This month marks the 75th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which was framed after the horror of WWII and looked to the future with hope.
Article 5 states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.
That freedom to express ideas that others may not agree with, is being eroded more and more by populist politicians on the right – Putin, Bolsonaro or Trump. But also by commentators and opinion setters on the left who want us to tolerate difference as long as that difference aligns with their agenda.
We need to revive the skill of discrimination based on research, thoughtfulness and fact checking. The Oxford Dictionary defines this aspect of discriminating as showing discernment, judgement, insight and subtlety.
We should be able to discuss and disagree respectfully on lots of issues including religious belief or gender or football.
But social media and a culture of hyper-sensitivity encourages us to jump to quick conclusions and to judge without thinking carefully. JK Rowling was shouted down on Twitter this month when she defended the idea that gender is determined by biology. She was accused of transgender hatred, a crime that outweighs all Rowling’s achievements in the minds of many of her millennial Harry Potter fans.
Rowling was not denying the right of trans people to be treated fairly and with compassion. She WAS expressing concern about downplaying what it means to be ‘a woman’. She argued as many others do, that gender not just a social construct. It is biological as well. She was sardonic when she tweeted that “people who menstruate” used to be called “wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”
How have we got to this point? Trans activism seems to trump all other rights and experiences. And more problematically, if anyone questions the woke view, they are mocked, sacked and de-platformed.
As intelligent humans, we must be strong enough to sift facts and face opposing views. Sometimes we will shift our views – and that is a healthy thing. At other times we will defend the right to hold different views.
We might not agree with everything a person says, but we need to uphold their right to speak. We can choose not to be offended by a careless joke or a thoughtless jibe made in anger. We can weigh up the person, the ideas and the facts. THEN, if we conclude that those views are so hate-filled or deliberately provocative that free speech is trampled by bigotry, we SHOULD speak out.
We need to discriminate and use common sense lest we judge too quickly. As Barack Obama said late last year, “The world is messy, there are ambiguities. People who do good stuff have flaws.”
And in case you think that sounds like a cop-out, consider who is speaking and his experience of politics and prejudice.
Margaret Attwood is an author (most famously, The Handmaid’s Tale), with impeccable feminist credentials and clear intelligent thinking, who has faced ire on twitter because she has posted views considered anti-feminist. A few years ago she defended the right of a male academic to receive a fair hearing after he was accused of sexual assault by a female student. The man was completely cleared but sacked anyway.
Atwood’s point was that she was deemed a ‘bad feminist’ because she took the side of a man over that of a woman. She pointed out that she and all the others who campaigned, were defending a fair criminal process not a particular person.
When I follow the threads, many of the people with the most passionate and angry views seem not to have carefully read what Rowling or Atwood actually say.
Whose rights take precedence?
The Trans community is tiny (about 0.5% of the UK population) but has a very loud voice. So other groups that face ongoing prejudice and injustice like people with mental illness, indigenous communities or refugees are sidelined because their causes are not fashionable.
Feminists are divided over what to think of transgender rights. Is being a woman a unique experience for those born with the XX chromosome?
The debate over biological sex and gender thunders on. It is apparently credible now to refer to a ‘mother’ as ‘a birthing parent’ – a term that reduces the love, commitment and bond of motherhood to a physical function. And which reduces the value of female experience. I get how the debate started in the field of adoption, but it has become a battleground now. In seeking to offer sympathy to these new iterations, we are denying the right to express support for families with a mum and dad.
Whose voice takes precedence?
In the strong response to JK Rowling, Emma Watson (Hermione Grainger in the Harry Potter films) tweeted, “Trans people are who they say they are and deserve to live their lives without being constantly questioned.”
Her opinion about gender self-determination was accepted at face value, even though it is simplistic to claim that we are who we say we are – we are influenced and shaped by all sorts of outside forces, good and bad as well as by biology. Our selfhood is more than our feelings or mood. It was this complicated balance of nature vs nurture that Rowling was trying to explore and which Watson ignored.
So I plead for thoughtfulness and ‘discrimination’ of the best sort when we examine these complex ethical and medical issues.
More to read:
You might like to explore ideas further:
A new book by Dr. Sharon Moalem offers powerful evidence from research, case studies and his own patients, of the importance of the extra X chromosome. Moalem explains why females triumph over males when it comes to immunity, resilience, intellect, stamina and much more.
There is growing research about the negative emotional impact of transitioning. The Sunday Times ran an article on July 12th 2020 and the pressure children face who are confused about their gender and who attend the UK’s gender clinic