Transcending Dogma – Helen Joyce’s ‘Trans’ Through the Lenses of Liberal Empiricism

“In the kingdom of ends everything has either a price or a dignity. What has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; what on the other hand is raised above all price and therefore admits of no equivalent has a dignity” Immanuel Kant.

In the charged and fractious social and political discourse of our time, few topics are as contentious as gender identity. Helen Joyce, in her gripping exposition ‘Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality‘, navigates this intricate terrain with a fervour reminiscent of the great philosophers of the British Empirical tradition. Joyce’s exposition is supported with logic and evidence, and eschews any trait of continental philosophy and linguistic deconstruction. Joyce opts for realism, observable certainty, and the logic of cause and effect. No wonder, reading Joyce’s arguments feels accordant with an awakening from a ‘dogmatic slumber.’

Joyce’s analysis of the phenomenon of gender self-identity ideology, with its deconstruction of sex-based principles of re-categorisation, is in the tradition of the foundational liberal tenets of John Stuart Mill, David Hume and John Locke. Using a classical liberal framework of investigation, Joyce articulates a compelling riposte to the modern dogmas and suppositions that cloud many people’s understanding of gender, sex and biological realism. Namely, that it is no more likely that we can assign, discover or change our sex than it is possible to reassign, rediscover or change our species. We are mammals, and in every circumstance, it is not possible for humans to change their biological sex.

Joyce’s book explores an interconnected set of ideas that have gripped a generation almost simultaneously across the English-speaking world, abetted by the internet, social media and a meaning crisis resulting in existential risk. This ideology, or belief, holds that it is necessary to prevent a perceived sense of injustice and harm to people who are gender dysphoric. This belief asserts that we should count men or women according to how they feel and what they declare, instead of their biology.  Joyce describes how ideas of gender identity have been replacing confirmed and inherited designations of sex, to the point where babies are ‘assigned’ a gender that is not in accordance with their true inner nature.

Joyce argues that this has far-reaching consequences for society, both in terms of the recognition of women’s and gay people’s rights, but also for freedom of speech, conscience, and association. As Joyce asserts:

“Everyone has an interest in feeling assured that governments are taking them into account in policy making. Inclusion matters to historically excluded groups, such as gender non-conforming people and women, as do such bedrock issues as physical safety and dignity, freedom from harassment and access to the full range of public services. People of both sexes have an interest in setting their own sexual boundaries, and in bodily privacy. For women, safety is another important consideration.”

Joyce describes in detail how the lobbying of small groups of trans-identified activists have shaped public policy in many countries, before a proper consideration of the effects and impact that such changes inevitably bring are understood. All the way through the book, Joyce is at pains to note that her target is not transgender people, who she believes have equal rights to live without suffering, in safety and with dignity. What Joyce does question, however, is the destabilisation of the status quo when it comes to the balance between legally enshrined protections for gender non-conforming people, with the rights and protections of women, homosexual people and children.

John Stuart Mill said that “liberty lies in the rights of that person whose views you find most odious”. This principle, central to Mill’s seminal book ‘On Liberty’, posits that the foundation of a free society is the protection of minority or unpopular opinions. Joyce’s examination of gender identity ideology seems to resonate with this sentiment, especially as individuals assert their conscience and reject the dogmatic presuppositions of radical postmodernists. By arguing that the very essence of the terms we use to define ‘male’ and ‘female’ are at risk of being replaced by subjective feelings, Joyce is, in a sense, calling for a Millian protection of the biological ‘truth’ – a viewpoint increasingly considered ‘odious’ in certain circles.

John Stuart Mill’s argument for freedom of thought and discussion asserted that the silencing of any opinion is wrong, even if the opinion is false. Mill believed that knowledge arises only from the “collision [of truth] with error”, and that to live without the authority of the discourse we use, we would inevitably be forced to live without liberty. Joyce puts these principles to the test, and does what Mill advocates that we do, which is to push our arguments to their limits.

This means advocating an unqualified defence of the liberty of conscience in the most comprehensive sense, which we must accept includes not just the freedom to hold a view, but also to express any opinion or sentiment. Mill’s argument against censorship is based on the premise that humans are fallible, and that we are always capable of making mistakes. Like Mill, Joyce is asserting that any regulation of human conduct needs to be rigorously argued for and justified, while remaining open to the idea that our presuppositions might be false. What we can’t do, however, is start with false presuppositions. Creationism is not science. The world is not flat.

Yet, one might question: does the prioritisation of gender identity over biological sex infringe upon the liberties of others? Joyce suggests that it does, particularly when we consider the potential harm to women, children, and various vulnerable or less assertive groups, such as, for example, women prisoners, or women who wish to participate in sport. In the spirit of Mill, who warned against the “tyranny of the majority”, Joyce posits that the aggressive lobbying of trans activism has inadvertently suppressed the voices of those who might be negatively affected by changes in this settled view. Joyce lists examples of where laws have been changed and reframed with no wider public debate, such as in her native Ireland.

Then comes the Kantian perspective. Immanuel Kant’s critical philosophy emphasises the importance of reasoning and the dangers of succumbing to dogmas, religious or otherwise. Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ is a testament to the human endeavour to distinguish between what can be empirically known and what remains mere idealistic supposition. Joyce’s critique of gender identity thinking treads this Kantian path. By challenging the idea that biological sex can be changed based merely on a declaration or feeling, Joyce underscores the importance of empirical reality over unverified belief. In doing so, she rekindles the Kantian warning against grounding our beliefs in untested assumptions.

“Have patience awhile; slanders are not long-lived. Truth is the child of time; erelong she shall appear to vindicate thee.” Immanuel Kant

Moreover, Kant’s categorical imperative, which advocates acting only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law, comes to mind when considering Joyce’s views on postmodern gender ideologies. If we universalise the principle that gender identity trumps biological sex, do we not risk a world where empirical truths are constantly subjugated to impressionistic feelings?

Joyce cautions against flattering the potential of such a world to take root. Joyce urges us, instead, to consider the broader implications of our beliefs and actions; otherwise we may find we are doomed to live in a hall of mirrors that offers the nightmare of infinite regress, with no point of certainty.

“Seek not the favour of the multitude; it is seldom got by honest and lawful means. But seek the testimony of few; and number not voices, but weigh them.” Immanuel Kant

Joyce’s book, however, is not in any sense a philosophical treatise, it is a journalistic presentation of evidence that amounts to a clarion call for a return to forms of civic and public discourse that are grounded in facts, reason, and empathy. It’s a challenge to the pseudo-religious dogmas of our time, which are not necessarily found in churches or temples, but those that have emerged in the secular spaces of social media echo chambers, semi-detached universities and activist rallies. By invoking the spirits of Mill and Kant, Joyce asks us to rise above the cacophony, to embrace liberty, and to champion reason.

As Joyce argues:

“How might the beliefs of those who espouse gender-identity ideology change, if contrary views are no longer silenced and it becomes clear that the enthusiasts are in the minority? That depends on why enthusiasts hold their beliefs. Kevin Simler, an author and scientist, distinguishes between ‘merit beliefs’ and crony beliefs; which are held and abandoned for different reasons. It is my contention that many people’s adherence to gender-identity ideology is cronyistic, in this sense, and will be abandoned when it is no longer in the ascendant.”

‘Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality’ emerges, then, as more than just a commentary on gender identity. Through the interplay of Millian liberty and Kantian reasoning, it becomes a reflection on the very nature of discourse in our modern age. In a post-postmodern world, the emergence of a unified metamodern sensibility that can transcend these differences is being disrupted by increasingly divisive dogmas and suppositions. Helen Joyce’s work therefore stands as a beacon of liberal realism, urging us to think, to question, and to understand. In the elegant prose of George Orwell, “the further a society drifts from truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.” Let it be said, then, that Helen Joyce’s ‘Trans’ is not just a book for our times, but a manifesto for the ages.

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