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Can debate ever do harm?

  • 02 February 2024
  Content warning: This article contains references to suicide, sexual violence, and other content readers might find triggering.  ‘No debate!’ — or its Twitter counterpart, #nodebate — is the tactic adopted by trans activists when it comes to the question of whether legal and social sex/gender categorization should be a matter of self-identification. They think there should be no debate over the assertions that ‘trans women are women!’ and ‘trans men are men!’. Trans rights charities assert that ‘the rights of trans children and adults… are not up for debate’. On one reading of this claim, no one would disagree: everyone deserves rights, that really isn’t up for debate. But when trans activists talk about ‘trans rights’ they tend to have something stronger in mind than the universal human rights we think should be protected for everyone. They mean something closer to the idea that trans people have the right to be accepted as the sex/gender they identify with. And that is a controversial claim, with which many would disagree. The trans rights debate may be one of the most prominent in which one side deploys ‘no debate!’ tactics, but it is far from the only debate where there has been a suggestion that debating a certain set of issues would itself be harmful. Such debates include those over: the ethics of suicide and euthanasia; the justification for lockdowns; health-based criticisms of obesity; open versus restrictive immigration policy; the science of sex differences; the prevalence of false rape allegations; the prevalence and ethics of false claims to indigeneity; whether prostitution should be legal; whether transwomen should be included in feminism; reasons for voting ‘no’ in the 2023 Australian Indigenous Voice referendum; the ethics of discussing and researching cures for disabilities; the ethics and politics of Zionism; the ethics of politics of the ‘free Palestine’ campaign; whether climate scepticism is justified; whether it is too late to meet the 1.5° threshold for climate change; the ethics of eugenics; the questioning of any marginalized person’s ‘lived experience’; the ethics of Islam; whether campus rape statistics were exaggerated by second-wave feminists; whether police violence statistics are being exaggerated by anti-racism activists in the United States; disclosing the identity markers of perpetrators of crime, when they’re from non-dominant social groups.

How can we make progress on the question of whether debate can do harm, and if it can, whether that’s a sufficient reason to suppress particular debates, or to