Perhaps you’ve seen Ted Richards in the news recently?
He’s the guy who had his ears surgically removed in order to look like a parrot (link not for the squeamish). Needless to say, Ted doesn’t look much like a parrot as much as he resembles a man who has just had his ears removed. I doubt if a proposed beak implant will improve matters. No amount of surgery will ever turn Ted Richards into a parrot.
The strangest part of the story, for me at least, is that I find myself hesitating to declare that Ted Richards will never become a parrot. What little liberal guilt I feel censures me for being so judgemental. I’ve been taught to respect other people and their life choices. Yet I’ve also been taught that the science of transforming a man into a parrot does not exist, nor do I expect it to any time soon. The rational part of my mind demands that I point out that even should Ted totally resemble a parrot (beak, plumage, salty catchphrase) he would still be all human. To become a parrot, he would need to alter a little something called his DNA and that, currently, is the stuff of hard science fiction.
Part of me admires Ted for his parrot plans. The appreciation of difference is one of the great British qualities. We’ve been taught to enjoy an eccentricity of spirit. Yet that same tolerance also encourages some of us to defend other, even sillier, things.
Professor Germaine Greer was condemned last week when she pointed out a fact about human DNA and the science of gender realignment. Greer stated that men who undergo gender realignment never become women. This news was not well received in Cardiff University’s student union where a petition was set up and language fed through the Mangle-o-matic 2015.
Greer has demonstrated time and time again her misogynistic views towards trans women, including continually misgendering trans women and denying the existence of transphobia altogether.
Proper academic: please meet unthinking medieval dogmatism.
It was a predictable conflict. Feminists have spent the past half century arguing that women enjoy uniquely different experiences to men. Hélène Cixous has explained the virtues of ‘Écriture féminine’ in that the very form of the female body influences the language and thought of women writers. This could be problematic to gender theorists who argue, reasonably on the whole, that there are an infinite plurality of genders and that a person’s gender identity can be very different to their biological sex.
Feminism and gender theory generally exist side by side but where sex and gender meet, we do often find a line of harder politics. It explains the indignant response to Greer reminding us is that sex (not the same as gender) is programmed into our DNA. The human sex chromosomes are either XY or XX and there’s nothing you can do to alter that fact. Cover your eyes if you’re easily offended but: Caitlyn Jenner will biologically always be male even if she wishes to self-identify as a woman and no matter how much we, as a culture, respect that right.
Not that the media choose to report a scientific fact when they can instead personalise a story.
Professor Greer is partly vilified for past ‘radicalism’ whilst Caitlyn Jenner is teary-eyed human interest fodder. She is part of a banal reality TV clan who have come to dominate world communications. When Greer comments on Jenner, she is not simply a person stating a scientific fact. She is an academic questioning the media who largely promote a cosy anti-intellectualism. It’s the world in which ‘oh, you can’t say that’ has become a barrier to debate on many difficult subjects. Every debate about Islam amounts to racism, questions about gender are sexist, and every male voice is the voice of the patriarchy. None of that is true, but truth has little place in a culture increasingly dominated by the nascent mysticism of celebrity.
That is the worrying part of the Greer story. It should never have become a story. It should have been dismissed as the modish politics of university radicals absorbed in navel gazing. Instead, it ran as headline news with Greer forced to defend the reality of the human chromosome. It’s a thing that happens far too often. Science is routinely forced to defend itself against the amassed powers of superstition and stupidity.
This week Professor Richard Dawkins came under attack from Bristol Palin, daughter of Alaska’s leading intellectual- Sarah Palin. Dawkins had been interviewed on Irish TV about the nature of evil. He made a point about the 9/11 hijackers and how they would have perceived themselves as being morally good. It was their faith, Dawkins argues, that misled them. It was a reasonable point, but, naturally, didn’t fall into the simplistic worldview of America’s Christian Right who view 9/11 as though it was a quasi-religious battle of good versus evil. Said B. Palin:
Dawkins has to fit even something as obviously evil as the terrorist attacks on 9/11 into his own radical agenda. […] So the radical atheist ends up defending the radical jihadists, because according to his crazy ideas, they aren’t evil – they were just brainwashed.
There is nothing insightful about Palin’s comments. They are only memorable because they’re made by the daughter of a woman who once tried to become Vice President of the United States. Beyond that, it’s what you might expect from somebody who graduated from Wasilla High School before becoming a star of reality TV. That may sound snobbish, so of course, our egalitarian culture demands that I say that her lack of knowledge about psychology, evolution, morality, or science should not invalidate her from the debate. Nor, indeed, does it. However in what warped reality does Palin’s comments become the sole reason that Dawkins’ words are reported? Why does the media routinely present scientific arguments through the prism of another person’s superstition?
We are back in the days of ducking stools. Instead of using folk wisdom to identify the person infected by devil, we have celebrities spewing pseudo-knowledge and marking out the immoral thoughts. Simply because he has played a popular secret agent, Daniel Craig made headlines last week when he said there is ‘too much surveillance and too much information gathering’. Russell Brand, once a drug user, is now an ‘authority’ on drug policy and has been dined by party leaders. Meanwhile, Gwyneth Paltrow promotes ‘Goop‘, her lifestyle website promoting a whole lot of West Coast hokum.
Closer to home, at a film premiere just last week, Benedict Cumberbatch spoke about the ongoing refugee crisis. ‘I’d like to sit down with (UK Home Secretary) Theresa May,’ he proclaimed, ‘and get a full understanding of how her political economic model works of structuring an argument that there is virtually a zero degree of financial benefit from an immigrant population.’ As arrogant and, dare one say, ‘Cardiff’s studio union’ as his appeal sounds, he still caught the attention of the Home Secretary who was forced to respond to questions about an actor whose expertise in economics, population control, or migration is approximately nil.
But even saying this is confessing that we’re already losing the battle. This trend will only get worse and it will not get better. In future: just ask Benedict. Perhaps he can tell you when Ted Richards will finally become a parrot.