When Rights Collide
How should we deal with areas where rights collide?
You have a fundamental right to life. No-one should be able to take that away from you. I would hope that that’s a fairly uncontentious statement.
You also have a right to self-determination. You should be able to live your life as you wish, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. Also fairly uncontentious.
And for most of the time, these two rights do not interfere with each other. Your right to choose whether to buy a Twix or a packet of crisps is unlikely to result in anyone’s death. But sometimes, they do interfere, and then things rapidly get very messy.
In this case, what happens if you choose to end your own life, but need someone else to help? This is an expression of your right to self-determination, but due to the right to life, we have very strong prohibitions on killing other people. The person helping you could get into serious trouble, and even if the law allows it, there are still huge problems of ensuring informed consent.
The consent issue comes up in many other cases too. People should have autonomy over their own bodies. This means that they should not be forced into prostitution. But the same principle says that we should also allow people to choose prostitution should they want to. But even if they do so by free choice, what do we mean by a free choice? Economic factors can be as constraining as threats or force. Which principle takes precendence?
In both of these cases, I don’t take a very strong position, as it’s quite complex, and there are circumstances where I can see either position might apply. There is still much debate amongst people much better informed than I am, and who are much more closely connected to the reality of the issues.
And that’s key. As a skeptic, where we don’t have a simple answer that will work in all circumstances, I think that it’s OK, And it’s OK to have a debate to try to move forward.
No, I think that it’s necessary to have a debate.
Skeptics have debated the two previous collisions for many years, from both sides of each of them, and there’s mostly an acknowledgement of Ben Goldacre’s pithy proclamation: I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that. I have no idea what Dr. Goldacre’s position on these issues are, but I suspect he’d acknowledge the complexity.
So, this is the point where I actually get to the point, and nail my colours to the mast on the current collision going on. And I fully acknowledge the extremely light weighting of this opinion, coming as it does from a straight, white, middle-class, privately-educated, middle aged male who is largely untouched by this.
I think that the transgender debate at the moment is fundamentally a similar collision of rights.
The right to self-determination is one side. If you wish change your role, to live as a man or a woman, you should have the right to do so. I know and greatly respect several people who have made this exact decision. I owe one of them my job. We can have a discussion on the societal construction of stereotypical gender roles, and so on, but that’s detail. However you want to live, that should be fine.
On the other hand, there are women who, for a variety of very good reasons (most of them traumatic in the extreme), need to have guaranteed safe spaces from which men are excluded. Or they participate in activities such as sport, where the greater physical strength of men would make those activities dangerous. Depending on the sport, a sex-segregated sports team is a safety issue.
As with the other examples, most of the time, these needs are not in opposition. But there are situations where they most definitely are, and they have profound effects on the people involved.
What I am seeing, as someone who has no skin in the game, is that this debate has become highly polarised with extreme positions on both sides, and little room for debate. For some months, I have been keeping my head down over this, as it’s too complex to sum up in a tweet or a Facebook post, and I know and like people who profoundly disagree with either side.
A dogmatic adherence from either side leads to situations which are patently absurd. A rejection of anyone not at the extremes as a representative of the other extreme is not defensible. A physical attack on anyone is simply criminal.
I do not like taking sides on complex issues like this. Apart from anything else, I don’t experience any of the problems it causes. But I do not like the misrepresentation of facts, and I certainly do not like threats or calls for violence. Or actual violence.
I hate sexism. I despise prejudice against trans people.
I support proper gender-neutral bathroom provision. I support safe bathrooms for females.
I see that safety for transgender people must be protected. I see that female-only safe spaces are absolutely necessary.
I see that trans people are rightly protective of their right to be who they are, in the face of bigotry and prejudice. I see that female-only safe spaces cannot be accessed solely on the basis of self-ID.
I see that the vast, vast majority of people are honest and sincere and just want to live their lives and are no threat to anyone. I see that we must protect vulnerable people against the few who are not.
And I don't see that these pairs of positions are contradictory.
The only way we will get to a consensus position on these very real problems is with proper, reasoned, inclusive, informed skeptical debate, and for what it’s worth, I believe that this is what the Women’s Place organization is trying to achieve.
I do not believe that it is correct to misrepresent those who are trying to create an inclusive debate about these issues as trying to erase trans people, or undermine their rights. The problem here is all about rights, and what happens when they collide.
And even if you think that I’m just some white middle-everything bloke, which I am, please at least consider that this might, indeed, be complicated.