Not long before the pandemic, Irish state television network RTE contacted me to ask whether I was prepared to speak about a different kind of epidemic—that of gender dysphoria and sex changes. I was reluctant to do so because the subject, though undoubtedly socially important and very topical, wasn’t one that particularly interested me.
In fact, I tended to avert my mind from it.
The people from the RTE persuaded me that it was my public duty to appear on the program they were making. They had found many professors of pediatrics, medicine, psychiatry, and psychology who didn’t think the trans movement was a force for good, to put it mildly, but none of them were willing to publicly speak against it. They didn’t want to ruin their own careers or be the object of mass obloquy: The thirst for martyrdom isn’t common.
I recognized that my reluctance was tinged with fear (and, therefore, also with cowardice). It was with trepidation that I agreed, and I was reasonably circumspect in what I said in front of the camera.
If you wanted to understand the sudden increase in the phenomenon, you were better off studying the history of fashion—Chanel, say, or Balenciaga—than anything else, I said.
There were fashions in psychiatric conditions that come and go. Hysterical paralysis of limbs was once very common, but is now rare (though it still does occur).
In the 1990s, multiple personality disorder was fashionable, so much so that the fifth edition of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual” of the American Psychiatric Association quoted a survey suggesting that the disorder affected up to 1.5 percent of the population—a figure I found intrinsically absurd. As the Duke of Wellington said to the man who approached him and said “Mr. Jones, I believe?”: “If you believe that, you will believe anything.”
The point is that patterns of behavior to which psychiatric labels are fixed wax and wane over time. I expected that the present craze would eventually evaporate—although it would probably be replaced by another.
I have no idea whether my contribution was used (I have sometimes given lengthy interviews only to find out that they weren’t broadcast or were cut to 10 seconds). But the most important or significant question about the whole episode wasn’t whether I was right or wrong in my characterization and prognosis of the trans movement, but the state of fear that the RTE people had described, which led to them scraping the barrel to find someone—in this case, me—to say something even mildly critical of the movement. What they described, in effect, was the development of a totalitarian atmosphere in intellectual life.
Of course, we shouldn’t exaggerate. We don’t yet fear the midnight knock on the door, and no one (as far as I know) has been killed for expressing unorthodox ideas on this subject.
People nevertheless fear for their careers and even their livelihoods. Followers of movements such as the trans movement have no hesitation in calling for the dismissal of people who attract their wrath by disagreeing publicly with them. So-called transphobia isn’t an irrational fear of people who want to change their sex, but fear of retribution by the movement that makes such people their cause (who may not be the same people).
Trans-sexualism isn’t the only subject on which it’s now dangerous for one’s career or livelihood to express ideas that dissent from the current “progressive” moral orthodoxy. This explains the view of journalist Douglas Murray that only those with no institutional affiliation, private or public, who are able independently to earn their livings, can now speak their minds on many subjects.
There are several asymmetrical wars currently going on within the intellectual sphere. On the one side are guerrilla monomaniacs with a cause, for whom the subject of their monomania is all-important, and the promotion of which is the meaning of their lives. On the other side are normal people for whom that particular subject is merely one thing among many others.
In this situation, the monomaniacs have the advantage of fanaticism. Like Batista’s army in Cuba, normal people melt away in the face of fanatical attack, because they don’t care enough or aren’t prescient enough to defend their position—although they may later come to regret not having done so.
What’s particularly alarming about the totalitarian temper that’s developing in Western society is that it doesn’t originate from the government but is a genuine expression of the thirst for power of a portion of the population, that part of it—the intelligentsia—that seemingly would have the most to lose if the drive to totalitarianism were successful.
Individuals may have discovered, to their cost, that even merely intellectual revolutions tend to devour their young, with today’s radicals often becoming tomorrow’s reactionaries, hated in the eyes of a new generation of radicals that’s ever on the lookout for new worlds to destroy. But young radicals never think that they’ll grow old. They always think that theirs is the last word in truth and justice.
Tolerance—a word that in the mouth of such radicals comes to mean the forced or coerced approval of what was formerly transgressive—isn’t natural to mankind. It’s far more natural to want to suppress what one finds disgusting or doesn’t want to hear. Our instinct is to turn away from views that aren’t our own, from the evidence that might undermine our most cherished opinions, and we even tend to dislike those who cite such evidence.
In other words, tolerance is an intellectual and moral achievement, an act of self-control, rather than the expression of an instinct. No doubt some people, by temperament, find such self-control easier than others (I don’t find it easy myself), but there’s a dictator lurking in many, perhaps most, of us—at least in those of us who take an interest in public affairs.
Suffice it to say that we aren’t living in a golden age of the kind of self-control necessary for a tolerant society in which diversity of opinion is taken in good spirit. And so-called social media, which allow us to pour out our bile incontinently the moment we feel the inclination to do so, only compounds the problem.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.