Hatred and the Overton Window

Kenan Malik wrote the following in the Observer on 25 November:

If it is “hate speech” to question a particular definition of what it is to be a woman, or “bigoted” to express concern about non-natal women being allowed into female-only spaces, the very notion of public debate is transformed. There would seem to be little one could say on most difficult issues that could not also be construed as hatred.

One theory is that public debate always happens in the Overton window – at any one point in time there are subjects that are deemed to be acceptable to debate and others that are not. The window moves, so that was is unacceptable at one time can become acceptable in another. In the 1920s and 1930s, it was acceptable to discuss eugenics – whether particular people and groups of people should be allowed to have children. It hasn’t been socially acceptable to discuss eugenics since the end of World War II, when it was seen as a central tenet of fascism which was seen as the cause of so much death and destruction. It doesn’t stop it being discussed. It’s just that such discussions never see the light of day.

The debate around trans women suddenly shifted back to “are trans women really women” when Jenni Murray (the BBC presenter most closely associated with Woman’s Hour) published her piece in the Sunday Times early in 2017. Questioning the validity of anyone’s core identity is bound to raise emotional responses. Murray’s piece was no exception.

While there may be academic debates over whether trans women are women, which essentially are debates around the definition of the term “woman”, to introduce such debates into public discourse leads inevitably to other questions – the most important of which is, if trans women are not women, then what rights should trans women have?

It’s not that raising the question is “hatred”. It’s that it allows hatred to be unleashed, as a set of communities suddenly understand that the rights they currently have are under threat.

In the UK we are not (yet) at the point that the USA finds itself, where federal protections for LGBT people are being erased. The removal of these protections allows people to discriminate against someone simply for being who they are. We perceive the same risk in the UK – especially when the “debate” turns to trans women in women’s loos (it’s always toilets), or should trans women be allowed to compete in women’s sports.

The facts are that trans women have used women’s toilets without issues for many, many years, and that most sporting bodies have rules around the inclusion of trans women – even though some of them are somewhat bizarre or could not possibly be met. But raising the question again implicitly means that those existing rights and practices are, once again, under threat.

Turning back to Malik’s quote – actually there is much that we cannot say (under the current location of the Overton window) about many equalities issues because they would be perceived as hatred – consider the outcry over Jan Moir’s piece about Stephen Gateley shortly after he had died. With the underlying intent behind much of the recent “debate” around trans women (because it has been about trans women rather than other trans people) being clear – the removal of existing rights – it’s difficult to see why this alone should be considered valid debate rather than hatred.


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