Body Positivity after His Brush with Online Abuse.” www.independent.co.uk. N.p., 23 Oct. 2015. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/sean-o-brien-dancing-man-takes-steps-forward-to-promote-body-positivity-after-his-brush-with-online-a6706682.html. Also see Greenwood, Carl. “Fat-shamed Dancing Man Sean O’Brien Reveals Humiliating Experience Has Been ‘life-changing’ after VIP Hollywood Party.” www.mirror.coluk. N.p., 25 May 2015. Web. 14 Nov. 2015. http://www.mirror.co.uk/tv/tv-news/fat-shamed-dancing-man-sean-obrien-5758033 Also see Caulfield, Philip. “British ‘Dancing Man’ Who Was Mocked by Online Bullies Gets Last Laugh at Hollywood Dance Party in His Honor.” Daily News. N.p., 25 May 2015. Web. 14 Nov. 2015. http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/gossip/dancing-man-honored-hollywood-celeb-dance-party-article-1.2234593
- See http://dancefreemovement.org
- See West, Ryan Perry. “EXCLUSIVE: Body-shamed ‘Dancing Man’ Who Partied with Monica Lewinsky and Busted a Move with Meghan Trainor Goes on a Date with Fetish Queen Dita Von Teese Read More: Http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3101264/Body-shamed-Dancing-Man-partied-Monica-Lewinsky-busted-Meghan-Trainor-goes-date-fetish-queen-Dita-von-Teese.html#ixzz3rxKWA7la Follow Us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook.” The Mail Online. N.p., 28 May 2015. Web. 14 Nov. 2015. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3101264/Body-shamed-Dancing-Man-partied-Monica-Lewinsky-busted-Meghan-Trainor-goes-date-fetish-queen-Dita-von-Teese.html
- Ibid., Perry.
- See Bussel, Rachel Kramer. ““Dear Fat People” Isn’t Satire: Despite the Backlash Publicity, It’s Unlikely to Make Nicole Arbour a Star.” Salon. N.p., 8 Sept. 2015. Web. 14 Nov. 2015. http://www.salon.com/2015/09/08/dear_fat_people_isnt_satire_despite_the_backlash_publicity_its_unlikely_to_make_nicole_arbour_a_star/ Also see Jusino, Teresa. “Fat Shaming Youtuber Doesn’t Know What “Comedy” and “Satire” Mean.” The Mary Sue. N.p., 11 Sept. 2015. Web. 14 Nov. 2015. http://www.themarysue.com/nicole-arbour-not-funny/ Also see Schwartz, Terri. “Nicole Arbour Stands by ‘Dear Fat People’ as Satire: ‘I Don’t Shame People’.” Zap2it. N.p., 11 Sept. 2015. Web. 14 Nov. 2015.http://zap2it.com/2015/09/nicole-arbour-dear-fat-people-satire-defense/
- See Crawford, Todd Daniel. “In Defence of Nicole Arbour: Dear Angry People.” Odyssey. N.p., 21 Sept. 2015. Web. 14 Nov. 2015.http://theodysseyonline.com/clarion/in-defense-of-nicole-arbour/165292 Also see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4HrzYa6TRns Also see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qgomthgAKzM
- This isn’t to say that one can’t find obese people throughout history depicted in ways that suggest they were seen (at the time) as attractive. But it is to say that because of the overall preference for non-obesity that we see in cross cultural histories, there is no evidence that human culture was such that morbid obesity was ever considered equally attractive to all other body types. Regarding the (on the whole) beauty preference for non-obesity, see Haslam D (March 2007). “Obesity: a medical history”. Obes Rev (Review). 8 Suppl 1: 31–6. doi:10.1111/j.1467-789X.2007.00314.x. PMID17316298. Also see Haslam DW, James WP (2005). “Obesity”. Lancet (Review) 366 (9492): 1197–209. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(05)67483-1. PMID16198769. Also see Wieder, Robert S. “Why Are Thin People Considered More Attractive Than Fat People?” Calorie Lab. N.p., 5 Oct. 2015. Web. 14 Nov. 2015. http://calorielab.com/news/2015/10/05/why-are-thin-people-considered-more-attractive-than-fat-people/ Also see “Slim Waist Holds Sway in History.” BBC News. N.p., 10 Jan. 2007. Web.http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/6247625.stm
- See Bee, Peta. “The BMI Myth.” The Guardian. N.p., 28 Nov. 2006. Web. 14 Nov. 2006. http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2006/nov/28/healthandwellbeing.health1 Also see Mayer, Heather. “5 Surprising Myths about Excess Weight.” Health. N.p., 21 July 2009. Web. 14 Nov. 2015. http://www.health.com/health/article/0,,20409924,00.html
- See Whitman, Caroline. “Fat but Fit?” Aeon. N.p., 27 Aug. 2015. Web. https://aeon.co/essays/can-you-be-obese-and-healthy-maybe-but-not-for-long Also see Lopez, Juan Pablo, Leandro Fornias De Rezende, and Emmanuele Stamatakis. “Is the Metabolically Healthy Obesity Phenotype an Irrelevant Artifact for Public Health?” American Journal of Epidemiology 182.9 (2015): 737-41. Web. 14 Nov. 2015. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/853322 Also see “What Are the Health Risks of Obesity?” BBC Science. N.p., 18 June 2014. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/0/21702372 Also see Walton, Alice G. “‘Healthy Obesity’ Is Mainly a Myth, Study Finds.” Forbes. N.p., 6 July 2015. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2015/01/06/is-healthy-obesity-a-real-thing-not-likely-study-says/ Also see Thompson, Dennis. “Study Debunks Notion of ‘Healthy Obesity'” WebMD. N.p., 5 Jan. 2015. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.http://www.webmd.com/diet/20150105/study-debunks-notion-of-healthy-obesity
- Ibid., Whitman.
- Ibid., Whitman. Waltman. Thompson.
- 12.The locus classicus of this view is Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. In this work, they argue that popular culture is like a factory that produces trivial consumer products that function that both create false (capitalistic) needs in society, and manipulate mass society into becoming more passive. See Adorno, T., & Horkheimer, M. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press (2002)
- See Tatchell, Peter. “Peter Tatchell: Twitter Mob Who Voted to Kill Me over Transgender Letter Have It All Wrong.” International Business Times. N.p., 17 Feb. 2015. Web. http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/peter-tatchell-twitter-mob-who-vowed-kill-me-over-mary-beard-transgender-letter-have-it-all-wrong-1488351
- See Ditum, Sarah. “”No Platform’ Was Once Reserved for Violent Fascists. Now It’s Being Used to Silence Debate.” New Statesman. N.p., 18 Mar. 2014. Web. http://www.newstatesman.com/sarah-ditum/2014/03/when-did-no-platform-become-about-attacking-individuals-deemed-disagreeable Also see Greer, Germaine. “We Cannot Allow Censorship and Silencing of Views.” The Guardian. N.p., 15 Feb. 2015. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.http://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2015/feb/14/letters-censorship
- Ibid., Tatchell.
- See Morris, Steven. “Germaine Greer Gives University Lecture despite Campaign to Silence Her.” The Guardian. N.p., 18 Nov. 2015. Web. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/nov/18/transgender-activists-protest-germaine-greer-lecture-cardiff-university
- Ibid., Morris.
- For example, see Reilly-Cooper, Rebecca. “The Attack on Germaine Greer Shows Identity Politics Has Become a Cult.” Politics.co.uk. N.p., 28 Oct. 2015. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. http://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2015/10/28/comment-the-attack-on-germaine-greer-shows-identity-politics See Lewis, Helen. “What the Row over Banning Germain Greer Is Really about.” New Statesman. N.p., 27 Oct. 2015. Web.http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/feminism/2015/10/what-row-over-banning-germaine-greer-really-about Also see Sharpe, Alex. “Let Germain Greer Speak. It’s the Fastest Way to Discredit Her.” New Statesman. N.p., 27 Oct. 2015. Web http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/feminism/2015/10/let-germaine-greer-speak-its-fastest-way-discredit-her Also see Dandridge, Nicola. “A Ban on Germaine Greer Would Be a Threat to the Universities’ Unique Role.” The Guardian. N.p., 13 Nov. 2015. Web. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/13/ban-germaine-greer-universities-free-speec
- See Heylens, Gunter; Verroken, Charlotte; De Cock, Sanne; T’Sjoen, Guy; De Cuypere, Griet (2013). “Effects of Different Steps in Gender Reassignment Therapy on Psychopathology: A Prospective Study of Persons with a Gender Identity Disorder”. The Journal of Sexual Medicine: n/a–n/a. doi:10.1111/jsm.12363. ISSN1743-6095. Also see http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Gender-dysphoria/Pages/Treatment.aspx Also see Yolanda L. S. Smith, Stephanie H. M. Van Goozen, Abraham J. Kuiper & Peggy T. Cohen-Kettenis (January 2005). “Sex reassignment: outcomes and predictors of treatment for adolescent and adult transsexuals”. Psychological medicine 35 (1): 89–99. doi:10.1017/S0033291704002776. PMID15842032.
- For an example of this kind of “wrong body” anguish happening in real life, see Kloster, Ulla. “I Live like a Disabled Person Even Though I’m Physically Healthy… and Now Want a Surgeon to Cut My Spinal Cord: Rare Condition Has Made Woman, 58, Disown Her Legs.” Mail Online. N.p., 17 July 2013. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2366260/Body-Integrity-Identity-Disorder-Chloe-Jennings-White-58-disown-legs.html
- See Phillips, Brian, and George Orwell. 1984: George Orwell. New York: Spark Pub., 2002. Print.
- See Rametti, Giuseppina, Beatriz Carrillo, Esther Gómez-Gil, Carme Junque, Leire Zubiarre-Elorza, Santiago Segovia, Ángel Gomez, and Antonio Guillamon. “The Microstructure of White Matter in Male to Female Transsexuals before Cross-sex Hormonal Treatment. A DTI Study.” Journal of Psychiatric Research 45.7 (2011): 949-54. Web. Also see Luders, Eileen, Francisco J. Sánchez, Duygu Tosun, David W. Shattuck, Christian Gaser, Eric Vilain, and Arthur W. Toga. “Increased Cortical Thickness in Male-to-Female Transsexualism.” Journal of Behavioral and Brain Science JBBS 02.03 (2012): 357-62. Web.
- See Hatzenbuehler, Mark L., Katherine M. Keyes, and Deborah S. Hasin. “Associations Between Perceived Weight Discrimination and the Prevalence of Psychiatric Disorders in the General Population.” Obesity 17.11 (2009): 2033-039. Web.
- See Wagner, Birgit, Grit Klinitzke, Elmar Brähler, and Anette Kersting. “Extreme Obesity Is Associated With Suicidal Behavior And Suicide Attempts In Adults: Results Of A Population-Based Representative Sample.” Depression and Anxiety Depress Anxiety (2013): n. pag. Web.
Cover Image for Part 1: Sean O’brien onstage at his Hollywood party. theyodsukars.com
Cover Image for Part 2: Dismaland Entrance. Mathew Horwood/Getty Images.
Cover Image For Part 3: Caitlyn Jenner on Ellen DeGenres show. Michael Rozman/Warner Brothers.