I’m a scientist by profession. A characteristic of physical law is that it claims universal validity – to be able to describe phenomena at all times and in all places. This is particularly important in cosmology – because theories of the origin of the universe must look backwards in time – although the claim is made by all physical science. I have a beautiful little book by Albert Einstein entitled “Relativity” in which he provides a layperson’s account of the Special and General Theories. From the General Theory Einstein deduced a number of extraordinarily bold predictions – for example, the deflection of light by massive objects and time dilation (the fact that at very high speeds, time passes slower) – that were untestable at the time but which have subsequently been tested and corroborated. These are powerful demonstrations of the universal scope of physical law.
The claim of physical law to universality in time and space has troubled philosophers. Scientists – even great ones like Einstein – are finite individuals who are capable of making only limited numbers of observations. How can one reason from a finite number of experiments to a law that claims universal validity? This problem was articulated very clearly by David Hume in the eighteenth century:
“Thus not only our reason fails us in the discovery of the ultimate connexion of causes and effects, but even after experience has informed us of their constant conjunction, ‘tis impossible for us to satisfy ourselves by our reason, why we shou’d extend that experience beyond those particular instances, which have fallen under our observation”.
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I § VII
Hume’s statement of the problem of induction – the apparent absence of any logical justification for reasoning from a finite number of experiences to a universal law – troubled philosophers for the next two centuries. The conundrum was solved, in a manner of speaking, by Karl Popper. With a clever shift of emphasis, he sidestepped the question about where scientific law came from, asserting that the context of discovery of new hypotheses was incapable of logical analysis, and focussing instead on the justification of scientific hypotheses (or theories). The essential characteristic of a scientific hypothesis was that it was capable of being falsified. For example, Einstein’s predictions about time dilation were eventually tested using atomic clocks: two clocks were synchronised and while one remained on earth, the other was sent to fly at high altitude in a fast jet. When the jet returned to earth, the clocks were found to read slightly different times. Had the clocks continued to show the same time, however, the General Theory of Relativity could be said to have been falsified.
It is striking that in public discourse, inductive reasoning appears to be alive and well, despite two hundred years of philosophical scepticism: it has become the norm to reason from an individual perspective to a course of action that impacts many people. The news media privilege the individual perspective. In the debate that has raged about Brexit, for example, the BBC has routinely sent reporters to interview members of the public. “Here we are at a market in X to speak to members of the public about their views on Brexit” and two folk will offer their opinions to the camera. Often, the interviewees will not even address the same questions; they address instead members of the set of possible questions about Brexit, or even members of a subset of those questions, or worse – but all too commonly – members of the set of questions about imaginary problems related to Brexit. The real problems are complex, and inhabit a complex many-dimensional space. But for the TV audience, it is as if the complex arguments about great matters of state can somehow be distilled into the inarticulate ramblings of two ill-informed and carefully juxtaposed “typical” members of the electorate. Vox populi has been transmuted into vox pop – a bastardisation of the democratic principle rather than its embodiment.
The explosion of popularism in our post-truth world is the ultimate expression of the triumph of the particular over the general. But what is most sinister is not the myopia of these perspectives but their invulnerability to refutation. In a world in which the President of the United States can invoke “alternative facts” in support of a claim that black is in fact white, or in which the champions of Brexit would begin admitting the day after the election that central campaign promises were in fact untrue, the biggest and most disturbing surprise is that the ardour of their followers remains undimmed – undented by falsification, or by downright falsity.
This reasoning from the particular to the general is evident in much of the work of trans activists. The assertions that are made about the importance of self-identification arise from consideration only of the desire of some individuals to switch rapidly and seamlessly from being a tolerated minority to a protected group, whose rights demand legal obligations of the rest of society. “I feel like I am a woman, thus I must be a woman” say the trans activists, but the problem is that this self-assertion of the individual as sacrosanct, this demand that society accept as objective and inviolable the desire of the individual to become a woman, and to be formally and legally recognised as such, is that there are challenging consequences for women. The existing Gender Recognition Act allows for a change of gender, but under carefully regulated conditions because it is predicated on a clear (and largely biological) notion of what it means to be a woman. The test is designed to exclude those with fetishistic motives, or those with less than honourable motives. To accede to the demand for self-recognition is to allow that anybody who says they are a woman must be treated as though they are a woman in law, and that their status as a woman is beyond challenge.
The furious argument that has raged between gender-critical feminists and trans activists illustrates the clash between the particular and the general: to define “woman” objectively in a largely biological fashion (“biological essentialism” as I have heard it called) makes self-identification impossible, and necessitates something like the gender recognition process that we currently have in the UK; to enshrine self-identification in law renders this biological definition of “woman” at best moot and arguably illegal, and enshrines the individual as the pre-eminent authority in society.
This accession to solipsism as a legal principle would entail consequences. Much heat has been generated by the debate about access to “protected spaces”. Women do not, in general, want men to access areas in which they are in a state of undress because they feel vulnerable. There is an asymmetry of sexual violence: the vast majority of sexual assaults are committed by men, and the majority of the victims are women. Even setting aside the fear of sexual violence, women all too often experience creepy and inappropriate behaviour. For many women (not just gender-critical feminists) access to single gendered toilets, changing areas and other facilities provides important protections.
In an extraordinary illustration of the triumph of the particular over the general in public discourse, there has recently been an enormous row about the case of Karen White, a transgender prisoner who was incarcerated in a women’s prison and proceeded to sexually assault several inmates. This episode has provided ammunition not only for those who have concerns about self-identification in general but also for many who are queasy about the accession of any rights to transgendered people. White is a convicted sex offender who has not undergone a legal change of gender (there is thus no gender recognition certificate (GRC)). It is clear that under such circumstances, according to the Government’s own guidelines, White should never have been sent to a women’s prison.
However, the campaigning group Fair Play for Women has seized upon White’s case as an embodiment of the challenge to women’s rights that is presented by self-identification. “60 out of the 125 transgender inmates in 2017 were convicted of sexual offences” they claim. The BBC Fact Check web page confirmed the remarkable statistic that 60 of 125 transgender prisoners were convicted sex offenders, but it also noted that this included no inmates who had received a gender recognition certificate, and also remarked that the proportion of sex offenders would probably be very much lower if the data were not restricted to serious crimes; equivalent data were not available for minor offences. Many loud voices in the media cried foul, and argued that the BBC was acting on behalf of transgender activists. This seems unreasonable, because sexual offences are by definition serious ones, with more severe penalties. Activists objected that the creation of the bogey of widespread transgender sex offending from White’s case was unreasonable and served to inflate the threat out of all proportion. “Real” transwomen wouldn’t behave like this, the argument goes.
Fair Play for Women claims that 22 men (ie. individuals claiming transgender status) are currently incarcerated in female prisons. They argue that the Karen White case demonstrates that these inmates present a latent threat to women. I have no information on the individuals concerned; that they are identifiable as trans suggests that they do not have GRCs. However, there is a great deal of complexity here. Vikki Thompson sadly killed herself while incarcerated in a male prison in Leeds. Vikki did not have a GRC either; the Government practice is thus that she would be sent to a male prison. This creates dreadful risks for the individual concerned – to their mental health and to their personal safety. I will revisit this in a later post because hard data are available on these subjects and they deserve proper consideration. In Vikki’s case an inquest concluded that she was let down by the Prison Service, the NHS and her family.
What does all of this tell us about the challenges of self-identification and about transgender people more generally? There are two aspects of this that make me queasy. First, there are hard data that suggest that simply incarcerating male to female (MTF) transgender prisoners in male prisons will expose them to the risk of serious harm, and this needs to be addressed. Incarceration in a women’s prison may not be the answer, but there is a problem to be solved. Second, to be obsessed with prisoners is to build arguments about society at large based on a group (transgender inmates in the UK prison system) that is so small that it cannot be claimed to have any statistical significance. In the context of considering the broader significance for society of self-identification of gender, the consideration of a case where the Home Office – by its own admission – failed to implement its own guidelines properly can surely tell us very little. One fears that for many of the loudest anti-trans voices this episode is important because it provides “evidence” of what they would like to prove: to be trans is to be a pervert.
What happens in prisons is quite unlike what happens in the rest of society. In prisons in the US, for example, government statistics show that the number of sexual assaults committed by female prison staff exceeds that committed by their male counterparts. There is abundant evidence for sexual assault of female inmates by female inmates, but nobody is denying that in wider society it is predominantly the case that acts sexual violence are committed by men. Prison seems to be a very strange place to begin trying to build a blueprint for a better society and the obsession of A Woman’s Place with a tiny group of trans prisoners seems to be misplaced.
For a Popperian, however, there is a final perspective on this. An argument often made by activists is that “real” trans people would not behave like Karen White. White was not “really” trans, but was a sexual offender posing as a transwoman to achieve access to female prisoners. This attempt would have failed if the Home Office had applied its own principles correctly. All this may be true. However, it strikes me that White does provide a falsification for the argument that self-identification will not create a threat for women. Karen White at least was prepared to self-identify as female in order to abuse women. As I have noted elsewhere, many of those who identify as trans have a misogynistic idea of what femininity is, and a large fraction of the trans community are involved in fetishistic activities that often revolve around misogynistic sexual fantasies. The obsession with a single prisoner is unhealthy and unhelpful, and the sociology of prison populations is not the place to discover understanding of what it means to have gender dysphoria. But simply accepting the solipsistic fantasies of trans activists is not the answer either.