Do you really want to hurt me?

With IDAHOBIT day being only a week behind us, we thought it worth exploring some related issues which we feel might not be receiving a full examination in the traditional media. The hypothesis below is an assumed distillation of a range of received wisdom positions which are presented regularly in the media discussion of the subject. Hopefully we’ve not fallen too far into the strawman trap by presenting this as the discussion point.

Hypothesis: Transphobia (Wiki: “a range of negative attitudes and feelings toward transgender or transsexual people”) is a form of irrational prejudice based on the incorrect assumption that gender is binary and acceptance of transgender or transsexual people is one of the best forms of support they can be offered.

The modern discussion of the subjects of gender identity and sexuality pivots significantly around definitions, much angst is expended on many sides of the discussion about what we mean when we talk of male, female, other proposed genders and various sexual preferences. Indeed, in some discussions, even the use of the noun; preferences comes with some baggage, with its inferred assumption that individuals have complete free will in deciding who to find attractive.

It’s unlikely that the problem of definitions is going to be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction in the following exploration, so we’ll probably have to accept that and try to continue regardless.

How many human genders exist?

The first definition clarification to be made here is to break the link between gender and sexuality; who you are and who you find sexually attractive/what you desire to do with them are clearly not the same thing, as evidenced by many high-profile celebrity relationships that don’t fit the traditional model of a square-jawed, broad-shouldered alpha male coupled with a slightly subservient female (q.v. Bernie Ecclestone). If we accept that gender and sexuality require discrete definitions, we can continue to look at the definition of gender.

Physiologically, there are a range of versions of the arrangement of sex organs and, again, the Wikipedia page on this hints at the minefield of definitions and nouns in contention to describe these conditions. Depending on the version of definitions you choose, these conditions may account for between 0.018 to 1.7% of human births. Based on those statistics, physical differences from the “standard” male or female sex organs are rare, but not so rare for for us to never interact in everyday life with someone with one of the conditions. However, unless you meet them in a sauna or being intersex is like being gluten intolerant (“Q. How do you know if someone is gluten intolerant? A. They’ll tell you within 30 seconds of meeting you”), perhaps you’d never know.

Another group of individuals “identify” with a different gender to the one their physical sex organs might suggest. In most cases, there is little evidence to suggest that this identification is also reflected physically. The Williams Institute estimate that, in the USA, this accounts for around 0.3% of the population.

What is “gender”?

Of course, despite the statements about physical and mental differences, we still haven’t defined “gender”.

It seems the bifurcation of opinion here is that gender is either defined by the physical properties the person received at birth or whatever they later decide they prefer. Either gender is fixed by physical properties or is “fluid” based on the conclusion of a internal mental process. Only one, not both positions can be true.

For the 98% of us who have no physical or mental ambiguity or opposition to our what our physical sex organs suggest should be our gender, this might seem like an uninteresting if nuanced question. However, given that 2% of the population of, say, the USA equates to 6.5 million people, it’s important to a significant population.

What are the consequences of accepting the “mental decision equals gender” position?

The original hypothesis above suggests that universal acceptance of the personally-stated gender of an individual is one of the best methods of support the other 99.7% of us can offer to the 0.3%. This might take the form of using particular pronouns to describe them, accepting their use of the public toilet of their choice, allowing them to compete in sports events in the gender category they prefer, or not making disparaging comments about their appearance, etc.

At an individual level, this may act as a salve to the internal conflict between the physical and mental view of their gender. How effective a salve might that be though, if you have penis, a protruding jaw, large shoulders and the daily requirement to shave away a beard, yet every time you look in the mirror and tell yourself that you are female, the very confronting physical evidence suggests the opposite?

Suicide attempt rates for those who don’t identify as the gender suggested by their physiology are staggering – up to 40% in some studies, compared to 0.1% in the population as a whole. In fact, the only group in history we can find that have similar documented rates of suicide or attempted suicide were those subjected to the evil brutality in Nazi and Soviet concentration camps, yet the research suggests that even these desperate groups had suicide rates of “only” 25%.

Hopefully nobody reading this ever feels so hopeless that taking their life is a real option and there’s limited mileage to compare levels of despair and desperation but…. is it really possible that discrimination in a western democracy with all the attendant freedoms and protections under the rule of law is worse than being subjected to the horrors of Belsen or a Soviet era Siberian gulag?

Perhaps it is. If so, there’s likely to be some real life control experiments we can compare against. African Americans in the southern states in the Jim Crow era, Christians in modern day Middle East, women living under the Taliban in Afghanistan, for example. We can find no research which suggests an epidemic of suicide or attempted suicide even close to that of the 0.3% who identify as a gender counter to their physiological state. This strongly suggests that something in addition to just discrimination is the main cause of their suffering.

In fact, there’s research which suggests that the suicide and attempted suicide rates hardly drop, if at all, for those people who have gender reassignment surgery. Peace is clearly not found at the end of a scalpel.

Thought experiment; switch “transgender” for “anorexia”.

Using a slightly-modified version of the original hypothesis;

Anorexiaphobia (Wiki: “a range of negative attitudes and feelings toward anorexic people”) is a form of irrational prejudice based on the incorrect assumption that eating is necessary and acceptance of anorexic people is one of the best forms of support they can be offered.

That’s a crazy idea, isn’t it? We’re clearly not being kind to someone suffering from the, often fatal but certainly destructive, eating disorder anorexia. In fact, by not attempting to help the person with the condition come to terms with the problem and at least prevent them from further physically harming themselves we are probably being morally deficient in our duty as family, friends, neighbours.

Is the mental position that you are of a different gender to that suggested by your physiology so very different from the mental position that you are overweight despite the physical evidence to the contrary?

Taking the thought experiment to an extreme, what would be an appropriate response if this evening your loved one told you that they “identify” with a different species, say, an eagle, and they intend to act on this very real feeling of body dismorphia by building an eyrie at the top of the nearest mountain to live on? Most likely, you’d plead with them to seek help from a mental health professional and consider some type of intervention to physically protect them.

Bill’s Opinion

In the absence of physical evidence of irregular sex organs, it’s possible that someone who identifies with a sex not suggested by their physiology is suffering from a form of mental illness. Agreeing with this internal dichotomy and supporting or encouraging their transition through surgery is unlikely to improve their internal conflict and, in fact, the evidence suggests that they will be no happier following the gender reassignment procedures, just irreversibly physically different. Making a regrettable tattoo seem very mild by comparison.

If there’s even a slight possibility that we are not helping people with this problem by just agreeing with them, the conclusion must be that we’re missing the opportunity to help them in more tangible and effective ways. Therefore the moral case is the opposite of much of the proposed hypothesis; we should have sympathy and support these people but be brave enough call out that their delusions are harmful.




Reparations; the white man’s burden

We could have commenced this blog with something anodyne to cut our teeth on, but where’s the fun in that? So let’s get straight into it.


The history of slavery in the United States justifies reparations for African Americans.

The proposition has been put forward by a UN-affiliated body (United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent), among others, but also the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA and a coalition of Caribbean nations is making similar claims from their former colonial nations. The UN body’s report is here.


Instinctively, it feels right and fair, doesn’t it? African slavery to the USA was an unequivocal case of evil perpetrated by one group of people on another, many of the descendants of both groups are easily identifiable and, in numerous cases (too many to be considered a coincidence) the inequality between the lives of the two groups remains wide.

If we agree with the paragraph above, perhaps looking at the practicalities of delivering the reparations might be a useful test of whether the moral case is valid?

To whom?

First we will need to agree the answer to two separate questions; “from whom?” and “to whom?”.

The “to whom?” part is probably the easiest. Records exist for immigration, citizenship, birth, death and marriage certificates to a high degree of accuracy in the USA. It should therefore be reasonably straightforward to ascertain who is descended from slaves rather than, say, later free immigrants from West Africa.

However, there still might be some discomfort in judging the level of “degrees” in this regard. Imagine a scenario where someone who can trace their heritage back to a great-grandparent who was a slave but the other 7 great-grandparents were free citizens. Should this person be entitled to only an 8th of the compensation of a person who can show 8 slave great-grandparents?

What about present day outcomes? Should we means test?

If the 1/8th slave-descendant was living a comfortable middle-class life, it might feel fine to limit the amount of compensation due to them. What if the situations were reversed though? Would we be comfortable compensating the person with 8 slave great-grandparents if they were successful and had a high net worth and giving “Mr 1/8th” little or nothing regardless of their relative net worth?

From whom?

This is the more difficult question which doesn’t seem to be adequately answered by the UN body. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to state that the report recommends that the “the United States” pays (point 94). Given that there is no one person called “the United States”, the body are presumably calling on the US Federal government to foot the bill. From where does the Federal government receive its income? Either taxes from living citizens or debt incurred on behalf of those yet to be born, neither of which were around during the transatlantic slave trade era to bear any responsibility for the evils committed.

In fact, a very large number of those taxpayers or yet to be born taxpayers are themselves descendants of slaves, so there will either have to be a two-speed tax system for proven descendants of slaves (for how long and at what rate?) or a recognition that descendants of slaves will have to pay for reparations to descendants of slaves.

What’s the statute of limitations for evil acts?

In most countries with a well-functioning and universally-respected rule of law, there is no statute of limitation for the most serious crimes such as murder. Or, more accurately, the statute of limitations is triggered at the end of the life of the alleged criminal. The child of a murderer is not held accountable for the crimes of their parent.

Perhaps the idea of reparations is not to punish the descendants of slave owners but to compensate the descendants of slaves only? The problem with this is that compensation requires two parties; the compensated and those who provide the compensation. We’re back to looking for the person called “the United States” to pay with revenue received from taxes from those who weren’t around at the time of the crime.

The question of the practicalities of compensation for slavery is even harder to grasp than that of the theft of a family heirloom or other type of property; personal freedom was taken 3 generations ago, there is nothing tangible you can take from the (innocent) descendants of the guilty that would “make good” that crime without involving a crime against the descendant. This is how everlasting blood feuds develop in some parts of the world.

What tangible loss has been incurred by the living?

This is not the strongest argument made here today but it requires articulating nonetheless. The descendants of slaves are able to demand reparations due to several key attributes that they possess, the first and least trivial is life itself. The life expectancy in the USA for African-Americans is 75 years compared to around 52 years for West African countries. If your ancestors survived slavery, you are better off than your relatives who were left behind.

Another important factor in the ability to claim reparations is the fact that the descendants of slaves are currently living in the USA, a country with a legal system which enables claims to be made. This is no guarantee of a favourable outcome of course, but the possibility of success of a tort claim in Alabama is far greater than Angola.

Thirdly, living American descendants of slaves posses something millions of Africans currently desire and thousands risk dangerous sea crossings in Europe to obtain; citizenship of a country that isn’t in Africa, the rights and privileges of which have a tangible market value in the world, easily measured by the fees charged by people-smugglers and forgers of identification documents.

Of course, none of the last three paragraphs are intended to suggest that the living descendants of slaves have had an easy life comparative to the descendants of free men but, by the nature of the system within which they were freed, they have had a better chance to survive and thrive than the control experiment in West Africa.

What role does personal responsibility play and when?

Following on from the previous question, we might consider at what point does the impact of evil perpetrated on an ancestor become auxiliary to the free will and personal responsibility of the descendants? How many generations later might it be reasonable to expect their own actions to play a greater part in determining their outcomes? We risk  further suppressing the freedoms of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of slaves by suggesting that the root cause of all their challenges in life is due to the evil perpetrated 3 generations previously.

Which other groups might be called upon to pay?

Is the guilt of the transatlantic slave trade exclusive to one group of people, defined either by nationality or ethnicity? If not, should the other guilty parties be called up to pay, should reparations be determined necessary, moral and practicable?

European slave traders didn’t instigate slavery on the continent of Africa, but exploited a pre-existing practice. Rival tribal groups in West Africa delivered their prisoners to the coastal ports to be sold to the slave traders, reducing the requirement for the Europeans to make dangerous journeys into the interior to do their own dirty work.

An African slave trade existed for nearly a thousand years prior to the European involvement, resulting in tens of millions of African slaves being transported to the Middle East. If reparations are due, why aren’t the Arab states being handed an invoice too?

Can a group prosecute a group?

The proposition of the existence of group guilt is a difficult one to justify; to suggest a collective responsibility is to reject the concept of free will. Either we have free will and therefore only individuals commit crimes or we don’t make our own choices and groups of people are collectively guilty.


Bill’s Opinion

Tangible harm inflicted upon any person, including our ancestors, has a statute of limitations which ends at the death of the guilty, just like all other crimes. To suggest otherwise requires us to agree to the concept of generational guilt.

If we reject the concept of generational guilt, we must reject the idea of state-funded reparations as the state does not have any possessions that are held on behalf of citizens who are guilty of crimes committed 200 years ago.