How The Media’s Bullshit ‘Both Sides’ Punditry Harms Trans People

Modified from flickr / Sam Churchill
Trusted media outlets can print contrafactual nonsense with little penalty. And trans issues are particularly vulnerable to this practice.

O n May 15, 2017, a Medium user published an article to her personal handle arguing — among many other things — that the presence of trans women in women’s spaces constituted an act of aggression and that the vocabulary proposed by trans men to describe themselves “erased” cis women.

Despite the rather extreme premises assumed in the piece, a feminist publication by the name of Athena Talks decided to pick it up shortly after it was posted, resulting in a second round of sharing among feminist outlets.

I am, unfortunately, rather used to having my mere presence likened to violence. Calling myself a feminist as a trans woman has meant that I’ve had to share spaces with people who argue, in all seriousness, that my health care is a conspiracy theory to eradicate gay people.

What I haven’t acclimatized to is the practice of abandoning any commitment to discovery or knowledge, something that seems distressingly widespread in media practices today. Because what Athena Talks did next also follows a well-established pattern: They published another article that was critical of the first piece, without any acknowledgement that the arguments previously presented were both based on inaccuracies and illogically constructed.

I am, unfortunately, rather used to having my mere presence likened to violence.

Inquiries for the rationale as to why they did this were not returned, but there’s a lengthy history of claims by democratic philosophers on the supposed utility of oratory debate and its capacity for information-based decision making.

However, rhetoricians have also been long aware that debate is as often used to obscure truth as it is to propagate it. The modern “both sides” political punditry acts as if they just discovered a defiled cemetery, and then through the magic of “debate” concludes that the gravedigger is as responsible for this disaster as the grave-robber. Cause and effect vanishes in a puff of smoke, and accountability along with it. Discussion becomes assault, ignorance becomes knowledge, and confessions of treason become more goddamn emails.

These have become the actual consequences of a debate, regardless of stated intentions. One position, no matter how meticulously researched or carefully argued, is now considered equally probable with another position, even if its logic is leakier than Trump’s White House. There typically aren’t fact-checkers present, and while moderators tend to soft-ball either side, the soft-balling primarily benefits the opinion that is sloppier, since a more rigorous interrogation would demonstrate its weaknesses. (And the media can’t do that, lest it be penalized by consumers for “taking a side.”)

This isn’t the format of knowledge or discovery. This is the format to obscure knowledge and discovery.

While this pattern of disinformation has become particularly egregious in recent times, the practice is older than Aristotle. As long as the topic is obscure enough, laymen won’t recognize the false equivalencies created by the debate structure, and even trusted media outlets can air or print contrafactual nonsense with little penalty.

This makes trans issues particularly vulnerable to the practice, since very few people acquaint themselves with research on gender variance. Trans Advocate editor Cristan Williams even located an example that dates back to 1915, a sensationalist headline from The Boston Traveler which reads: “Roxbury girl lived as a man.

It may not be particularly useful for the purposes of education and learning, but it certainly sells well.

Some of The Guardian’s most popular trans-issue articles look like a debate when compared side by side: Julie Bindel arguing that trans rights will facilitate violence against cis women is published alongside Paris Lee admonishing pundits for playing kickball with trans lives; an anonymously written article on The Guardian asking gender questioning people to consider anything but transition appears next to Aimee Challenor expressing heartbreak over her lack of options as a child; Jenni Murray foolishly argues that experiences make the woman next to Gaby Hinsliff’s more defensible observation that cultural womanhood is a moving target.

Trans issues are particularly vulnerable to the ‘debate practice,’ since very few people acquaint themselves with research on gender variance.

“Facts are sacred,” claims The Guardian. Well, here are a few facts The Guardian might want to keep in mind next time it prints an op-ed on trans people: G.R. Bauer’s detailed studies of suicidal ideation in trans populations have isolated the two strongest predictors of a suicide attempt, and they are denial of medical options and lack of parental support.

Experiences of sexism are modified by race and cannot be separated in such circumstances, challenging the notion that sexism can be boiled down to a single quintessential experience; and jurisdictions that have explicitly acknowledged trans rights in law have not experienced an elevated rate of sexualized violence.

I ask again — if facts are the stated objective of The Guardian, why are they still printing evidenced opinions next to unsubstantiated polemics as if they were equally probable? Why the lack of commentary when one argument is either predicated on a falsehood or illogically constructed?

This is to say nothing of columnists who straddle this particular line as a career. Writers like Jesse Singal, Sarah Ditum, or Katie Herzog are clever enough to present some evidence that would, at least, support their conclusions — if that was all the evidence that existed. But, as is the case with climate change denial, the proportion of perspectives is badly skewed.

Jesse Singal frequently discusses Dr. Kenneth Zucker’s public statements while ignoring what his research actually says, and he’s happy to give the impression that criticism of Dr. Zucker’s research sits entirely in the realm of activism while papering over the extensive history of academic critiques.

Sarah Ditum conflates modern methods of health care for gender questioning youth with the inflexible ontologies of arrogant sexologists borne from the ’80s, endangering an evidenced method by falsely accusing it of doing the same things as the prior gatekeeping models — models Ditum herself endorses.

And Katie Herzog (implicitly quoting Dr. Thomas Steensma, who uses the same bunk methodology as Dr. Zucker to determine “rates of detransition”) similarly misinforms her audience, mentioning only in passing a number of key details that undermine her argument:

  1. Detransition is often temporary.
  2. People who detransition often still identify as trans.
  3. The most common cited reason for detransitioning is poor treatment by others.

It’s not until the end — literally the last sentence — that she bothers to include a line from her primary interview subject where she says “I still don’t regret transitioning.” Herzog gets bonus points for quoting a conspiracy theory started by a virulently transphobic feminist blog to advance the “social contagion” theory of gender dysphoria. You know, for “balance.”

I try not to speak for all trans people, but I’m going to go on a limb and assume that uncritically printing words comparing us to disease vectors is widely considered “not ally behavior.”

Conspiracy theories, an obfuscation of the scope of scientific consensus, uncritical acceptance of shoddy scholarship — is this really the standard we accept of trustworthy news?

The pattern of misinformation exists, but what can you, as the reader, do about it? I have a few suggestions.

1.

When an article receives backlash from trans people, take the time to actually listen to their perspectives. Julia Serano, Parker Molloy, Paris Lees, and Janet Mock are some of the trans folk who make regular appearances on media to discuss trans issues, including the media’s handling of them.

You don’t have to believe them by default, but I am saying if you take the time to fact-check their claims, they’re much more likely to turn out correct, especially if gender variance is the topic. Definitely approach with skepticism those writers who insist their critics just “didn’t read the fucking piece.”

2.

Start calling the false equivalencies out. If editors treat all claims as equally probable, that’s misinformation, not education. Stop accessing news that does this for your information on gender variance. At minimum, an outlet should be committing to some kind of conclusion if it claims to be fact-based.

Better yet is if said article explores the scientific consensus in proportion to the evidence available. If a critical claim is only held up by one study, or one researcher, in contrast to the rest of the consensus, the article ought to say as much.

3.

Get in the habit of asking for citations. The anti-trans crowd sources its knowledge from the same few doctors — Kenneth Zucker, Ray Blanchard, Paul McHugh, and James Cantor. Criticisms of their works are easily found, and if used in an argument, likely transfer to said argument. By contrast, researchers and clinicians who’ve moved on from disco-era arrogance are too numerous to name.

I’m going to go on a limb and assume that printing words comparing trans folks to disease vectors is widely considered ‘not ally behavior.’

Knowing the consensus means you need approximate knowledge of all corners in a field of study. Many journalists do not approach the topic of gender variance with the respect necessary to do this; instead they collect scattershot testimony with no attempt to consult the research. Fewer readers than that are willing to investigate the claims made by journalists. This combines into a disaster for trans people — when neither the writer nor the reader have any grounded realness to refer to, misinformation blossoms and spreads its tendrils.

My hope is that the next time a writer emails the various trans people available for informed consultation, that writer actually listens to us. Because based on what’s been published in the past few years, it seems like they’re more interested in talking.