With social media so full of menace, no wonder the bully boys are winning

Last week I met Maya Forstater, an international development researcher with a specialism in corporate responsibility. She has a soft voice, delicate features and a stately air; not someone, in other words, you’d guess is often conflated with devilry itself. And yet. She was sacked from her job at the Centre for Global Development in 2018 for tweeting her “transphobic” view that biological sex can’t be changed. She then sued the Centre, alleging that she had been fired for “philosophical beliefs”, and therefore in violation of the Equality Act 2010. She lost, with the Employment Tribunal branding her an “absolutist in her view of sex”, someone who “will refer to a person by the sex she considered appropriate” and in doing so “violates their dignity and/or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”.

This was a shockingly sinister judgment for a law-abiding anti-poverty researcher, as the much-hated gang that rallied round her, including the kingpin (queenpin?) of pro-trans loathing JK Rowling, could see. Forstater appealed the judgment, winning in April 2021 when the Appeal Tribunal agreed that having “gender critical” views was part and parcel of living in a “democratic society” – in other words, working out what any half-decent 10-year-old might have told you.

I asked Forstater about the price she had paid for refusing to be eviscerated for legitimate, if polarising, views. She confirmed it had indeed been huge, even if she has now become something of a “gender critical” celeb.

Standing up for herself required willingness to sacrifice income, friends, reputation and employment prospects, and an immensely thick skin. Or the ability to grow one. Given this, most people cringe a bit and keep their heads down rather than fight back when they know something is wrong. The problem is, these are not just wars of words any more: they have real-life implications that impinge on an amazing array of issues, from what counts as fairness to what counts as science.

What it means to be a woman is just one of the biggies of our time, but it’s a particularly hot potato right now. For as Forstater was fighting for her right to keep a job while stating the view that biological womanhood is the only kind, Laurel Hubbard, the first transgender woman to compete in the Olympics, was gearing up for the women’s weightlifting. She will make her debut on Monday – a watershed moment that has roused fierce passions on both sides. 

Those upset by her inclusion note that she never competed internationally before 35, when she began transitioning; competing as a woman seems to have helped propel her up the league tables. They also point to a crisply excellent new book, T: The Story of Testosterone by Carole Hooven, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard, who says that those born male have “testosterone levels around 25 times those of pubertal females”, conferring “an athletic advantage over people who have not experienced male puberty.” With more muscle mass and strength, says Hooven, young men begin to outperform their female counterparts in athletic pursuits by 10-50 per cent. 

But the International Olympic Committee has praised Hubbard’s “courage and tenacity” while its medical and science director, Dr Richard Budgett, said “everyone agrees that trans women are women”. Olympic guidelines state that anyone can compete in the women’s category, no surgery needed, so long as their testosterone is kept under 10 nonomoles per litre. But women, including elite athletes, only have about 0.12-1.78 nonomoles per litre of testosterone.

Trans people face serious personal hurdles and deserve, as everyone does, respect and compassion. The issues transgenderism raises about sex and gender are complex, though, and the idea that they are not complex, and that there is only one correct position to take – that biological sex is at root a construct – is unfortunate. Like many unfortunate but powerful ideas, this one became entrenched through the vicious pack mentality of Twitter, and it is this Twitterised version that has come to shape epistemology and policy – even science itself – at the very highest level. 

That Twitter is running, perhaps ruining, culture is hardly afresh observation; in her resignation from The New York Times in 2020, Bari Weiss observed that Twitter had become the newspaper’s “ultimate editor”. But Twitter, while losing none of its power to execute summarily those who stray, has got even scarier now, with greater, grosser provocations leading to greater, grosser retribution, spilling well beyond the proper confines of the site. 

When Giles Coren tweeted something truly nasty about Dawn Foster, his erstwhile Twitter foe, following her untimely death a few weeks ago, it seemed his only interest was the biggest squeeze of the hornet’s nest he could muster. It worked: he soon had dog excrement left on the pathway to his house and Foster’s name graffitied on its walls. Darren Grimes, the Conservative commentator, must have known what he was doing when he tweeted, following Marcus Rashford’s missed penalty in the Euro final, “penalties not politics from now on, aye”. Or perhaps he didn’t, because what happened led to someone tweeting that their cousin had gone to school with Grimes and that he’d had a nickname associated with masturbating under his desk. This deeply personal bullying promptly went viral, no doubt to Grimes’s intense distress.

In a climate like this, it’s no wonder that most, maybe even the best, people prefer to lay low, letting the bully boys on both sides hash it out like some kind of grim beast fight at the Coliseum. Twitter has turned debate into an occasion for textual terrorism. This is a huge shame, for there is much to push back against, and many records to set straight. But the fight is just too dirty, and the dangers involved in entering it simply too real. 

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