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Artillery Row

Dissent is not hatred

We must resist the idea that disagreement with modish beliefs is reducible to ill-feeling

“There’s definitely no debate about whether she is transphobic or not…. She’s putting out so much hate”. So asserted Katie Neeves, biological male turned transgender female and founder of Cool to be Trans, on the BBC’s World at One last Tuesday, responding to a long string of tweets the previous evening by J. K. Rowling. These comprised pictures of ten high-profile trans individuals, followed by the comment, “obviously, the people mentioned … aren’t women at all”, but “men performing their idea of femaleness”.  

Where is the hatred in that? In part, Neeves argued, because Rowling had “implied that all trans people are sex offenders” by putting the latter at the top of her list. Yet, the very first person listed was not an offender at all and nor were most of the rest. And later in the string, she explicitly said that most trans women “aren’t … offenders”.    

Another reason why Neeves deemed the tweet transphobic was because he had received “a ton of hate”, most of it presumably online, which is “exactly what she [Rowling] wanted to happen”. But Neeves can’t possibly know that. We often cause effects we don’t want or intend. Indeed, it’s a practical certainty that Neeves himself has said things that have (perhaps unintentionally) excited trans trolls to abuse Rowling. Besides, adults should know better than to take online nastiness seriously. If you really don’t want to wallow in it, you can block it. Or leave Twitter altogether.  

What’s more, it is crystal clear what Rowling’s main intention was. She was throwing down the gauntlet to Scotland’s new Hate Crime Act, whereby “lawmakers seem to have placed higher value on the feelings of men … than on the rights and freedoms of actual women and girls”. As Rowling sees it, “the new legislation is wide open to abuse by activists who wish to silence those of us speaking out about the dangers of eliminating women’s and girl’s single-sex spaces … and the reality and immutability of biological sex … Freedom of speech and belief are at an end in Scotland if the accurate description of biological sex is deemed criminal”.

Neeves’ third reason for thinking Rowling guilty of a “hate crime” was that she was being gratuitously nasty to trans folk who are just “ordinary people who want to be happy”. “Since I’ve been living my truth,” he declared, “I couldn’t be happier”. But that’s disingenuous. The issue is not whether biological males should be left undisturbed by the law or social norms to play socially constructed female gender roles. Rather, it’s whether the rest of society should be compelled to play along. No one is denying the truth that Neeves feels deeply that he is a woman. But many refuse to endorse the truth of what Neeves feels. What’s at issue is whether those who express such dissent — say, by refusing to use a trans person’s preferred pronouns — should be made criminals.    

By playing a victimhood card he had no good reason to play, Neeves deliberately obscured the point. He pretended that Rowling was just spewing out hatred, whereas in fact she was merely disagreeing, asserting a reasonable belief, and making a bold protest in the cause of free speech.

Dissent and criticism need not be hateful, even when they threaten a deeply treasured identity

We need to learn again to distinguish what was being willfully confused here and what is widely confused elsewhere — a confusion that Neeves’ BBC interviewer, Johnny Diamond, signally failed to call out. Dissent and criticism need not be hateful, even when they threaten a deeply treasured identity. For sure, if they’re delivered in a contemptuous, insulting, or wantonly provocative fashion, they might become vehicles of hatred. But that’s not necessary. Content and manner are not the same thing, and common sense is usually perfectly capable of telling them apart.

Yes, there are cases where the refusal to confirm a deeply felt identity or active criticism of it, even when communicated with due respect and sensitivity, so shakes a person’s sense of themselves as to cause profound distress. That identity could be transgender, but it could equally be religious. Without doubt, there are tragic times when an atheist’s criticism so shakes a religious believer’s faith, and the identity and life built on it, as to drive him to despair, even suicide. Yet no one rises to accuse such atheists of “hate crime”. And no one—any longer—proposes that disturbing expressions of atheistic belief be outlawed.

So, let’s get this clear again: dissent is one thing; hatred, another. To be gender-critical is not to be “transphobic”. 

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