When it comes to debates on sex and gender, I sometimes wonder whether there’s any point in my side trying to be calm, empathetic or reasonable. It’s not that these are bad qualities to have. It’s just that they seem to annoy opponents all the more.
Express a view that’s extreme, cruel or irrational, and it may well fly under the radar (especially if you are male). Your critics may even feel grateful that you are “proving them right” — without their having to defend their own position. By contrast, a woman who is well-informed, measured and compassionate constitutes a very particular sort of menace, and she is deserving of a very particular sort of punishment.
They will still think the things you don’t allow them to say
Her reasonableness, you will be told, is a cover for hate. It will be claimed that her devious and manipulative nature drives her to use “dogwhistles” instead of expressing her genocidal, fascistic views directly. If she calls on facts to back up her argument, that proves she is obsessed; if she calls on empathy, that reveals her to be an ignorant concern troll. Every move she makes to demonstrate that she is not, in fact, evil will only prove that she is (this includes apologising for any hurt she has caused, something evil people only do to make themselves look good).
For those who have adopted a “right-side-of-history” pose, death threats and even actual violence are nothing compared to a woman who is “being reasonable”. She’s rather like the wife who “cleverly” goads her husband into beating her up, only the better to play the victim. In Me, Not You, the academic Alison Phipps complains at the injustice of “antifa” being “defined as “violent” because they are “not afraid to get physical”:
But [ … ] these are counter-violences aimed at disrupting violent ideologies and forms of power. In contrast, protests such as the Women’s March [ … ] tend to pride themselves on their “nonviolence”, whilst legitimating and even calling on the power that anti-fascists resist.
Damn those sneaky women, with their refusal to punch people in the face! It’s only because they want the police to do it for them (not, say, because they don’t believe in punching). Damn those sneaky feminists, too, who never say outright that they hate trans kids and think all children should be gender-conforming! They might say the opposite, but that’s just a massive trick!
The singer Roísín Murphy is the latest woman to be hung out to dry for holding opinions that are the direct opposite of anything she has actually said. In a deviously private conversation, she sneakily declared puberty blockers to be “fucked, absolutely desolate” and that “little mixed up kids are vulnerable and need to be protected, that’s just true”.
If one were to read that literally, one might think that Murphy is condemning a medical practice that is increasingly being proven to be harmful, particularly to autistic, gay and traumatised children. One might also think she cares about the welfare of said children. Further, one might think the apology she issued following the furore over her comments might mean that she has no desire to tell anyone else what to think (“I understand my fixed views are not helpful but I really hope people can understand my concern was out of love for all of us”).
That’s just what she wants you to believe, though. According to countless online commentators, the truth is that Murphy just can’t deal with children who don’t “uphold the patriarchal gender binary”. By not wanting to pathologise gender non-conforming children, she actually reveals her own “affection for determinative definitions of gender”. Should this sound somewhat incoherent, rest assured that Murphy’s wicked intent is demonstrated by the fact that her own record label is now refusing to promote her new album. When it was suggested to him that this might be an extreme punishment for “stating something reasonable”, fellow artist Billy Bragg deployed classic witch trial logic: “reasonable? The reaction she got suggests otherwise”.
I do not think the fact that Murphy never intended to make a public stand, or that she has apologised, makes things any better for her. If anything, it makes things worse. It suggests — to those who have adopted a patently harmful position to which they must, at all costs, cling — that many of those whom they have bullied into silence are continuing to have impermissible thoughts. You can tell yourself, “It’s gender-affirming care and anyone who disagrees hates trans kids.” You can tell yourself, “I’d never support the mutilation and sterilisation of gay and autistic children.” You can make good people terrified to challenge you, but they will still notice what you’re really supporting. They will still think the things you don’t allow them to say. As long as you know they’re thinking it, a part of you will think it, too.
I don’t want to lie to myself just because others are lying about me
I don’t actually believe that many of the people currently punishing Murphy would have said, ten years ago, that if a child is distressed about their sexed body, the best resolution is to lie to them about biological sex. I don’t believe they would have said that the solution to a child believing their personality, presentation or sexuality did not correspond to the norms for their sex was drugs and potentially surgery and lifelong infertility. I think many good people sleepwalked into this, initially seeing “trans” not as a deeply conservative response to gender nonconformity, but as an extreme version of it. Now that it has become increasingly difficult to maintain this delusion, they have only two options: backtrack or lie harder, not least by making a particular effort to vilify those women whom it is most difficult to write off as typical villains.
In Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson argue that “people often hold on to a belief long after they know rationally that it’s wrong, and this is especially true if they have taken steps down the pyramids in support of that wrong belief”. “By then,” they write, “getting information that contradicts a strong belief may actually backfire, causing the person to hold on to the incorrect belief even more firmly.”
Who is more likely to challenge your strong belief than the woman who wasn’t even trying to confront you, but privately expressed a view you’re finding harder and harder to ignore? I would feel very uncomfortable if it were becoming increasingly clear that my “good, liberal” politics were actually leading to children being harmed. I might feel so uncomfortable that I’d rather portray those claiming this as secret child-hating fascists, especially if the latter otherwise seemed to be good liberals, just like me.
Given that there is no point in trying to appease those willing to cast you as evil, I have sometimes wondered what it would be like for feminists to be everything trans activists claim them to be. What if we just leaned into it and declared that actually, sure, we hate you all! Sod kindness and empathy! You’re right — it was all an act! Nothing we love better than gender conformity and the worst excesses of the carceral state!
The trouble with that is, it wouldn’t be true. I don’t want to lie to myself just because others are lying about me. There is no point in abandoning truth because others have done so. It’s frustrating that reasonableness attracts such harsh punishments, but it shows its power. Those attacking Murphy the most are least sure of their position. They can’t sustain it. It will not last.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe