The kids are alright

Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of the thinky thoughts of anti-trans columnists, we had some actual research into children, gender dysphoria and gender identity?

Look what The Atlantic found!

Since 2013, Kristina Olson, a psychologist at the University of Washington, has been running a large, long-term study to track the health and well-being of transgender children—those who identify as a different gender from the one they were assigned at birth. Since the study’s launch, Olson has also heard from the parents of gender-nonconforming kids, who consistently defy gender stereotypes but have not socially transitioned. They might include boys who like wearing dresses or girls who play with trucks, but who have not, for example, changed the pronouns they use.

I’ve been a fan of the author, Ed Yong, for a long time: he’s a very talented and conscientious science writer. This is typical of his work: he’s taken Olson’s study and looked into it in some detail.

Unlike newspaper columnists, who offer zero evidence with 100% confidence, Olson offers detailed evidence but is also quick to point out the limitations of the study. Nevertheless, it’s interesting: children’s gender identity appears to be a pretty good predictor of whether they’ll turn out to be trans. From the article:

Charlotte Tate, a psychologist from San Francisco State University, says that this quantitative research supports what she and other transgender scholars have long noted through qualitative work: There really is something distinctive and different about the kids who eventually go on to transition. From interviews with trans people, “one of the most consistent themes is that at some early point, sometimes as early as age 3 to 5, there’s this feeling that the individual is part of another gender group,” Tate says. When told that they’re part of their assigned gender, “they’ll say, ‘No, that’s not right. That doesn’t fit me.’ They have self-knowledge that’s private and that they’re trying to communicate.”

This bit is key:

Olson’s team also showed that those differences in gender identity are the cause of social transitions—and not, as some have suggested, their consequence.

In other words, children are not coerced into having a particular gender identity: you can put Jimmy in as many dresses as you want but if Jimmy isn’t trans, he won’t suddenly become trans or develop gender dysphoria.

Older trans people are going “no shit, Sherlock” at this point: if it were possible to persuade people to change their gender identity, there wouldn’t be any trans people. You can’t talk people into or out of being trans any more than you can pray the gay away: some of us tried not to be trans for decades, and will spend decades trying to deal with the damage from that.

Once again there are very strong parallels between today’s harmful anti-trans bullshit and previously harmful anti-gay bullshit. That’s something the Atlantic article makes explicit, describing the work of American psychologist Evelyn Hooker.

In the 1950s, when many psychologists saw homosexuality as a mental illness (largely because they had only ever worked with gay people who had records of arrest or mental-health problems), Hooker surveyed a more representative sample and found that gay and straight men don’t differ in their mental health. That was instrumental in getting homosexuality removed from a list of mental-health disorders in 1987. “We’re sitting in a similar moment today with transgenderism,” says Devor. “The mental-health issues that we see are largely the result of living a life that blocks your expression of your gender. My view is that the work coming out of Olson’s group will have an Evelyn Hooker effect.”

I’m not naive enough to think this will have any effect on the mainstream media coverage of trans people in general and trans kids in particular: the moral panic is too well established. But it’s yet more evidence of the growing gap between the reality-based community and the commentariat. All too often, the you-couldn’t-make-it-up brigade are doing exactly that.

Screens are not safe

A new study from Oxford University has been making waves today: it apparently demonstrates that despite much publicity over the dangers of screen use for children, screens are no more dangerous than eating potatoes.

Inevitably, that’s not what the study actually says. In one of the few sensible reports, Techcrunch explains:

the study does not conclude that technology has no negative or positive effect; such a broad conclusion would be untenable on its face. The data it rounds up are (as some experts point out with no ill will toward the paper) simply inadequate to the task and technology use is too variable to reduce to a single factor. Its conclusion is that studies so far have in fact been inconclusive and we need to go back to the drawing board.

“The nuanced picture provided by these results is in line with previous psychological and epidemiological research suggesting that the associations between digital screen-time and child outcomes are not as simple as many might think,” the researchers write.

The confusion is partly due to the university overselling the study, and largely due to crap reporting by people who just regurgitate the press release instead of actually reading the report. It’s quite impressive to see “study shows that knee-jerk articles about screens are based on shit science” reported as “screens are safe, says science!”

The snowflake generation

The world is full of snowflakes, we’re told. Thin-skinned, easily triggered and constantly seeking innocuous things to be outraged about, they’re the enemies of intelligent discourse. “Don’t like that thing because it’s baaaaaad!” they bleat, immediately leaping to the worst possible take on whatever it is they’re manufacturing outrage about today.

No, not millennials. Middle-aged straight white media guys.

Today’s gammon with attitude is fake-photo publisher and dead-children’s-phone-hacker Piers Morgan, who appears to have exhausted his outrage over vegans being able to buy tasty food in shops. Today he’s railing against Gillette over an advert that isn’t being broadcast here; in order to be outraged about it, he’s had to actively seek it out in order to upset himself. It’s quite a good ad, incidentally, but it dares suggest that old-fashioned masculine stereotypes aren’t brilliant. Cue well-paid outrage from well-paid stereotype peddlers.

The profile of people like Morgan – or rather, Piers Stefan Pughe-Morgan; he doesn’t like people using his full name because it somewhat undermines his man of the people schtick – demonstrates that punditry is the very opposite of a meritocracy. “The thing you think is good is bad” is the laziest possible take on anything, and it’s something most of us grow out of in the playground: the charm of hearing “it/she/he/they is/are shite” as a nuanced critique of your favourite film, artist or band palls somewhat after the age of seven or so.

I took my kids to the zoo a while back, and one of the unexpected delights was the sight of an angry monkey furiously masturbating at the visitors, much to the delight of sniggering schoolkids. Morgan should be worried. If it works out how to use Twitter, it could be coming for his job.

New York, London, Paris, Munich, everybody’s talking ’bout… stochastic terrorism

Do you know what stochastic terrorism is? It’s a fairly obscure term, and it describes making the bullets for other people to fire.

Stochastic terrorism is when you demonise a particular group of people and violence ensues. You aren’t directly responsible for the violence, because you’re not the one actually perpetrating it. But you made it happen.

We know the power of words. Hate speech is the precursor to hate crime, from Nazi Germany to the genocide against the Tutsi of Rwanda. In that latter example, Tutsi men, women and children became “cochroaches” to eradicate (a slur recently revived by loathsome troll Katie Hopkins to talk about immigrants to England; that was part of a climate that’s seen a surge in anti-immigrant violence in the UK).

If you demonise Catholics, anti-Catholic violence will follow. It’s the same with immigrants, Poles, muslims, LGBTQ people.

Writing in the Media Matters blog, Brynn Tannehill accuses right-wing media of a form of stochastic terrorism against trans people, with multiple examples.

The conservative tabloid the Daily Mail in the U.K. recently introduced a new line of attack against transgender youth based on an anonymous “whistleblower” teacher who claimed that older transgender students at an unnamed British school “groomed” young autistic students to trick them into believing they are transgender. This narrative of contagion, “grooming,” and recruitment is exactly the same approach used for decades to stir up suspicion and hatred of gay men. For instance, Helen Joyce, the finance editor at The Economist, recently wrote an article at Quillette baselessly asserting that the transgender movement has advanced the interests of pedophiles.

These messages trickle down to the base. Stories of communities banding together to abuse and discriminate against transgender children have been in the media for years. Last year, parents in Achille, OK,communicating in a Facebook group for students’ parents suggested telling their children to beat a 12-year-old transgender girl and threatened to castrate her. As a result, the girl’s family made plans to leave town.

Transgender students are being physically assaulted in school for their gender identity as well. The FBI reported that in 2017, anti-LGBTQ hate crimes rose for the third consecutive year.

In 2012, legal scholar Tobias Wolff predicted in his paper “Civil Rights Reform and the Body” that transgender people would become a target and that many of the attacks would center on fear and disgust directed at transgender bodies. He correctly noted that this directed angst would manifest itself as labeling transgender people as sexual predators.

Wolff also drew direct parallels to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, when fear of Black bodies was channeled into calls to protect white women and children from sexual predation at swimming pools. Violence directed at Black people during that period was undeniably a direct result of this stochastic terrorism and prejudice. Today, we are seeing the same tactics toward transgender people, used to similar effect, and they are protected by the same case law.

The people who write these snide, malicious little articles are the worst kind of coward: the kind who stands behind the bully, telling them who to hit.

Same boss, same bullshit

The Sunday Times isn’t the only supposedly respectable newspaper to mislead its readers in order to parrot the homophobic and transphobic views of its owner, Rupert Murdoch. The Wall Street Journal does it too.

The WSJ appears to have started the new year the way it means to continue, with an op-ed warning readers about the entirely invented syndrome of “rapid onset gender dysphoria”. Regular readers will recall that ROGD is a conservative, anti-trans invention and that the only supposedly scientific paper about it, a study based solely on interviews with parents who refused to believe their kids are trans, was torn to pieces by peers due to its shoddy premise and even shoddier methodology.

In short, ROGD is a right-wing attempt to rebrand conversion therapy, the same “pray the gay away” bullying that’s so awful it’s being made illegal in much of the world.

If you’d like more detail, the inimitable Julia Serano has an excellent round-up here.

I’m not going to link to the WSJ: outrage-clicks are the whole point of this bullshit. Instead, here’s Jennifer Finney Boylan in the New York Times.

An abundance of scientific research makes clear that gender variance is a fundamental truth of human biology, not some wacky dance craze.

Transgender people have not come up with the entirety of our existence solely to hurt Tucker Carlson’s feelings. We do not embark upon transition because it’s groovy. We are here because our hearts demand it.

Don’t get your legal opinions from randoms on Twitter

Former first minister Alex Salmond has won his legal case against the Scottish Government over its investigation of sexual harassment allegations against him. The government admits it didn’t follow the correct procedures and as a result, its investigation is invalid.

The verdict has nothing whatsoever do to with the truth of whether Salmond actually harassed two women, but that isn’t stopping social media: already on Twitter we’re seeing a few Yes groups portray this as proof that the allegations were groundless (and blocking anyone who tries to explain otherwise). It’s already becoming an article of faith, the saintly Salmond persecuted over untrue allegations.

That isn’t true. This case had nothing to do with the actual allegations; just how they were investigated. Alex Salmond may well be innocent, and of course he is rightly presumed to be innocent unless / until he is proven guilty. But the allegations remain, and Salmond has not been cleared of anything.

Truth takes time

Another day, another admission by The Sunday Times that an anti-trans article by Andrew Gilligan was made up. This time it was the one about women’s toilets in the City of London, in which Gilligan completely misrepresented the Equality Act to scaremonger about nothing.

As I wrote at the time:

I regret to inform readers that noted fantasist Andrew Gilligan has written another article. This week he’s suggesting that the City of London may let trans women use the ladies’ toilets…

…which the City of London has been doing for eight years, because that’s the fucking law.

Gilligan is well aware of the Equality Act 2010 and is reminded of it whenever he writes untrue things about trans people or their allies. He just chooses to pretend otherwise, because he’s a disgrace to journalism.

Six months later…

But of course, the damage is already done: the article, yet another in Gilligan and The Sunday Times’ ongoing campaign against trans women, appeared during the Gender Recognition Act consultation period and helped fuel anti-trans hysteria. Admitting that it was bullshit six months down the line, long after the consultation closed,  is far too little, far too late.

To write one incorrect article about trans women is unfortunate. To do it repeatedly suggests malice.

Update: Paris Lees shares some more mandatory corrections from Mail Online (completely misrepresenting the Mermaids charity, something Andrew Gilligan has previously been censured for too) and The Scotsman (an anti-trans column claiming a hospital has stopped doing gender surgeries when in fact, it is “fully committed” to providing such surgeries.

Writing for people who don’t want to read

Logan’s Run-style euthanasia of ageing columnists probably isn’t an option. 

The editors of N+1 Magazine describe “The New Reading Environment”, where writers and readers are often sworn enemies.

Readers lose patience, and the careful quoting, like snipping coupons with precision, becomes tearing — into lines, phrases, and points. The space grows for misinterpretation, co-optation, and misunderstanding. All it takes is one podcast host with a grudge and a modest following, like an Evangelical pastor of yore, for a small hell to break loose in your mentions. Your authorial control disintegrates. What you wrote is eclipsed by another person’s idea of what you wrote. It’s the reader’s text now — and so are you, an authorial construction, another text to be bandied about. Does anyone enjoy watching themselves get eaten and digested by other people?

It’s very good on the resurgence of the op-ed as “an endless stream of annoying and offensive provocations” by controversialists of limited ability, and its origins in editors’ inability – or unwillingness – to differentiate between the “good” readers and the “bad”. All traffic is good traffic.

FROM THE PERSPECTIVE of the op-ed editors, “good” readers who see through editorial bad faith and express their outrage have become indistinguishable from “bad” readers who don’t, since outrage is a sign of consequence, and both guarantee traffic.

…When questioned about their motives, the editors responsible for all this irresponsible writing rarely answer. They say only that they are acting in good faith: furthering the dialogue, expanding the conversation, exposing their readers to new ideas, inviting everyone to the table.

I’m amused by the ideal of “term limits for columnists”, although personally I’d go for the Logan’s Run approach of compulsory euthanasia for the you-couldn’t-make-it-up crowd. Sadly I don’t run the world so it’s likely that they’ll follow what N+1 describes as “compet[ing] for the attention of aging Americans with the dementia-inducing Fox News.” And sadly, I think the article’s conclusion is correct:

But this is inadequate. Everything about the recent past, and the generalization of the op-ed form across the internet, suggests there is an inexhaustible fund of such figures, a reserve army of op-ed labor waiting in the wings. Twitter has helped turn the internet into an engine for producing op-eds, for turning writers into op-ed writers, and for turning readers into people on the hunt for an op-ed. The system will not be satisfied until it has made op-ed writers of us all.

 

Writers don’t use words by accident

There’s been a bit of controversy over a new film, Girl, which is about a trans woman. It’s interesting to see how that’s been reported: almost without exception, the trans movie reviewers and reporters who’ve made legitimate criticisms of the film (such as a shocking scene of self-harm they worry might be imitated) have been described as “trans activists”.

One such “activist” is Out.com’s director of culture and entertainment and former Los Angeles Times reporter Tre’Vell Anderson. Anderson is not amused by the New York Times report of the controversy, which described the criticisms as:

trans activists and others who consider its scrutiny of a trans character’s body so dangerous that they urge no one to see it.

That’s a blatant misrepresentation of what people are saying, as well as of the people who are saying it. The criticism suggests that the film may be irresponsible, that it could risk copycat behaviour. Anderson:

The danger in this lies in the message it sends to the little trans and gender nonconforming kids that might stumble upon this film in their Netflix queue at the top of the year and do what kids do: follow suit.

Nobody is demanding the film be banned, or that the filmmaker be silenced. But characterising the critics as “activists” – a pejorative term in this context – is an attempt to silence the critics. Anderson again:

On Wednesday, Erik Piepenburg of The New York Times called the critiques a “firestorm,” invoking language that has long been used to keep critics who aren’t straight white men at bay. Piepenburg referred to us not as critics or reporters, but instead as “trans activists.”

Frankly, this is a thinly-veiled effort to dismiss, ignore, and invalidate perspectives and critiques that differ from those dominated by newsrooms that are overwhelmingly white, cisgender, heterosexual, and male. Asserting that the pushback the film has received, including not making it to the Oscars foreign language shortlist, is the work of “activists,” erases the necessary and effective work of journalists and career film critics. Left in its place is the impression of a host of negligible, pesky, and unfounded opinions, now seen in the nation’s paper of record as extreme and unreasonable.

This is something that happens time and again in mainstream media whenever trans-related issues are reported on by cisgender people: any trans person with an opinion, no matter how well informed, is described as an activist. The people on the other side are never characterised as “anti-trans activists”, even when that’s exactly what they are.

The reason “activist” is pejorative here is because it suggests that, as Anderson explains, “my vantage point… is purely an emotional response and, therefore, must be uninformed.”

This isn’t limited to trans people. People who don’t agree with the status quo are often described as activists,  zealots, militants, extremists. It’s a form of “poisoning the well”, a debating technique that attempts to undermine the other person’s argument before they can even make it.

Anderson doesn’t say that the label of activist is inherently bad, but I’d argue that it usually is used in a pejorative sense. An angry trans person on Twitter isn’t a trans activist; a trans person writing to complain about a newspaper article isn’t an activist; a trans film critic with a nuanced analysis of a film isn’t an activist either. And yet that’s how they’re described in mainstream media reporting. To categorise people as such is to dismiss them, to suggest that what they have to say is worthless.

This can’t be accidental. When you’re a writer of any kind, you know exactly what words mean and the power they have.

The war on observable reality

Little Mix: definitely a thing that exists. And hurrah for that.

There’s an interesting piece by Alex Hern, the Guardian’s tech correspondent, about online fakery. He thought it would ruin the world, but considerably less sophisticated bullshit got there first.

On social media, the public is for the first time exposed to the raw firehose of news, with no ability or desire to perform the work of verification, with incentives for sharing the most sensationalist content.

Faced with a race to keep up with the pace of change and an explosion in the availability of new information sources, hoaxes and untruths have gradually infiltrated the pages of even the most respectable journals…

This is an internet-age phenomenon, technology making an age-old problem considerably worse.

The internet has brought us what’s best described as a war on observable reality, and it goes rather like this:

Expert: I have two legs.
Person: No you don't.
Expert: Yes I do. [points] One leg. Two. 
Person: No.

The real version usually has more swearing and personal abuse, but you get the idea.

This isn’t the same thing as having a difference of opinion. This is rejecting observable reality.

Let’s bring Little Mix into this for no good reason.

Little Mix are a pop band. I think they’re very good. You might think they’re absolutely awful. But the fact that Little Mix exist, that they play concert venues, make videos and sell records is a fact. If I were to say that I think Little Mix are brilliant and you were to say that Little Mix don’t exist, you would clearly be a few sandwiches short of a picnic.

And yet many people are denying provable reality, often about much more serious things. Donald Trump’s cry of “fake news!” when he really means “inconvenient news!”, the flat earthers and the moon landing truthers are the most obvious example, but it happens constantly, all over the place. Politicians say things that are provably untrue on air and aren’t challenged on it. Fringe views are given a platform as if they’re legitimate. Blatant falsehoods are circulated as if they’re facts. Propaganda is reprinted.

As Hern notes, this is because gatekeeping has collapsed.

Here’s how it used to work. Big-name American magazines (and some of the publishers I work for) famously use armies of fact checkers who go through entire articles demanding citations: where’s the evidence for this? How can you prove they said that? Which article was this in? If you can’t prove it – and proof requires more than some website by some crank – it doesn’t get published. The UK wasn’t quite so detailed but you still had to get through sub-editors, who were famously unforgiving.

That scrutiny – any scrutiny – is increasingly rare. Women’s magazines run debunked and sometimes dangerous health advice by new-age idiots. Newspapers parrot bullshit by anti-LGBT pressure groups. Radio presenters let politicians tell the porkiest of porkies. TV news politicises real events by using terms such as “migrant crisis” to describe something that’s nothing of the sort.

And because traditional media still has a cachet and some remaining trust, once bullshit makes it into the pages of a magazine or the website of a newspaper, many people think it’s true. Bad information is lent legitimacy.

Commenting on Hern’s piece, journalist and former publisher Adam Banks, posting on Twitter, hit the nail on the head:

Fake news tech isn’t the point. The point is we need media that’s incentivised to explain what’s real and debunk what’s fake, not paid for anything that catches anyone’s eye.

Today we have the reverse, a toxic brew where what feels right is more important than what is right, where what gets clicks matters more than any of its consequences, where the only people getting paid are the ones who can make their readers, listeners or viewers angry or upset instead of better informed. It’s not sustainable, and it’s not valuable.

We get what we pay for. This is what we get when we don’t want to pay at all.