Flat White

Disarming in the ‘Cultural Wars’

8 April 2022

12:00 PM

8 April 2022

12:00 PM

The culture wars over gender policy have recently warmed back up again, with athletes like Lia Thomas and politicians like Scott Morrison getting involved.

Lia Thomas is involved (whether they want to be or not) due to their desire to compete based, not on the biology they were born with, but the person they are. Other athletes, typically those who’s gender and biology are socially consistent, are also involved based on their decisions to compete. Politicians are involved based either on their firm beliefs in the matter, or on where they believe their political interests lie and what to do about it if so…

In the middle are the administrators of the sports, from their global and national governing bodies to the umpires and referees that need to make decisions on who can compete, or play, on any given occasion.

It would be safe to say that each of these groups have a wide variety of opinions on what is appropriate – whether to insist that biology is all, to accept that gender is something that is more about who you are than about what is apparent at birth, or if there are other options and choices that can be made.

It is important to remember that for thousands of years – and probably since the dawn of humanity – these issues have largely been dealt with by a combination of ignoring and suppressing them.

A few decades ago, when the possibility of dealing with them in ways that did not involve ignorance and suppression were raised, the people raising them were typically ‘cancelled’ by the mainstream (to use the modern terminology for what happened).

Personally, I was aware of this through my schooling, where it was widely believed I was gay and through my university days, where my advocacy for firstly the legalisation of homosexuality in my state and then the legal recognition of same sex relationships attracted much vitriol and, at school, violence.

While I have never been someone who has actively questioned my biology, gender or sexuality, I can see why those who are in a position where this is a daily concern must deal with these issues on a regular basis – and why this can cause so much harm to them. It’s also one of the reasons why I believe it’s an issue we need to deal with – one way or another.

The question is how…

To observe that the argument we are undertaking at the moment can get heated is to make a point with which few would disagree. Both sides normally get to a position where they want the government to legislate their opinions into law – that either biology or gender identity is the deciding factor in whether a person is a woman or not, and that any other position is simply wrong, and should therefore be illegal.

The problem is that we have seen the impact of this sort of legislation previously – on both sides of the culture wars.

To pick two examples, legislation passed under Howard to effectively try to end the debate on marriage policy in favour of a view more consistent with the mainstream at the time resulted in the debate being amplified over a decade of argument and a (messy) resolution under Turnbull. In the United States, the attempt to end the debate over abortion policy in favour of, not only full legality but to include taxpayer funding, has resulted in constant debate and heavy politicisation of the Supreme Court. The decision in Roe v. Wade may be overturned in the near future – and this will result in an entirely predictable backlash with all sorts of possible reactions from the voting public, the legislatures and courts around the US.

The history of trying to legislate social policy is one that shows it can work – and work well – once the debate is largely over. The changes to the Australian Federal Marriage Act that institutionalised non-discrimination have now been widely accepted and are seen as unremarkable. The ending of such measures as criminal punishment for sodomy in Western Australia is now seen as not only unremarkable, but the idea that we would lock up gay people just for being gay is (thankfully) seen as being downright ridiculous.

These changes, though, ended up being widely accepted because they were legislated after the debate, not before or during. The crucial thing was that the understanding, and acceptance, became widespread such that any legislation was just to entrench the change, rather than force it along.

Other changes that have been mooted to social legislation have been debated, even if only briefly, and the possibility rejected. The idea of legalising multiple marriage, of serious drug law reform or other such measures have been debated and, so far, rejected. We may or may not agree with these rejections, but the important thing is that our governments have not tried to move in advance of general acceptance.

The need to gain this general acceptance has also resulted in sensible changes to the calls of the advocates. In the case of the same-sex marriage debate, the steps taken to ensure that religious organisations could not be required to officiate at a ceremony they disagree with helped drive acceptance. On the other hand, the forced acceptance of abortion policy, including the fact that taxes are used to fund them, has been a large factor in driving opposition. The result has been that the issue of abortion policy has polluted the body politic of the US ever since.

The same should apply to the debate over gender in sports – not that it should be allowed to pollute the political process but that any legislation should come after there is some form of consensus – if that ever happens. In the meantime, the best option is for the government is to do nothing. Not to try to impose an outcome – either way.

This will not be the best outcome for anyone. Those who just want to be who they know they are will continue to experience the discrimination that comes from a lack of understanding and outright ignorance.

Conservatives will continue to be confronted by societal changes they don’t like and will need to understand the changes that are happening.

The administrators of the sports will have to wear much of the brunt of the debate.

These are major changes in society that are underway and trying to force a speedy resolution is unlikely to work. As with many wars, perhaps the best response is to disarm and let the people talk it out.

Andrew Reynolds is chief advisor at the Mannkal Economic Education Foundation.


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