Category Archives: philosophy

Trans Stuff

Yesterday being International Women’s Day, I went to a women’s event at Loughborough University.  It was quite a feat getting there as there was no signage at all: fortunately a couple of security guards who (though very politely) nearly ran me over, pointed me in the right direction.  The event was called ‘From Sex to Gender: a Biological and Cultural Journey’ and as usual with these things I was seeking some kind of enlightenment.  Or explanation.  Or whatever.

Did I get it?  Well, yes and no.  Any discussion, however waffly or fruitless, can move your thought-processes along if you let it – and this was unwaffly and sort of fruitful, if you think a tomato is a fruit.  OK I’m being abstruse.  Let’s get to it: there was a talk by a Professor (male), suggesting that gender is a spectrum and quoting a book called ‘The Five Sexes’ by Anne Fausto-Sterling:

The five are, apparently, ‘perfect’ male, ‘perfect’ female, ‘masculine female’ (me, probably) ‘feminine’ male (OH, in my view) and intersex.  Fine: I don’t have a problem with the idea that most people don’t fit entirely into neat boxes labelled ‘male’ and ‘female’.

So I don’t disagree that gender – ie what you are expected to be and do as a man or woman – is socially constructed.  So far so good.  But the second half of the event was a video by a trans woman claiming that sex is also socially constructed; in other words, that we can throw out biology – chromosomes, sexual organs, hormones, etc – as a determiner of sex.  Hmm.  She claims that transgender women are not biologically male; but I’m sceptical: in trans women (including her, incidentally) you can often see features which often occur only in males, such as a pronounced jawline or a tendency to put on weight round the middle rather than around the hips.  And that’s not even to touch on ethical issues such as trans women using the strength or power they had as a male to their advantage – retaining positions of power, winning cycle races – which is what Jenni Murray was getting at in her recent remarks:

While the video was long on what gender isn’t, it was very short on what gender actually is.  The idea seemed to be that you are what you say you are, or what you feel you are – and the rest can go hang.

I don’t buy it – and neither did some other people there – but when I tried to raise the issue of what gender actually is, it wasn’t dealt with.  And the problem I’m finding is not that some people have certain ideas, but that disagreement is difficult.  There’s an orthodoxy emerging: the facilitator of the discussion, though perfectly pleasant, was not open-minded; she had a view and seemed to be trying to convey that view as correct.  The idea seems to be that the rest of us should just accept unquestioningly what trans people say; and as a sceptic I’m not prepared to accept anything without question, no matter where it comes from or who says it.

The video was called ‘No, Transgender Women are not Biologically Male’ and you can find it here:

(unfortunately it’s one of those where all the pauses have been edited out, which I find makes it almost impossible to take in.)

In short, just because you can’t be precise about sex doesn’t mean we should just throw the whole thing out.  And debate ought never to be off the table.  We must have debate.

Kirk out

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A Plea for Respectful Debate

You may not recognise this guy, but you may have heard of Breitbart, a right-wing news site which he runs.  This guy is Milo Yiannopoulos, a Brit of Greek extraction who recently opined that trans people are a danger to women and children and a lot more besides.  My impression is that he is an immature self-publicist who says things mostly to shock; frankly I don’t want to give him any more time than I already have.  But it is an unfortunate fact that as far as trans people go, he and Germaine Greer are in the same camp, ie promoting disrespectful rather than respectful debate.  And I want to use this post as a plea for the latter; because we really need it.

There are things I decline to discuss.  I will not debate the question of whether women are equally intelligent to men; nor whether people have a right to be gay, nor whether people of other races are equal to ‘us’.  We’ve had these debates and come to a consensus; and if anyone hasn’t caught up, the arguments are all out there.  But the same cannot be said for transgender issues; and with the best will in the world, many people are genuinely baffled by this.  What does it mean to be transgender?  What are the options?  And crucially, where does it come from?  Is it, as some have suggested, a mental health problem or does the problem merely come from the prejudice of others?  If so, where does it come from?  We need to be free to ask these questions, else how can we come to an understanding?  It’s not good enough to say, as many have, that we just need to ‘accept it.’  I can’t accept something I don’t understand – at least, not fully.

What is clear to me is that previously you were defined at birth by your biology.  If you had female organs, you were female; if you had a penis, you were male.  End of – and any thoughts or feelings you might have to the contrary, had to just get into line.  Whereas now, it’s your thoughts and feelings that define you, and the body has to come into line, even if that means lopping bits of it off.

I’m not happy with either of these scenarios.  But I’m even more unhappy with the seeming impossibility of having any respectful debate on the subject, since I am often told that merely asking these questions is tantamount to denying the trans person’s right to exist.

Please comment.  But please comment respectfully.

Kirk out


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The Anti-Narnia

Far too much has been written about the over-commercialisation of Christmas.  People have been banging on about this ever since I can remember, but without success, for the phenomenon has now reached ridiculous lengths.  From the beginning of October I went through my Facebook news feed resolutely deleting everything that had a reference to Christmas and keeping it up until the actual beginning of Advent which this year fell on 30th November.  (Incidentally this reminds me of Nigel, the over-zealous curate in ‘Rev’ – can’t find the clip – who flounces into the office and announces ‘If I have to tell one more person it isn’t Christmas yet, it’s Advent, I shall go completely doo-lally!’)  I can’t remember exactly when the season of Christmas begins but I think it’s on Christmas Eve – and then it lasts, as the song says, twelve days after that.

But nowadays Christmas begins as soon as the summer holidays are over.  Barely is the harvest in; hardly have the children got their feet under a larger set of school desks, than the adverts begin.  You hear with dread the faint jingle of bells that announces the onset of yet another festive season; parents and teachers groan at the knowledge that they must deal with the children’s mounting excitement for another two and a half months before it can be discharged – and then the shopping begins.

Well – it seems to me that, with global warming, what we have here is the anti-Narnia.  The climate has changed so much; winters are now so much warmer than they were and Christmas so much longer, that we seem to be in a country that has fallen under the spell of some wicked wizard; a country where it’s Always Christmas and Never Winter.

I guess one advantage of not having money is that you can just ignore all the ads; the only offer I’ve been remotely tempted by is a subscription to Granta and sadly it’s too late to ask for that now.  Keep it simple is my philosophy: straightforward presents, not too many cards, and an easy Christmas meal without too many extras.  Enough food and wine to enjoy, presents under the tree and a few Xmas crackers – and I am content.

Would it were so easy to sort out global warming.  Then again, maybe it is: maybe if we apply the same criteria – cut out the extras, live more simply, have enough to enjoy and be content – we could find the answer.

Oh, and get me a subscription to Granta…



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At Least You’ve Got An -ology!

Want to gain eternal life?  Want to live for billions of years and conquer the universe?  Want to understand the key to eternal verities?  Forget churches who just let you turn up and worship for free; forget the Bible and the Gita and all those other texts you can just read on the internet; forget meditation.  What you need to do is spend hundreds of thousands of pounds being ‘trained’, pummelled, bullied and harassed by a secretive organisation which will completely f*** your mind.  And then you’ll be so powerful, you can look in the camera with that intense and creepy expression Tom Cruise has, and everyone will just do whatever you want.

Yes, I have finally caught up with the latest Louis Theroux offering, ‘My Scientology Movie.’  Scientology is a ‘religion’ set up by sci-fi writer L Ron Hubbard and taken over, on his death, by David Miscavige.  Louis spent ten years trying to get Scientologists to talk to him and met a brick wall; so he turned to the only available source of information – lapsed, or perhaps we should rather say ‘escaped’, Scientologists.  And rather than just interviewing them, he came up with an ingenious method of trying to approximate what goes on on the organisation: he reconstructed it.  With the aid of Marty Rathbun, formerly one of David Miscavige’s top henchmen, he reconstructs a ‘training’ session where aspirants interview each other one-to-one and try to elicit an emotional response.  This response is measured by a lie-detector and the methods are brutal: the person interviewing Louis told him he was a rubbish film-maker whose wife didn’t love him and was probably having sex right now with someone else, maybe someone he thought was a friend.  Unsurprisingly this got an emotional response, leading to the increased heart-rate which is measured on the lie-detector.

In a horrible way you can almost see this working, like throwing someone in at the deep end might teach them to swim.  Then again, they might drown or suffer terrible trauma, especially as this ‘training’ continues until you no longer show a response, after which you go onto the next level (and pay more money).

The ideas of paying for enlightenment is, or ought to be, a red flag: anyone who makes a profit out of showing others ‘the way’ is not to be trusted.  Most yoga organisations charge for asana classes but not for meditation, and no church I’ve ever heard of would dream of charging people to attend (yes, I know a lot of them make a point of passing round the plate, but you can still walk out that door and give them nothing: salvation does not depend on donation.)

This was a dangerous film for Theroux to make: plenty of people warned him not to go there and while filming he was continually followed, harassed, filmed and at one point barred from driving down a public road which the Scientologists had illegally closed.  He also got a number of letters from their lawyers warning him to stop spreading ‘false information’ and his main witness, Marty Rathbun, backed out in the end after veiled threats to his foster-child.  Clearly these people will stop at very little to protect themselves; they are clever, rich and powerful; and unlike your typical gangster, they are subtle and intelligent.

It reminded me a little of something that happened to me way back in the ’80’s.  I was 24, recovering from a breakdown and quite vulnerable when I met a man called Barney.  He seemed pleasant enough, and besides was a member of CND so I had no reason to distrust him.  But we got chatting and he tried to get me to come to a meeting of something called EST where people were locked into a room and not allowed to go to the toilet, in order that they would overcome their inhibitions by urinating in front of other people.  This wikipedia article gives a fairly positive account of it but I didn’t want to know: however this guy would not give up.  I told him I couldn’t afford the training (I was on the dole and I think the sessions were about £50, a lot of money in the early ’80’s) thinking that would be a clinching argument.  Not a bit of it: he told me to borrow the money.  It’d be worth it, he said.  He kept on and on at me until in the end I got my parents to talk to him as I just couldn’t cope.

Here’s Louis talking about making the film:

and here is the film itself:

Next on my list is ‘Going Clear,’ a film about Scientology with Tom Cruise.  Finally I understand that line of Cohen’s which so puzzled us as teenagers: ‘Did you ever go clear?’

(‘Famous Blue Raincoat’)

Kirk out


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Wrestling with LSE

Back in the days when my only outlet was my diary; before I had you, dear reader, I used to write a lot about how I was feeling.  It seemed self-obsessed but it was necessary; and as I now know it is necessary to all writers, to maintain that forensic examination of the inner world – at least those writers who write about the inner world as opposed to those, like Lee Child, who don’t.

It isn’t only our own inner world we obsess about.  We try to figure out what’s going on with others too, examining in minutest detail their every word and action and trying to figure out what’s behind it.  Before I understood these habits I tried to cure myself of them – and failed.  I tried because they took over my life, leaving me no time or energy to hold down a job or maintain any sort of normal life.  Nowadays, by contrast, I’ve given up the habit of normal life, resigned any attempt to fit in, and just tried to accept who I am.

It’s a process of coming out much like any other, I guess.  I know it doesn’t seem as risky as declaring your stoutness (sorry, gayness – a bit of ‘Not the Nine o’clock News’ got in there) because being a writer doesn’t carry the pariah status that homosexuality can.  But it feels like it.  When you’re used to hiding all your life because your real self has been ignored, criticised, shouted at, feared and hated, it feels like it.  Because people fear writers.  They fear you precisely because they don’t want you to see the things that you see.  And especially they don’t want you to write about the things that you see.

And this causes some problems.  Not being a bull-headed, egoistical, insensitive sort of soul, I am unable to do what some writers have and just drive a coach and horses through all the obstacles.  Instead I must pick my way through them like a wincing, barefoot bather picking her way across a stony beach.  Some of the stones are hard.  They pierce the skin and I bleed.

I’m not saying any of this because I want you to feel sorry for me.  I don’t, on the whole, feel sorry for myself: writing thrives on obstacles and if I hadn’t had this particular set of problems there would have been something else.  Plenty of people have it worse.  But what strikes me at the moment is the struggle with what, in my diaries, I used to call LSE.  I suffered from it so frequently that it was necessary to come up with an acronym for Low Self-Esteem – or ‘low self-steam’ as I put it in a recent poem.  I like both abbreviations.

So right now it seems to go like this; I get a good day and then a bad day.  On a bad day I wake up with inexplicable feelings of LSE.  On a bad night I wake up at four in the morning with inexplicable LSE.  It seems to come out of nowhere, and it won’t let me rest.  So I have to wrestle with it.

Kirk out


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Lying and Standing in the Bath

Every religion has truth as one of its founding principles, and Quakerism is no exception.  In fact, so seriously do they take this that you are not supposed to promise or ‘swear oaths’ as this would constitute a ‘double standard’ of truth.  Your word should be the truth at all times, so that swearing and promises are entirely unnecessary.

Such is the religious emphasis on truth that you’d imagine everyone was prone to lying all the time.  But lying isn’t as easy as you’d think.  It’s not just the ‘tangled web’ we spin by having to keep track of lies previously told; it’s the fact that our brains, our bodies and heart; the very spirit at the centre of us, wants us to speak the truth.

Still, as many people have spotted, there are occasions when lying is justified.  To save your life – or another’s.  When the truth either cannot be understood or will be misunderstood.  Or to save hurting someone’s feelings.

My mother, on the other hand, always insisted on telling the exact truth.  But what is the exact truth?  Is truth the same thing as fact?  Once when I was still living at home there was a boy who kept calling me.  I didn’t want to see him any more and so I asked my mother to tell him I was out.  She was horrified: ‘But you’re not out!’

‘I know,’ I said.  ‘But can’t you just say I am?’

She refused utterly to comply.  In the end she agreed to say I was in the bath, providing – and here was the crucial thing – that I actually went and stood in the bath.  I could only come out when I was given the all-clear.

But here’s the thing.  It was true in a literal sense that I was in the bath, but not in the sense in which he would have understood it, ie actually bathing and – in those days of non-cordless handsets – unable to get to the phone.  And it strikes me that sometimes those who insist on the absolute truth do not give very much thought as to what that is.  The absolute truth in the above case would have been to say that I didn’t like the boy any more and didn’t want to see him.  And yes, it would have been better in the long run to have told him so – but at age fifteen I wasn’t up to the job.

It is nowhere clearer that lying is hard than in the radio series ‘The Unbelievable Truth’ (I think there’s a TV equivalent.)  In this programme contestants produce a short talk on a given subject which is nearly all lies and into which they are supposed to insert five truths.  The task is to make the truths of a piece with the lies; however those who listen carefully can discern that there is a sort of rhythm to the talks.  They will start off with two or three lies and then the fourth will be true.

Mind you, this is not guaranteed.  It’s like the Charlie Brown cartoon about taking a True or False test and miscalculating (‘I falsed when I should have trued’.)

Image result for Peanuts Linus takes a True or False testImage result for Peanuts Linus takes a True or False test

Absolutely true!

Kirk out

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You Want a Problem, my Friend? I’ll Give you a Problem!

OK so here’s the thing.  We may think that what we want out of life is to sit by a pool sipping a martini while a naked man (or woman) massages our feet.  But we are essentially problem-solvers: and if we don’t have a problem we tend to make one.  We argue about the temperature of the pool or who has used up the massage oil or whether I’m getting fat.  Watch Big Brother and shudder…

So here’s the thing: life is problems.  Not only problems but mainly problems.  You have a problem; I have a problem – and we both want our problems to go away, but they refuse to.  My problem sits there like a crossword-puzzle on my laptop which won’t let me open any other applications: before I can move on, I have to solve the puzzle.  But even though I’ve done lots of crosswords before, I can’t do this one.  The clues defeat me.  I’ve phoned a friend – in fact I’ve phoned all my friends – I’ve googled everything I can and I’ve beaten my brains trying to find an answer.  Because this is like a whole new layer of crossword: it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.  And still it sits there, and still I have to solve the thing in order to move on – which means I have to find some new strategies. I don’t know how to find those strategies, so I must first discover them and then apply them.  It seems impossible.

But here’s the thing: as I look for the strategies a window begins to open up.  I begin to see answers where there was only blank space.  I look at the puzzle from a whole new angle, one I hadn’t even imagined before.  I find unsuspected, hidden clues.  I start to fill in the gaps.  And in finding those new strategies, I am changed.  In finding these strategies I grow as a human being.

Then again, supposing I don’t even try: supposing I just sit there and complain that I have a problem.  Other people may try to help: but since the crossword is for me only they can’t get behind the screen and see it properly.

This reminds me of something a Friend said at Sunday’s meeting:

‘Another person is more successful than you in exams.  So you decide to copy  them – you do what they do, behave as they behave.  You mimic their habits, their walk, their clothes and way of talking.  But what you don’t realise is that in this exam, everyone has a different set of questions.’

And that’s what we’re talking about here.  No-one can see your laptop screen like you can because no-one sits where you sit.  When I think, ‘I wish I knew what it would be like to be that person,’ there’s no way of knowing – because then I’d be them and not me.  That chair can only be occupied by one person at a time.

My life at the moment is like this.  You know the concept of fractals?  They’re wiggly things which on closer examination have wiggly things inside them.  Like a coastline: from a distance it looks smooth but on closer examination it has lots of ins and outs: little bays and inlets, outcrops and headlands.  When you examine these more closely they too are made up of wiggly bits – and so it goes on.  Even a grain of sand is not smooth; its surface is also wiggly.

Here’s an example from a set of images called the Mandelbrot Set:

Mandelbrot Set Zoom on Vimeo

So my life at the moment is a bit like this picture – or, if you will, like a coastline.  Every day there is a new twist; a new turn.  One day we take a left towards the horizon and I think ‘Aha!  I see where we’re going – right out to sea!’  But the next day we turn towards land again, whereupon I get really depressed (‘Oh no, we’re going back again!’) – and the day after, we head towards the lighthouse – and so on.  I drive myself mad trying to figure out where it’s going to end up, because it’s all so convoluted.  The only way it looks smooth is from above – a God’s-eye-view, if you like.  Except that of course a God’s-eye-view is from every single imaginable point…

You can drive yourself mad thinking about all this.  Or you can try not to see it as a problem.  You can even try to see it as an incredible journey.  Because the question ‘Where am I going?’ can only be answered by the question: ‘how am I living?’

Kirk out

PS:  Oh, and the title?  It was Monica in ‘Friends’ firing Joey as a show of strength.  I feel for her in this episode – I know exactly what it’s like trying to assert authority over people who have no respect for you.  A propos of which I shall post a review of the excellent ITV series ‘Victoria’.  But that’s a twist for another day…

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