I have assiduously avoided serious engagement with what I have facetiously called the ‘Pronoun Wars’ but what, if we’re taking it seriously as I suppose we must, we should refer to as the ‘debate’ surrounding the Scottish Government’s proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (GRA). My reasons for distancing myself from this to date included the nature of the discussion surrounding these reforms; the complexity of the issues; and the fact that I wanted to focus all my attention on the constitutional question. It has lately become clear that it is not possible to divorce the constitutional issue from certain matters of policy. It has become clear, in fact, that the Pronoun Wars may be – or become – a threat to the cause of restoring Scotland’s independence. That cause being dear to my heart, I feel compelled to break my near-silence on the subject.
I am not one to shy away from robust debate. I express myself in the way that I feel is appropriate and distrust greatly the motives of those who seek to dictate the terms of debate and the manner in which it is conducted. Complaints about language, tone, abusiveness etc. are all too often deployed as a diversion by those who find themselves unable to formulate an adequate argument or as an attempt to induce that most pernicious of all forms of censorship – self-censorship. As far as I am concerned, the only rule in debate is that one must make one’s case and defend one’s stated position using every tool of intellect and language at one’s disposal.
The ancient Greeks, widely acknowledged as the originators and greatest exponents of the art and science of debate, regarded as perfectly legitimate efforts to undermine the character and credibility of an opponent. I find no reason to disagree with them. Debate, like any other form of human interaction, is a transaction in the currency of power. The purpose is to test the power of both the argument and the person making the argument. For what is the point of having a good argument if there is nobody to make it stand up? What is the point of having the sharpest sword if none can wield it or the most lethal spear if nobody can throw it?
The only self-imposed rule I recognise in debate is that I should never make a statement or take a position that I am not prepared to defend. The strict application of this rule helps ensure veracity and cogency in one’s arguments, however robust one’s style.
Discussion of the proposed GRA reforms tends not to qualify as debate at all. I cannot claim to have observed these discussions intimately or over any significant length of time. But what I’ve seen has been sufficient to deter me from entering a fray that seems to involve little in the way of factual or reasoned argument. The appearance – or impression – is of two deeply entrenched camps each solely concerned with denouncing the rigid dogma of the other while the content and substance of those dogmas remains a mystery to the observer. It seems not so much a contest of ideas and the ability to convey them as a conflict of irrational – and therefore indefensible – faith positions. Debate reduced and perverted to a test of the capacity for virulent and vicious condemnation of heresies.
Faintly through the loud and shrill cacophony of this unedifying hate-fest comes the sound of a voice which is at least trying to be lucid and sharp. Rev. Stu Campbell of Wings Over Scotland is renowned (and not infrequently reviled) for his forensic approach to debate. When it comes to the Pronoun Wars, however, not even he can totally avoid the emotional or eschew the emotive. Nonetheless, he manages to remind us that there is more to this than just an exchange of insults across an impassible no-man’s-land. In a recent article, he attempts to distil the debate down to a handful of questions put to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Or, presumably, anyone who might venture to answer those questions. In doing so, he dispels at least some of the noxious fog which otherwise obscures the essence of the matter.
People are complicated. That’s the problem. People are naturally complicated and some people try to be more complicated than they naturally would be. Society, being comprised of people, is also complicated. The larger the society, they more complex it is. The more complex it is the greater it’s fragility; it’s tendency to fragment. To counter this, societies have developed or evolved ways of reducing complexity. We have rules, laws, customs, social conventions. A raft of artifices all of which serve to make large and complex societies feasible despite the stresses associated with their complexity. Of necessity, many of these rules are characterised by a degree of arbitrariness. You cannot both take full account of complexity and reduce it. Some aspect of the complexity must be compromised in the name of practicality. It’s not a question of what is most comprehensive or inclusive but of what works. What enables us to get by from one day to the next without generalised mayhem breaking out. Or, at least, keeping the generalised mayhem to a manageable level.
Perish the thought that the purpose is to be provocative, but I shall take as my illustrative example, sex. By which I mean actual sex. Intercourse. The procreative and/or recreational act of copulation. As far as raw nature is concerned, procreation takes precedence. Thus, the only criterion for commencement of sexual activity is female fertility and male potency. But people are complicated. The chemical changes which prompt the urge to make the most of that fertility and potency in order to maximise procreation tend to precede the realisation of the fertility and potency in order that none of it will be wasted. Also, there is no more than a broad correlation between and among males and females in terms of timing. Depending on a baffling range of factors, puberty can start before age 8 for girls or 9 for boys – although this is regarded as a medical condition known as precocious puberty and so may not be considered ‘normal’ by certain standards. Nature cares nothing for these standards. As far as nature is concerned, these children are adult in the sense of being – or having the physical attributes associated with being – fertile or potent.
Nature demands that these bodies get together to make more bodies. The youngest girl ever to give birth was less than 6 years of age. That appals us. It doesn’t appal nature. Because society’s demands and nature’s demands are very different. Nature wants girls to become baby factories as soon as possible and keep on churning them out as long as possible. Society has other plans for them. Mostly.
Our society needs women to be effective cogs in a vast machine dedicated to production and consumption. For that, they need to be educated and trained. Which takes time. Boys are subject to precisely the same pressure except that they don’t run the same risk of being distracted or diverted from their role as a production/consumption unit by the whole child-bearing routine. Their part in the process is to be an efficient enough production/consumption unit to make up for the woman’s time-out for having the baby and, more importantly, for the baby’s period of development prior to becoming an efficient production/consumption unit. To put it crudely, the female puts in the unpaid effort, the male puts in the paid hours. Both have socially imposed roles. Neither gets much choice in the matter.
In order to allow time for the children to be prepared for adult life in our society, sexual activity must be delayed beyond the point at which nature commences to make its demands felt. So we make a rule. We set an age below which sexual activity is prohibited regardless of what those fiendish hormones are getting up to. We subordinate the demands of nature to the requirements of our large and complex society. The age chosen is, to a considerable degree, arbitrary. From the perspective of raw nature, it is very arbitrary. From the perspective of people embedded in our society, less so. We convince ourselves that the age of sexual consent is less arbitrary than it is by convincing ourselves that children are ‘not ready’ for sexual relations below that age. And by so structuring society and its rules as to make sexual relations below that age a cause of distress to the child regardless of whether they are ‘ready’ or not.
None of which is to condone underage sex. Far from it. In one way or another, it can be very damaging for the child. It merely serves to make the point that, in order to make society work, we have rules that are arbitrary in some way and to some extent. They are a compromise. We set 16 as the age of sexual consent regardless of the fact that many individuals will be physically and (less reliably) emotionally ‘ready’ at a much earlier age. Also regardless of the fact that some individuals won’t be mature enough to be considered ‘ready’ until considerably later in life. There are those who are never ‘ready’. The rule inconveniences many, but not most. It may be regarded as unfair by some. But it is accepted as necessary by the majority. It is breached a lot. But not so much as to have a seriously deleterious impact on society. It works.
As far as the law (society) is concerned, you’re ‘ready’ for sex as soon as you turn 16. (And probably spend the next few years trying to make up for the time that nature insists you’ve lost.) All the complexities of people and nature are rationalised into a single rule. The complexities are set aside in the name of finding something that allows society to function – in its fashion.
Similarly, individuals are defined as male or female. Just as designating 16 as the age of sexual responsibility does not deny the complexities of sexual maturity, so designating a person’s sex does not deny the complexities that pertain to sexuality. Both set aside those complexities in a compromise that provides for practicality.
Imagine, for a moment, a proposal for legislation which would allow people to self-determine their sexual maturity. To decide their own age of consent. A measure which, at the extreme, might make it perfectly legal for a child of five to engage in sexual activity. A ridiculous notion, as I’m sure most will agree. But the likely response of the majority of those confronted with such a notion gives an inkling of how emotionally charged is the issues arising from the proposed GRA reforms. Not that they are the same. But that they provoke similar responses.
The thing about ‘traditional’ binary sex designation is that it works. It has worked for a very long time. At least as long as there have been large complex human societies. It works in the context of such societies. It worked because those it failed to accommodate because of their location in the matrix of human sexual complexity accepted the compromise. It worked because the the pressure to ensure the functionality of society tended to be greater than the pressure to accommodate those who felt to some degree excluded by the compromise. There was a consensus that the functioning of society for the general benefit should be prioritised over the ideal of perfectly accommodating every individual and all their complexity.
That consensus has been lost. We need to form a new consensus. The ‘debate’ around the Scottish Government’s proposed GRA reforms is not such as might produce consensus. In fact, it is such as totally precludes consensus.
If we would restore the necessary consensus we would do well to first acquire some understanding of how it was lost. The ‘debate’ around the Scottish Government’s proposed GRA reforms in not conducive to acquiring such understanding. In fact, it precludes any such understanding.
This fully justifies my desire and intention to remain detached from that ‘debate’. This essay should not be regarded as an invitation to engage me in that debate. Neither should my next essay, in which I shall attempt to understand how we lost that working consensus.
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