Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Transgender debate shows dangers of identity encroaching further into politics and law

If you’re interested in politics, particularly in Northern Ireland, it’s almost impossible to avoid grappling with that slippery concept, ‘identity’. Ordinarily, the word is used to describe how we see ourselves but, increasingly, it also specifies how we expect to be seen by the rest of the world.

I’ve written frequently about national identity, with all the complications that entails, and I’ve argued many times that national identities are not necessarily exclusive, simple categories. We’ve become used to the idea that some people call themselves British while others say they’re Irish. Many of us prefer to think that we’re both, and although that isn’t always accepted by nationalists, it’s not a difficult idea to understand.

You may view national identity as a legal fact, defined by citizenship of an existing state, or you may believe it’s decided by belonging to a cultural or political ‘nation’ that makes claims on its people’s allegiance. Either way, nationality is an abstract, invented notion and difficult to quantify or test by experiment.

Until recently we thought very differently about sex and gender. Sex generally described the biological differences between male and female, while gender referred to the sociological and cultural consequences that arose from this biology.

Scientists explained that different types of chromosomes, containing genetic information, combined and determined whether a baby would be born male or female. A tiny number of ‘intersex’ infants fell outside these two categories for complicated anatomical or hormonal reasons, but for most people sex (and gender) was a factual matter of XX or XY, one set of reproductive organs or the other.

A highly politicised campaign has challenged that view quite successfully, to the extent that the Conservative government is threatening to legislate in line with its orthodoxy.

The fashionable theory is that every individual has the right to choose his or her gender, determining whether the law and the rest of society should treat him or her as male, female or any one of a bewildering array of neologisms that supposedly describe something ‘in between’.   

The government proposes to allow people to alter the sex recorded on their birth certificates at will, without producing any medical evidence supporting the change. They may also designate their gender as ‘X’, which covers the entire smorgasbord of other alleged orientations.   

It’s true that, in the confines of university departments, sociologists frequently describe gender as a social ‘construct’ that differs from biological sex. That’s an academic distinction, but it has become a deeply political one. The new legislation threatens to sacrifice a matter of legal and scientific record to the modern cult of identity and the articulation of every grievance in the language of human rights.

A birth certificate is not a document of self-expression. The absurdities of the proposal and the disdain it shows for facts have been ridiculed highly effectively by columnists like the cantankerous Brendan O’Neill. Other commentators have examined the deeper political motivations of ‘trans’ activists, who they allege want to destroy a perceived male elite they call the ‘patriarchy’, by destroying distinctions of sex and gender entirely.

By this interpretation, the small number of intersex people and those with gender dysphoria - who feel they were born in the wrong body - are being exploited by ‘neo-Marxists’ whose ‘postmodern agenda’ is to break down ‘crucial pillars of society’. I don’t wish to speculate on whether this is a wild conspiracy theory but, read about the topic a little, particularly around the debate in universities or the US tech industry, and you will quickly fall down rabbit-holes of the densest, most nonsensical political jargon.

The transgender lobby is certainly deeply postmodern, in the sense that it attacks the idea that the medical profession can determine a person’s sex and claims that gender is purely a function of an individual’s experience. And although if focuses ostensibly on the individual’s feelings, it’s purpose is to create an ever greater number of classifications of people, all of which can claim ‘rights’ as a group.

It also runs counter to many of the themes normally thought to characterise the modern world and in particular, the modern western world. Our ability to distinguish clearly between nature and culture, the separation of public and private life and the idea that theories need to be tested against observable facts. Then there are the challenges to freedoms of conscience and expression, from a movement that, for example, wants to enforce the common courtesy of using ‘preferred pronouns’, through the law.

There are countless practical difficulties around allowing individuals to legally change their sex or gender at a whim and they’ve been discussed elsewhere. There’s also an important debate about how to assist those with genuine issues around gender and make them feel included and equal. On a broader principle, it’s dangerous to tell confused young people that society always has to bend to accommodate their idiosyncrasies, rather than helping them find a role in society.

Some parts of identity - language, job, pastimes, appearance, even name, sexuality and nationality - are fluid and personal. Other aspects of who we are - like sex at birth, species, ethnicity- are biological facts that we should have to live with, whether they make us feel uncomfortable or not.

Identity is an endlessly fascinating subject when it comes to understanding the human condition, but it is potentially damaging when it encroaches ever further into politics and the law. The idea that individuals should be able to regulate precisely how they are seen by the rest of society as well as how they see themselves, down to changing matters of fact on their birth certificate, is sinister and ultimately it won’t help anyone who currently struggles to feel included.