No sacred cows

Why we’re lying to ourselves over trans rights

1 December 2018

9:00 AM

1 December 2018

9:00 AM

On 21 November, a debate took place in the House of Commons about proposals to reform the Gender Recognition Act to make it easier for transgender people to self-identify as men or women. Among the public, this is a widely discussed issue, with most echoing the concerns of feminists about the risks of allowing biological males to enter women’s changing rooms, etc. But until last week the issue hadn’t been debated in the Commons, partly because MPs who have reservations about changing the law are afraid to speak out. Sure enough, nearly all the backbench MPs who contributed to the debate toed the line of the trans-rights activists.

The ex-lobby correspondent James Kirkup, now director of the Social Market Foundation, has become a must-read commentator on this issue and he recently disclosed he’s been keeping a ‘private list’ of people who’ve told him they’re deeply worried about gender self-identification, but haven’t said anything. That list includes: more than a dozen government ministers (including cabinet members); several Labour frontbenchers; numerous backbench MPs (the majority female); lots of BBC journalists (some very famous); charity executives; senior business people; teachers, lawyers, doctors and other professionals; and lots of ‘ordinary’ women who can’t understand why the potential implications of a law change are not being addressed

Kirkup describes their refusal to speak up as a ‘political failure’ — the worst he’s witnessed since he began covering British politics in 1994 — and ascribes it to the aggressive tactics of the trans lobby. Numerous feminists have been targeted for challenging these activists, the most recent being Jenni Murray, the presenter of Woman’s Hour, who had to cancel a talk she was due to give at Oxford University after being accused of ‘transphobia’ by LGBTQ+ students. Her sin was to write an article last year headlined: ‘Be trans, be proud — but don’t call yourself a “real woman”.’


This strikes me as a classic case of ‘preference falsification’, the concept first introduced by the social scientist Timur Kuran in his 1995 book Private Truths, Public Lies. The idea is that people sometimes falsify what it is they genuinely believe, either to curry favour with a powerful group or to avoid any negative consequences of expressing dissent. If Kuran was merely pointing out that people do this when their views are deeply unpopular there would be nothing particularly interesting about ‘preference falsification’ — it would be entirely rational. But he notes that we also hide what we feel about issues when the vast majority share our views. Why? Because we aren’t aware that plenty of others think as we do.

When it comes to the issue of gender self–identification, the relevant constituency is not the public. Most politicians, doctors, BBC journalists etc who are afraid to voice their concerns are aware that a majority think a person’s gender is determined by their biological sex and trans women should not be given ready access to women-only spaces. But on this issue, they would no more be guided by the public than they would on capital punishment or immigration. Indeed, their default position is probably to treat the majority view on a subject like this as highly suspect because they think of ordinary people as narrow–minded bigots. Rather, the relevant group are other educated, professional folk like themselves — the intelligentsia. These are the people they are all too happy to defer to and on this issue they think the majority of their peers subscribe to the trans orthodoxy.

They’re almost certainly wrong, but the fact that most members of the intelligentsia share their scepticism isn’t common knowledge, and until it becomes so the trans lobby will continue to hold sway. It’s this that makes the shaming tactics of these activists so effective. Dissent is stifled, not just because anyone expressing it is punished, but also because, with so few people willing to brave these brickbats, the impression is created that the majority of the chattering classes believe the law should be reformed. Until there’s an ‘Emperor’s No Clothes’ moment, people will carry on indulging in ‘preference falsification’.

I like this theory because it doesn’t just apply to this particular bit of progressive dogma, but to the entire panoply of social justice ideology. Its high priests have mastered the art of creating the impression that their neo-Marxist beliefs are much more widespread than they really are.

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