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The return of concealed opinions
Silence on the transgender issue has become debilitating; the taboos must end.
In certain conditions, humans conceal their opinions. Sometimes, legal restrictions underpin this, governments forbidding certain political or religious beliefs. In other cases, social censure is decisive. This can buttress legal constraints – blasphemy might be a legal and social taboo – or replace it. In liberal democracies, certain opinions might be permitted, yet there may be social pressure not to voice them; early advocates of gay rights endured this. Sometimes, there is legal pressure but little social pressure; criticism of the Communist Party was illegal in Communist Poland, but private mockery was common.
Today, this practice is rife. In a 2020 survey of US college students, 62% agreed that the climate on campus prevents students from speaking freely, up from 55% in 2019. There are similar trends in the UK, 35.5% of academics admitting self-censoring. Taboos surround many topics, race being perennially sensitive, but there is one area in which this trend is conspicuous: the transgender issue. This reflects the use of plain language; activists unambiguously state that transwomen are women. This statement is falsifiable, even if conditions are contested. Other assertions of social justice liberals – ‘I don’t feel safe!’ – are ambiguous and unfalsifiable.
On the transgender issue, people habitually conceal their opinions. Though taboos are fewer in wider society, fears are pervasive among professional classes. All sectors are affected, yet conditions appear worst in sociocultural sectors such as universities and the arts, reflecting the predominance of liberal views. Anecdotal evidence demonstrates this, anonymous testimonies chronicling fearful silence. Survey evidence demonstrates this; if the opinions of professional classes correspond to those of the public, this not always being the case, majorities of professionals hold gender critical views. At the very least, we may conclude that significant minorities conceal their positions.
Historical precedents allow us to understand our predicament. There are legion pre-modern examples of concealed opinions, 17th century religious test laws being notable, but recent precedents are germane. Václav Havel, Communist-era dissident and later president of Czechoslovakia, wrote a famous passage about life under Communism. Havel imagined a greengrocer displaying a poster which declared “Workers of the world, unite!”. Reflecting on the meaning, Havel concluded that it was unlikely that the greengrocer literally wanted the workers of the world to unite; rather, he feared the consequences of voicing his true opinions. He would lose his job, never holiday in Bulgaria and his children might be denied higher education. Contrastingly, display of the poster signalled acquiescence.
Our world is different. Police harassed Communist-era dissidents, excluding them from good employment and jailing them. But today, social pressure fulfils similar functions. If professionals speak out on the transgender issue, there are potential sanctions. One may lose employment, suffer ostracism or endure online abuse. Acquiescence is smarter. Among those who display pronouns on Zoom, many are obviously sincere; yet in likelihood, greengrocers also exist.
There are two reasons why this trend is regrettable. Firstly, it curtails liberty. At its heart, liberalism promotes the right to speak freely, provided that others are not harmed; this is the Millian harm principle. Comparisons with hate speech are problematic. Liberal democracies may limit abusive and/or false speech, Holocaust denial being a classic example, but only in extreme circumstances. In this case, the prevalence and reasonableness of the view should preclude limitations. Sex differences are ontological, relevance extending to all areas of life and academic fields. It is hard to imagine a more fundamental restriction on speech.
Admittedly, most media outlets air gender critical views, many commentators defending Kathleen Stock. Yet away from the media, fear prevails; countless professionals dread being frank. In On Liberty, Mill also emphasized the need for atmospheres that encourage free speech. On this issue, most environments would fail a Millian test. Atmospheres in sociocultural sectors are particularly worrying; these industries produce most intellectual and artistic output. Such conditions stifle creativity.
Secondly, this trend misallocates preferences. For advocates of transgender rights, one might think that concealment of critical views is positive, minimizing opposition. This may not be the case. The theory of preference falsification states that public preferences often differ from private ones, reflecting the need to hold socially acceptable views. The act has consequences; it corrupts knowledge and perpetuates unpopular practices, making institutions vulnerable to instability as real preferences emerge. The collapse of the Soviet Union is a famous example.
Advocates of transgender rights should worry about this. As with the Soviet Union, there may be a point at which opposition cascades, reflecting falsified preferences. In the UK, there are signs that opposition to Stonewall is following this logic. Whatever their own views, liberals should mistrust this process; it is unpredictable, potentially generating backlash. Openness makes preferences predictable, avoiding such scenarios.
This problem has crept up on liberal democracies. Political correctness has long been an issue, but restrictions associated with the transgender issue are different; people cannot assert common and reasonable opinions. For the good of liberal democracy, the taboos must end. Achieving this is another matter. Many are professionally insecure, anonymous testimonies making this clear; understandably, such people are reluctant to speak out. But someone must do this. Costs notwithstanding, those in secure and influential positions should think about it.
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