First of all, to avoid accusations of hypocrisy, let me put it out there that Twitter has every right to ban Graham Linehan from their platform. It would be wrong of me to argue that one rule applies to Katie Hopkins and another rule applies to people I generally agree with. Freedom of speech also applies to the owners of the platform. It is what it is but, more importantly, it is what they want it to be. This is another of the pesky consequences of freedom.

Linehan has also brought some of this on himself, becoming so embroiled in the fight around transgender rights that he’s perhaps become too strident in his views. It clearly angers him and from that anger comes a militant disregard for the rules. He might claim to be breaking those rules for the right reasons but he’s still breaking rules. You really can’t get too sniffy about that after the fact.

What he should have considered, really, was whether he wanted to be on the platform in the first place. Was access to hundreds of thousands of followers enough of an incentive that he should have trod more carefully around some particularly fraught issues? I thought it might but clearly it wasn’t. Yet I also feel for him because, as far as I’ve ever seen, his arguments have never been anti-trans. Indeed, many members of the trans community appear to agree with him. What has happened, rather, is the usual polarization within any community seeking similar goals via different routes. The more radical advocates – those that fizz the most about “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” – have quite different agendas to the moderates who understand why feminists are protective of their movement. Linehan has been fighting for the rights of individuals whilst not stripping others of theirs. That can appear tough when the world doesn’t seem to care too much about equality. It sometimes even resembles madness.

Yet it’s a madness that goes all the way back to the beginning of the women’s movement. Feminism is (and remains) a force for good in our culture. Yet too often is it presented (and celebrated) as a new injustice. It’s the stuff of those female comedians, who think the best way to deal with misogyny is by committing casual misandry on a nightly basis. Men are cretins with small dicks and beer bellies. Men are slaves to their libidos. Men are awful and violent. Men are just pathetic…

This has been a constant tone in the culture of my entire adult life. I’ve grown up believing that it’s somewhat shameful to be a man, damned by a drooling libido. It has been taken for granted that men should endure the humiliation of their sex in order to allow feminism to grow. The patriarchy had been protecting its spaces for so long that men now had to accept a little ridicule as women made space for themselves. It’s not got much better. Culture now displays a generally hostile attitude towards the male sex. The phrase “toxic masculinity” appears 2.9 million times in Google’s search results. “Toxic femininity” a mere 166,000 times.

The same happened around gay rights. Culture was better for it but, in becoming better, there were still injustices left behind that were never corrected. Masculinity was still unfashionable or, rather, had to be recast as a less “threatening” form of masculinity. The world was suddenly filled with skin moisturisers for men and godawful role models like David Beckham. Men were meant to feel ashamed if we found the female form beautiful or erotic. Objectifying women was a sin, whilst objectifying men became the new normal. Was it any surprise that it gave rise to a counterculture where hypermasculinity was celebrated and the old misogyny embraced? This is where we are today. This is the masculinity of cage fighting and even worse kinds of violence you see on social media where men punch each other just to prove they are men. It shouldn’t need pointing out that there are a lot of men who live between these ideological extremes.

We seem to have reached a stage where it’s commonly accepted that whenever one freedom is sought, another freedom must be surrendered. It was the flaw that lay at the heart of the #MeToo movement, when one kind of injustice was swapped out for another. Taking the victim’s accusations seriously was the important message. It was never supposed to become a cult of always believing the victim. Justice had to be left to juries, presented with evidence, but too often the trial took place in the media where men continued to be condemned for being men and therefore disreputable, not to believed, and obviously guilty.

With the rise of the trans movement, women are feeling their own spaces challenged and, like men before them, they too are being told they have no say in how much of that space is taken or used. The “mistake” is the same mistake that seems to be repeated every generation. We are incapable of treating people as individuals, recognising that there is no one “normal”. It’s the whole point of gender studies, that explains how identity lies on many axes of behaviour. There is nothing more or less unnatural being attracted to buxom women in thongs than there is in being attracted to men in g-strings.

Individual tastes are, believe it or not, individual.

Shouldn’t we be quite capable of accepting and making room for the plurality of identities that make up the human experience, even if the negotiations are often tricky and not always satisfactory? Sometimes our solutions are crude. Often, they amount to the old “men’s club” argument that never really went away. What right do men have to form a club where only men are invited? Now it’s a matter of what right do women have of forming a sporting organisation where only women are invited? More pointedly: what right do I have to be “me”, whilst not denying your right to be “you”?

This is the old battle of equality and we’ve been here before. We are long past the point in our culture when a sign reading “White Only” was situated outside restrooms. Yet the big question now is whether you could be ejected because of your gender. Is a sign that reads “Women Only” evidence of the last prejudice? In 300 years, will protestors be pulling down statues of the leaders of the modern feminist movement because they excluded trans-women from their spaces? Will the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft and J.K. Rowling be seen as neo-segregationists, basing their discrimination around sex rather than race? It sounds unlikely yet the caricatures of the ‘black brute’ that persisted in anti-Negro literature at the beginning of the twentieth century feels all too similar to the warnings of rape and the abuse of minors that are now regularly raised as objections to trans-rights.

So, the question remains: how do we achieve equality without destroying the equality we’ve already achieved?

The answer might be that we don’t. Not properly. We might even have been asking the wrong question because we have never believed in true “equality”.

Equality is a term that looms large in our history. It’s enshrined in Article 1 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man from 1793. Many countries have their Equality Acts and we are taught that equality is an ambition of any progressive people. Yet as much as our higher selves might seek equality, no sooner do we find it than we realise that we also need to discriminate. Sport, for example, is highly discriminatory, even if there doesn’t seem to be much rationale behind the discrimination. Why is there a Women’s World Chess Championship? Why are there different leagues for male and female snooker and darts and crown green bowls? If we properly sought equality, wouldn’t sport simply be open to everybody. Wouldn’t we all compete in an open field? The fastest runner. The highest jumper.

We discriminate because equality is inherently unfair. “Not rash equality but equal rights” as Lord Byron once wrote in one of the greatest insights of the Romantic movement. In a field of equals, would any female sprinter come in the first dozen? Two dozen? Two hundred? We are discriminatory to the core of our beings because discrimination needn’t always be bad. Just as we can discriminate against, we can also discriminate for. And when we do that, we’re no longer talking about equality. We are talking about equity.

Equity is more properly the goal of the more liberal and pluralistic state. Equity is what we really mean when we talk about equality. Rather than treat everybody as if they were the same, we seek to readdress the imbalances that nature creates. Equity involves relative values. It depends entirely on where you begin and where you hope to end up. If I believed in equality, I would give everybody reading this blog £1,000,000. If I believed in equity, I would first ask each of you how much I would need to give you (or perhaps take away) to ensure that we all have £1,000,000. (All hypothetical, let me assure you.)

The same logic can be applied to any part of the world, including the ever-problematic bathroom debate.

In a world of equality, the toilets would be sized the same for both men and women. There would be one space and we all fight for the right to get a cubicle, even if that means privileging men who might not be burdened by children.

In a world of equity, we provide different sized toilets to suit the sexes, in discretely separate bathrooms.

Where, then, does that leave the trans debate?

Well, still stuck arguing for equality in a world that has been adapted for equity. This is why we see such anger around the subject. Equality for all will always end up with the old natural order. When everybody starts from the same place, the winners will be the quickest, the strongest, and the youngest. They will also, usually, be male.

If we want a world of equity, however, then we must accept that life is complicated, and that discrimination is sometimes a feature rather than a flaw. That doesn’t mean that compromises can’t be made. In fact, compromises are critical because injustices are inherent in the system. Only the most heinous person would question the provision of a disabled stall on the ground floor of a restaurant. Its ease of access and design seeks to provide some equity. To achieve that, we must often compromise by moving the other bathrooms further away, often to a different floor.

This is why equity is harder to achieve than equality. Differences must be recognized; allowances have to be made. We cater to the individual need rather than the statistical mean. This is why feminism, obsessed with equality, too often overcompensates for systemic misogyny by reverting to its opposite. It assumes that there was one patriarchy to oppose. The reality was that there were manifold masculinities, just as there’s now no single femininity in this hugely pluralistic world. The question shouldn’t simply be whether trans-women should be allowed to use female-only bathrooms but also why biological men are still forced to use male bathrooms. I doubt if there are many men who are ever entirely happy with that awful prospect.

What we all want, irrespective of our gender or our sex, is the space to be ourselves, being who we are and identifying however we wish. The lie of equality was that we are all the same. The reality addressed by equity is that we are all different. If being forced together is the problem, then the solution must lie in keeping us all apart. It would hardly be the most difficult challenge we’ve faced, solved through a combination of architecture, engineering, and reorganisation. Fix that problem and the rest will follow.

4 thoughts on “The Graham Linehan Conundrum”

  1. They should abolish men’s and women’s spaces and relabel them. Suggestions from me are

    Penis/No Penis
    Vagina/No Vagina
    Penis/Vagina/No Sexual Organs.

    Would solve the problem and manage to fuck everybody off in the process, so seems a winner to me.

    1. Well, that’s certainly an alternative but then I guess solving this without “fucking everybody off” really is the trick.

      Ever thought of working in hostage negotiation? 😉

  2. I think it’s brave of you to get involved in this topic. I’ve seen many people try to be reasonable and then get shouted down. Moving away from the “toilets” issue though, I’m also concerned by the biological implications – I may be wrong here (I hope I am) but there seems to be pressure in some quarters for only one’s preferred gender to be recorded medically when research has shown that there are physiological differences between, for example, symptoms of certain diseases in women and men. Surely an approach like that is going to, at the very least, muddy the waters in terms of how we recognise and treat health problems. The other thing I wanted to point out is that measures of success in different fields tend to have been set out by men and, unsurprisingly, concentrate on things that men tend to do well. A female mate of mine was in the police a few years ago and she recounted that although she struggled in the physical challenges they all had to pass, the minute it was a question of “who’s small enough to fit under this gate?”, etc, her value to the team increased. There’s an interesting chapter in Caroline Criado Perez’ book on risk-taking that talks about the same sort of thing; dunno if you’ve read it but it’s very pertinent here. Anyway, it’s a comment not an essay so I’m off to make a coffee. Cheers for the blog, I enjoy it.

    1. Brave or foolish! 😉

      I really try to be led by the science (and being a non-expert means I’m happy to concede most of these arguments to the people who know this material better than I ever will) and what you describe would be a perfect example of that. Any doctor would not treat male physiology the same as female physiology, though, of course, there are times when it’s not so clear cut. And those exceptions are why it becomes so difficult to argue from a biological angle entirely.

      Having said that, the culture isn’t so clear cut either. I sometimes wonder about arguments about, say, policewoman being better suited to calming down men. As we get more equality, I wonder if this will stay the same (it’s so deeply wired into our biology that women will always be able to calm men) or whether it will equal out and men will have less respect for women because it’s entirely cultural.
      Lastly, as a heterosexual man with no dysmorphia except the usual self-loathing, I find it difficult to tell people their problems are imaginary, as I also refuse to tell women what to think about their lives, spaces, and identity. Like I said, I think a flaw of feminism was that this was done to men and contributed to the rise of the current toxic far-right politics.

      Yet most of this is highbrow intellectualising (or just culture war sniping) when people just want to know which bathroom to use and, though I sometimes feel like it’s a cop out to say that we need to start thinking of people as individuals, at the same time, that’s how I try to live my own life. I also think personalisation in everything is already the direction we’re taking.

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