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.
Via Blattman, by way of Sides and Sullivan, an interesting piece of research on how the slave trade had an impact down the generations:
we show that individuals whose ancestors were heavily threatened by the slave trade today exhibit less trust in neighbors, family co-ethnics, and their local government. (pdf)
This reminds me of several things. The first is the debate between Alan Keyes and Barack Obama in 2004, when they contested the Illinois Senate seat that Obama eventually won by a landslide. Keyes essentially accused Obama of being “not black enough“:
Barack Obama and I are of the same race, but we are not of the same heritage. And there is a distinction. Race is something physical. Heritage is something that may have an element that is physical or biological, but that also includes other elements of history and experience–the kinds of things that have helped to shape the mind and heart of an individual and that are not determined by physics and biology. And we are of different heritages. I’m of a slave heritage, and he is not.
Although Keyes was right to make the distinction between heritage and race, he was wrong to think it had any electoral relevance. And in the light of the Harvard research, it looks like he was wrong about the extent of the differences between his and Obama’s heritage. Even if Obama, through his father, is not of slave descent, he is however from a people from whence slaves were drawn. And that brings with it similar social problems to bona fide slave children (as Keyes would have it). Second, I’m reminded incidentally of the correlation between the counties that voted blue (i.e. Democrat) last November, and the cotton picking regions of mid-nineteenth century America. Thirdly, I’m reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s formulation: “We are the heir of all ages”. Which in turn allows me to ponder the idea of ancestor worship, popular in many African cultures. Taken literally, the idea that your forebears might be watching you seems like an irrelevant and primitive idea. However, seen through the prism of the Harvard research, the idea of being haunted by your country’s collective past takes on a new and very real meaning. The unease of great-grandparents long-since buried, still festers in the soul, and it cannot be excised by education, science or modernity.