You can't cancel the gender wars when the policy questions are unsettled
Policy questions need policy answers
As I walked through the train station the other day, with a bag of Marks & Spencers chocolate-chip cookies in my hands, I caught myself thinking “Oh god, this is exactly what people would expect a big fat man like me to be carrying,” and immediately felt a crippling sense of embarrassment and shame1.
Similarly, on the occasions when I’ve been at Comic-Con-esque events, like the Star Wars Celebration, I’ve found myself unable to fully enjoy them because as a balding, overweight man who doesn’t dress well, I’m hyper-conscious that I look exactly like the sort of person who would go to something like that. If you were to type a description of me into Midjourney, you’d get a rough approximation of everyone else in the room.
Anyway, this brings me to why I’m faintly embarrassed to be writing this week’s post.
Because here I am, a man who writes a Substack… with the freedom to write about any topic in the world, and yet, just like every other man on Substack, I’m going to write (heavy sigh) a mildly provocative piece about the gender wars. Again. Despite my best efforts, I am reverting to type and being shaped by the environment in which I live.
It’s not entirely my fault though. The problem is that what began as a philosophical disagreement in feminist circles has splintered through modern liberalism, ruining friendships and destroying countless organisations and institutions along the way.
So if you want to understand contemporary left-of-centre politics, you need to understand this most maddening of debates – which is of particular interest to me, because I feel like I was there at the beginning of the war about a decade ago, when I was a member of one of the earliest communities to be torn apart in the battle between trans rights activists and gender critical feminists.
And last week, my former community was at the centre of another skirmish, which handily underscores a much broader point about the disconnection between the discourse on the gender wars, and the underlying state of public opinion.
So let’s start by going back in time…
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The limitations of the ‘skeptics’
This was a group of people who, in principle at least, were dedicated to promoting scientific inquiry and following the evidence. Think the sort of people who are fans of Richard Dawkins, Ben Goldacre, and being annoyingly pedantic. You can probably imagine why I found the community appealing.
Much of the movement coalesced around an informal network of events called ‘Skeptics In The Pub’, where each month, a guest speaker would typically opine on topics like why creationists are wrong, why alternative medicine doesn’t work and how we should pursue “evidence based policy”.
This might sound like a weird, nerdy crowd – it was! – but at its peak, probably around 2011-ish, there were dozens of chapters around the country.
However, I describe that in the past tense because skepticism’s cultural moment has long since passed. The movement basically splintered down what today we’d (reluctantly) describe as woke/anti-woke lines. So the label is no longer the rallying cry it once was – though there are still some groups continuing to put on events under the “skeptics” banner today.
…Or maybe not so much.
Because last week I was very disappointed to see that the Brighton Skeptics group had cancelled a sold-out event that was planned, featuring two journalists: Helen Lewis, of the Atlantic, and the former Newsnight reporter Hannah Barnes, who will soon be at the New Statesman.
If you know the names, you’ll know what they were planning to talk about. Barnes is the author of Time to Think, a book about the collapse of the Tavistock youth gender service, and Helen Lewis has long been well known for her coverage and commentary on the gender wars.
Essentially, exactly what you’d expect happened.
Some people got very upset about the event, and an open letter of opposition was circulated in the LGBT community in Brighton, and then it was used to petition the event’s venue to cancel, and I understand it was sent to other Skeptics groups too.
On the Brighton Skeptics website, the organiser says the detractors never reached out to him directly with their concerns, but he still felt the pressure. The day after cancelling the event, he officially gave up on his group, posting that he is “stepping down” from putting on events for Brighton Skeptics.
So in effect, given he was just a one-man-band operation, because of the controversy Brighton Skeptics no longer exists and the organiser was successfully bullied out of putting on not just this one event, but potentially future events too.
In a sense this was unsurprising. If you’ve been following the gender wars at all closely, you’ll know that this dynamic plays out time and time again with events featuring people who are (fairly or unfairly) perceived as being on the gender-critical side of the debate3.
So what happened in Brighton is far from a rare occurrence. But what makes this one notable to me is that it happened within the ‘skeptics’ community.
And frankly, I find this depressing on a number of levels.
First and most obviously it is grim that the event was cancelled due to outside pressure. The “heckler’s veto” was successfully wielded. Instead of attending, listening and perhaps challenging the speakers, opponents jumped straight to pressuring the venue instead, in a bid to get the event called off.
But secondly, it makes me sad because it was actually great to see a ‘skeptics’-badged event daring to touch the gender wars after years of deafening silence from the groups that remain in the movement. It’s depressing that – as far as I could see – no one else who still uses the ‘skeptics’ label publicly stood up for the organiser or the event.
And I don’t point this out to make a specific point or to bang the drum for a particular side in the gender wars, but because it shows that the skeptics are not living up to their principles.
Because the premise of the skeptics movement is supposed to be about evaluating evidence and approaching public policy with scientific rigour. So it seems weird to me that the groups that still exist today do not appear to want examine any of the core scientific questions at the heart of the issue, as they might for other controversies.
As a result, we have ‘skeptics’ who are in their comfort zone opposing alternative medicine on the NHS or sticking it to the anti-vax cranks, but who don’t seem to want to wade in on, for example, the evidence for different approaches to youth gender transition – which is one of the questions at the heart of Hannah Barnes’ reporting on the Tavistock, and the subject of a major, on-going NHS review.
And whether or not you agree with Dr Hilary Cass’s interim conclusions, what’s clear is that it is an issue at the intersection of science and politics, which obvious attracts a lot of public interest. So it seems like a strange controversy for the skeptics to duck.
The rusty razor
Okay, so I’m playing a little faux-naive. Because obviously the reason skeptics are reticent to publicly offer their support to the Brighton Skeptics organiser, or otherwise intervene in the broader controversy, is because unlike sticking it to the creationists and homeopaths, there could be real world social and professional consequences for doing so.
This is because some of the fiercest proponents of these new, contested ideas about gender are highly educated, high social status people. If you’re the sort of person who reads long Substack posts about internecine feminist in-fighting, then they are probably your friends and colleagues. I suspect my own audience is similarly divided down the middle on this very issue.
And because gender stuff is often viewed not as an ordinary political disagreement about specific policy trade-offs, and is instead unhelpfully abstracted to broad questions of fundamental rights, being seen on the wrong side of the controversy can risk making you persona non grata with people who you actually value4.
This is incidentally why I’m incredibly sympathetic towards the guy who ran Brighton Skeptics. It’s not nice to find yourself on the receiving end of sustained negative attention, especially when it is coming not from lunatics on the far-right fringe you can ignore, but from the people you thought were your friends and ideological allies on the left half of the political spectrum.
I know this from weirdly specific experience. Literally a decade ago now, I was actually involved in organising a Skeptics in the Pub event along similar lines. We called it ‘The Battle Over Gender’ and I think it was one of the first public events where anyone in the skeptics community attempted to discuss what were then very new ideas about gender and ‘gender identity’.
Even back then we faced a relatively ferocious backlash from some voices on Twitter who did not like that the event was taking place. Though in our case, we went through with it, but only because I was working with a much tougher-minded group of people than myself. If I was doing it on my own, I suspect I’d have crumbled too5.
On one level, the cancelled Brighton Skeptics event doesn’t really matter. It was one guy making a decision to cancel, after a pressure campaign from some members of his local community gave him grief. Already too much digital ink has been spilled over what would have been a couple of hours and an audience of 60 people.
And in any case, following the controversy and the ensuing Streisand Effect, another group has now picked up the baton and is running the now un-cancelled event in Brighton Skeptics’ place.
But I do think this matters, because there’s a broader point here about how the gender wars are typically framed.
One reason the issue is so contentious is because some activists on the trans rights side believe that the gender critical position is fundamentally illegitimate. Presumably, the people who sought to cancel the Brighton event thought this – that’s why they tried to stop the event going ahead. They were trying to mark the views they assumed would be expressed at the event as beyond the scope of legitimate discussion.
But the problem is that regardless of whichever side of the debate you are personally on, this asymmetry is not reflected by public opinion. And it is the contours of public opinion which ultimately shape the environment in which the policy debate takes place.
Simply put, polls consistently reveal that the British public are supportive of trans rights in a zoomed-out sense – happily there does not appear to be much of an appetite here for the grotesque and hateful conservative politics you see towards trans people on the American right.
But when asked about specific policy questions like trans participation in women’s sports or on self-ID, public opinion appears much more in line with the views of gender critical feminists. (You can read a detailed breakdown of this polling here.)
And this is even true when you just look at the left. For example, a recent poll of Labour Party members by YouGov and Labour Together perfectly encapsulates this divide. 93% of respondents supported the idea that a future Labour government should make “a commitment to allow all transgender people in the UK to be able to live their lives free from harassment, abuse and intimidation”.
But conversely, the exact same poll had 62% of party members agree (vs just 19% that disagree) with the gender critical position that “There are some cases where it should be legal to provide services and spaces that are only for women who were female at birth, even if that means excluding transgender women”6.
So the reality is that whether you like it or not, gender critical views are going to be a legitimate part of the debate7. Unless something changes public opinion dramatically, then the gender critical side needs to be taken seriously. And if the gender wars is ever going to end, then it is going to require activists on the trans rights side to engage seriously with the arguments – not just try to shut them down.
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Oh, and you’ll probably like this piece I wrote about why you shouldn’t let JK Rowling break your brain.
Not enough to stop myself eating the cookies though, alas.
The ‘k’ is a legacy of the movement’s American origins with figures like James Randi, and is also a neat way of distancing it from weirdo, low-status climate deniers and anti-vax types, who also style themselves as “sceptics” of the (correct) mainstream consensus.
I genuinely am not sure how Helen Lewis and Hannah Barnes would characterise their own views, as both are pretty moderate on gender stuff. Helen has written about the flaws with Self-ID before, but is stylistically very distant to, say, Helen Joyce or Kathleen Stock. I’ve not yet read Hannah’s book, but in the interviews I’ve heard with her talking about it, she has almost studiously avoided taking anything resembling political positions, instead playing the role of a reporter describing the views of others.
Am I a bit nervous for posting this for this reason? Absolutely.
It was a pretty extraordinary event in retrospect. We had Julie Bindel on a panel with the trans comedian Bethany Black, and we had a couple of solid hours of respectful dialogue. Which seems almost unthinkable today.
The third polling question showed 67% of members supporting reform the Gender Recognition Act so that while transition would still require a medical diagnosis, it need only be signed off by a single doctor instead of a panel. Which taken as a whole seems to suggest that Keir Starmer has done a very good job landing on a compromise position on the worst issue in the world.