What happened to Stephen Fry’s belief in scientific reason?
21 November 2022
Here’s my question for Stephen Fry after he said his trans friends had felt ‘deeply upset’ by some of the comments made by J.K. Rowling: why didn’t you just say to them, ‘So what?’
Fry used to be all about saying ‘So what?’ to people who went on about feeling offended by words. His irritation with offence-takers has even become a meme. ‘It’s now very common to hear people say, “I’m rather offended by that”. As if that gives them certain rights’, he once said. ‘It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. “I find that offensive.” It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. “I am offended by that.” Well, so fucking what?’
He’s changed his tune. It is clear from the solemn tones in which he revealed his friends’ ‘upset’ over Rowling’s perfectly reasonable critique of the transgender ideology that he didn’t tell them to stop whining, to quit the self-pity, to get a grip.
‘I have trans friends and intersex friends who are deeply upset by her’, he said when asked about Rowling on Roger Bolton’s BeebWatch podcast last week. He then tried to even things out: ‘[It’s] upsetting to both sides.’
What, exactly, are Ms Rowling and other gender-critical women meant to ‘retreat’ from? From science? From biological reality?
The solution? Everyone needs to calm down. The heat and the fury need to be drained from the debate. ‘I would… wish them both to retreat’, he said. ‘And to consider that it is possible for trans people to live full, accepted lives, according to their terms, in society, and for women to have all the rights and dignities that they demand.’
To be fair to Fry, he didn’t betray Rowling, who is a friend of his, as others, like Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson, have; actors whose entire careers sprang from the Harry Potter franchise and yet who have felt content to hint that Rowling is a massive transphobe simply because she understands biology and believes women should have rights. Ungrateful much?
No, Fry said he still counts Rowling as a friend. ‘I know’, he said, ‘that J.K. Rowling doesn’t want to see trans people bullied, alienated, shut out of society, made to feel ashamed, guilty, laughed at, all those things’.
At a time when Twittermobs howl furiously at Rowling, denouncing her as a 21st-century witch whose words wound the vulnerable, and when celebrities and journalists who should know better likewise brand her a bigot and a transphobe, Fry’s partial defence of Rowling is something.
More people ought to acknowledge that Rowling has uttered not one bigoted word about trans people. All she has done is question the idea that one can change one’s sex and that male-bodied people who identify as female should enjoy dominion in women’s spaces and women’s sports. That’s not bigotry – it’s a rational, progressive challenge to the excesses of the modern trans lobby.
Yet there is a problem with Fry’s key point: his implication that both sides in the trans clash have become too fervid and ought now to ‘retreat’. This is a huge misrepresentation. I know it is terribly unfashionable to make moral judgments these days, but the truth of it is that the two parties to this intellectual and social tussle are not moral equivalents. One is more judicious and righteous than the other.
One side – Rowling’s side – makes arguments that are based in truth and reason. The other does not. One side takes as its starting point the biological reality of sex. The other rejects the biological reality of sex. Hence the man who feels that he is a woman is said, by that side, to have the right to disrobe in front of women, to use the toilet alongside women, to beat women in sports and literally beat them in the boxing ring.
Isn’t Mr Fry pro-science? He is famously an atheist and an out and proud humanist. He once said of science, ‘When we want to know what is true and false, there is no better method’. Does that apply to biology, Stephen? Isn’t it the case that there is no better method to determine a person’s sex than through the science of biology?
I doubt that Fry would say that both sides in the discussion of whether Earth is spherical or flat should take a chill pill and ‘retreat’, so why is he saying it about the debate over who counts as a man or woman? To many of us, Mr Fry, the idea that someone born with male genitalia can literally be a woman, even a lesbian if he likes, is as egregious an affront to scientific truth as is the idea that Earth is a flat disc with the North Pole in the middle.
Then there’s the question of what the two sides are demanding. One is calling for men to have the right to enter women’s changing rooms, for some teenagers to have their puberty blocked, and for very young women to have access to mastectomies, despite there being nothing whatsoever wrong with their breasts.
The other believes women’s spaces should be men-free zones. And that teenagers should be encouraged to feel happy with their changing physicality. And that girls, many of whom would have identified as lesbians in the past, should be discouraged from mutilating their perfectly normal bodies.
Moral equivalence? Not a bit of it. One side promotes cuckoo post-science theories that upend women’s rights and cause grave harm to the young. The other side does not. What, exactly, are Ms Rowling and other gender-critical women meant to ‘retreat’ from? From science? From biological reality? From their belief that men are not women? From their own spaces?
I suspect Mr Fry would never ‘retreat’ from his humanism and embrace the superstitious claims of religion, so it is strange that he is essentially advising women to do precisely that.
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