Speaking on the Quillette podcast last week, David Frum described how his hometown of Toronto sometimes feels unrecognizable to him, having been utterly transformed by waves of successful immigrants. It’s something you hear from many older Torontonians, who remain awestruck by their city’s rapid metamorphosis from a sleepy provincial capital ruled by a clique of moralizing WASP conformists, to a glittering, cosmopolitan hub of entertainment and finance. But every once in a while, one still can catch a glimpse of the city’s old, preachy cold-roast-beef identity. In fact, that is exactly what happened this week, when Meghan Murphy came to town.
And who is Meghan Murphy? According to CBC radio host Carol Off, Murphy is someone whose extremism summons to mind comparisons with “a Holocaust denier or a white supremacist.” A Globe & Mail writer dedicated a column to branding Murphy an agent of “fear and meanness.” Toronto Mayor John Tory was so concerned by Murphy’s apparently horrifying message that he publicly called out his city’s chief librarian for permitting Murphy to deliver a speech on library premises. Hundreds of angry Torontonians gathered to protest that speech on Tuesday, telling at least one Murphy supporter to “go kill yourself, go bleed out and die.” The next day, Toronto’s governing council voted to review library policies, with a view toward ensuring that such a shocking spectacle would never again blacken the city’s reputation. For good measure, a pair of drag queens named Fay and Fluffy announced they would no longer come to the library to read books to children.
Is Murphy a Nazi? A war criminal? Perhaps a hooded KKK leader who appeared at the podium under a burning cross? Well, not quite. Meghan Murphy is a young Vancouver-based feminist activist and writer who says out loud what most Canadians think: that the rights of trans women must be balanced against the rights of girls and women as a whole, and that the admission of male-bodied individuals into spaces where women are vulnerable is an issue that can’t be resolved by screaming slogans or Tweeting emojis. As National Post columnist Chris Selley wrote after he attended Murphy’s Toronto event, the substance of her speech wasn’t even that controversial. The true scandal was out on the street, where progressive hypocrites yelled at Murphy’s feminist supporters in the way that Westboro Baptist Church members berate women entering an abortion clinic.
When I write about this subject, I often get notes from readers who either thank or excoriate me, the attitude being dictated by their position on the question of so-called “gender ideology.” And for those who have not been following this issue, but have become alarmed by the fanatical campaign of censorship and de-platforming it has inspired, I will offer a few sentences of background. Murphy represents the view that biological sex, male or female, is a permanent feature, and that gender is a mash-up of social expectations and stereotypes. This view often is described as “gender-critical” or “TERF” (a term that stands for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist,” but now is used almost exclusively as a term of abuse). Many “gender crits” are sympathetic to the challenges faced by people with gender dysphoria. But all of them reject the now-fashionable orthodox position that we should be able to simply declare ourselves man or woman at will, for all legal and social purposes, based on some inwardly experienced revealed knowledge about our gendered soul. They also decry the old-fashioned sexism that is implicit in gender ideology, since trans women and girls often will base their self-identification on the basis of what toys and clothing they prefer, or whether they like pink or blue.
As with any clash of rights, it will require good faith and hard work to hammer out a fair policy solution in this area. And I have every confidence that once the current spasm of progressive social panic recedes, a compromise will emerge that protects the dignity and safety of trans people, while also acknowledging the right of women to operate in certain spaces that are free of male bodies. The notion that only one side of this argument has legitimate points to make is unsustainable, which is why a full-fledged schism now is developing within the wider LGBT movement.
In fact, it is this development that so alarms ideological enforcers within orthodox gender circles, as they (rightly) fear that they are losing their monopoly position. This, in turn, helps explain their fanatical desire to shut Murphy down — since the spectacle of her speaking common sense may invite other people to imagine that they can do the same without suffering punishment. And then, eventually, as with all cultish movements that rule by fear instead of persuasion, the whole house of cards will come tumbling down.
As a man, I have no personal stake in this battle — because the entire weight of gender-ideology extremism is borne by girls and women. (There are no women demanding access to my health-club locker room, or making a mockery of male athletic competitions.) But I do have a stake as a journalist. For I know of no other issue that has had such a mind-warping effect on the work of otherwise intelligent writers and broadcasters.
Not only is it now considered perfectly normal (even admirable) for state-funded journalists to compare gender-crits to Holocaust deniers. One also sees the opposite phenomenon at work: Male-bodied individuals are praised as “shining examples of what humans can accomplish with training and effort” when they take medals away from biological women. In some cases, genuine sociopaths from among this group are even lauded by the media for their “courage.” This includes Rachel McKinnon, a cycling “champion” who dominates much smaller (female) competitors, told critics to “die in a grease fire,” and recently celebrated the death of a 36-year-old feminist from brain cancer. Throwing people into grease fires seems a lot closer to Nazi talk than anything Meghan Murphy ever said. And yet this would be the very same Rachel McKinnon who is regularly celebrated on the CBC in sunny features with titles such as We Have to Promote Inclusive Sport.
To any normal observer, it must seem like the media has lost its collective mind. The question is: Why?
When conservatives try to provide an answer, the focus often centers on the ideological distortions contained within orthodox gender studies. But that explanation doesn’t satisfy, because campus cults exist in all corners of academia, often without their dogmas metastasizing into mainstream culture and politics. What’s unusual about radicalized gender activism is that it has imposed itself not only on policy-making, but also on the way that policy-making is debated and critiqued in the media. And so even as some measure of sanity seems to be returning to this issue, it’s worth taking the opportunity to understand how mainstream journalists turned themselves into cheerleaders for dogmas that few people actually believe.
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The first and most obvious factor is that the entire discussion of trans rights has taken place in recent years with limited participation from conservatives. In Canada, for instance, neither Ontario Premier Doug Ford, a Conservative, nor federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, have had much to say on this issue. And the reason seems clear: These politicians still are paying the price for having picked the wrong side of the gay-marriage argument in the 2000s, and so (rightly) feel that entering the trans-rights debate would invite yet more accusations of bigotry. On matters of LGBT social justice, in other words, conservatives simply have very little credibility — and it’s their own fault.
The comparison between gay rights and trans rights is inapt, of course — because the institution of gay marriage itself (as distinct from the campaign to censor the debate over gay rights) never really infringed on anyone else’s rights. As Kathleen Stock, Helen Joyce and others have noted in Quillette, however, the same isn’t true of the most radicalized formulations of trans rights. Yet the conflation of the two has stuck in the public imagination, in part because of the use of blurring terms such as “LGBT.”
The result of this is that the debate about trans rights now is largely an intra-progressive affair — though that hasn’t stopped orthodox activists from smearing their critics as crypto-conservatives (a laughable claim given that the most impassioned activists within the gender-crit movement tend to be feminists — many of them lesbians — who have spent much of their careers manning the barricades against right-wing misogynists and homophobes). More broadly, the whole arc of left-wing activism over the last century has created a spirit of triumphalism in regard to every cause premised on an expansion of asserted rights — including anti-sexism, anti-racism and anti-homophobia. In the media, as in activist circles, anti-transphobia typically is presented as simply an obvious extrapolation of these earlier causes, and so anyone who offers any form of opposition to the orthodox stance is assumed to be a bigot. There is no acknowledgment that social-justice campaigners now have scraped up against the bare-metal limits of the rights that can be vindicated by society without biting into other, older rights won by previous activist cohorts.
A third factor is the role of social media, including within the LGBT community, where a healthy debate might once have occurred. In the pre-Twitter past, different factions of the queer movement often were able to assert themselves within a patchwork of different media. But Twitter now allows the angriest and shrillest voices to coalesce into a de facto ideological inquisition. Britain’s PinkNews, in particular, has become a notorious enforcer (and is now dismissively referred to as Penis News by exasperated lesbian critics). Canada’s Xtra is moving in the same direction. The eventual result, as Brad Polumbo recently argued, is that “LGB rights and T activism, hav[ing] been revealed to be unnatural bedfellows…will go their separate ways.” But in the meantime, anyone who embraces a gender-crit position is at risk of de-platforming. This includes Meghan Murphy herself, who left the ultra-progressive web site rabble when she refused to toe the line on gender.
Nor should the role of Facebook be discounted, even if it caters to an older demographic. One of the women who organized Meghan Murphy’s Tuesday event noted to me that, “it’s surprising how many of our most vicious critics are middle-aged,” something she chalked up to old progressives “trying to act like they’re still relevant.” But as an older person myself, I can attest that it’s more complicated than that. Most of us in our 40s and 50s operate on Facebook and Instagram within a wide network of college friends and neighbourhood parents, often numbering in the high hundreds, or even thousands. Statistically, at least one or two of these middle-agers will have a trans child (or niece or nephew), who often will take center stage in photo montages, racking up many likes, alongside links to crowdfunding drives and web sites devoted to trans rights. Prominent among the well-intentioned urban progressives who go all in on these social-media pages are journalists, who know they can spin just about every one of these children into splashy weekend features.
As early as 2011, Toronto’s Star newspaper showed you could set the internet on fire with this sort of article. And the established form of writing these pieces is such that they are presented more as celebrations than actual profiles. Crucially, stories about detransition are effectively taboo — because even acknowledging the existence of de-transitioned youth serves to impugn the media’s own sunny approach to the issue (which is why detransitioned youth increasingly are bypassing the mainstream media and setting up their own web channels). All told, the media has a natural incentive to act as a one-way filter in regard to news about trans issues.
A fourth factor is the economic decline of traditional journalism as a whole, which has affected the way newsrooms now are run and staffed.
As recently as the late 1990s, which is when I began my career in journalism, media organizations were able to insulate themselves against social panics and fads through the employment of a large corps of experienced, risk-averse, highly professional desk editors and middle managers. They supplied a sort of ideological ballast, so that a small number of activist journalists within the organization couldn’t exert veto power on controversial issues. Over the last 20 years, that entire stratum of professionals has been packaged out, and the editorial staffing in these organizations generally consists of just two groups: (a) a small corps of managing journalists in their 50s and 60s who are desperately trying to make it to retirement; and (b) a larger corps of poorly paid 20-somethings. Because members of this latter high-turnover group (rightly) feel have little expectation of long-term employment, their primary ideological loyalties are to social media, not to their nominal bosses.
In some cases, media bosses no longer even pretend that their staffers are anything but in-house social-justice activists. A notable example here is the Star’s Vancouver-based reporter dedicated to “covering diversity, inequality and education.” Perhaps no other journalist in Canada was in a better position to investigate the explosive scandal surrounding Jessica Yaniv. But since this was a story of a trans person weaponizing trans status to extort money from impoverished immigrants, as opposed to a front-page photo-op about a child with blue hair, the issue was left to alternative outlets.
Fifth and finally, there is the extraordinary classism that infects the woke media. In her recent Quillette story, Male-Bodied Rapists Are Being Imprisoned With Women. Why Do so Few People Care?, Canadian writer April Halley described how imprisoned women — poor, Indigenous women, in particular — are at daily risk of harassment and assault by dangerous male-bodied criminals who “self-identify” as female (such self-identification sometimes being announced in between trial and imprisonment). Given the mania for Indigenous “reconciliation” that is supposed to be a national priority in Canada, not to mention the overlapping imperatives of the MeToo movement, one might imagine that the plight of First Nations women trapped behind bars with potential rapists would be a huge national scandal. But in fact, everyone in the Canadian mainstream media has done their best to avoid acknowledging the issue.
The reason for this goes beyond the simple sense of mortification that most progressive journalists feel when faced with the fact that even a tiny handful of trans women are preying on other prisoners. It’s also related to the reality that journalists tend to hail from relatively privileged backgrounds — as few working-class people now can afford to put down stakes in a shrinking industry with zero job security and low wages. Most of the privileged types who do seek out journalistic work have never been inside a prison, or even known anyone who’s served time. They likewise don’t know anyone who’s had to use a rape-crisis center, since middle-class folks generally have friends and relatives who can help them in times of crisis. Such young journalists are much more likely to have friends who post on Twitter about being misgendered at Starbucks, or who are organizing an online protest against an arts-funding agency that doesn’t allow applicants to register as “non-binary.” These are the teapot dramas that get ink, while feminists who dare point out the plight of female prisoners and rape victims are casually compared to Nazis on CBC radio.
It is an understatement to say that this issue is rich with irony. Consider, for instance, that, in response to Murphy’s speech, leaders of Pride Toronto may ban the city’s public library from inclusion in 2020 pride events — to go along with the existing ban on police participation in Pride’s annual parade. Yet when you watch a video of Murphy’s fans leaving the library on Tuesday night, what you see is a group of professional police officers defending a group of besieged feminists, while a bunch of unhinged woke men scream at them.
In any normal universe, one would naturally view the officers as the good guys, and the triggered men as the baddies. The fact that some of the most influential progressives in this city believe (or pretend to believe) precisely the opposite shows how, by twists and turns, a progressive social-justice ideology meant to promote caring and universal respect can be turned into a de facto hate cult. And it is my humble suggestion that fellow journalists begin reporting on this odd and unsettling phenomenon, rather than contributing to it.
Jonathan Kay is Canadian Editor of Quillette, and Tweets at @jonkay.