I have stayed out of the sex/gender debate which is causing ructions and ruptures within the SNP. I have steered clear of it for a number of reasons. The debate itself may fairly be described as ‘toxic’. With two camps firmly entrenched and lobbing gas grenades at one another the last place you want to be is in no-man’s-land, where you’re likely to find yourself engulfed by a poisonous cloud whichever way the wind blows. I have something of a reputation for a decidedly ‘robust’ debating style. I am no more averse to undermining the character and credibility of an opponent than were the great orators of ancient Athens. But there is always a point to my insults. They are, I hope, measured. Calculated to serve a substantial argument. The sex/gender debate appears to consist of little else but profound unpleasantness entirely for its own sake.
Another reason for shunning what I shall continue to call a debate solely for want of a better term, is that I prefer to try and focus on the constitutional question. I regard this as, by far, the most important issue in Scotland’s politics at this time. Inevitably so given that there is no aspect of public policy which lies outwith the scope of constitutional politics.
Then there’s the fact that I don’t understand the sex/gender debate. Not that I don’t understand the issue. But that I don’t understand why it is an issue. Or, at least, why it is so much of an issue that those who become involved in discussing it tend to be instantly stripped of all decency, decorum and dignity. That sex/gender is non-binary is, to my mind, quite uncontroversial. I long ago realised that both both biologically determined sex and socially defined gender are points, or bands, on a spectrum – or, better still, areas in a matrix – which may be more or less sharply delineated and which may – within limits – shift over time.
Regarding sex/gender thus, it becomes easy to accept as part of a broader normality sexual orientations and gender roles which cannot be accommodated by a concept of normality derived from the idea of sex/gender as binary. Normality itself is not binary. Instead of thinking in terms of an oppositional normal and abnormal, we relate better to reality by thinking in terms of many different normals. Instead of two exclusive categories, we have a richer and more satisfying single inclusive category.
There is still abnormality in the sense of the pathological. But this relates to sexual behaviour rather than the matter of where a person is placed – or where they place themselves – in the maleness/femaleness matrix. It may well be argued that, in terms or sex/gender identity, the only abnormality is the claim to be entirely one or the other. We can only sensibly talk about certain traits and characteristics being dominant. We are, each and every one of us, a mix of male and female. For the most part, we are predominately one or the other. But it is almost certainly impossible to be all male or all female. Nature just doesn’t work that way.
Given all of this, it stands to reason that an enlightened society will recognise the individual’s right to have some say in defining their sex/gender. It may even be maintained that this is a human right as well as a civil right. What it cannot be, however, is an absolute right. There are practical considerations. And where there are practical considerations there has to be compromise.
The large, complex societies in which the vast majority of are embedded, and on which we all depend, simply would not be feasible were we unable or unwilling to compromise. Democracy itself is just such a compromise. Each of us is a sovereign individual with free will. We choose to compromise by pooling part of our individual sovereignty so that society as a whole can function. Look, and you will find such compromises everywhere; in your own life and those of others. You will also see people who are reluctant to compromise. Or who refuse to do so. Or who do so inadequately. Adolescence is a period when human beings tend to struggle with these compromises. Some people struggle with them all their lives.
Treating sex/gender as if it was binary is one of those compromises. There are contexts in which it is necessary to draw a dividing line between the ‘two sexes’ simply so as to make the day-to-day functioning of society possible. There are elements of society’s institutions and infrastructure which cannot accommodate every part of the sex/gender matrix. Resource limitations prohibit it. It is not possible to have separate toilet facilities for every single one of the sex/gender orientations which can exist ‘in nature’, far less all those which may be conceived of and adopted by individuals constrained only by the scope of their imagination. Our towns and cities would be toilets in more than a metaphorical sense.
Obviously, I exaggerate in order to make the point that compromise is necessary. Even in relation to something as essential as one’s sex/gender identity, there must be a trade-off between being true to oneself and enjoying the benefits of modern society.
The good news is that the contexts in which such compromises must be made have been greatly reduced over the years. The extent, severity and rigidity of the compromise has also lessened with ongoing social reform. The institution of marriage being a good example of a context which has ceased to demand that sex/gender be treated as binary. Marriage now accommodates more forms of normality than it did only a few years ago.
Things change. Mostly, they change quite slowly. Although it would be more true to say that they change at a human pace. A pace suited to society as whole rather than the preferences of individuals. Perhaps it’s maturity that allows me to accept with equanimity the fact that some things don’t change as much or as quick or in the way that I want. Or maybe it’s just that I’m getting older. Mainly, I think, it’s because I have come to understand the processes involved in social evolution. Processes which are broadly analogous to biological evolution. The fittest reforms survive. Where fitness refers to the best fit with what already exists. Change which is a poor fit tends not to survive.
It’s a homeostatic process. Albeit a less than perfectly efficient one. (Something else that society has in common with organisms.) There are forces driving change. There are forces resisting change. Ideally, this results in a compromise which suits nobody particularly well, but which works acceptably well for everybody – as in society as a whole. Otherwise, escalating conflict reduces the space available for compromise. Which is what seems to have happened in the case of the sex/gender issue.
The greatest enemy of compromise is dogmatic absolutism. There are always groups in society made up of people who have succumbed to this particular form of human folly. Groups characterised by the conviction that they have discovered ‘The One True Way!’. Just such a group has coalesced around the idea that there should be absolutely no contexts in which sex/gender may be treated as if it were binary. This, regardless of society’s capacity to accommodate every single form of normal. Regardless of the practicalities. Regardless of the consequences. No compromise!
In case you hadn’t noticed, that was me coming down off the fence firmly on the side of those who regard this manifestation of dogmatic absolutism as an assault on women’s rights. I am persuaded that, while it may be no part of the intention, massively eroding or entirely eradicating the contexts in which the compromise of a binary concept of sex/gender is acceptable will adversely affect those for whose benefit this compromise was settled on. I am convinced that it is a maladaptive reform. It’s a seriously bad fit with society as it exists. It is impractical.
I do not condemn those who advocate strongly for this reform. As already noted, society needs movements which push the envelope, or they stagnate. But their demands are objectively unreasonable. And, as so often happens with such absolutist cliques, unreasonable has morphed into unreasoning. It is one thing to have the courage and strength of one’s convictions. It is quite another to be convinced that the righteousness of a cause transcends the obligation to adhere to appropriate standards of conduct.
It is now beyond question that there are elements within the SNP, and/or close to the leadership, prepared to stoop to quite appalling behaviour in pursuit of their ‘radical’ political agenda. People are being hounded out of their earned positions and from the party on trumped-up allegations of anti-Semitism. There is a viciousness to the assaults on dissenting figures which is deeply troubling. A calculated, sulphurous intensity which I can well imagine might frighten some. And for every one that is successfully driven out by this onslaught, many more are intimidated and deterred from speaking out. Which, of course, is the intention.
I am not easily intimidated. I will not be deterred. I find I must speak out.
I simply do not comprehend how such corrosive factionalism has been permitted to exist and thrive within the party with which I have been happy to associate myself for 57 years. The malign intolerance being exhibited and the despicable manner in which it operates seems totally alien. It has no place in any political party. And if it is not excised promptly and thoroughly people are likely to conclude that there is no place in the party for them.
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