On The Importance of Open Debate

Following the sustained pressure Conway Hall faced due to the nature of the Radfem 2012 article, it was today revealed that Shelia Jeffreys has been banned from speaking at the conference due to the controversial nature of her so-called hate speak. In her article today published in the Guardian as part of their “comment is free” series, she seeks largely to rebut the criticism that she and her supporters have faced in the wake of the discriminatory admissions policy of the conference, singling out Roz Kaveney’s article in particular.

Whilst I am certain that many of “my sisters” will be rejoicing at this news – and I imagine a number of pieces of this nature will have been published online as this was being written – this is not what interests me today. Instead, it seems to me that there is an arguably more important issue about the nature of free speech being raised in Ms Jeffreys’ article (disingenuous and somewhat ironic though it might have been in this context) which has been bubbling below the surface for sometime. It is this same issue which made me unwilling to call for her being “banned” from speaking at this conference, and consequently I am unhappy with this outcome. Personally, impossible though this solution might have been, I would have much preferred to see the inclusion of women who are trans at Radfem 2012 so that, were Ms Jeffreys to raise the issue, a balanced discussion could potentially have been had.

The fact of the matter is that gender identity disorder (aka transsexualism, transgenderism or gender incongruence depending on which nomenclature your prefer) is a hugely under-researched area and, consequently, one which we know little about. We have little to no idea of its cause or how it progresses, and as such it is a ‘condition’ [a term I use *very* loosely here] which is normally diagnosed by the patient as opposed to a doctor. This means that when someone presents with gender incongruence it falls upon the psychiatrist to confirm the diagnosis rather than make the diagnosis themselves. Doctors are human and not infallible; as such medical professions are as able to be lead by information as anyone else. In a situation such as with gender incongruence where there is empirical test to confirm available, this process becomes much more difficult and time consuming as the doctor cannot run the risk of causing idiopathic harm through the misdiagnosis and subsequent mis-treatment.

Were more research done into gender identity disorder we would naturally learn more about the ‘condition’. Consequently, we would be able confirm the diagnosis more effectively. This would potentially not only allow for those people on the treatment pathway to progress more quickly and less disruptively, but it may also help to facilitate a better understanding at a more local level thus ensuring more accurate (i.e. less false) and faster referrals onto the pathway for those seeking treatment.

So, with this in mind, why do we [individuals who are trans] as a community seem to be so afraid to have this discussion? Whilst I do not agree with the tone of her article, Ms Jeffreys gives a number of examples – both recent and not – of occasions in which we have indeed subjected those who question the nature of gender identity disorder “to determined campaigns of bullying, intimidation and attempts to shut them down” . Whilst many may argue these campaigns were justified, I would point out that it is not the campaigns themselves which are objectionable but rather their nature. The nature of these acts not only undermines the associated campaigns, but also serves to highlight the desperation and defensiveness we appear to feel when questioned. Yet, if we will fight for our rights – thus effectively forcing others to re-evaluate our role in society; is it not only fair that we allow them to freely question that role?

By taking the defensive and dismissive stance we serve not only to empower the argument – as Ms Jeffreys suggests – that gender incongruence “might not stand up to rigorous research and debate”, but we also stifle any chance of progress in terms of our treatment by medical professionals, our treatment by academics and – in many ways – our treatment by the general populous, since those who might facilitate that progress are left too afraid to enter the field by the fallout of ongoing battles. If we were instead to step back and allow outspoken individuals to say their piece and move on, we might slowly be able to replace these childish squabbles and vicious conflicts with productive, intellectual discussion and progressive research. As in any area, as the discussion grows and debate continues those with more extreme views and theories will be largely marginalised, dismissed and unheard – and so disarmed anyway. Moreover, if we actually go one further and actively arrange and facilitate debate in this way then we may even be able to shape the nature and focus of discussion to meet our own ends.

The crux of my argument is this – those coming forth with new and differing views should be met with open minds; not with open warfare. Whilst it would be foolish to through caution to the wind in its entirety, it appears that for the moment the approach being taken is not one which even permits whispers to go uncensored. As such it might be prudent to take a step back in order to allow a dialogue to begin and instead aim to steer it as it matures. Yes, a number of controversial views may currently be present, but in facilitating discussion I am certain we will find that things are much more interesting just below surface. The potential for discussion here is like an iceberg – let us help it to be explored fully.

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2 comments on “On The Importance of Open Debate

  1. Sarah Brown says:

    A couple of points which I think need making here:

    1) Jeffries was banned by the venue, Conway Hall, for violating their terms and conditions. This is between her and the venue.

    2) There may well be value in debating issues around accessing care pathways, but we should be under no illusion that SJ was in any way interested in engaging in that debate with any honest intent. Her objection to trans medical treatment is not based on any radical issue or even the outcome for those accessing it. Her objection is purely ideological on the basis that she thinks the existence of trans people harms people who are not trans (and has gone as far as to say it violates their human rights).

    Assuming she got to speak at Conway Hall, and assuming they let trans people in, you were never going to get the debate that you hint at here. That’s just not where she is coming from. She’s starting from the conclusion that we shouldn’t exist and working backwards from there. That debate is one that’s rigged, and will serve to illuminate nothing but prejudice.

    While there can be value in exposing prejudice, I don’t think it would have been valuable here; she’s preaching to the converted and strengthening their resolve. This would, I’m certain, be not much like a debate and something more akin to an EDL rally.

    If their conference is crumbling around their ears, I don’t think anything of value is being lost.

    • transmedic says:

      Hey Sarah

      Thank you for your contribution; I couldn’t agree with you more on both points!

      Poorly framed though I appreciate this post was (inspiration, as they say, can come from the most unlikely of places), it was not my intent to centre this piece around Ms Jeffreys. As I’m certain you will agree, her past actions – not to mention the actions of others “inspired” by her words – speak volumes both for her and for her intentions, and the fact she has the audacity to raise the issue of freedom of speech in her article is more than enough to give anyone irony poisoning. I also agree that – given the organisers – any debate on this at Radfem2012 would have been anything but unbias, but I still feel that the issue of trans exclusion is far more critical than that of Ms Jeffery’s inclusion (granted, however, the two combine to make something infinitely more frightening).

      Maybe the point comes across poorly, but what I was hoping to do was highlight the dangers of being overly aggressive towards those with new and opposing views in an area which still needs to be properly explored. My main concern here is not with Ms Jeffreys herself (although some of her views – or at least, the way in which she seems to seek to impose these on others – most definitely do concern me) but rather the risk of stopping discussion of what is undoubtedly a delicate issue to such an extent which it kills any chance of the debate ever progressing, and thus ever being productive or actually helpful. Indeed, in this case I do not believe that anything has been lost that should (or maybe even could) have been saved, but I feel this is something we should be careful of in future.

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