29 August 2018

Wordcrimes: how identity politics distorts meaning to stop debate


Let’s examine what the Minister actually said. It will be important when we come to examine the reaction to her words.

Victoria Atkins, Minister for Women (whose name and title suggests a character in a late 19th century novel about northern Methodists and the temptations of urban Britain, but who is in fact a sensible and intelligent barrister, and MP for Louth and Horncastle) said that gender reassignment therapy for young people might be “an answer to questions they are perhaps not asking themselves”, and that the recent increase in the number of such treatments should be better understood: “We need to get down to the reasons why this is happening.”

Is the minister factually incorrect? The data suggest not. For this we can quote the Guardian: “Figures released by the Tavistock Clinic, the UK’s main centre specialising in gender issues, show that 2,519 referrals for its young persons’ gender identity development service were received during 2017/18, around a quarter more than the previous year which had 2,016 referrals.”

A 25 per cent increase in the number of young people seeking help to understand their gender – and potentially embarking on a path that (again, potentially) leads to radical and lifelong changes – is surely significant, and a matter of at least interest, if not concern, regardless of one’s philosophical views about the nature of gender and its interaction with biology. Why, any reasonable adult would ask, is this happening?

I mean, consider the counterfactual alternative: data show an increase in the number of adolescents seeking help to understand their gender. Government minister says, “No teenager has anything other than complete agency in all his or her decisions; teenagers are never subject to pressure over their choices, either from peers, wider culture, or their mentors. Furthermore, there should be no investigation into the increasing number seeking gender reassignment therapy: that’s just the way things are, and it would be wrong for a government to question this, or to consider it anything other than a cause for celebration.”

In Rational Britain (Britain before 2015, and those decreasing areas untouched by the baleful, deadening wrath of the identity politics demon), it would be this alternative statement that led to uproar: let’s not examine the facts, but choose, as truth, one (and only one) ideologically-driven assertion as the only possible explanation for the increase.

In Identity Politics Britain, alas, it was the Minister’s actual statements which drew condemnation. Again, let’s examine the form of the words raised against her, because they are important.

Fox Fisher, a patron of the LGBT+ helpline, said a lot of reasonable things about the minister’s concerns being put into perspective, and inviting her to talk more with the people directly involved. Nothing wrong with that. But Fox also went on to say: “It is damaging to imply that trans teens are being given treatment lightly… Trans people’s lives are at stake here, and we know what we need.”

With apologies to Fox Fisher, Ms Atkins didn’t say “trans teens are being given treatment lightly”, and if Fox inferred that from her words, that is Fox’s problem, not that of the Minister, whose phraseology was merely (and obviously) driven towards understanding the rise in the number of such cases. From that unwarranted inference, the Minister’s words are then claimed to be “damaging”… her questions even put “trans people’s lives… at stake”.

This sort of verbal escalation — the Minister’s reasonable questions are twisted into a cavalier disregard for the lives of human beings — is such a commonplace method within the modern left, and especially, it feels to me, among the transgender activist groups, that it deserves its own label.

I call it wordcrime, and define it as the determined rewiring of an innocent party’s words, in order to ascribe the worst possible motives to that individual.

Wordcrime is useful to those with a strong but relatively unpopular position for which they wish to advocate. Most people do not believe that gender should be a matter of personal choice (the position proposed by the government’s recently abandoned legislation), but neither would they wish transgender people’s lives made purposefully less pleasant.

Of course, the vast majority of transgender people don’t try to change what the rest of us think and say: they want what we all want, to live life with dignity and respect. But the activists (by definition) have an agenda, and wordcrime is the tool of choice for some. Express anything other than celebratory joy about transgenderism, and likely as not you will be accused of driving young people to suicide.

I don’t pretend to understand how transgenderism must feel. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent? But the converse is also surely true: whereof one can speak, one should never be silent. So let me speak.

When I was a teenager I contacted the Lesbian & Gay Switchboard to deal with the syllogistic persecution foisted into my consciousness, a persecution that arose from the intersection of the Presbyterian culture in which I was raised with the instincts I knew to be inalienable:

– Good people aren’t homosexual
– Graeme is homosexual
– So Graeme cannot be good

Organisations like Switchboard, and the Samaritans (bless you, bless the man who talked to me those long cold hours, bless you bless you bless you, total stranger whose concern I felt and whose voice I heard) helped me reject the catechism, until eventually I had enough, and reversed it (“Graeme is [basically] a good person; Graeme is gay; ergo …”).

So I’m grateful to Switchboard, and to the many other lobby groups which helped nudge Britain into a more tolerant place for gay people. I am not (whatever you write on Twitter) your enemy.

But I am an enemy of wordcrime, the act of angrily telling people what they are allowed to say about matters of gender, and of ascribing hateful motives to anyone who won’t follow the script. My fear isn’t that wordcrime will pay, but that one day it will be punished with a backlash. Beware the demon of identity politics: he is not, and never will be, the friend of the frightened teenager

Graeme Archer is a statistician and writer.