It’s like when people see Jesus on a piece of toast.
Look at this user profile on the lesbian and “queer” dating app Her. (This one’s actually a mock-up, but there are plenty of real ones that look just like it.) Maybe you see a vulnerable member of a marginalised community, in need of an abundance of sympathy and compassion. Or perhaps you see a white, straight, middle-class man (as I do) acting like he’s entitled to intrude on lesbian spaces. Whatever the case may be, we are living through a time in which two groups of people will look at the same photo, but each is reaching a vastly different conclusion about what they’re seeing.
The people in the second group, who see a man, want to speak up and say something, but they’re afraid to offend the people who see something else — the ones who don’t see a burnt piece of toast but an image of Jesus. So Graham Linehan stepped up and published some photos of profiles from the Her app to challenge this emerging taboo and call attention to it.
So the problem with Graham isn’t that he’s an unbeliever, it’s that he’s offending the believers with his flagrant demonstrations of unbelief. Blasphemy, in other words.
Katie Herzog and Jesse Singal, hosts of the popular Blocked and Reported podcast, dedicated a good twenty minutes of their programme to a character assassination of Graham, sneering at him, not for his gender-critical beliefs (they pride themselves on their fair-mindedness) but for expressing them in a way that they deem to be morally unacceptable. He was assailed for supposedly rampantly “misgendering” trans people, just being generally irreverent about the trans issue (A comedian! Irreverent! The nerve), and worst of all, that he supposedly published images of transwomen to cruelly single them out for ridicule, which is how they interpreted the stunt with the photos. So the problem with Graham isn’t that he’s an unbeliever, it’s that he’s offending the believers with his flagrant demonstrations of unbelief. Blasphemy, in other words.
Internet disputes are peculiar things. The more alike the two opposing sides are, the hotter the flare-ups that ignite between them. And sometimes which side you end up on can come down to subtleties in your personality that tip the balance one way or the other. As people debate Graham and the podcast, parallel worlds are emerging: one side interprets anything Graham has ever done as proof that he’s a bully who punches down at vulnerable people. The other side insists Graham is a principled man angry that he’s not getting a fair shake from people who he feels should know better.
Well, Katie & Jesse should know better. They’ve both faced mobs of trans activists, they’ve both been smeared and harassed online. Many of their listeners have been left baffled as to why they’d be so hostile to a fellow journalist facing the same thing. It’s true they defended Graham’s right to free speech in a strictly narrow technical sense, but they took pains to denounce his words, encouraged people not to read his journalism, and even suggested he should get off the internet.
But this apparent hypocrisy isn’t unprecedented: it seems even the most avowedly open minds will batten down the hatches when someone’s breaking taboos in a politically treacherous climate. It’s a common enough reaction that, by appearances at least, just as many listeners agreed with Katie & Jesse as disagreed. The sides have become entrenched, and the side who are convinced Graham’s blasphemy makes him a bad person just can’t see it any other way. So why is it so hard for some otherwise free-speech-supporting liberal progressives to tolerate blasphemy? And why is it so hard to get them to see the other side’s point of view?
The first problem for gender heretics when they get accused of things like “misgendering” is that even acknowledging the act requires the accused to play along with gender belief. Like sin, if you don’t believe in it, you can’t really agree or disagree that you’ve committed it.
The first problem for gender heretics when they get accused of things like “misgendering” is that even acknowledging the act requires the accused to play along with gender belief. Like sin, if you don’t believe in it, you can’t really agree or disagree that you’ve committed it. So addressing such accusations comes with burdensome conceptual unpacking work right from the start.
But the bigger problem is that the two sides have completely different views on just how harmful blasphemous acts like misgendering are to transgender people, or whether they’re harmful at all.
One side — my side — starts with the foundational assumption that everyone, trans or not, is first and foremost to be treated as an individual, no more or less equally deserving of respect than any other individual, and then builds from there. Of course I understand how much sensitivity there is in the transgender community about, say, pronouns. I’m a gay man; I’m deeply embedded in the gay community. I even worked at a trans bar back in the day. But I don’t take it as religious doctrine that anyone who simply claims to be a transgender woman is one — I don’t believe in gender religion and I reserve the right to have my own beliefs about anyone — and I don’t take it as law that I have to abide anyone’s pronouns. I aim to be respectful, but it’s case-by-case, and I’m the judge.
But the other side, the one that sees Jesus in the toast, starts out with the foundational assumption that anyone who identifies as transgender belongs to a special kind of people who are, to true believers at least, almost supernaturally vulnerable. There are lots of problems with that, but the big one is that “trans” is a label anyone can freely adopt, and the doctrine that once you call yourself trans you’re no longer seen first-and-foremost as an individual but instead you’re now first-and-foremost a member of a special class — this is ripe for exploitation. And us gender heretics are watching it get exploited like crazy, and we’re tearing our hair out in frustration because the other side, the ones who can only picture Jesus whenever they hear the word “trans,” seem completely oblivious, no matter how loud we yell.
Graham spoke on our podcast a few weeks ago about what he calls a “sacred caste.” The left — especially the American left — is starting to frame transgender identity as a special caste of people who are essentially sacred: so precious, so vulnerable, so cherished they are above criticism. Graham’s from Ireland; he’s seen first-hand the perils that befall society when it holds up a group as untouchable. He also has a sharply honed sense of how to balance compassion, respect, and — this is sometimes absolutely necessary — offence. He made a TV show that fondly depicted members of the Irish untouchables (Catholic priests, of course) while at the same time gently pushing to make them just a little bit more touchable. It was a bold thing to try, and the result was almost a miracle: he marched right into the most taboo topic in Ireland, made comedy out of it, and he pulled it off spectacularly. Somehow no one was offended and everyone on all sides loved it. But that was before social media and wokeness. And the Catholic Church had nothing on the power that gender ideology has today over some parts of society. So when Graham marched into the gender debate, I can imagine he had no idea what he was going up against.
Even nonbelievers (roughly analogous to “gender critical” people) can be hostile to fellow nonbelievers who speak too candidly about gender. Tweets about the Blocked and Reported episode said things like, I agree with Graham’s beliefs but I think it’s wrong to misgender. Wrong to misgender when? Always? What’s the rationale behind that? I think it’s driven by fear. (It’s partly a misunderstanding about personally offending individual trans people, too. The way they describe Graham you’d think he’s running up to random transwomen, shouting “you’re a man!” and maniacally laughing in their faces, but really his “misgendering” crime is that he doesn’t respect their feminine pronouns when he’s reporting on their misogynistic misdeeds and crimes against women, or just generally, if they’re jerks.) But I think right now there’s such a deep climate of fear around transgender that everything’s out of perspective and it’s got everyone unsure where to position themselves so they don’t look mean, get cancelled, or end up on the dreaded “wrong side of history.” It’s like, when you see someone taking a bold stance, better announce that he’s not with you, just to be safe.
I remember this exact same thing playing out back in the New Atheism days. Americans, even liberal Americans, have always been averse to blasphemy, especially comedic blasphemy. Things that in retrospect we can see were only mildly provocative caused ceaseless hand-wringing in the liberal media at the time, with everyone asking, how offensive is too offensive? Salon magazine was the worst of them. They churned out story after story saying it’s OK to be a nonbeliever but what’s of paramount importance is that you don’t get too offensive to Christian or Muslim believers, and as liberal authorities they got to determine what counted as too offensive, and they loved to call out the nonbelievers they deemed to have crossed their line.
This reached its nadir in the terrible hours and days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Many liberals clamoured to disavow these gentle cartoonists for going too far, for crossing their personal lines of propriety. A bunch of people had just been slaughtered, and frightened liberals were throwing their bullet-ravaged, still-warm bodies under the bus.
Everybody has their own personal threshold. When a hot-button issue arises, it’s because society is in the process of hashing out the issues and working towards a general consensus on where the line should be.
So where is the line of propriety? There’s always a balance, always two sides to weigh against each other, and where you locate the point of equilibrium is determined by your own priorities and values. Everybody has their own personal threshold. When a hot-button issue arises, it’s because society is in the process of hashing out the issues and working towards a general consensus on where the line should be. In the case of criticising Islam, say, you had to weigh sensitivity to anti-Muslim discrimination against the need to address misogyny, homophobia and freedom of speech. Islam was the landmine issue back in the day, and if you dared to criticise it, every frightened liberal immediately ran you through their personal threshold calculator and if you fell foul of the line they’d scramble to denounce you as an Islamophobe as quickly as possible. Debate around Islam has relaxed somewhat, and liberal anxieties about cartoonists and philosophers offending religious feelings have eased. A lot of liberals who denounced the Jesus and Mo cartoons as morally unacceptable at the time probably look back now and cringe.
Of course today it’s trans. To go back to Graham and the picture, when you look at it, what you’re actually doing is you’re weighing, well, sensitivity to anti-trans discrimination against the need to address misogyny, homophobia and freedom of speech. Pretty much nothing’s changed except the name of the religion.
On her podcast, Katie Herzog conceded that she too has a personal threshold, a line where she’ll reject someone’s pronouns or even reject their trans identity. I see Katie & Jesse’s role in the trans debate as just like what Salon magazine’s was in the atheism days: their stance is that it’s OK to be an unbeliever but what’s of paramount importance is that you don’t get too offensive to trans believers, and as liberal authorities they get to determine what counts as too offensive, and they love to call out a gender critic they deem to be over their line, which, to them, is the line.
They’ve missed the point of Graham’s stunt entirely. Actually, they’ve missed the point of the entire trans debate. The reason it’s such a hot-button issue right now is because there is absolutely no consensus on where the line should be. No one — not even Graham — is out of bounds because none of us has been given a fair chance to discuss the bounds and agree to them. So Katie & Jesse have no moral authority to declare what’s over the line. Nobody agrees — at all — on, say, when the imperative to be polite to someone who identifies as trans supersedes the need to uphold women’s safety or respect gays’ boundaries. (Americans, always skewing towards the religious without even being aware of it, lean instinctively towards putting gender identity above all else. Brits, who skew secular, are starting to go the other way, which has got the American liberal media completely puzzled; their obliviousness to their own religiosity amuses me.)
There are a million questions more that are nowhere near consensus, like for instance, who the hell even counts as trans? It was remarkable listening to Katie describe swiping through profiles on the dating app Her, how some of them were transwomen and some of them she determined were actually “cisgender men.” There’s Katie, running the profile pictures through her own personal threshold calculator, determining that, yes, it is acceptable to reject some of these people’s professed beliefs after all.
And I doubt she even knew that’s what she was doing. She wasn’t even aware that that right there, the calculus she was doing that she couldn’t even articulate, that’s the point. Whether or not or how much we accommodate people’s transgender identity doesn’t come from holy decrees or whatever morally superior sorting ability Katie seems to think she has. It comes through consensus-building and open discussion of the issues at hand. And people want to talk about it. Everybody’s desperate to talk about it! They have so many questions they want to ask but they can’t because the fucking gender police are always listening and ready to cancel you.
Transgender is an active faultline in the culture right now. When Graham Linehan published those images of males with highly dubious claims to being lesbians (to put it generously), what he was doing was creating a little earthquake: tension was building because lesbians were angry and frustrated that they were constantly being intruded upon by straight men, and no one was listening. So Graham — generous, and always with his attention towards the voices that go unheard rather than the big fashionable causes-du-jour — offered up his sizeable platform to call attention to it. This was blasphemy at its most high-minded: he broke a sacred rule to show that the sacred caste was committing an injustice that was going unnoticed by the public.
Indisputably there are serious conflicts between gender ideology and women’s rights, gay rights, and freedom of speech. The gender ideologues declared it taboo to talk about these issues. But unless more people start breaking these taboos, the tensions will keep building up and we’re gonna get The Big One, a massive and ugly backlash which could do terrible harm to the entire LGBT community.
We need more of these little earthquakes to release the growing tensions around trans and open up the debate so we can actually make some progress. Indisputably there are serious conflicts between gender ideology and women’s rights, gay rights, and freedom of speech. The gender ideologues declared it taboo to talk about these issues. But unless more people start breaking these taboos, the tensions will keep building up and we’re gonna get The Big One, a massive and ugly backlash which could do terrible harm to the entire LGBT community.
The irony of it is, Graham Linehan is becoming the poster child for gender blasphemy but he isn’t half as outrageous as he’s made out to be. In fact, he’s shown tremendous respect to transgender people and many transgender people are proud to call him a friend and an ally. Because he is an ally: one reason he cares so much about this issue is because getting to the truth of it — talking about it freely and openly — matters just as much to trans people as it does to anyone — more so.
After The Satanic Verses came out and the character assassination of Salman Rushdie took hold, even his literary contemporaries came under the spell. While Rushdie was in hiding surrounded by armed guards and the body count was mounting, all John le Carré could say to the matter was, “There is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity.” Rushdie, a man who hadn’t intended to insult religion to begin with, and who had actually written the bloody book out of admiration for Islam, nevertheless ended up the poster child for the debate about the right to insult Islam with impunity. Ironically it was his respect for Islam that led him to write about it honestly, and ultimately got him into all that trouble with it. And so it is with Graham and transgender people. Just last week, on the Trans Day of Visibility, he hosted five transgender guests on our podcast for a civil and friendly discussion about (among other things) the politics of pronouns. And yet he’s somehow become the poster child for debate about the right to misgender with impunity. I guess it’s always like this when there’s a controversy with a religious angle. It’s only in hindsight, after the fear and the pressure is lifted, that we can all look back and see what we got right and what we got wrong.
It took 15 years for le Carré and Rushdie to reconcile. Rushdie’s a far more gracious man than me — I never forgave le Carré in my mind. The people who called themselves liberals but abandoned Salman Rushdie to the wolves because of words he wrote that were supposedly blasphemous, it still boils my blood. To me it’s always been one of the most shameful moments of the left in recent decades. The principles were so clear-cut — people were being murdered! — there was not a drop of ambiguity whether Rushdie deserved everyone’s full support. But there’s something about blasphemy: the fear and confusion it conjures, the conflicting values it exposes within ourselves. It creates such a division among even the most progressive liberals; what side you end up on comes down to subtleties in your personality, like what happened with the Blocked and Reported podcast.
If you ask me, it separates the cowards from the heroes.
Arty Morty is a gay man in Canada who makes videos about gender identity ideology. Arty also co-hosts a weekly podcast on YouTube with Graham Linehan and Helen Staniland called The Mess We’re In. You can find Arty on YouTube at youtube.com/c/artymorty and on Twitter at @artymortyarty. You can buy Arty a coffee at https://www.buymeacoffee.com/artymorty