Why Inclusive Language Offends

Bette-MidlerBette Midler recently found herself at the centre of a Twitter firestorm after tweeting out her support for Pamela Paul's New York Times article, "The Far Right and Far Left Agree on One Thing: Women Don't Count" (text available here without paywall). Midler's tweet read:

WOMEN OF THE WORLD! We are being stripped of our rights over our bodies, our lives and even of our name! They don’t call us "women" anymore; they call us "birthing people" or "menstruators", and even "people with vaginas"! Don’t let them erase you! Every human on earth owes you!

Predictably this did not go down well on Twitter, where 'inclusive language' is beyond de rigueur. Those who do not accept the requisite interpretation of inclusivity are subject to cancellation, harassment, and hatred up to and including death threats. Midler is far from the first woman to have expressed concerns about this new terminology, of course, and she won't be the last. But what is it about this kind of 'inclusive language' that causes offense in so many people...?

To put this together requires us to understand the issue from multiple perspectives. Let's start with the circumstances that led to terms like 'birthing people', 'menstruators', or 'people with vaginas'. As perhaps has become widely known, the idea behind these categories is inclusivity. The logic runs as follows: once you acknowledge the existence of trans men, trans women, and non-binary people, you need terms that will include an acknowledgement of their existence. Since many trans men and certain kinds of non-binary person menstruate, have a vagina, and can give birth, these terms apply to people within these categories as well as women conventionally conceived (now termed 'natal' or 'cis' women, according to your prior political commitments). Hence, inclusive, on the basis that more people are included in the category.

A problem immediately appears, since the campaign to include trans women in the category of 'woman' has its own political slogan - 'trans women are women', about which I have rather cryptically offered my assent by observing likewise that 'dwarf planets are planets' (a claim, I should stress, I passionately support). But can you now spot the problem with 'people with vaginas/menstruators/birthing people'...? To anyone not versed in the small print, it seems as if trans women are women, while natal/cis women are 'people with vaginas'... It is hardly surprising that Bette Midler, Pamela Paul, JK Rowling and - let's not be in denial here - untold numbers of other women are rather annoyed that 'women with penises' are to be called 'women' while they themselves are told they are merely 'people with vaginas'.

It's no good trying to defend this as a matter of medical clarity, since 'people with vaginas' could viably be replaced with 'female' in medical discourse, if this traditional reference to biological sex were not now considered verboten. I do appreciate that someone who has chosen to identify as non-binary does not want to be identified as female or any other classical gender term. Still, it is something of a mystery why, given that circumstance, they would be any happier with being called a 'person with a vagina', since the conventional understanding of that sentence remains logically identical to 'female'. So what we have here is a situation where phrases have been invented not for clarity, but to fulfil a specific interpretation of inclusivity, one in which the assumed political desires of the non-binary and trans communities have been placed above those of women in the classical sense of the term.

The root problem here is that the moral value of diversity, which I spent decades campaigning for in the videogames industry (to absolutely zero impact) has been clumsily supplanted with a rather oddly conceived value of inclusivity. Forget the implied unity of the construction 'Diversity, Equity and Inclusion': these are not three complementary moral values at all. Inclusion, at least in the form currently being practiced, is diametrically opposed to diversity. Diversity is about accepting our myriad ways of being in the world, even those we don't understand. This new form of inclusion is about grouping together, and could not be further from the openness to difference that characterises diversity.

Grouping together denies diversity. When you talk about 'people with vaginas' you are grouping trans men, non-binary people, and classical women into a single group regardless of whether any or all of these people want to be grouped in this way. I think it is abundantly clear that there are plenty of women (including Bette Midler) who are offended at being reduced to their biological functions in this manner, and to suggest that they should just shut up and accept it is inevitably and unavoidably offensive. To deny this is to open yourself up to entirely plausible accusations of misogyny, and at this time we are all being offered an absurd choice between transphobia or misogyny - what a dreadful mess!

Perhaps it will help throw some illumination upon this issue to show why attempts to combine diverse groups under a single category always carries a severe risk of offense. We only have to consider in the first case the ludicrous attempt to combine Latinos and Latinas into 'Latinx', purportedly a 'gender-neutral' way of referring to the Hispanic community. But absolutely nobody considers themselves 'Latinx', which is a product of the inclusivity nonsense that once again is manifestly insulting to the people it is attempting to 'include'. To Spanish-speaking community, 'Latino' was already inclusive, being both male and neuter. No clunky new word was required, and certainly not one forced upon them by arrogant English-speakers who were not in any way open to the actual diversity of Latino experiences.

We can take this absurdity further. Imagine combining atheists and theists into a single category called 'God-opinion-holders', or grouping Muslims and Jews as 'pork-avoiders'. For that matter, imagine suggesting we replace 'human' with an alternative description that is dryly factual but blatantly offensive, like 'anus-havers'. Why would anyone want to be called an 'anus-haver'...? Likewise, why would any woman want to be called a 'person with a vagina' when they could instead be called female or a woman? Communities that are demanding the unprecedented social privilege of choosing their own pronouns are in no position to argue that other people ought to accept membership of categories whose names they detest.

This is the not-so-secret secret of the offensiveness of 'inclusive language'. However noble its motivation might be, it plays out as forcing values upon others against their will, and this cultural violence is papered over by claiming that it's 'inclusive' because it focuses attention upon a minority. Yet how inclusive can it be when the assumed political and emotional needs of the few are being used to overrule those of the many...? This entire rhetoric strains the meaning of inclusivity beyond the point of absurdity! If we cannot come together in the peaceful co-existence made possible by a mutual cultural disarmament, we cannot come together at all. No amount of 'inclusive' language is going to do anything but perpetually block the path to peace.

It cannot be avoided any longer: it is implausible to support diversity and also support inclusivity on these kinds of blunt terms. You must choose which of these values matters to you, for you cannot have both. Is it the freedom of the many to express their manifest uniqueness in terms of their own choosing, or the tyranny of the few who would reconfigure language to forcibly include people within offensive categories they do not wish to belong to? Which is it to be: are we humans living in mutual respect of one another's differences? Or are we just oh-so-many anus-havers...?


Tech as Pyramid Scheme

Contains naughty ideas.

Susan Maxwell Schmidt.Pyramid SchemeIs technology a pyramid scheme...? No wait, don't go yet. This crazy thought is worth thinking through.

Pyramid schemes are any system of activity where the greatest benefit accrues to the first to sign up, while those who join last are unlikely to ever see any benefits. They are so named because of their triangular (pyramid) structure - the people who get the most benefit (the earliest to join) are at the apex of the pyramid, while the more numerous later joiners are arranged in tiers of ever-increasing sizes.

We do not think of technology as anything like this, yet only because we do not consider the implications of the global reach of technology coupled with the rather limited number of beneficiaries from the production and sale of technological devices. Instead, we tend to assume that we all benefit - a thought requiring a very special construction of 'we' to avoid being evidently preposterous. To get a proper handle on this, we have to understand that the division between the so-called 'First World' and the 'Third World' corresponds directly to tiers in a pyramid scheme where industrialisation and its by-products are precisely the criteria by which these 'worlds' were originally ranked. As such, the 'First World' is the top of a pyramid scheme it has been working harder and harder to maintain.

Think of this firstly in terms of the escalation of costs of living. Consider motor vehicles: once a nation adopts this form of transportation, it then becomes a requirement for its citizens to purchase motor vehicles for them to live and work - dramatically escalating the cost of living by several orders of magnitude. You can add to this the national costs associated with maintaining a road network, which are far more significant than we are permitted to admit. The car is, in many respects, the biggest step up in cost of living, since no technology thus far has demanded such a vast increase in living expenses as the automobile. (It is not coincidental that this comes first, either). Yet there are many smaller steps to follow: radio, television, telephones, mobile phones, computers, industrialised medicine... We (as in: the top of the pyramid) think we have to have all the new things because they are new. (Why?) They (as in: everyone else) will get the new things later. They are behind us according to this way of thinking. The unstated thought is that these others (whoever they are) are behind us in the pyramid scheme.

Now think of this in terms of the oh-so-magnanimous way in which the top of the pyramid views everyone else. "Those poor people in such-and-such a land... they haven't even got computers. Everyone needs to have computers, they'll be at a disadvantage if they don't have them." But this is ludicrous, because by the time 'everyone' has computers, the software and operating systems these computers require to function will require higher-powered hardware - the computers 'they' needed will have already become obsolete. They will then need new computers... the beneficiaries of our ill-advised charity will be perpetually behind the curve the moment they opt to step onto the technological treadmill behind us. Not that Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg will wait, of course - they will generously invite other nations to join the pyramid schemes they benefit from at their earliest possible convenience.

The fact of the matter is, the so-called 'Third World' cannot catch up the 'First World' because technology as we currently pursue it operates as a pyramid scheme - and any attempt to 'join' this scheme amounts to a commitment to being perpetually out-of-date, or perpetually in debt or, more likely, both. The wealthiest people on the planet (the elite citizens of the US, China, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France etc.) set a standard of living that the non-elites of these nations strive to emulate, and these nations then set standards of living that the other nations strive to emulate, in a grand pyramid scheme of technological lust. The assumption that more technology necessarily means a better life has not been borne out by any research I've seen, and I think it fair to say at this point that this kind of academic validation is not, in fact, ever coming, despite a plenitude of Big Tech apologists at every university. If you want to know what it's like to be at the bottom of the tech pyramid scheme, ask Indian farmers how it feels to be on the receiving end of Bill Gates' 'generosity'.

Escalating technology raises the cost of living by consistently adding new technology to the list of 'must have' items... this is not merely in terms of wants but increasingly now in terms of requirements. It seems that the nations of Europe and elsewhere look with envy upon the degree of social control the Chinese government enjoys overs its populace... They thus increasingly expect their citizens to validate their credentials with a smartphone to gain access to services. The result is that these expensive devices become another item you cannot make a living without. Public transportation compensates for absence of a car (which is probably why so many people associate it with poverty), but nothing these days compensates for failure to own a computing device that renders itself obsolete within a few years, necessitating further purchases. This Sisyphean purchasing scheme is something we have accepted for no reason other than we simply cannot be bothered to think.

What's the alternative to an ever-rising waterline of technological living?

This is a difficult question to ask, because we have adopted a position of resignation with regard to technological development. "It's going to happen, and there's nothing we can do to stop it," we say. This is basically akin to claiming "well, we're going to go extinct, so there's no point fighting it", which is to miss the only vital point: when we go extinct makes a world of difference. I personally would prefer our species lasts at least to the tenth millennium, rather than, say, exhausting the liveable environment in a few mere centuries because we were too stubborn and unforgiving to make viable political compromises in order to learn how to together.

The only way out of this finger-trap is to begin to think differently about technology. We would have to refuse to participate in technology that is framed as an endlessly moving target, because such technology will always operate globally as a pyramid scheme. If we can just manage to see this clearly, we could usurp the technological monopolies built on planned obsolescence like cars and computers (and now too, pharmaceuticals) and replace them with common standards that smaller companies (and countries) can viably create and maintain. There's a lot less money in these kinds of technology, so expect those at the top of the pyramid to do everything in their power to prevent this from happening (they have in fact been blocking this for some time). But such sustainable technology is the only way to give our species a future worth having.

The thing is: you don't want that. You might be perfectly happy to froth over the mouth about 'climate change' but you're not actually willing to change your technological habits if it means reducing our dependence upon mechanised transport or computers. Oh, the bristling anger that comment risks provoking! Am I - perish the thought - a climate change denier...? Well, I accept that human activity produces carbon dioxide that changes the composition of the atmosphere and will, at some threshold, produce a profound change in our planet's climate. That much has been clear since the 1970s. The relevant scientific question remains: what level of carbon dioxide is required...? And on this topic, the research seems to have stalled in an all-too-familiar way. Politics once again usurps the sciences, and frankly Blue Team corporations (e.g. media and Big Tech) just love the idea that all our environmental problems can be blamed solely upon those naughty Red Team corporations (e.g. Big Oil and motor vehicles), as if they were all just innocent bystanders and not in fact the beneficiaries of huge advertising revenues provided by the automotive industries.

Besides, my scepticism about this specific political skirmish seriously doesn't deserve the name 'climate change denial' half as much as the rhetoric itself does. After all, 'climate change' has become our favourite way to utterly avoid thinking about our atrocious environmental impact - to ignore every aspect of our global environment except one single atmospheric gas, carbon dioxide. Could there be any greater denial than this misdirection from the key environmental issues of land usage and material consumption rates...? But land ownership and resource acquisition are how the wealthy elites fuel their empires, so don't expect any changes here. Instead, witness yet another case of passing the blame to our political rivals instead of facing up to the truth of the matter: we're all responsible, but none of us want to change.

What if securing the future of our species means giving up the endless treadmill of computer upgrades...? What if it means going back to cars with parts that anyone can replace...? Or even giving up the illusion of freedom the automobile seductively offers...? What if it means prudent medical policies, rather than endlessly escalating pharmaceutical solutions...? What, in short, if it means dismantling the tech pyramid scheme entirely...? Well, it won't happen, of course. Not just because those with the power and the money do not want to give up either of these precious commodities, but also because you don't want to give up your technological conveniences either. And until we are willing to confront this self-deception, we're all just members of the same pyramid scheme that puts Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and so many others at the pinnacle of wealth, influence, global impoverishment, industrial greed, and endless environmental denial. We'll never be on top of the pyramid but hey, at least we're not at the bottom, right...?

You want to save the world? Escape the tech pyramid scheme. Nothing else has the power to do it.

The opening image is Pyramid Scheme by Susan Maxwell Schmidt, which I found at her website. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.. 


Godfork

This post carries an unusually high risk of cognitive dissonance, and perhaps should not be read by anyone.

Ripped Sistene ChapelI want to talk about a schism. It doesn't really matter when it begins, but let's suppose it starts with David Hume in 1739, because it amuses me to kick off this story in Scotland. On the one hand is the faction for whom God is a word that must not be spoken in vain, which is to say, as profanity. On the other is a faction that, by the twentieth century, discovers its own sacred word. I try not swear on this blog, but the sacred word of the breakaway group is the one that Father Ted uses 'feck' as a substitute for. And this word isn't one that must not be spoken as profanity - it is one that people must not be prevented from speaking as profanity.

This is the Godfork - the schism into 'Team God' and 'Team Feck'. Don't make the mistake of thinking that this is Christianity versus atheists; its true that the majority of atheists are on Team Feck, but there are significant numbers of Christians on both sides. The God side stands for order and tradition - Kierkegaard called this faction 'Christendom', and denied that it was following Christian teachings, but that argument is a rabbit hole best avoided for now. What matters is the fork, the division into God and Feck and the convictions that flow from this point onwards.

Take Israel versus Palestine, an international political crisis for 74 years and counting. Team God sides with Israel, while Team Feck sides with Palestine. Ironic, really, as both sides of the Godfork are prejudiced against Muslims... this is, after all, a schism in Christendom (which now includes anti-Christendom). Then we have abortion, which has been a political crisis since Roe vs Wade in 1974, 48 years of metaphysical commitments to the unborn vying with incompatible commitments to the autonomy of women. The following year, we get 'global warming', which by 1989 has aligned with the Godfork - Team Feck being increasingly sensitive to the atrocious environmental damage our species causes, and Team God having immense historical and economic ties to the vastly profitable oil industry.

Then we get to vaccination. Don't be deceived by the retrospective histories that get told here (although it is true that political issues surrounding vaccination go back to the first vaccinations). The term 'anti-vaxxer' first appears in 2001, and this time it is Team Feck siding with the corporations, in this case, the pharmaceutical companies. Isn't it comforting to know that whichever side of the schism you align with, you will eventually be required to prop up capitalism...? Capitalism, after all, is only a secular name for Christendom i.e. colonial Europe's dominant culture, and now globalism's only permitted culture. By 2020, this dimension of the Godfork is turbocharged by the so-called non-pharmaceutical interventions (face masks and lockdowns). Ironically, since Team God are the sceptics in this aspect of the schism they become the cynics, while Team Feck become the zealots, an inversion of the usual roles played. But don't think for one second the Godfork is about scientific truth, equality, or anything else so noble and principled. All the way down the line, it's just rival teams taking up opposing commitments. In the US, the schism is helpfully colour coded: Red for God, Blue for Feck. Pick a team, pick which multinational corporations to support.

But something unusual has happened in the last decade or so: the Godfork is splintering further... Team Feck are no longer united. They have divided into those who take 'woman' to be matter of biological sex, and those who take 'woman' to be a matter of existential identity. Neither of these correspond to the position of Team God who still take 'woman' to be a question of gender, even though their collective memory is too short to remember what 'gender' used to mean, before the 18th and 19th century destroyed the old gender regime and replaced it with the alignment of sex and gender and the instatement of a new patriarchal political hierarchy. Likewise, Team God is breaking down into new factions. The folks who for a very long time were committed to censorship in the form of outlawing blasphemy and obscenity are now breaking into further factions over the question of free speech.

For the first time since the schism began, new and previously unthinkable alliances are possible. Classical lesbians ally with the very conservatives who shunned them in the late twentieth century: both share a metaphysics of sex and gender opposed to the existentialist tenets of their 'genderfluid' political opponents. Free market capitalists unite with their old opponents who march under banners of environmentalism, cultural diversity, or both: they share a commitment to liberal democracy. This new alliance opposes the regime of censorship emerging from Big Tech's freshly minted coalition with the pharmaceutical corporations. The uniformity of the old factions lies in flux.

The schism I am calling the Godfork dominated the political landscape of Europe and its colonies for three centuries. But the old ways are breaking down... there is now a tremendous opportunity for unprecedented change. Many paths diverge from this turning point, and our old convictions are just as likely to betray us as to guide us wisely into the future. It is time for us to embark upon a new journey, yet the path ahead still remains unknown. We can perpetuate the cultural wars the Godfork has bequeathed us, or we can set forth on a bold adventure together. All that matters is the destiny we have yet to forge: shall we choose peace, or will we prolong the war...? This monumental choice is ours to make together.


Scientific Truth and Political Reconciliation

Contains ideas some readers may find offensive.

Reconciliation

Between 1948 and 1994, South Africa suffered under apartheid, which treated 'whites' as superior to 'blacks', and maintained a state of segregation by force for decades. Under this brutal regime, South Africa's police force routinely tortured political dissidents and caused the violent deaths of a distressing number of black people. When this repressive government fell after the release and election of Nelson Mandela, the country faced an immense challenge: how could it rebuild trust between its citizens? Their solution was a 'truth and reconciliation' commission, which listened to the tragedies suffered and invited those who had endured the worst human rights abuses to testify. The commission offered amnesty from prosecution to all who came forth to speak the truth about what had happened under apartheid. South Africa rebuilt trust between its citizenry through pursuit of the truth, which fostered reconciliation between those who had once been enemies.

We too now stand in need of truth and reconciliation. Throughout 2020 and 2021, the world experienced its greatest catastrophe since the Second World War. Like that dreadful conflict, this disaster flowed forth from human technological advancement. The war in the 1940s was facilitated by the creation of tanks, planes, bombs, and advanced weaponry, culminating in the detonation of nuclear bombs. In one version of the many stories being told about the ruinous events we just endured, they were initiated by genetic tinkering with a bat virus and accelerated by a rash attempt to deny that a research lab was responsible. Whatever the truth about its origins, the crisis reached its calamitous apex through a witch's brew of psychological 'nudging', the polarising effects of social media, and the negligent substitution of computer modelling for empirical evidence. Citizens were turned against one another, segregation and subjugation was maintained by force in nations who had previously sworn to uphold the rights of their citizens, and a great many people died who need not have died - from both the disease and the measures deployed against it.

It will do no good to simply shrug and mutter 'public health', as if this abject failure of scientific process, medical safeguarding, human rights law, international aid, academic credibility, and journalistic integrity could simply be waved away by invoking this phrase. Public health, in the sense this term has traditionally been used, represents an alliance between medical research and political goodwill. Its effectiveness rests upon the trust that citizens have in the agencies which pursue collective health benefits for its citizens. When that trust fails, public health falls with it, as I argued last week in Decolonising Public Health. By choosing to align public health goals with political partisanship, rather than scientific evidence, we shattered the very conditions for good public health policy.

When the measures justified by those in charge of public health messaging are based upon political allegiance rather than due scientific process, we are no longer dealing with medicine as we have traditionally understood it. 'First do no harm' is an impossible principle when definitions of 'harm' fall out along partisan lines, for what one faction declares as essential will appear to their opponents as a cause of great harm, a situation we have already faced for half a century over abortion. Once this factional state of affairs infects medical discourse, 'public health' ceases to be either scientifically or ethically justified, and becomes instead an excuse for the anxious fears of the citizenry to manifest in authoritarian repression against those who do not share that terror.

As with South Africa, truth and reconciliation offers a possible path out of this disaster. Yet this route is blocked until we can admit the extent of our failure. This is something political partisans are largely incapable of doing, for at all times the origin of every problem belongs to the others, and it is their refusal to accept our arguments that we blame for everything that goes wrong as a consequence. We are blameless, because our politics defend the good whereas their politics are confused, ignorant, even barbaric... Not only public health, but scientific truth itself is endangered by this chasm of self-valorisation. Far from the twentieth first century becoming the golden age of achievement imagined by the science fiction writers, we have instead driven into the shadows the open debate that is central to good science.

This did not, however, begin with the SARS-CoV-2 debacle... On 17th January 2003, the best-selling author of Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton, delivered a blistering address at Caltech attacking the relatively new trend of declaring 'scientific consensus'. Crichton considered this development "pernicious", and all such claims of consensus as "the first refuge of scoundrels... a way to avoid debate by claiming the matter is already settled." He made his argument forcefully and coherently:

Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.

Crichton observed that whenever consensus is evoked, it is a sign of weakness. Nobody says that the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2 or that the sun is 93 million miles away - it does not even occur to anyone to make such assertions. Rather, consensus is claimed solely in those situations where 'bad' science is deployed to support 'good' policy - Crichton's chosen examples are nuclear winter and second-hand smoke. He included in this accusation global warming - the old name for climate change - drawing attention to the way that this subject relies far more upon computer models than empirical evidence. He noted that the renowned theoretical physicist Richard Feynman suggested to him that this obsession with computer modelling was a disease. Crichton offers a stark warning: "Our models just carry the present into the future. They’re bound to be wrong. Everybody who gives a moment’s thought knows it."

The concerns raised by Crichton in 2003 depressingly foreshadow the crisis that followed within a few scant decades. He presciently pointed a finger of blame at journalists, remarking that when even the most distinguished news providers cease to differentiate between factual content and editorial opinion, who is left that can hold anyone to any standard of truth...? Neither was Crichton's talk merely a diagnosis of the problem - on the contrary, he provided quite practical suggestions for how to defend research processes from political influence by pooling funding, thus reducing incentives to produce pre-specified conclusions. He also suggested separating decisions concerning how to gather data from the acquisition of that data, while ensuring that independent verification of evidence is always a priority.

We did not listen, and disaster followed as inexorably as the plot of one of Crichton's sci-fi disaster novels. The monsters would not remain inside their pens.

Now the very fact that climate change (in its old branding as 'global warming') is mentioned by Crichton in his speech is likely to raise some hackles. The fact I will extend this accusation to include community masking, lockdown policies, and blanket vaccination with incompletely-tested mRNA treatments will only make this resistance more ardent. Yet everybody who has a kneejerk emotional reaction here will almost certainly belong to just one side of the political spectrum. Let's call them the 'blue team', after the colour representing this faction in the United States. I note that in the UK, the corresponding party uses red as its colour, and elsewhere perhaps there may be countries sufficiently civilised to support more than two primary colours for its factions. But for simplicity, let's treat these divisions as 'blue versus red'.

Let's look at two competing hypotheses. The 'blue science is the best' hypothesis is that on climate change, face masks, lockdowns, and speculative vaccination, the blue team got all the correct answers because they had the best science. That's why they didn't need to gather evidence in support of community masking, why it was unnecessary to complete vaccine safety trials, and why climate change is indisputable, debate on the topic is forbidden, and Google is justified in demonetizing websites reporting inconvenient satellite data. This hypothesis is self defeating, as it claims that the best science is achieved neither by gathering evidence nor by debating the meaning of that evidence, and these activities are undeniably the quintessential elements of good scientific practice.

The competing 'red science must be silenced' hypothesis is that because universities in the United States gradually veered ever further into a political bias for hiring blue researchers, the research communities steadily became more and more polarised, thus disrupting effective pushback on live research topics. As a result, criticisms began to come mainly from red scientists who were largely outside of these universities. Frustration with these clashes led to the blue-aligned universities refusing discussion on scientific matters, justified all-too-conveniently by claiming that the science was beyond dispute, exactly as Crichton accused. The research community became so one-sided as to fail to pursue good scientific practice since no disagreements could be tolerated.

I note, as is so rarely admitted, that the fact that the 'blue science is best' hypothesis is internally self-defeating provides no evidence whatsoever as to the status of the 'red science must be silenced' hypothesis. This mistake, 'you're wrong and therefore I am right' appears to have been the main way that support for community masking went from being justified as a precautionary measure on weak evidence, to being self-evidently true, despite so few high-quality studies being commissioned. Worse, even among those that were commissioned, such as the DANMASK-19 study, results were simply ignored if they did not reach the desired result. The CDC website expressly informs readers that it doesn't count this key study, while accepting anecdotal studies of much lower quality that happen to align with its prior conclusions. The CDC neglects to provide an explanation for why it was not capable of commissioning its own random-controlled studies, something that it is inconceivable to claim a well-funded federal agency could not have done.

In other words, on all these topics from climate change onwards, a pre-existing political division infected scientific discourse and drove it into the state of pseudoscience where debate about the evidence could not happen - or more accurately, was not permitted. In the case of climate change, a valid (but difficult to quantify) claim about humanity's effect on the atmosphere was ludicrously inflated into undeniable certainty in a hopelessly ineffective attempt to strong-arm the red team into caring about the environment. In the case of community masking and lockdowns, anger that the red team wasn't willing to do anything and everything proposed to save lives obscured the fact that the actions being proposed were only ever hypothetically capable of saving lives. The actual scientific work to determine what was or was not effective at reducing the mortality burden of SARS-CoV-2 was, for the most part, never on the table - and even when it was, results were ignored if they did not support the 'correct' team, which is to say, the blue team.

If this argument is accepted - and obviously this will prove difficult for those on the blue team - it reveals that the state of pseudoscience has become a self-inflicted wound on scientific discourse, a wilful refusal to engage in the debate that has always played the most crucial role in the process of determining scientific truth. Experiments are never self-explanatory. They require interpretation, and this requires discussion. Seeing this, it becomes clearer why we are encountering more and more outbreaks of the state of pseudoscience, why media corporations like the BBC, Facebook, and Google could turn so swiftly and unwisely to censorship to defend positions that they rashly claimed were beyond dispute, and why the worst respiratory epidemic since 1968 turned into the worst cybernetic disaster since World War II - killing a great many people who did not need to die, bankrupting vast numbers of small businesses for no good reason at all, disrupting education for an entire generation of children, and destroying democracy and health care in Africa in the worst incident of colonial medicine the world has yet endured.

It has been over a year now since my wife and I began writing to our representatives to put forth the case for truth and reconciliation. We see this as a vital step towards repairing the social damage unleashed by the mishandling of SARS-CoV-2. But we are not surprised we have never truly been heard, since it is unthinkable that political parties will give up the leverage that springs from blame. The US midterm elections roll around later this year, and knives are already being sharpened for the 'enquiries' (inquisitions?) that will arrive in its wake. But this quest for retribution is as futile as it would have been for South Africa in the wake of apartheid. Mandela and his allies understood that what was required to rebuild the fabric of their nation was restorative justice, an attempt to make right what went wrong by assembling the truth of the horrors that had been inflicted, and thus reconciling the opposing factions such that they might share a future together.

Our own need for truth and reconciliation goes beyond trying to restore peace in the wake of our insane overreaction to the genuine harms of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. While it might be desirable to seek restorative justice in this regard, the greater issue is that legitimate public health policies have been rendered unobtainable by the state of pseudoscience. Even the possibility of establishing scientific truth has been blocked. The equivalent issue in climate science is arguably less serious by comparison, since while this fiasco might have driven us into this miserable corner, we still have time to address these particular problems by renewing scientific debate on environmental topics. The damage from making scientifically-informed public health impossible is far more immediate and too often irreversible. People have already been negligently killed, and many more will die if we cannot fix this problem.

What is the alternative to truth and reconciliation in public health? Shall we lurch between 'blue science' and 'red science' as the election cycle progresses...? Mandatory injection of incompletely tested vaccines while the blue team is in charge, then the collapse of vaccination programmes when the elected seats turn red? This is not a public health policy anyone could consider sensible, regardless of where you stand on vaccination or human rights, although I note that (contrary to the beliefs of the blue team), the red team is not against vaccination, they're just not as fanatical about it as the blues. What makes public health even conceivable as a policy is that scientific truth is supposed to transcend political divisions. The moment we begin making health laws on partisan grounds, the cause of public health itself becomes mortally wounded, if it is not already a rotting corpse. This is the madness of 'consensus science', which is Crichton's name for the state of pseudoscience, the abandonment of scientific discourse. We might just as well talk of consensus pseudoscience, for it is the truth of the matter.

Recovering scientific truth will require some degree of political reconciliation. It is quite unthinkable that we shall reconcile every issue that divides the red and blue teams... some of these political differences are fundamental, and will remain that way for decades, maybe even centuries. But on both public health and climate change, sustaining the limbo of consensus pseudoscience is beyond hopeless. It is to willingly choose catastrophe simply because we are too stubborn, too belligerent, and too unforgiving to engage in the cultural disarmament necessary to restore the trust required for collective public health and practical environmental policies.

Consensus pseudoscience ought to be unacceptable to anyone, but because far too many of us have faith in magical science, we accept ideology in place of methodology, and dogma over discourse. Gladly do we lay blame at the feet of our political opponents for everything that went wrong over the last two years. After all we did the right thing... even though nobody could possibly have ever known what the right thing was, because there was never any open scientific discourse to establish whatever that might have been! Yet still we cheered on as the media corporations censored every disagreement, championing pseudoscience as if it were something noble rather than an abject and murderous nonsense.

Many on the blue team, including former US President Barack Obama, seem to believe we still don't have enough censorship, effectively demanding further intensification of consensus pseudoscience. Obama is at least proposing greater scrutiny of social media algorithms, albeit solely by government... Forgive my inevitable concern about who is to watch the watchers watching the watchers. Further suppression of discourse will just lead to greater partisanship, making our situation even worse. The red and blue teams may have marched into this scientific disaster as bitter enemies, but if we are to escape from it, we will need to do it together. Let no-one take pride in having fought under the banner of public health while recklessly abandoning any legitimate scientific basis for what was demanded. Instead, let us collectively accept the shame of our mutual failure, and somehow commit to a reconciliation that might make collective public health a viable possibility once again.

There is much to be done if we are to rediscover our gift for scientific investigation, and recover the conditions that make public health something other than colonial oppression. We cannot afford to let corporations claim safety and efficacy on data they will not share openly, much less can we permit regulatory bodies to cherry-pick what counts as evidence. Neither can we afford to hinder collective plans for sustainability by substituting ideological certainty for open debate of climate data, as if the mark of good science was deciding what to censor. We need to bring an end to sheltering our muddled faith in magical science, and abandon the mistaken belief that unequivocal support for scientific salvation is beneficial. Our slender comprehension of the mysteries of the universe will be entirely undone by anything that fosters the state of pseudoscience - regardless of whether this disruption emerges from partisanship or censorship. Every attempt to silence debate is a betrayal of knowledge itself.

There are futures that may yet come to pass where our love of scientific knowledge is secured by a resolute commitment to transparency and debate. We must cultivate a far greater appreciation of the unavoidable fact that every science is a discourse where diversity and disagreement is a gift to treasure, not a curse to strike down in anger. The truth is something we can assemble together, but first we must remember how to talk to those who disagree with us. For that to happen, our sole hope is rebuilding the labyrinthine pathways that flow towards scientific truth through an unprecedented act of cultural disarmament and political reconciliation. It is my hope that, like the South Africans of 1994, we are worthy of seeking this future together.

The opening image is Reconciliation 2 by Lloyd Hornsby. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


Decolonising Public Health

Contains discussion of death statistics some may find distressing.

Colour Colonisation

Is the proposition 'vaccines are safe and effective' a scientific claim or a political statement? Some contend that because this claim is scientific it is not a political matter at all. But this is a mistake, and a dangerous one at that, for it mistakenly presumes scientific truths circumvent debate, rather than depending upon it. If 'vaccines are safe and effective' is a scientific claim then it rests at all times upon methodically reviewing the evidence for each and every vaccine. The moment this process is disrupted, no scientific statement of this kind is possible, and the political battle between 'anti-vaxxers' and their opponents ceases to entail anything that can legitimately be called science.

To have a breakdown of scientific debate in a time of crisis is distressing. Yet this is the third such collapse in medical discourse in just two years. Institutions who were tasked with ensuring the good health of their citizens have failed in at least one undeniable sense: significant numbers of people no longer trust them. As a result, the very concept of public health is now in danger of collapsing, ironically because a zealous enthusiasm for this cause severed the balance between scientific discourse and political action. Medicine now faces as great an ethical crisis as the creation of the atomic bomb posed for physics. Now as then, our technical power outstrips our moral reasoning about it in troubling ways. As strange as it sounds, we must seriously consider whether the time has come to decolonise public health.

Wherever there is a power differential between cultures, there is a risk of some form of colonialism. Even the most generous gestures may hide this kind of inequity. Consider the Gates Foundation's mission to bring an end to polio. To our minds, this seems like a no-brainer: why wouldn't we want to get rid of a truly horrible disease like polio...? But entirely eliminating a disease is never as simple as distributing an appropriate vaccine - and even getting suitable vaccines is never easy. We still know of no way to create a vaccine capable of eradicating any strain of influenza or coronavirus, for instance. Even when appropriate vaccines can be developed, eradication requires enormous co-operation between countries, and substantial diversion of local medical networks. There are severe costs to the polio eradication project we never even paused to consider.

Eradicating a disease is something we desire disproportionately to its health benefits. After all, we have already eliminated polio from our own countries, yet still we are unsatisfied ('what if it comes back from over there?', we say, in this most colonial way of thinking about other people's countries - as a source of contagion). Committing charitable funds to the eradication of polio seems a lot less magical when we recognise that this objective is in competition with the provision of regional health services. Pursuing this agenda inadvertently usurped primary care in many poorer nations. The same money could have been used to help these nations with their own urgent health problems... but as Dr William Muraskin remarked of this vastly expensive crusade: "Nobody ever erects a statue for those who build primary care systems".

Worse, we pursued polio eradication recklessly. In our own countries, we vaccinate against polio using an injection based upon an inactivated or 'dead' virus. In the eradication crusade, however, we used the cheaper and easier-to-distribute oral polio vaccine, which contains live virus. Although this will inoculate against the disease, it does so by causing a mild infection of the poliovirus, and it is possible for this to mutate and spread. This dreadful risk manifested in 2019 when outbreaks of a new vaccine-originating polio strain struck several African nations, as NPR reported. The following year, these new polio strains had spread to more than a dozen African nations. Nobody is saying we shouldn't aim towards ending polio, but prioritising speed of eradication was a 'luxury' health project driven by the whims and egos of colonial philanthropy. We did not adequately safeguard the people in poorer nations whose safety we compromised to reach our chosen goals. And this is only one small aspect of our medical empire.

When we talk about 'colonial history' we are referring to what was called in French mission civilisatrice, the civilising mission. This is the darker side of the philosophical achievements of the 17th and 18th century. Having determined that our empires had become enlightened, colonial rhetoric inferred that it was only logical to share the triumph of reason everywhere. This swiftly became self-justifying propaganda for occupying land that was rich in natural resources that could be exported for enormous profit by the mercantile classes of the great seafaring empires (France, Great Britain, Spain, and Portugal). Then as now, colonial rhetoric conceals commercial motives.

The French chose admirable-sounding metaphors for their actions. They spoke of how the Algerians or the Vietnamese became évolué (evolved) by being forced to adopt French culture, and also of the moral duty to make this happen, since they were elevating the ignorant foreigners, bringing them 'up' to their level. Race (as in: skin colour) was undeniably a factor in this, but even if those abroad had been white-skinned the differences in culture would still have produced an equivalent prejudice (racism is never solely about skin colour). That the colonised people looked different just made it easier to look down upon them.

Today we do not even bother to make arguments to defend our colonialism. We simply know we are right, and therefore we are entitled to bully the world towards the health goals we happen to desire. Thus we push towards eradicating polio, with its majestic air of permanence. It feels like a titanic achievement to us, a self-evidently worthwhile project. Yet consider that in 2020 there were only 800 cases of polio anywhere in the world, 200 of the wild virus and 600 - three times as many - of the vaccine-derived strain we are responsible for. By comparison, in the same year there were 241 million malaria cases and 627,000 malaria deaths, while 800,000 children under the age of five died of pneumonia, and 1.6 million people died of diarrhoea, most of them infants and young children. These are just three of the causes of death we don't face 'at home' and therefore ignore, despite 3 million people dying each year from these diseases. Eradicating polio could have been pursued in tandem with strengthening primary care in every country, achieving the same goal far more safely while helping to prevent vastly greater numbers of deaths from other causes. But we do not help other nations in the ways they want, because we are still colonialists at heart.

If you doubt you are a medical colonialist, here is a simple test: did you ever invoke the 5.6 million deaths over two years attributed globally to COVID-19 to make a point, or nod approvingly while someone else did so...? Although it is forbidden to say so, those who tragically died from this respiratory infection were overwhelmingly the elderly citizens of the formerly imperial nations and their allies. For the UK, 90% of COVID-19 fatalities were older than 65, with a median age of 83 based on ONS data, while global data suggests an average age of death of 72.9. Every death is sorrowful, but those who died from this specific cause have been given a macabre hallowed status in our politics, despite these deaths representing just 5% of global mortality over this period. What's more, a great many of those that died after infection with SARS-CoV-2 were already in a precarious state, and would still have succumbed to their failing health within these two years, irrespective of this disease. There was never truly a question of saving those particular lives, which is in no way an argument for doing nothing.

Conversely, the six million largely young and overwhelmingly black and brown people who died of malaria, pneumonia, and diarrhoea over those two years could have been saved from death - and had their life expectancy more than doubled - with just a small fraction of the money we squandered on largely ineffective interventions against COVID-19. While it is reasonable to focus on public health problems 'at home', the extreme and ill-considered actions of the last two years that we deemed absolutely necessary achieved almost nothing except exacerbating health harms by disrupting primary care. Saving the lives of those others in Africa and South Asia was entirely achievable but never even considered, let alone considered necessary.

Not only is this politicisation of one cause of death above all others inherently unethical, it is deeply colonial in its spirit. When we invoke 5.6 million dead from COVID-19, we claim to care about global mortality yet deceitfully frame this around the one disease we have chosen for political importance, while wilfully ignoring all those other causes of death that have far greater impact in many of the nations whose dead we are ghoulishly 'borrowing' to make our chosen big number. Even the name 'pandemic' reveals our imperialism once we accept that this was not a disease that threatened all global countries equally. 'No-one is safe unless everybody is safe' certainly sounds humanitarian, yet this policy entails forcing our politically-motivated medical agenda onto other nations, all for a vaccination that cannot ever result in the desired eradication that this motto falsely invokes for its moral impact. Less than one hundredth of a percent of the African population died of COVID-19, so tell me this: why did anyone argue there was an urgent need to vaccinate Africans against this disease, if it was not because we never gave up being colonialists...?

Our public health empire operates globally, but is primarily an export of the United States of America, aided and abetted by European nations and the United Kingdom. Through the enormous influence federal agencies such as the FDA and CDC have upon the World Health Organisation (the US being by far their biggest donor), colonial health policies decided in the United States inexorably spread around the globe. Likewise, colonial philanthropy is dominated by the United States, because wealth disparity is greater there than almost anywhere else on the planet. Just as the empires of sail justified their colonial ambitions in terms of the benefits they brought to the occupied, so the medical empire has strong rhetoric supporting its colonisation of global health. And much like imperial colonisation, there are indeed significant potential benefits entailed. Nonetheless, for historical colonialism, we came to realise that this kind of cultural imperialism was horrifically racist. We have yet to awaken to this horror when it comes to colonial public health.

The bigotry of colonial occupation has become such an embarrassment today that enthusiastic protestors gleefully topple statues representing that era. Iconoclasm is far easier than owning up to our continuing commitments to colonialism, after all. In both cases - colonial invasion and medical empire - the fact that both positive and negative stories can be told clouds the issues through the familiar distorting effects of political factionalism. Yet in both cases, it is the negative consequences we need to pay the closest attention to, since the positive benefits (by definition) don't entail concerns. When we trumpet the gains and brush the loses under the carpets, we are being very human. When we do this to defend our ongoing colonialism, we are being all too human.

Our politicisation of science, the eruption of the state of pseudoscience into one topic after another, means that everyone who took up a banner on unresolved medical questions was blinded. Yet we do not need to get into the specifics of these scientific controversies to acknowledge colonial tendencies in the US health agencies. We can start by accepting that first lockdowns, then community masking, and finally COVID-19 vaccination all entered the state of pseudoscience, where rational debate of the evidence was no longer persuasive. We can admit our failure here without having to settle the truth of these matters, because even if we believe 'we know' while those terrible others 'spread disinformation', we can still see that at least one faction ('them') is clearly not open to rational debate. This acknowledgement opens the door to confronting the errors of colonial medicine.

We are currently prevented from establishing a scientific answer to the question 'are these new vaccines safe and effective?', but the question itself is revealing. Both the CDC and the FDA are committed to claiming that all vaccines are indeed safe and effective. Yet this is evidently a conflict of interests: is the purpose of the FDA to defend the idea that vaccines are safe and effective, or is it to determine which vaccines are safe and effective...? An organisation cannot pursue both agendas without tying itself into ideological knots. The former is a political goal while the latter is a scientific investigation - and as has become increasingly clear, these are not compatible forms of thought, even though they can and must intersect. Whenever a scientific institution seizes upon political goals, it can no longer openly pursue the ambiguities of research, and it risks falling into the state of pseudoscience whereby nothing can be determined scientifically for there is no longer any free discussion of the evidence.

The FDA's decision to grant full authorisation to COVID-19 vaccines in 2021 was a choice to bypass the long-term trials that were previously deemed essential to establishing vaccine efficacy and safety. It is no good claiming that the urgency justified skipping this step: the vaccines already had emergency authorisations. Neither the ethical nor the scientific requirement to complete all the relevant safety trials can be bypassed by a state of crisis - indeed, the emergency conditions make such trial data all the more vital. Yet because critics of these vaccines levelled accusations that they were experimental treatments, the US health agencies rushed to provide full authorisation in order to cry out 'look, they're not experimental anymore!'. This leapfrogging over the established protocols cannot be justified solely in scientific terms. It was clearly politically motivated.

Ironically, the FDA were so insanely desperate to defend the claim that 'vaccines are safe and effective', that they made vaccines less safe in order to more loudly shout 'safe and effective'! They intentionally lowered the bar of what constitutes 'safety', out of fear that people might otherwise distrust vaccination. In so doing, they counter-productively increased the very vaccine hesitancy they hoped to prevent, and made their own agency appear far less trustworthy. Neither is this problem constrained to the health agencies: as the journal Science reported, researchers are now wary of investigating COVID-19 vaccines for fear of driving up vaccine hesitancy. This medical negligence is compounded by the fact that the original trials upon which these vaccines were declared 'safe and effective' are still not fully available for independent review, as British Medical Journal editor Peter Doshi has repeatedly raised concerns about.

We find ourselves in a bizarre world where media corporations can censor anyone who breaks ranks with the mantra of 'safe and effective', despite the fact that those responsible for determining the conditions of safety and efficacy have undermined their own scientific procedures for establishing this. Journalists are now so politicised on these issues that they turn a blind eye to the FDA having torn up the rulebook while still dogmatically insisting that the agency can still act as referee. Neither is safety data the only place where the rules of the game were rewritten on the fly. Moderna's application to the US government asking for reclassification of its mRNA treatments in August 2020 makes it clear this request happened precisely because gene therapy had acquired a bad reputation:

...the classification of some of our mRNA investigational medicines as gene therapies in the United States, the European Union, and potentially other countries could adversely impact our ability to develop our investigational medicines, and could negatively impact our platform and our business.

No doubt Moderna is correct that having to market these treatments as gene therapy would have robbed them of the lustre of the word 'vaccine', borrowing the aura of eradication and community benefit that vaccines like the MMR invoke. But perhaps this would have meant fewer ill-informed colonial health vigilantes strong-arming young people into taking drugs that neither they nor those around them could plausibly benefit from. A disease whose mortality is overwhelmingly skewed towards the elderly will not be impacted by vaccinating those too young to be at significant risk with a treatment never designed to prevent spread. God forbid the long-term trials (if they even happen now) reveal some unpleasant consequences that the FDA, in its zeal to defend the pharmaceutical companies, neglected to investigate...

Critics of the FDA call its lamentable situation 'regulatory capture': an organisation that was expressly intended to establish the safety and efficacy of manufactured drugs has become an advocate on behalf of the very corporations it is supposed to regulate. This is not just a conflict of interest, it is an invitation to collapse medical discourse into the state of pseudoscience. Likewise, on the question of community masking, we do not have to resolve the truth of the matter to see that the CDC's actions were compromised: over the space of two years they commissioned zero random-controlled trials to investigate these interventions, despite the original argument for their adoption depending upon inconclusive evidence. Errors like this make the federal health agencies look either incompetent or duplicitous - and either way, trust in their ability to fulfil public health goals inevitably suffers.

Yet it is not solely the US federal health agencies at fault. They have been spurred on by the anxious political desires of the citizenry. As with the colonial philanthropy of polio eradication, so with the draconian enforcement of community face masking and the mandatory injection of COVID-19 vaccines - our naïve assumptions pre-empted scientific investigations that were absolutely necessary. Still, while the state of pseudoscience blocks debate of the evidence, it does not stop it accumulating. These forbidden zones now include evidence on the predicted poor performance of these vaccines against spread, confirmation of the superiority of natural immunity against reinfection, disturbing side effect data from Israel and Germany, risks of Original Antigenic Sin that might mean these vaccines made some situations worse, and unexplained actuarial data in the US indicating an unprecedented 40% spike in young adult deaths not attributable to COVID-19.

What does it all mean...? Who knows! How can anyone claim to have answers when we are not permitted to even discuss these topics in any public forum! Even pointing out ambiguities in the available data now invites accusations and censorship, and anyone with concerns can be pre-emptively denounced as an 'anti-vaxxer'. Indeed, these dreaded 'anti-vaxxers' now seem to be lurking everywhere, much like those dastardly communists of the 1950s... even once-respectable researchers, doctors, and Nobel prize winners seem to have turned to the dark side. Rather than assessing whether or not these new treatments are indeed as safe and effective as their manufacturers claim, we have been reduced to a blind imperialism where our medical desires are the only ones that matter because 'we know' and those who disagree with us merely 'spread misinformation'. What a catastrophic failure of public health!

Despite the prevalent dogma, it is not unreasonable to ask the question 'are vaccines safe and effective?' There are two essential approaches. Firstly, we can take this as an axiom, or indisputable claim, as those who favour colonial public health tend to do. But if it is our axiom that vaccines are safe and effective, then to qualify as a vaccine a candidate treatment must pass rigorous tests on safety and efficacy, as they used to do back in 2019. As soon as this painstakingly careful process was disrupted, we were at an impasse. For it might well be that 'vaccines are safe and effective' - but we can no longer tell whether any particular treatment is or is not a vaccine. The state of pseudoscience blocks us from establishing the truth.

Alternately, we can admit that some treatments called vaccines are not safe and effective, which is why they always require rigorous scientific testing. This approach is more grounded in fact: some treatments bearing this name did not pass their trials, and were consequently withdrawn, and vaccines previously distributed widely have later come into question, as happened for both smallpox and rotavirus vaccines - not to mention the disastrous backfiring of polio eradication. The difference between this pragmatic approach and the axiomatic path is a willingness to use the name 'vaccine' for something that is later demonstrated to be either unsafe or inadequately effective. Since we have never withdrawn the name 'vaccine' from treatments that failed in testing, this pragmatic account reflects established practices while the axiom 'vaccines are safe and effective' is a new proposition, one entailing severe risks of falling into the premature certainty behind all colonial endeavours.

The political battle between 'anti-vaxxers' and their opponents was always claimed to be about scientific truth, even as both sides devolved into a factionalism that disrupted anyone's ability to determine what that truth might be. In fact, despite the fervour of the zealots, the key question with respect to vaccines is arguably ethical and not scientific. On the one hand is the maxim that one life is too many to lose to a medicine, no matter how many lives it might save. On the other is the maxim that if a medicine saves more people than it kills, everyone must take it. There is a legitimate political debate to be had between these two positions, no matter how much we detest confronting it. Tragically, the entire issue risks becoming meaningless without scientific research capable of assessing the safety and efficacy of each and every vaccine, which our arrogant imperialism has now circumvented.

Resolution of the world's health problems cannot be achieved by the methods of empire without repeating the moral crimes of colonialism. If we want to take advantage of the collective health benefits that responsible vaccination offers, then we cannot afford to undermine trust in those treatments whose safety can be proven. But such proof depends upon rigorous scientific investigations, without which vaccine safety is simply unknown - to dogmatically mandate vaccines about which such ambiguities persist is to demand medical negligence. We not only enacted this shocking policy globally, we then condemned anyone who dared express their horror at what we were doing. Yet to be a public good at all, health topics must be open to debate by everyone, because such questions are always both scientific and political. Alas, because the political destabilises the scientific, we have descended into a grotesque medical empire, where the name 'vaccine' has become something to swear fealty to, and those with doubts are cursed as infidels. Our neurotic fear of our viral cousins has been weaponised to divide us.

I believe in the great people of the United States of America, but my trust in their health agencies is strained to the point of breaking. They have spectacularly failed to uphold the ideals of the medical profession, and if their officers will not now admit their mistakes, they should expect to be held accountable for their tragic errors. Public health depends upon trust in scientific institutions, and the last two years have savaged that trust, reducing nearly everyone to either cynic or zealot, pitting us against one other. Public health cannot be conducted as a war, and when it becomes a battlefield it abandons the claim to be medicine, since the doctor's highest ideal is 'first, do no harm'. If you care about the health of everyone in our world, as I do, if you believe that every cause of death matters, then we have an unavoidable duty to confess this failure, and commit to the greatest medical challenge the world has ever faced: decolonising public health.

The opening image is Color Colonisation by Terry Smith, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


The Hunt for Gender Armistice

Hartigan.Male Image (1966).detailCan there ever be an end to the vicious cultural war over gender...? It is a question that troubles me greatly, and not only because I find the breakdown of the rainbow alliance inexpressibly heart-breaking. The political capital being squandered on this terrible and destructive in-fighting has meant that the most serious problems facing humanity today - whether poverty, environmental degradation, or anything else you might care to mention - have become impossible to address. Violence against trans people or anyone else is deplorable, but we will not prevent harm by refusing to discuss our disagreements about what liberty means. On the contrary, whenever new cultures encounter one another we must learn how to live together peacefully, which requires that we talk to one another.

It is now half a century since the last successful civil rights movements, and those liberation movements that were pursued beyond the 60s and 70s have devolved into the uncivil wars of identity. Perhaps the most merciless of these battlegrounds is that of gender, especially in the political conflict between trans activists and what might be called 'classical lesbians'. A lesbian in the classical sense of the word is a human female who is sexually attracted to human females or, if you prefer, a cis woman who is sexually attracted to cis women, or even (to complete this set of equivalent and yet politically opposed definitions) a natal woman who is sexually attracted to natal women. The wider gender warzone, of course, now involves far more than just trans people and classical lesbians, but the hostilities escalated from this initial battlefront and it was only later that other kinds of women became embroiled. Over that time, it has become increasingly acceptable to accuse classical lesbians of transphobia (hatred of trans people) for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, those accusations might well be justified. All too often, however, it seems as if 'transphobia' is being evoked simply to shut down discussion.

I'm going to say something that is forbidden. Transphobia may be something we dislike, but as with every other kind of prejudice it is not something we have any reasonable means to prevent. Any attempt to do so risks encouraging an equal an opposite form of hatred - transphobiaphobia. This phenomena, bigotry against those who are perceived as transphobic bigots, is a special case of what I called in Chaos Ethics 'intolerant tolerance', an essential problem of our time that we are absolutely failing to deal with. The trouble is that we know that those who believe in bigotry are evil... as such, we can act towards them in a manner appropriate to those who are evil. But this problematic line of reasoning allows us to become evil in order to fight evil, and this is not the way to effectively campaign for civil rights, but rather a terrifying way to recapitulate the wars of religion that beset humanity for millennia.

What bankrolls transphobiaphobia is the intense belief that those who can be accused of transphobia pose an existential threat to trans people - that they seek to nullify their existence, or even wish to kill trans people. Yet transphobia is an accusation levelled against a wide variety of situations, many of which do not entail threats of violence as such, and if an existential threat is indeed entailed to some degree, we should consider to what degree such an existential threat poses a genuine threat to life. I am open to the idea that those who insist on calling a trans woman a man, or a trans man a woman, do indeed pose an existential threat to the trans community. But the question remains: what kind of existential threats are we actually dealing with? And who is subjected to these existential threats? Just the trans community? Or the classical lesbian community as well...?

There are several degrees of existential threat worth considering here. At what might be called the first degree, the most extreme and horrific end of this grisly spectrum, there are existential threats of actual extermination against an entire class of beings. As a reasonable approximation of a politically neutral example, consider a major asteroid impact that could bring extinction to the entire human race: that would be an existential threat of the first degree to everyone. Then there are the horrific campaigns of extermination we humans have waged against each other: the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s was a first degree existential threat to Cambodian Viets, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda was a first degree existential threat to the Tutsis, the Holocaust was a first degree existential threat to European Jews. Mercifully, no such existential threat faces either the trans community or the classical lesbian community.

At the second degree, there are situations where death occurs, but as single incidents within a certain class, rather than against an entire class of being. These awful second degree existential threats apply to a vast variety of people - over gender, sexuality, culture, race, or religion - and if we wish to build an authentically inclusive society all such threats ought to be our concern. The trans community certainly does face these kinds of second degree existential threats and sometimes in unique ways. Consider the tragic death of Jennifer Gale in 2008, a trans woman who needed access to a homeless shelter in Austin, Texas, but was told she would have to shelter with the men. This incident was, in many ways, a call to action in the current trans activist movement. As such, we could judge this movement's success by its potential to prevent such a tragic event recurring. Yet based upon the significant rise in anti-trans violence since it began, I rather fear that this particular wave of activism has had the opposite effect.

At the third degree are political existential threats. In such cases, no actual threat of violence is involved, but rather a conceptual threat to existence occurs. An odd example of this that I mentioned back in 2018 happened when prominent 'New Atheist' Richard Dawkins suggested it was "consciousness raising" for parents to bring up their children with no religious tradition, so they could then choose their own religion at adulthood. Some people thought this was a wonderful suggestion; most practitioners of religious traditions saw this (quite logically) as an existential threat in the third degree. Dawkins was permitted to make these claims even though they posed an existential threat to religious people because they did not rise to incitement to violence (i.e. encouraging a second degree existential threat or worse), and this is where we have always drawn the line in free speech.

Accepting that we were right to let Dawkins voice these views no matter how offensive they may have been to religious people, we can use this example as a test case. If we approach the gender battlefield with the idea that there is one correct way of viewing sex and gender, it is not very hard to believe that gender-critical feminists, including classical lesbians, might indeed risk presenting an equivalent third degree existential threat to the trans community. So too with that subset of Christians and other religiously-motivated people who do not accept the trans community's various understandings of gender. But we must not fool ourselves here. Current trans activism imposes the same kind of third degree existential threat to classical lesbians, and arguably to certain other classes of women as well. It seeks to deny them their freedom of thought on issues of gender metaphysics that go to the very core of their being in the world. This situation, as I claimed back in 2018, is directly parallel to the example of Dawkins seeking to abolish every religious tradition rooted in the family (i.e. nearly all of them). Therefore, on parallel grounds, no nation should be making political commitments to third degree existential threats as policy, regardless of kind, since to do so is to further betray our human rights agreements and to mandate bigotry against some class of its citizenry as law.

I abhor third degree existential threats, I detest political opposition to other ways of being... but I accept that they are inevitably going to happen, and that you cannot attempt to stamp out such ideas without instigating an opposing third degree existential threat (or worse...) against those who make them. On such a path, there is no democracy, no freedom of thought. On such a path we are marching backwards towards tyranny and imperial monoculture, not forwards towards a more inclusive democracy and the beautiful chaos of individual freedom. The path to trans liberty cannot lie on such a path, for the path to no-one's liberty can lie on such a path.

And this is the problem with transphobiaphobia: it blocks the path to trans liberty. It is no help, for instance, denouncing the Salvation Army for its transphobia if our goal is to prevent anyone else dying in the tragic and avoidable circumstances that led to Jennifer Gale's death in 2008. She died primarily because of poverty, because she was rendered homeless - and the Salvation Army is one of very few organisations trying to help people who have become homeless due to poverty. They did not refuse to shelter her because she was trans, they offered to shelter her with the men and did not understand why she could not do this. This failure to understand her different way of being in the world was pivotal to the terrible circumstances of that tragedy. But it is not tragic that the Salvation Army tries to help homeless people, it is tragic that in this instance they failed to do so because they did not understand how to help this particular person. Yet transphobiaphobia will not help the Salvation Army understand trans people either. The Salvation Army is not so much 'transphobic' as they are completely ignorant of the many trans ways of being in the world, in part because we would rather accuse them of hate than try to talk to them in love.

Neither will transphobiaphobia resolve the culture war between trans activists and their allies on the one hand, and gender-critical lesbian feminists and their allies on the other. Last year, philosopher Kathleen Stock at the University of Sussex was subjected to a campaign of abuse, up to and including death threats (i.e. second degree existential threats), that forced her to resign in October 2021. These actions were initiated by a group calling itself Anti Terf Sussex, who claimed Stock presented a danger to the trans community, stating: "We're not up for debate. We cannot be reasoned out of existence". Unlike those who opposed her, Stock was up for debate... as a university academic, she was obligated to be so. Fulfilling her duty in this regard paradoxically resulted in her losing her job - and I am surely not alone in being shocked to discover that a classical lesbian can be forced out of a job she is good at merely for the thoughtcrime of holding the metaphysical beliefs of a classical lesbian. Yet I find it quite hard to see this incident in any other way, except perhaps that she was a victim of transphobiaphobia.

I have argued with Stock on various matters in and around this issue; I don't share her views on gender, but neither do I have answers to all the relevant political questions she has raised in this regard. Frankly, I don't believe anyone does, how can they? We aren't allowed to have the conversation ("We're not up for debate", announced Stock's persecutors, as they ceded democratic values in favour of vigilantism). But Stock has always argued with me and others with civility and an openness to fresh arguments, and I have always defended her academic freedom and the liberty to speak her mind, even when she has said things I disagree with. I would defend everyone's right to speak in this way, regardless of who they were, and would draw the line solely at whenever someone crosses over into second degree existential threats, that is, calls for actual violence, such as those levelled against Stock by her transphobiaphobic opponents.

Actively preventing debate on the kinds of disagreements Stock has honourably participated in cannot possibly improve anyone's understanding of the problems of trans existence. Indeed, in her willingness to argue against various trans philosophical positions, Stock paradoxically did more to advance the cause of trans liberty than most people in recent years precisely because she was willing to have the debate. Indeed, it was because she did engage in debate with trans philosophers that she came to my attention in the first place. I was excited at the possibility that we might clear away some of the barriers preventing acceptance of trans life experiences. The trans community still does not seem to appreciate that the deplorable prejudice against their many ways of being cannot be resolved by refusing to engage in discussions around the relevant political issues. On the contrary, every time this necessary discourse is curtailed, prejudice against the trans community festers and grows, and further hate and violence on all sides becomes depressingly more likely. As such, Stock's forced resignation is not a victory for trans liberty, it is merely another brick in the wall blocking the path to it.

Everyone says they want a more inclusive society, but nobody seems to truly appreciate what is required to achieve it. That might be because one of the things we need to make that new world happen is an ability to accept that some third degree existential threats will still be voiced. But fortunately, the vast majority of these kinds of threats are not advanced with the intent of provoking actual violence. Dawkins didn't call for actual violence against religious people; he is just irrevocably prejudiced against their numerous ways of being. He's hardly alone; the same prejudice is painfully common among classical lesbians and trans people too. Anti-religious bigotry, especially bigotry against Christians, is a very fashionable kind of hatred right now. Everyone has prejudices, nobody is pure, and the line between love and hate is wearing very thin indeed.

Classical lesbians are not to my knowledge calling for actual violence against the trans community, although many do speak very disrespectfully about trans people, an animosity that is all too frequently reciprocated. Regardless, almost all classical lesbians (and Stock is definitely included in this), celebrate those protections under the law that trans people now possess in the UK and elsewhere. But the classical lesbian's way of being in the world regrettably does seem to be perceived as a kind of third degree existential threat to trans people, just as the transphobiaphobia of trans activists presents a third degree existential threat against classical lesbians, and indeed a second degree existential threat whenever this uncontrolled hatred of haters paradoxically impels people into committing hateful crimes such as death threats.

In the world I want to live in, both classical lesbians and trans people are welcome, not to mention people of every religious tradition and those of none. I have no idea how to resolve all the conflicts inevitably entailed in building such a world. But then, it's abundantly clear that nobody knows how to build such a world, and as long as transphobiaphobia blocks the path to trans liberty such a world cannot be built at all. Of course, this is only one of the myriad barriers to our collective liberty... yet we ought not to be afraid to say this aloud if we are indeed striving for our freedoms, rather than merely marshalling hate against those we judge as our enemies.

I have focussed here upon the original fault line in this metaphysical battle over gender, the skirmish between trans women and classical lesbians... but this issue now extends far beyond these two camps. The trans community is supported by all those who hold the metaphysical view that our internal mental and emotional state is the ultimate truth of who we are. This is a strange collision between the freedom to make ourselves offered by existentialism and the appeal to certain truth entailed in essentialism. The opposing political camp is resolutely essentialist - "sex is immutable" - and represents a highly unusual alliance given that it is the first time that classical lesbians have found themselves aligned with politically conservative women over just about anything. It is a mistake to keep characterising this camp in terms of its 'radical feminist' roots, as the insult 'TERF' does: this is now a broad coalition rallying against what it can only see as blatant misogyny. It is naïve to expect the accusation of transphobia to hold sway here.

This culture war is all too often presented as if it were a bizarre choice between misogyny and transphobia, as if we are obligated to express hatred and our only choice is whom we turn upon. It is an intractable conflict unless either side shifts its metaphysical beliefs, which nobody should ever expect. As long as both sides uphold rival forms of essentialism a peaceful resolution might remain forever out of reach, a lamentable situation we have already suffered for half a century with the metaphysics of abortion. Yet while we cannot expect people to change their untestable views of the world, our metaphysical views will adapt when we encounter new circumstances, and debate - when it is attainable - carries the possibility, however remote, of forging new understandings. But in this terrible new battle over gender, the animosity is now so great that both sides are resolutely closed to new meanings, and indeed many of the voices with something to say are either banned from being heard or too afraid to speak up.

What we need now more than anything is an armistice, a ceasefire that allows us to attempt to open discussions. Since nobody is in charge on the gender battlefield, we cannot ask for generals to call a truce, but fortunately that means anyone and everyone is free to lay down their ideological weapons and come to the negotiating table. There are things we all want out of this, and we will get none of them without first trying to talk about it. I therefore encourage everyone to give up fighting in culture wars that pit identity against identity and to begin to practice the challenging skill of cultural disarmament. The civil rights movements that preceded this endless strife and hatred understood clearly what we have forgotten: that the end point of every political struggle is the necessity of building the beloved community together.

There is a world for everyone that we can make together. But to learn how to make it, we first of all must learn how to talk about that world together. We must be open to debate, open to hearing from others who are not like us, open to disagreements. We cannot always get everything we want, but rediscovering the lost art of compromise might help us all to get everything that we need. The path to trans liberty lies beyond a gender armistice we currently cannot even imagine, but that we can still seek. You cannot end hatred by hating haters, but perhaps we can hold our anger in check just long enough that the hunt for gender armistice might begin.

The opening image is a detail from Male Image, a 1966 painting by Grace Hartigan. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


Our Own Utopias

Utopia paintingWhat do we mean when we talk about utopia? It may seem as if we have a clear conception of what this is supposed to be: a purely imagined place where everything is perfect. What's more, we intuitively know this to be a dangerous endeavour - the adjective 'utopian' has the entirely negative connotation of an unattainable state of affairs, and therefore we almost invariably assume a danger to utopian thinking.

There is a grave error here, for were it not for utopian thinking, were it not for our capacity to imagine utopias, democracy could never have been created or rediscovered, there could have been no transition to universal suffrage where all citizens are politically equal, and the civil rights movements could never have been mounted at all. There are risks entailed in imagining our own utopias, no doubt. But there are far greater risks in our denial of utopian thinking, for our fictions of utopia are inescapably bound up in our understanding of political reality.

We get the term from Thomas More's book Utopia published in 1516, more than half a millennia ago. It is significant that 'utopia' is Latin for 'no place'. The description of the island of Utopia is the focus solely of the second part of the book, with this discussion framed as accounts of newly discovered lands by More's fictitious traveller, Raphael Hythloday (whose surname can be translated "purveyor of nonsense"). It would have been quite clear to any reader of More's book - which was written in Latin - that we are not meant to have taken the description of the island of Utopia as a blueprint for social perfection. That is why Utopia is 'no place', and Hythloday a speaker of nonsense. But More means for us to think philosophically through these fictions - indeed, he is playing with Plato's Republic throughout, and does not hide this fact at all. Through Utopia, More invites his readers to think about the political problems of 16th century Europe.

Neither should we assume that those insights have nothing to say to us today. Consider this quote from Hythloday:

Though, to speak plainly my real sentiments, I must freely own that as long as there is any property, and while money is the standard of all other things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily: not justly, because the best things will fall to the share of the worst men; nor happily, because all things will be divided among a few (and even these are not in all respects happy), the rest being left to be absolutely miserable.

What's more, More has no expectation that what is being imagined will come to pass, and his fictionalised version of himself remarks in the story that "except all men were good, everything cannot be right, and that is a blessing that I do not at present hope to see." Thinking about Utopia, no place, is an opportunity to think differently about the real political world that we live in. So it was for More. And so it remains today.

The inevitable consequence of this recognition is that 'utopian' thinking (whether in a negative sense or otherwise) is not solely concerned with thinking about the future, but also manifests in our thoughts about the present or the past. For instance, if we view the industrial revolution in positive terms - focussing, perhaps, upon the benefits it brought to the middle class - this is a utopian interpretation of these events. We might just as plausibly look back on the industrial revolution in negative terms - as the acceleration of wealth disparity, or as the instigation of technocracy and escalating environmental harms. Indeed, one reading of the Scouring of the Shire at the end of Return of the King is precisely as this kind of accusation.

Our entire relationship with the political worlds we live in requires our imagination, as I wrote about at length in Chaos Ethics. It follows that our own utopias - whether or not we been able to express them in words - govern our thoughts about politics, because these ideal visions of how we might live are the yardstick by which we judge how we live together. We can choose to interpret the historical transitions that preceded us as utopian (as in the previous example with the industrial revolution) or we can choose to judge our present situation against our utopias (as every proponent of social reform does), but we have no way of thinking about politics without relying upon our own utopias as a point of comparison.

In a sense, what divides different political factions from one another is precisely their different utopias. Do we see utopia in an idealised past? We lean to the right. Do we see utopia in a soon-to-be-attained future state? We lean to the left. Do we lament the nonsensical demands of both left and right? We are a cynic, and have abandoned our own desires for utopia as unattainable. Yet still, we will not have escaped our utopias. Nobody can. Our imagined perfections are the very bedrock of our political judgement. When we truly appreciate this, we might even be thankful that there is no escape from our own utopias. Then, perhaps, we might try to choose utopias worth imagining.

For Chris Billows.


Doctor Multiverse, Episode 4: Dilemmas and Disasters

No doubt you've come across the trolley problem, Philipa Foot's thought experiment that so intrigued Judith Jarvis Thompson. Join renegade philosopher Doctor Multiverse as he explodes the dangerous nonsense at the heart of every attempt to substitute calculation for moral thinking. Caution: contains ideas some viewers may find distressing.

 


Doctor Multiverse, Episode 3: Sci-fi and Censorship

What does it mean to 'stop harmful disinformation myths in their tracks', as the BBC, Google, and Facebook have vouched to do...? Join renegade philosopher Doctor Multiverse in an adventure through the last century of media censorship. At stake is scientific truth itself, for when it comes to the sciences the only way to find out what's true is by having a frank discussion about the evidence. If we prevent that debate, all we're left with is science fiction.

 


Doctor Multiverse, Episode 1: Bats and Balrogs

What do we see when we look at a photograph? Much more than the picture itself. We are so skilled at 'filling in the blanks' that we don't always realise how much of ourselves goes into our seeing. Join renegade philosopher Doctor Multiverse in a strange and wondrous exploration of photographs, protests, and bats that might lead you to ask the unlikely question: do Balrog Lives Matter...?