The media is not very good at talking about ideas. Arguments, yes - but not ideas.
News reports, written or broadcast, are short – 300 words, three or four minutes – and are usually about a thing or related collection of things that have happened.
An idea isn’t an act committed, it’s something else. Of course, opinions of notable people get reported, most often in politics, but rarely do the ideas behind anything really get discussed.
Political opinions get discussed all the time but individuals’ political philosophy rarely gets an airing beyond slogans; local health reform is in big trouble partly because the rationale – the ideas – behind why changes are necessary do not, or cannot, get explored in the news.
So, the media is not very good at talking about ideas. But it loves a good punch in the face.
And so it was this weekend when the Mail on Sunday wrote about a public discussion for feminists who are, broadly speaking, opposed to transgender women being classed as women.
This gets to the heart with a certain schism in feminism (itself a school of thought with a huge number of competing ideas; the question “what is feminism?” is easy to answer in broad terms but difficult or impossible to detail) – whether trans women are ultimately the same as women.
The headline for the online article is “Sixty-year-old woman is shoved to the ground as fists fly in a punch-up between transgender activists and their extreme feminist rivals in Hyde Park” and piece tries to paint a Pythonesque picture of mad ideologues unable to control themselves in the presence of one another.
However, if you are interested, let Scope outline the issues for you:
Trans rights (and, frankly, trans needs) are enjoying a period of relative prominence in public discourse but (for reasons that comprise the point of this article) are still not perhaps widely understood.
We spoke previously with Focus, the Identity Trust, in an interview where representatives from that organisation tried to provide some understanding for other people of what it is like to be trans – very simply put, you are trapped in the wrong body (a body of the wrong gender – essentially gender dysphoria is best understood as a physical ailment where your body does not match your mind).
Some feminists might be uncomfortable that people born with penises and XY chromosomes are, directly or at least by implication, trying to encroach on their turf. For others, this is more of a philosophical argument. Many schools of feminism argue that men and women are not fundamentally different and that society should reflect this. The above rationale for transitioning, it is not difficult to argue, implies that there are some innate differences between men and women – at least in terms of personal identity.
At the extreme end of this opposition to trans inclusion in feminism, are the trans-exclusionary radical feminists – or TERFs, a term which itself is a slur in some quarters.
Trans-exclusionary radical feminists think trans women should be excluded entirely from the feminist movement – and they are not shy about voicing this opinion. Germaine Greer once said that transgender women are “parodies” and “Just because you lop off your d**k and then wear a dress doesn't make you a ******* woman.”
Of course, as is usually the case, there are plenty of dissenting opinions that are also subtle – this article from Slate is very informative about “trans women who say that trans women aren’t women” – while for anyone interested in what science knows about this, suffice to say that it isn’t a huge amount (unsurprising, given neuroscience is really in the infancy of its potential) but that perhaps things are more complicated than they appear.
What all this represents is a huge and ongoing clash of beliefs affecting people today. All the above scratches the surface of the ideas in play. Ideas, of course, tend to be complex, and the author here is no expert – but journalists should not have to be.
Get to the point
The point, however, is that if all you did was read the original piece, you wouldn’t know about any of this - instead you’d have a large amount of detail about a “studenty type” allegedly punched a 60-year-old in the chops.
Is this a criticism? In some ways no. But mostly yes.
Mail on Sunday readers probably do not care about the intersection of internal arguments in the feminist and trans movements, whether or not you think they should, and a worthy chin-stroking discussion of the ideas at hand would only cause a million pairs of eyes to glaze over.
On the other hand, while journalism needs to be interesting and entertaining or no-one will read it, its primary purpose is to educate and inform. Titillation can be fun – you can all decide for yourselves whether the Mail on Sunday hit the mark there – but it doesn’t fulfil that central aim.
The media in Northern Ireland has done a grand job reporting on, for example, the recommendations that we should have less hospitals, and some of the large rallies that have been held in opposition to planned closures – but has largely failed to communicate the rationale behind health reform and, as a result, the health service is collapsing and most people don’t understand why, or how it can be fixed.
Of course, the health service is hugely important, and those matters are of grave importance to most of us. The media’s failure to deliver there is obvious.
However, while trans and feminist issues might not be of direct interest to so many people, they are hugely important to some and maybe, just maybe, they should be explained to some degree – even if what you really want to cover is a scuffle (Pink News also reported on what happened and the alleged violence – but their article went into a bit more detail about the ideas as well).
Newspapers should not be prevented from poke fun – again, people can decide for themselves whether they succeed – but they have a job to do as well, even if it is difficult to write about an idea.
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