Was this journalist sacked for saying ‘sex is binary’?

22 January 2020

10:35 PM

22 January 2020

10:35 PM

I write a lot about transgenderism. I do so for several reasons. Among them: because politicians still aren’t doing their job and assessing policies and representing concerns properly. Because politics fails if groups of people are silenced and ignored. Because the way some women are abused, threatened and silenced on this topic makes me angry. Because other journalists (mostly male ones) who know that this stuff matters still aren’t covering it.

And because language, our ability to give form and expression to our thoughts, is important.

George Orwell is probably the most over-quoted author in the language. That’s true even if you exclude all the people who cite things he didn’t say (‘In a time of universal deceit…’). But sometimes nothing else will do. So let’s start with Winston Smith in 1984:

‘Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.’

And sometimes, in some cases, the interlinked set of norms, rules and standards that are enforced in the name of trans rights or trans equality seem to intrude on that freedom.

This is visible in many arenas, but sometimes most vividly in academia. Universities are, or should be, places to debate and dissect ideas. But some ideas are not up for debate in parts of UK higher education, even by those whose very purpose is intellectual dissection.

I don’t have time or space here to recount the dismal state of academic philosophy and the tale of Kathleen Stock, professor of philosophy at Sussex University. Suffice to say that philosophers, whose very purpose is to examine and interrogate concepts and ideas, are now largely forbidden from examining and interrogating the concepts underlying transgenderism.

If you have any knowledge of early-years undergraduate philosophy, with its emphasis on metaphysics and mind-body problems – are we just brains in vats? How do you know you exist? – you’ll realise how frankly bizarre it is that philosophers struggle to analyse and discuss the idea that a person can be born in the ‘wrong’ body. Or the notion that the word ‘woman’ might connote ‘any person who says they are a woman’, with all that this implies for providing a meaningful definition of ‘woman’. Stuff that should be metaphysics and logic 101 is largely off-limits.

Philosophers are not the only ones whose business is ideas and words. Journalists should also test concepts, though where philosophers slice carefully with scalpels, hacks sometimes swing a hammer at an idea to see if it breaks.

What the two trades have in common is language. We use words, words to capture thoughts and ideas. Words matter.

Yet when I look at the way journalism sometimes deals with trans issues, I worry.

Because words matter, anyone engaged in any political act will seek to control and influence language. Journalism should resist and observe those attempts, not accede to them: when a politician says they will ‘invest’ public money, that should be reported for what it is: spending. And so on.

Language is very important to transgenderism and its influence over institutions. Like all orthodoxies, it has approved and forbidden language, holy words controlled by a priesthood ready to punish those who say the wrong words.

Hence the police chief who spends time telling people which pronouns to use. Hence the officers who question people for misgendering or other unacceptable speech online.

Even major news outlets take pains to adhere. A quick Google search shows that the Mail, Telegraph and many others sometimes use the phrase ‘her penis’ when referring to transwomen who retain their male genitals, generally without explanation of the contested concepts and principles that have been accepted in order to use such a phrase.

Some of this stuff is minor and well-meant, born of a desire to avoid giving offence or causing upset. Or perhaps just to avoid orchestrated social media criticism and complaints.

Sometimes, media determination to adhere to trans orthodoxy occludes the truth. I could point to several crime reports of violent acts committed by transwomen where the offender’s male anatomy and socialisation are not reported. Such reporting misleads readers.

Questions around giving offence are even more acute when it comes to commentary. Reporting rests on observed facts. Commentary, such as this piece, is about the author’s opinion and analysis. Columns should always upset or annoy someone. The alternative is to be pointlessly bland, though they should not seek offence for its own sake. That’s equally vacuous. Ideally, they should explain and question, scrutinise and challenge.

That’s what Jon Caldara tried to do in a column for the Denver Post. In it, he took issue with the Associated Press style guide, a key reference text for US journalism. On trans issues, the guide says this

‘Not all people fall under one of two categories for sex or gender… avoid references to both, either or opposite sexes or genders as a way to encompass all people.’

Caldera disagreed, and said so:

‘It’s admirable that reporters want to be compassionate to transgender individuals and those transitioning, as we all should be. But AP reporters first have a duty to the truth, or so they say. There are only two sexes, identified by an XX or XY chromosome. That is the very definition of binary. The AP ruling it isn’t so doesn’t change science.’

And now, according to an account of the facts that the paper has not challenged, Caldera is now an ex-columnist for the Denver Post. According to him, he was dropped because of the things he wrote on the trans issue, and the way he expressed himself:

‘What seemed to be the last straw for my column was my insistence that there are only two sexes and my frustration that to be inclusive of the transgendered (even that word isn’t allowed) we must lose our right to free speech.’

His reference to sex as a binary is important. ‘Sex is a spectrum’ is part of the trans orthodoxy that all must accept, alongside holy words such as ‘transwomen are women’.

The problem with ‘sex isn’t binary’ is that it is not, in a meaningful sense, true. Human beings are sexually dimorphic.

The typical male is larger, heavier, stronger than the typical female, and produces small gametes (sperm). The typical female is smaller, less muscular, produces large gametes (eggs) and incubates young in utero.

Note that word ‘typical’. These things are not, obviously, true of all. Some women are tall. Some men are infertile. And for a very small number of people, the physical characteristics associated with their sex develop differently from what’s typical. But none of this means that the distinction between male and female is redundant. As philosophers say, the existence of dawn and dusk doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as night and day.

To be honest, I find the determination some people have to drag ‘differences of sexual development’ and intersex issues into the trans debate baffling. Surely the whole premise of transgenderism is that there are (in broad terms) people with male bodies and people with female bodies and some people have a gender identity that does not align with the biological sex of their body? Isn’t that why some (but not all) trans people seek changes to their physique?

As I understand it, trans is a state where a person’s subjective identity is at odds with the observed fact of their body’s sex. Without a sexual binary trapping people in a position discordant with their sense of self, the entire premise of transgenderism collapses. Yet time and again, the priests of trans orthodoxy throw ‘sex is a spectrum’ into the debate.

A cynic would ask if that’s a deliberate attempt to muddy the waters or just a sign that the orthodoxy stands on weak intellectual foundations. A cynic or a journalist, since journalism should always ask questions, especially questions that people don’t want to answer. If transwomen are women, what does ‘woman mean? If people with male bodies commit violent crimes then say they are women, how should crime statistics record those crimes? If you insist that ‘sex is a spectrum’ how can the idea of being transgender stand?

These and other questions should be asked and answered. Yet this is a time when newspapers state that some women have penises without bothering to explain to readers the (contested) assertions they have accepted in order to make that statement. A time when pivotal facts about people doing newsworthy things can be deliberately kept from readers for fear of giving offence. A time when a columnist says he lost his column for stating that sex is binary.

‘Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.’

And if that freedom is lost, what then?

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