Listening to those we don’t agree with helps us to tackle their views

  • First published in : Visit Website
  • First published on: 09th Dec 2022

In the midst of another busy week at Westminster I found time to listen to best-selling Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Reith lecture on Freedom of Speech. The lecture series is inspired by President Franklin D Roosevelt’s 1941 speech in which he extolled Four Freedoms; Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Fear and Freedom from Want. The last of the 4 lectures will be given by Darren McGarvey, author of Poverty Safari and will definitely be worth a listen.

There’s too little space in this column to do justice to Chimamanda’s wide-ranging discourse on the febrile atmosphere caused by cancel culture, arguments about wokeness and the attack on Salman Rushdie. However, her explanation of how autocrats and populists are undermining the very notion of accepted fact-based truths is more than worth a listen.

She argues that we should be interested in the ideas of those with whom we disagree not only because it is good to hear different sides of an issue but also because by understanding our opponents’ arguments, we are better able to tackle them. Chimamanda also reminds us that the 19th Century philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote that all silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility and that, with all due respect to the Pope, nobody is infallible.

I don’t think I will be the only National reader who was troubled by the advice to guests at Zero Tolerance’s 30-year anniversary celebrations to “refrain from discussions of the definition of a woman and single sex spaces”. The silencing of one of the most pressing debates in current feminist circles seemed strangely out of step with the taboo breaking ethos of the founders of the organisation who they were gathering to celebrate. Clearly, at least one of the members of the largely hand-picked audience agreed. She interrupted the FM’s speech to say that women who campaign for women’s rights are not anti-trans and should not be threatened or indeed silenced for so doing. Vulnerable women, she said, should be allowed to have their own spaces away from any male. To her credit the FM departed from her prepared speech to acknowledge the intervention and I want to focus on part of what she said because it was very significant.

The FM said, “In my long experience most men who commit violence against women don’t feel the need to change gender to do that. Those who do, my argument is that we should focus on them because they are men abusing a system to attack women.”

This is an important acknowledgment that the system of self-identification of sex is open to abuse by men. That is exactly what critics of the legislation have been saying for years. We are not talking about trans people acting in good faith, we are talking about men acting in bad faith.

It is also in essence what Reem Alsalem, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against women and girls, said in her 9-page letter setting out her concerns. Those who dismiss her letter lightly would do well to bear in mind the FM’s acknowledgment that the basis for her concerns is valid. They should also heed Chimamanda’s advice above.

The FM’s acknowledgement that some men might abuse the system of self-identification to commit violence against women also undermines the assertion of those who say that there is no evidence from other countries that moving to a system of self-identification puts women at risk. As Murray Blackburn MacKenzie (MBM) have argued, this ignores the fact that some countries who have de-medicalised their process of legal gender recognition have retained other checks on applicants which are not present in the Scottish bill. There are examples of violent men obtaining access to women’s spaces using a gender recognition certificate in Ireland where self-identification is already enshrined in law – the Barbie Kardashian case, and closer to home where de facto self-identification is already allowed – Katie Dolatowski in Scotland and Karen White in England. Google these cases. They are frightening.

MBM also point to the chilling effect of such legislation – two women in Norway have been pursued formally for hate crimes because they objected to the presence of a male in changing room. There is ample evidence to suggest that women will self-exclude from hitherto women only spaces for fear of encountering anyone who is clearly male without the right to object. Such self-exclusion will occur for reasons for dignity, privacy, and religious reasons as well as safety concerns.

Those seeking to demean or downplay the UN Special Rapporteur’s intervention would do well to remember that attempts to shoot the messenger don’t always work. When the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) aired concerns about self-identification earlier this year, a coalition of groups led by Stonewall called on the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (Ganhri) to remove the EHRC’s “A” status. Their intervention failed and the EHRC’s “A” status has been renewed for another five years. It turns out that interventions from human rights bodies calling for clear definitions and evidence-based law making are not transphobic but actually part of their job.

To say that other Special Rapporteurs with different mandates or UN spokespersons support self-identification is beside the point. Reem Alsalem’s mandate is violence against women and girls, that is her expertise, she deserves to be listened to on that and for the detail of her arguments to be engaged with. I was pleased to hear the First Minister announce at FMQs yesterday that the Cabinet Secretary dealing with the bill will meet with Reem Alsalem next week. The FM also renewed her acknowledgment of the problem of ‘bad faith actors”.

Groups who have raised concerns about self-identification including MBM, For Women Scotland and the LGB Alliance, have repeatedly emphasised that the issue is not whether or not a person is trans but what their sex is. The concerns raised about women’s single sex services and spaces are about the potential outcomes of admitting males to those services and spaces simply on their assertion that they are female. Likewise concerns raised by lesbians forced to admit people who say they are female to our dating pool don’t rest on prejudice against trans people but on the fact that as lesbians we are same sex attracted and therefore not attracted to people who are biologically male.

Recent guidance from Scotland’s Supreme Court in the first case about the Gender Representations on Public Boards Act and from the EHRC on single sex services and spaces identify that the correct focus when considering the protected characteristic of sex under the Equality Act is whether someone is biologically male. This understanding of the meaning of ‘sex” would also be important to a consideration of whether someone is being discriminated against, harassed, or victimised on account of their sexual orientation. Trans people are protected under the protected characteristic of gender reassignment.  What concerns those who oppose the current Gender Recognition Reform Bill is that as the proposed system of self-identification stands there is no way of distinguishing between those men who might seek to abuse it and good faith trans people.

The repeated misrepresentation of concerns about sex-based protections, and specifically men, as being concerns about trans people has led to a failure to examine these concerns properly and a toxic atmosphere in which most people who share these concerns are afraid to speak up and those who do are demonised and abused. Earlier this week I heard a colleague in the House of Commons talking about institutional bullying. If ever there was a case of institutional bullying it has been the treatment of women in workplaces and other public spaces across Scotland and the UK who have dared to raise concerns about self-identification. Is it too much to hope that the First Minister’s honest and frank response to her heckler will put a stop to this? I hope not.  

Joanna Cherry KC MP

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