Artillery Row

The sadness of Sceptical Man

Emotion need not entail irrationality, and fence-sitting need not involve wisdom

Poor Freddie de Boer. It must be annoying to be a self-styled voice-of-reason type who’s thrown his lot in with trans activism — on the basis that it’s “kind” to do so — only to have trans activists spoil it for you by being a bit too insane. Following Andrea Long Chu’s recent New York magazine piece, in which the writer argued for no-questions-asked “sex changes” for children, de Boer felt obliged to step in and call for restraint. “To defend trans people,” he writes, “you must think.” But obviously not too much, or else the whole thing unravels. 

Here in the UK, our own sceptical, rational, ever-curious male commentators are having similar problems with “the trans issue”. In a recent podcast, Jon Ronson and Adam Buxton discussed how a “mutual friend” of theirs (Graham Linehan) had become “kind of obsessed” with the issue, which they didn’t see fit to examine themselves. The intimation was that it was all a little bit mad and unseemly. Why would anyone get obsessed with that? Isn’t it funny how people go down those rabbit holes? You’d never catch either of them doing that. Anyhow, Ronson did think about the issue once and decided it would be mean to think about it again. 

As a topic, sex and gender causes particular problems for the man who views himself as a lofty, rational observer of other people’s madnesses. This is because in order to pass as occupying “the middle ground”, you still have to give a free pass to lots of insane things, as opposed to lots and lots of them. Instead of going full-on Long Chu — which would of course be too far!  — you have to ignore plenty of stuff which, deep down, you know to be total bollocks. This probably makes you quite cross, only not with yourself. It’s the people who keep pointing it out who are the problem.

If it wasn’t for all those bigots who keep reminding you that human can’t change sex, no one’s born in the wrong body, and a twelve-year-old autistic girl who’s terrified of puberty is in no way comparable to a middle-aged man who gets off on wearing his wife’s tights, you’d be fine. Sure, these people are saying things that you, too, would have said six or seven years ago, but they’re the ones who have gone insane. It’s definitely not you who’s been radicalised. It’s the people who lack the nuance, curiosity and intellectual ingenuity to have started saying a few mad things and ignoring a few medical scandals on the basis that most people in their social circle are saying and ignoring them, too. 

Can’t they find some middle ground? Like, experiment on half the number of kids?

For those whose brand values — rationality! curiosity! scepticism! — are quite incompatible with any serious engagement with what has been happening, it has been necessary to portray it as a “culture war” between two equally extremist sides. There are the people who think sex isn’t binary, male people should be welcome in female-only spaces and sports, it’s fine to experiment on the bodies of children, JK Rowling is a terrorist, and then there are the people who think that sex is immutable, women are definable as a class of human beings and that biological sex is socially and politically salient. Both sides have to be treated as though they are equally irrational, in order to make it possible for self-styled voices of reason to shake their heads and performatively muse on what drives perfectly ordinary people to adopt such ludicrously polarised positions. Can’t they find some middle ground? Like, experiment on half the number of kids? Let uterus havers and bleeders call themselves adult human females every other Tuesday?

An alternative reading of the current situation — one which acknowledges those who can still be bothered to speak the truth as whistleblowers, rather participants in an ever-increasing exchange of crazy ideas and violent threats — is not permissible. That would make those sensible men who present their watered-down acceptance of a mad belief system as “not taking sides” complicit in trans activism’s escalating insanity. That deluded people are becoming more and more deluded, and more and more desperate, is not the fault of those who have played no part in feeding the delusion. And yet, when the result is that feminists, gay rights activists or concerned clinicians are accused of wanting trans children dead, the sceptical man of reason nods sagely. Look at the state of it all! If only (other, lesser) people could play nicely!

They have found it easier to denigrate feminists, middle-aged women, LGB people and even former friends

A few years ago, I felt quite disappointed that so many writers and critics who seemed fascinated with conspiracy theories and mass delusions were proving so utterly useless at debunking such obvious nonsense as “Mumsnet is a hive of transphobic fascists” and “puberty blockers are life-saving care”. I am offline enough to know that many ordinary people were simply unaware of what was happening. These people, though — I am sure they knew. They have found it easier to denigrate feminists, middle-aged women, LGB people and even former friends, dismissing them as bigots spreading moral panic. On reflection, I think it’s because their genre — their way of presenting the world to others — has always found actual whistleblowers a bit cringe, a bit too impassioned, a bit ridiculous. Isn’t it safer to mock — sorry, cast a curious, nuanced eye on — anyone who’s getting het up about anything? Then later, when the dust has settled and it’s clear which side is the most socially and professionally convenient one to be on, you can claim you’d have expressed your own views earlier, but the atmosphere was too toxic. 

The people I know who have spoken out about men in women’s sports, male rapists in women’s prisons, and the use of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones for minors, are intelligent and thoughtful. Many are angry, for obvious reasons. It is enraging to witness such a staggering lack of integrity in so many people. This doesn’t make the gender critical position an extremist one.  

Perhaps it is a little strange to hold on to the truth in social and professional situations in which it is so manifestly disadvantageous to do so. There’s a part of me, too, that would rather pose as a clever person, looking down on the squabbling plebs, insisting they’re all as bad as each other. Then again, it would only be posing. I don’t believe Sceptical Man can’t see the incoherence and moral weakness of his own position. That’s why everyone else has to be wrong. 

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