Artillery Row

Owen Jones vs Robert Webb

What happens when you don’t recant from criticising trans orthodoxy?

Recently the comedy duo Robert Webb and David Mitchell made an appearance on the NPR podcast, Bullseye with Jessie Thorn, to talk about the latest season of their sitcom Back. Towards the end of the show, following Webb talking openly about his recent heart surgery, Thorn asked Webb about a tweet from 2018, which had expressed support for a Janice Turner piece criticising the charity Mermaids. At that point, the tone of the conversation, which had been free-flowing and aimable, changed dramatically, and became painfully stilted. Thorn, who recently spoke about being “the parent of a trans child,” clearly wanted Webb to recant, while Webb, who had been on the end of the inevitable intemperate backlash for his heretical views (and deleted the tweet), clearly didn’t want to talk about it all. 

This encounter, and the polarised interpretations it provoked on Twitter, are a pretty perfect microcosm of the heart of the “gender wars,” and, as Webb said to Thorn, of it being “impossible to really talk about…without…being used as a vehicle for another round of defamation and abuse.” Indeed, as if to prove his point, trans Twitter immediately piled in to roast Webb for not “doing better,” not having “educated himself,” not “taking the opportunity for healing,” and not apologising for his thoughtcrimes. Owen Jones, one of the most prominent and persistent of the Witchfinder Generals, tweeted Thorn his “solidarity and kudos from this transphobic infested island!” (Funny how often the “right side of history” compares its critics to insects, plagues and other assorted vermin, can’t imagine why Webb didn’t want another round of it).

Thorn had backed Webb into a corner and tried to extract a profession of ideological fealty

Jones then duly retweeted the interview, reading Webb’s disinclination to get into it with Thorn as him “crumbling when challenged by the dad of a trans kid” What this passes neatly over is that, given the totalitarian structure of gender identity discourse, Thorn had backed Webb into a corner and tried to extract a profession of ideological fealty. Webb was evidently not inclined to recant, and indeed, did not “crumble,” but would have known with certainty that refusal to profess allegiance to the faith would lead to more denunciation. All this was then exacerbated by Thorn using his status as the “dad of a trans kid” for leverage, in a way typical of the emotional machinations of trans rights discourse. People on the trans rights side of the fence then predictably read the encounter as a “disappointing” missed opportunity for Webb to atone for his sins. People, like me, who are critical of both the ideological underpinnings and political tactics of the current trans rights movement, read it as coercive and abusive. 

Given the corner he’d been backed into, it’s seriously commendable that Webb held his ground, despite Thorn pushing him over six, awkward, exchanges. Those committed to the belief in innate gender identity – while simultaneously denying that it is a belief, and hence that other people are entitled not to share it – will only interpret ideological non-compliance on this issue as “hatred of trans people,” and feel fully justified in punishing all detractors for their wickedness. As Webb tries to express to Thorn, there is no space for questioning gender identity ideology, or the way it leads to the affirmative treatment model practiced by Mermaids, that isn’t immediately assimilated to charges of “phobia.” In this rhetorical context, Webb could not honestly express what he believes about this issue. And, while I’m loathed to put words in his mouth, especially given the impossible corner he was backed into, everything we know about Robert Webb – particularly from his excellent 2017 memoir How Not To Be A Boy – suggests that he thinks social norms about masculinity and femininity are a load of oppressive, harmful nonsense.

The existence of the trans child is one place where the rubber really meets the road in terms of the impact of gender identity ideology. No one is denying that there are gender non-conforming kids, or kids who experience distress about that, or that they should receive compassionate support. However, just as with the responses to Thorn and Webb’s encounter, there is massive disagreement about how this should be interpreted, and on that basis, how to treat such children. The core belief of the current trans rights movement is that humans have an innate gender identity, and that it’s this, rather than biological sex, that makes someone a “boy,” “girl,” or some other kind of gender (“non-binary”, “gender-queer,” etc). It follows from this belief that some children are trans, and that the right way to treat them is to simply affirm their identity, and then, if and when appropriate, put them on a medical pathway leading from puberty blockers to cross-sex hormones, and surgery. 

Many people, however, have serious doubts about whether gender identity is innate, rather than it being a particular interpretation applied to gender non-conformity in a society where that is often not well received. Given that gender is a set of social stereotypes about how male and female people should behave, and no one has been able to give meaning to the idea of gender identity that doesn’t invoke those stereotypes, then it seems that how people understand their “gender identity” is, in good part, a social phenomenon. This is even more true given the wide dissemination of gender identity ideology, which frames the interpretation of certain behaviours as evidence of gender identity, but which might otherwise be read as normal gender non-conformity not requiring transition of treatment.

No one is denying that there are gender non-conforming kids

What Janice Turner was criticising in the article that originally got Webb into trouble, was how Mermaids takes a “pink and blue gendered world…as natural, immutable,” interprets children whose behaviour bucks gendered stereotypes as “girls trapped in boy’s bodies” or vice versa, and then advocates for “affirming,” and potentially medicalising, those children. Thorn, who describes himself as having one gender non-conforming and one trans child, would no doubt dismiss these concerns. But it’s notable that in his thread about his child, it was his wife who provided the interpretation that it was possible to be a girl in a boy’s body, while the child was still in kindergarten. Young children’s understanding of sex is all about gender stereotypes, and it’s not until they’re older they can grasp that a male person in “woman’s” clothing is still male. It’s also not clear, as anyone who’s met a child knows, that their ability to distinguish fantasy from reality is fully mature. Given all this, there are still serious questions about how trans identification in children should be interpreted.

There’s a lot of to think about here, and it’s telling that a movement that also claims biological sex is a social construct, will not entertain differing interpretations on the matter of gender identity. It would have been extremely helpful if two men – who had been happily chatting not moments before – had been able to talk this through. It does nothing to convince those with questions about the framing, and potential impacts, of gender identity, that such questions are verboten and policed by pile-ons and accusations of ‘hatred’ rather than engaged in good faith. I have no doubt Jesse Thorn is a decent man who wants to do the best for his child. But while transactivists lauded him for trying to hold Webb to account, what I heard was an act of ideological coercion, and a signature example of how mandating belief in gender identity is destroying public discourse.

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