When does a moral argument become ‘settled’?

I want to say something quite precise about the nature of the ‘debate’ about transgender rights. It is not about the substance of the argument itself, but about how we are arguing about it.

The prompt for this is last week’s furore over a Suzanne Moore column in the Guardian, and the No Platforming of the historian Selina Todd. But it could just as easily be about any of the other controversies that have generated news media coverage and social media heat over the past few years.

First, did you notice how I put apostrophes around the word ‘debate’ above. I do that to acknowledge a point that transgender rights activists make constantly: that their right to exist should not be up for debate.

By analogy, they point out that we no longer ‘debate’ whether women should have equal rights to men; nor that black people should have equal rights to white people. Newspapers do not publish op-eds arguing for a return to chattelism and slavery so that they can present a ‘balanced view’ on those topics. So why should they do the same regarding transgender rights?

An implication of this line of argument is that anyone who even acknowledges the debate is, in effect, siding with the TERFs and right-wing reactionaries who want to deny transgender people full social and human rights.

But here is the thing: the ‘debate’ over the Self ID policy is not settled.

This is not an intellectual point. I am not, here, making a judgement about the relative merits of each side’s argument. Instead it is a descriptive point. A statement of fact about whether or not there is wide acceptance of the desirability, and need for a change.

There is not.

Many (perhaps, most) people simply have not thought enough about the issue to form a view. And if they have, their understanding of feminist and gender philosophy is patchy.

And then of course there are people who have formed a firm view that Self ID system would be bad for (natal, cis, biological) women.

Even those who consider the case for changing the Gender Recognition Act to be cast-iron, have to acknowledge that, as a matter of fact, there is no consensus on the issue. I don’t think this is controversial and I don’t think that saying so is hostile to anyone’s rights.

Nevertheless, I think the analogies with slavery or with women’s rights are useful here.

The intellectual case against slavery was made many centuries before slavery was abolished. This week I was reading about the Quakers’ historic support for abolition nearly a century before the founding of the United States of America; and in the fourth century AD, St Augustine wrote on how slavery was against God’s will. The moral righteousness of the abolition movement was established long before it became a consensus.

So even if one believes that the case for transgender rights is self-evident, that does not negate the need to repeat the argument over and over and over again until consensus is reached in one’s favour. This is how people are persuaded to the cause. Arguments that, in a later era, will be recognised as fallacious or fatuous, must still be debunked in the current moment.

Repeating ‘trans women are women’ might be true, but it persuades no-one.

Hashtagging #NoADebate to your social media posts does not help either. It just reinforces the smear that trans activists are dogmatic and unwilling to engage in dialogue.

This, in turn, sets back the cause of trans rights.

During the Golden Age of Blogging (defined solipsistically as when I first started blurting my thoughts out online, circa 2005) many writers practiced the art of ‘fisking’ – picking apart an article clause-by-clause, sentence-by-sentence.

A decade ago, Suzanne Moore’s piece on Selina Todd would have been dissected in this fashion. The motivation of the fiskers would have been anger at her wrong-headedness. But the outcome of such an exercise would have been to identify precisely why she was wrong. The assumptions she had made; the conflation of distinct issues; the exaggerations and the straw men. It would also have identified the areas where she might have had a point; where Trans Rights Activists are in agreement with gender critical feminists; and where actual data might help settle a disagreement.

In fact is that exact tactic is being deployed by gender critical feminists in response to an open letter, critical of Suzanne Moore.

I don’t know whether they did line-by-line fisking, but abolitionist campaigners did this work in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Campaigners for women’s suffrage did this in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And those campaigning for homosexual rights did the same in the twentieth and twenty-first century. Not just on their terms, but on the terms set by the opposition.

In my adulthood, marriage equality for homosexuals went from being a ridiculous fringe idea, to the legal norm. This was achieved by relentless debate with people who did not accept that homosexuals had the same right to a family as everyone else. It involved engaging with people who thought LGBTQ+ people are deviants, and sinners against God.

In all these cases, campaigners engaged with and debated the reactionaries. Not because they believed that the other side had legitimate views; but because they realised that they had to convince the undecided mass of the population to be on their side – for whom the rhetoric and emotivism of the social conservatives seemed familiar and plausible.

Some activists for trans rights are doing this and I find them persuasive. But unfortunately that work is being overshadowed by the stunts of others, who take a zero-tolerance approach to the issue.

I think those who seek to No Platform gender critical feminists, or to demand that Suzanne Moore’s writing be spiked, are ahead of their time. They are behaving as we might expect the social justice campaigners of the future to behave, when the ‘debate’ over trans rights has been worked through and settled. But we’re not there yet.

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