A defining moment, I must say. The case of Maya Forstater reached its conclusion today, where the Central London Employment Tribunal upheld Fortstater’s sacking over a series of tweets questioning government plans to allow trans people to self-identify as another, which had caused distress to her co-workers. This might seem fairly unremarkable, but the outcome of this case has caused quite a stir with various groups and has created some interesting philosophical analysis. If you have some spare time, I highly recommend reading the judgment, as it is truly fascinating.
Without delving too much into the detail of the facts, this case has been framed by some as whether someone’s right to free expression (in this instance, Forstater’s right to believe that ‘trans women are not women’) can be curtailed by an employer or any other professional body. This is, of course, a sensitive issue, but nonetheless an important one to dive into.
Many libertarian-types have hailed that this judgment represents a significant attack on freedom of speech, and that the judge has essentially hailed that certain types of sincerely-held beliefs are incompatible with a democratic society. Forstater argues that her belief that biological sex is fixed and immutable should be protected as a philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010, much like how religious belief is currently a protected characteristic. The argument also follows that if this reasoning reaches its logical conclusion, any offensive or unorthodox speech could be more easily censored by employers, who could then subsequently punish individuals that don’t toe the party line concerning certain social issues.
Whilst this isn’t strictly the issue that permeates this case, there are some elements that deserve some merit. Within public discourse, I strongly believe that there should be as few limits as possible to what is capable of being discussed and debated, irrespective of how potentially offensive or unorthodox such ideas may be. Whilst we don’t have protected speech in the form of the First Amendment in the U.S., we should have as much protection as possible to articulate (even radical) ideas without fear of prosecution, and this should be upheld by the State as a whole. The stifling of people’s ability to speak honestly and openly about important, often difficult subjects can be a real hindrance to societal progress and further understanding the problems that individuals and communities are facing. But there is a caveat to this. Absolute freedom of speech cannot work properly in a society that strives to be respectful and tolerant of diverse viewpoints.
The key aspect of this judgment concerned Forstater’s supposed ‘suppression’. As the judge duty noted, there is nothing stopping her from campaigning against proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act or voicing her honest concerns about the need to exclude trans-people from certain gendered spaces. However, these actions can be achieved without violating the dignity of trans people. This may same like an unquantifiable notion, but I find the distinction to be thus; no one has a right to feel comfortable, but they do have a right to live free from hostility and degradation in a workplace and other similar environments. Harassment and bullying which targets individuals on the basis of a protected characteristic is simply incompatible with the Equality Act 2010. This leads me to believe that this judgment fell on the correct side of this argument. No one should have the validity of their humanity questioned, given that we are all born human.
Although this will be regarded as a celebratory moment for trans people in being afforded greater protection against discriminatory behaviour, and rightly so, I’m not entirely convinced that this judgment will be effective in improving overall attitudes towards trans people in society, for a number of reasons. Some may claim that J.K Rowling defending Forstater may be actively stoking up transphobia, but my main concern lies in that equality is rarely, if ever, achieved through legislation first. By this, I mean that the law tends to follow cultural shifts, rather than the other way around, and it appears that despite concerted efforts to pass meaningful legislation to protect the civil liberties of trans people (reforming the GRA, gender-neutral spaces etc), attitudes towards trans people have yet to change significantly.
This is disheartening in this present moment, and much of the pushback takes the misguided form that this transgender ‘fad’ is an example of the authoritarian leftist minority force-feeding their politically-correct ideology to the majority of sane, rational thinkers. Whilst I don’t agree with this assessment of the causation in its entirety, the sentiment does ring true to some degree, and reminds me of Stephen Fry speaking about the advancement of gay rights:
“Gay rights came about in England because we slowly and persistently knocked on the door of people in power. We didn’t shout, we didn’t scream. People like Ian McKellen eventually got to see the Prime Minister. And when the Queen signed the Royal Assent, as she has to, for the bill allowing equality of marriage, she said, “Lord, you know, I couldn’t imagine this in 1953. Really is extraordinary, isn’t it? Just wonderful!” and handed it over. Now, that’s a nice story, and I hope it’s true. But it’s nothing to do with political correctness; it’s to do with human decency. It’s that simple.”
And I hope that is where we will eventually end up. More education, interactions and experiences with members of different communities will help foster the human decency necessary to make powerful societal changes. A progressive society won’t be cultivated by enforcing one’s ideology onto others through preaching, shaming, censoring and assertion without evidence. It certainly won’t be achieved by dehumanising those we are yet to learn from either.