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By Jason Michael
AS AN UNDERGRADUATE STUDENT, many moons ago now, I remember being somewhat stumped by the argument advanced by a young Zionist at a Student Union debate over whether or not the university should support a boycotte of Israeli products. Natalie, a young Jewish woman I knew from my involvement in the Jewish Society, was eager to point out our apparent hypocrisy at choosing to single out the State of Israel for sanction for its ‘alleged misbehavior’ when we never mention the plight of the Kurds or the people of Tibet. Her argument was that we were essentially revealing our antisemitism by holding Israel, ‘the Jewish State,’ to a higher standard than we held other countries — countries that were ‘actually oppressing people.’
There was an undeniable logic to her argument, and I have to admit that, at the time, it had me at a loss. It was a persuasive case because what she was saying was true; we spent very little time thinking about the treatment of the Kurdish people. Palestine and the struggle for Palestinian liberation and statehood were fashionable. The Palestinian flag and the black and white kafiya were indispensible tokens of left-wing student politics, and pro-Palestinian activism was a hallmark of our political identity. Natalie, who now lives in a Jewish settlement in the Palestian occupied territories in the West Bank, held up a mirror to us, shamed us, and silenced us.
Upon reflection, it is entirely possible that we see the world through the lens of different books. https://t.co/Bkm0dKMziJ—
Jason Michael (@Jeggit) June 07, 2021
It was not until some time later, while studying Philosophy, that the trick she played on us became obvious to me. She had deployed what is known as the Tū quoque logical fallacy; while side-stepping the guilt of Israel, she highlighted the wrongs of other colonial oppressors and underlined our lack of involvement in these struggles. And her explanation for this was that we were, as a result of our western Christian culture, anti-Semites without really knowing it. Others might be familiar with this tactic as Whataboutery — ‘but what about Iraq, what about Turkey, what about China?’ But in reality we were against the actions of these states. The use of chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians was disgusting, as was the internment of Tibetans and members of other ethnic minorities by the Chinese government in communist ‘re-education camps.’ These horrors, however, simply were not as immediate to us as the situation in Gaza and the West Bank. Yet, by deploying this rhetorical device, she managed to obfuscate the equally criminal behaviour of the Israeli government.
Over the last few days I have seen this fallacy in operation a number of times in relation to what is perhaps the most toxic conversation in Scotland at the moment — the debate surrounding women’s and transgender people’s rights. Rather foolishly, after reading an awful lot of vicious and nasty comments on social media, I used the term ‘both sides’ in my request that everyone involved in the discussion speak to and about their opponents — remembering that they are people too — with civility; to treat the Other with decency, dignity, and respect. And, of course, this ‘both sides’ was taken up as a partisan effort on my part to manufacture some class of moral equivalence — that one side was as bad as the other. This was not my intention (and I suspect a good few of my detractors knew this).
'We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suf… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…—
Jason Michael (@Jeggit) June 06, 2021
Time and again in the replies I saw this whataboutery in action. In spite of the fact I had explicitly recommended that all involved — the unfortunately worded ‘both sides’ — try to be more civil in their language, people kept asking me: But what about women? What about the way they speak to us? What about the threats being made against women and girls? What about the numbers of women assaulted and murdered? One Twitter user from Glasgow, ‘tenaciousV,’ developed this theme a little further, stating:
Old folk in their own homes are victims of Robbers, Scammers, Cowboy builders etc. I don’t hear you on your soapbox for them?
And she is right. She doesn’t hear me on my soapbox shouting out for justice for the elderly people ripped off by con artists. Still, this does not mean I am not ever ready to condemn this atrocious behaviour. Conning vulnerable pensioners out of their money is deplorable. People who do this deserve everything coming to them, and God love those old people it happens to. If the big debate on social media was between the elderly and scumbag con artists, I have absolutely no doubt what side I would be on. The same is true with the ‘what about’ question about women — of course I am horrified by the way some transgender people and their allies speak to gender critical women. It is awful. The same with the threats. And there is no reality in which I am happy with attacks — verbal, physical, or sexual — on women by men (or by women for that matter). As for the murder of women … well, yeah. I think it’s safe to say I am most definitely upset by this.
The reason I am not on a soapbox about this is that my timeline isn’t full of trans rights activists who need this spelled out to them. We all agree that women are victims, and most often at the hands of men. No one in my timeline is denying this — and so I have no reason to convince anyone of it. We all agree that it is happening, that it is men who are doing it, and that it is intolerable and must be stopped. Never once have I suggested this was not the case. The reason I get up on my soapbox about the ill-treatment of transgender people is that there are a number of people on my timeline who are saying derogatory things, things of a menacing or threatening nature, and things barbed with violent language about transgender people — things I would not tolerate being said about women or any other group of people in my hearing.
And no — absolutely not — this is not to suggest the majority of gender critical women are abusive. Far from it. I have no reason to suspect this is coming from anywhere but from a noisy minority — but a segment which is making itself heard. Just from my own experience, we see transgender people being called ‘traps,’ ‘perverts,’ ‘deviants,’ ‘predators,’ ‘groomers,’ and such like — a lexicon which demonises and dehumanises other human beings, and a language which is quite clearly engineered to alienate transgender people and cause others to fear and mistrust them.
This is, whether we like to admit it or not, how atmospheres are created in which innocent people end up becoming victims of violence. And neither is this to suggest that gender critical women are violent or even that this violence will be perpetrated by women. I fully accept that transgender people, like women, are far more likely to be victims of men. My concern is that the feelings right now being brought to the boil — unnecessarily — are providing a smokescreen and a distorted sense of legitimacy to genuinely bigoted and hateful people (mostly men) who may be inspired by this atmosphere and language to do something terrible. And yes, I am saying exactly the same thing about trans rights activists and transgender people who are breathing threats against women. What we do know is that tense situations, laden with insults, bitterness, and threats, tend to produce violence — from women as well as from men.
In early February this year, Stephanie Hayden, a London-based lawyer and a trans woman, highlighted a tweet from a Scottish gender critical activist she had never met or interacted with before. In this tweet, which included a picture of Stephanie, the Scottish woman wrote:
I had to block this big munter because every time I read a tweet either written by the big man or about them, well let’s just say it triggers the shit out of me, this big fucker will end up suing me ending with him sitting on my big chair at the fire in my house, fuck him.
What was the purpose of someone using this language and this tone to another person they had never met or interacted with before — to a perfect stranger? What did this provoke and inspire in this woman’s audience? What might this produce? What impact would this have on the recipient? Munter? … this big fucker? This is violent language. It is a verbal assault. Munter? This was about the ugliness the author saw in a stranger whose person and personal identity repulsed and revolted her. How would we feel if some stranger spoke to us like this? Angry? Hurt? Wounded? This is violent language, and this violent language has created a climate in which it has become acceptable for more and more people to echo this language and even take pride in it.
But there are other ways to communicate. As a Christian of the Catholic tradition, I have serious reservations about the more radical aspects of Gender Theory. I do not, for example, believe that sex and gender are fluid, and — if we must define the human person in narrow and reductionist biological terms (we are more than the sum of our bits) — I struggle with the claim that ‘trans women are real women.’ But trans women and men are real people. Sure, there are many women who are genuinely fearful about women’s rights; about the deletion of the word ‘woman,’ about male-bodied participation in women’s sports, and about access to women’s only spaces. My plea to those advocating these reforms is that they too listen to what their opponents are saying.
Had to laugh when I caught myself tearing up over the replies. Lots of vicious and spiteful words. But no doubt the… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…—
Jason Michael (@Jeggit) June 07, 2021
There are some serious and concerning developments happening across Scotland, Europe, and the rest of the world at this strange moment in time. Quite apart from this particular conversation, we have witnessed a frightening lurch to the right in politics. COVID and lockdown have made people angrier, and everywhere around us political debate has been polarised and has become toxic. I do not have the solution to this, and I doubt you do either. We are in a bit of a bind and for the most part we are being led down the stream by powerful currents — and the destination is dark and dangerous. All that I can suggest is that all of us — everyone reading this — make the effort to apply the categorical imperative: That we should treat other people as having intrinsic value, and not merely as means to achieve our own ends. Basically, to do to others as we would like them to do to us.
This will not make the real issues go away. Of course it won’t. But it will take the heat out of the environment and reduce the risk of violence and conflict — significantly. Working together to build a community of trust and respect, no matter how much we disagree, will provide space in which genuine and open and honest dialogue can begin. In this we prepare the conditions for peace and for resolutions which will suit everyone’s best interests. If by advocating peace, respect, and understanding I have become your enemy, then — quite frankly — you are part of the problem. Your real enemy is the situation we are creating by doing nothing.
Women at the Negotiation Table