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2017 end of year review: Social equality

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2017 was a paradoxical year.

On the one hand, we saw great gains in the battle for social equality, with a growing majority of people now wanting to see equality for all. On the other, however, we saw signs of a backlash against this cultural shift – a backlash that, if left unchecked, will permeate 2018.

The triumph of same-sex marriage

In Australia, the fight for same-sex marriage hasn’t been quite as simple as elsewhere in the world. Before politicians approved the move, a non-binding referendum was held, and the country voted ‘Yes’ by 61.6% to 38.4%. This was, of course, not before the homophobes of Australia got their hands on some money and went to work.

Indeed nothing represented the intellectual barrenness of the Australian referendum than a bizarre advert released by the ‘No’ campaign just before the postal vote deadline. It featured worried mothers who were anxious about two people of the same sex getting married and what that would mean for their children. “Kids in Year Seven,” one concerned woman told the camera, “are being asked to role play being in a same-sex relationship.” No citation was provided.

In Britain, the fight for marriage equality has taken on a surprising face: the right for opposite-sex couples to enter into a civil partnership. It is truly a sign of inequality that gay couples can either marry or have a civil partnership but opposite sex couples only have the option to marry. And yet, in a move that shocked many, the Court of Appeal rejected attempts to change this discrepancy. Apparently it is one rule for some, and another for the rest.

BAME rights: a whitelash?

Nowhere was a cultural paradox more apparent this year than in Charlottesville, during a rally labelled Unite the Right. According to one organiser, Nathan Damigo, the rally was intended to unify the white nationalist (read: racist) factions of the right.

The demonstration was framed as a protest against plans to remove the statue of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee from a city park, but the event rapidly descended into vicious racism and anti-Semitism. On August 11th, chants of ‘White Lives Matter’ and ‘Jews will not replace us’ filled the air as alt-right (also read: racist) ‘activists’ clashed with anti-fascist protestors.

Then, on August 12th, at around 1:45pm, a man drove into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring 19 others. The killer was James Alex Fields Jr, a 21 year-old from Ohio who had expressed sympathy for Nazi Germany during high school. So depraved was the crime that Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the incident was an act of domestic terrorism, describing it as “an unacceptable, evil attack.”

Yet Donald Trump did not speak so harshly against the alt-right – instead choosing to condemn violence “on both sides”. The important question amongst all this is: what on Earth has gone so wrong? One explanation is that America has simply failed to listen to itself. The so-called fascists scream their views, and the anti-fascists scream back. The nation has entirely failed to question why, in such a developed country, people have been driven to hard-line beliefs.

The gender agenda

National Geographic kicked off the year with a cover featuring a 9 year-old transgender child from Kansas. The reaction was instant, with a vast swathe of people declaring that someone so young could surely not be certain that they had been born in the wrong body. These critics were dismissed as transphobic bigots, and hence the tone was set for 2017.

Coincidentally, the beginning of the year saw a BBC documentary air entitled Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best?

Billed as an opportunity to engage in open debate about an issue that was, perhaps unexpectedly, gripping the public, it is no surprise that transgender activists denounced the programme – which was fair and objective – as misleading and (here’s that word again) transphobic.

The main source of controversy was the inclusion of Dr Kenneth Zucker, a Canadian psychologist who aims to create a therapeutic environment for young people to ‘feel more secure about his or her actual gender’ whilst also considering the root causes of transgender feelings. This is not the modern approach to such issues, though it is a sign of the times that such a reasonable approach opens Dr Zucker up to smear campaigns.

Later in the year, the discussion surrounding transgender children reached its zenith with Maths teacher Joshua Sutcliffe being fired from his job for saying “well done girls” to a group of students, one of whom was born female but now identifies as male. Mr Sutcliffe claimed that, whilst his deeply held Christianity leads him to believe gender is determined at birth, he did not ‘misgender’ the pupil on purpose.

The issue of transgenderism raises important questions about the state of nature itself. Is it possible for somebody to transition from male to female (and vice versa)? If not, should we still refer to these people by the pronouns they request? And, even more pressingly, should children be permitted to transition, or are the risks far too great?

In 20 years the children who are, in increasing numbers, being referred to Gender Identity Clinics will be adults. Will they thank society for allowing them to transition at the age of five? Will they be grateful that society allowed doctors to prescribe them puberty blockers? Or, more likely, will they be angry that their childhood was sacrificed on the altar of a crude political agenda, their bodies damaged by drugs we do not yet know the long-term side-effects of? We must start asking these questions now, before the debate is settled.

2017: the beginning of the backlash

As we come to the end of 2017, and pause to look around, we see a world gripped with anxiety. The question of marriage, what it means and who should be involved, is still hotly contested. White Americans throwing their toys out of the pram for no discernible reason is treated as the re-emergence of Nazism rather than being approached with the rationality the issue so clearly demands. And children who appear to have gender dysphoria are jumped upon by helicopter parents and eager psychologists desperate to advance a political cause.

Anxiety is a dangerous emotion, and when left unchecked it generates a backlash. The demonstrators in Charlottesville were anxious about their cultural identity, and it manifested in the most despicable of ways. Australians were anxious about how redefining marriage might change their country. And transgender activists are anxious that society’s rejection of transgender children will hamper other equal-rights agendas.

In 2018, humanity is in desperate need of the cultural version of Propranolol: dialogue. We need to engage openly, and without fear, in order to find a way out of this mess. If we do not, the backlash will only get worse, and it’ll be the children of tomorrow who are left to pick up the pieces left behind by the culture wars of today.

Daniel Clark is an Editor at Backbench

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