CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 25: Protesters gather to listen to speakers, holding signs as Helen Joyce speaks at Gonville & Caius college on October 25, 2022 in Photo by Martin Pope/Getty Images

Hard lessons in life

Novel gender identities and orientations allow people to claim to be oppressed without suffering any hardship


This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Being invited to talk at a conference for psychoanalysts in London last month was not, on the face of it, a surprise. The topic was trans identification in children; I’ve written a book on this and other trans-related issues. What was surprising, given the transactivist tactic of demanding “no debate”, was that the event went ahead as planned.

My refusal to agree that men who identify as women thereby become women means that when I’m invited to speak, there’s usually trouble. Last March I was asked to present at a conference for NHS psychiatrists — and disinvited after a smear campaign. The conference was eventually cancelled. When philosopher Arif Ahmed asked me to speak at Gonville and Caius College Cambridge in October, the college master emailed fellows and students describing me as “offensive, insulting and hateful”. I managed to give my talk, but had to shout to be heard over protestors outside.

The psychoanalysts’ event wasn’t entirely free of drama. During the morning, I and other critics of trans ideology described its spread through the medical profession, and the harm this is doing to gender-distressed children. As the session closed, a young man stood and denounced us as hatemongers, his voice and body trembling as he spoke. He compared us to the psychotherapists who, half a century ago, peddled “conversion therapy” — electrical shocks and nausea-inducing drugs aimed at turning gay people straight. 

I’ve heard opposition to “gender-affirming” care analogised to conversion therapy many times, and it’s absurd. This is the treatment pathway involving giving puberty-blockers and cross-sex hormones to gender-distressed children, often as a precursor to surgery that will leave them sterile and lacking in sexual function. Most children sent down this path would have grown up gay if left to do so in peace; when they identify as the opposite sex, they become nominally straight. It’s the gender ideologues, in other words, who are the modern-day conversion therapists.

I’m hopeful that the event for psychotherapists going ahead with a critic inside the room is a sign that “no debate” is no longer an effective tactic. The would-be censors haven’t given up, however, only changed tactics. Instead of trying to silence us, they’re starting to argue. The way they do it says a lot about their worldview, in which subjectivity trumps objectivity, emotion trumps reason and words trump material reality.

At the heart of trans activism is a power play which seeks to impose trans-identified people’s inner feelings on the external world. Other people are expected to ignore the material fact of sexed bodies and “affirm” stated identities by the use of “preferred pronouns”.

Pronouns are not the only words now regarded as powerful enough to change reality. Take the rewriting of literary classics to remove racial slurs, often imaginary, and workplace training that purports to root out “implicit bias”. Both are based on the notion that words, rather than describing the world, shape it so profoundly that censorship can be a route to social justice. What makes a word worthy of being erased is entirely subjective: that someone claims to find it harmful, no matter how tenuous or outlandish that claim.

Laws, too, are moving away from objective tests. Hate crimes, which attract longer sentences, are those which the victim “perceives” to have been motivated by prejudice, whether or not that perception is reasonable. Scotland’s Hate Crime Act, not yet in force, will criminalise speech that merely “might” make a minority group feel “vulnerable” or “excluded”. As for “non-crime hate incidents”, as the Orwellian name suggests, these involve no crime and rely purely on perception. The Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, has said that the police must stop routinely recording such incidents. They’ve already been told this by the High Court,  yet the practice continues. 

One reason for this elevation of subjective feelings over objective facts is a trend towards celebrating victimhood. Most early societies were what sociologists call “honour cultures”, in which might was right and maintaining status after an insult or injury meant exacting swift revenge. The rule of law saw honour cultures give way to “dignity cultures”, in which status is formalised in job titles and academic qualifications, self-control is admired and justice is dispensed by police and courts.

In their 2018 book The Rise of Victimhood Culture, sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning describe how honour and dignity cultures are giving way to a moral code which elevates the oppressed. Call-outs and cancellations, they explain, are status-raising tactics, in which people claim to have been harmed by problematic views and to have suffered micro-aggressions in order to don the mantle of victimhood.

The spread of victimhood culture has helped popularise novel gender identities (non-binary, agender) and sexual orientations (aroace, pansexual) since they allow people to claim membership of oppressed groups without experiencing any actual hardship. It is also driving the self-diagnosis of mental illnesses, from quotidian conditions such as anxiety and depression, to boutique ones such as multiple-personality disorder or a novel form of Tourette’s transmitted by TikTok. 

My younger son identified as a train between age two and age four

More generally, this is a culture that encourages young people to regard themselves as traumatised. According to Jonathan Haidt, co-author of The Coddling of the American Mind, US schools and universities have started to promote three pernicious falsehoods: that what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; that feelings are a good guide to reality and action; and that life is a battle between good people and evil ones.

These dysfunctional beliefs, which Haidt dubs “anti-cognitive behavioural therapy”, promote mental fragility. They encourage people to feel fearful of ordinary words and to regard censorship as virtuous. The logic goes like this: being dis-agreed with makes you a victim; victims are good; people saying things you disagree with therefore deserve to be silenced and punished. This is the culture of “crybullying”: using claims of victimhood to harass others.

Haidt thinks social media, with its polarising and conflict-inducing algorithms, is largely to blame. Another culprit is the “post-modern turn” that was underway before the internet era, in which academics, activists and political theorists stopped thinking of reality as something that could be described objectively and studied empirically, embracing a radical subjectivity instead. 

To these, I would add smaller families and later childbearing. A record half of all women now reach 30 without having given birth. Until the past couple of decades, most childhoods involved playing without adults around, if not with siblings then with neighbours’ children whom you were expected to look out for. 

A growing share of young adults have missed out on these formative experiences. One consequence is that they are painfully ignorant of the ways in which children are different from adults. This is part of the reason so many young people give credence to gender-distressed children’s claims to “really be” members of the opposite sex. 

My younger son identified as a train for most of his waking hours between age two and age four. I put it down to a vivid imagination, read and watched Thomas the Tank Engine on repeat, and waited for him to move on. 

These kidults have also been denied the experiences that would enable them to outgrow the vices of teenagers, namely emotional incontinence and a crippling concern for the regard of peers. Looking after children teaches you to enforce boundaries and prioritise long-term interests over short-term desires. You learn how to say no when that makes you unpopular, to exercise self-control while others are losing it. The worst thing you can do when a child screams at you is to scream back. 

To me, that young man who accused me of supporting conversion therapy appeared never to have learned these lessons. His professed concern for gender-distressed children seemed performative, even narcissistic: more about making him feel good and look good to his political tribe than about what was right for those children. He was failing in the most important task of adulthood: understanding that it’s not all about you. 

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