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Trans People Aren't Babies
By Louise Perry
This week, Louise Perry, one of my favourite authors and commentators, writes about the Kathleen Stock saga and why we shouldn’t treat students or trans people like babies. You can read her Substack here.
When we get home from the supermarket, our two-year-old likes to assist with taking the groceries out from underneath his stroller and carrying them to the kitchen. He will pick up a carton of milk and heave it towards the fridge like an atlas stone. “Well done darling” I say to him in a pitch slightly higher than usual, “you’re being so helpful.”
Of course he isn’t actually being helpful. In fact, he’s slowing down the process of unpacking and risking an enormous milk spillage all over the kitchen floor. But my goal is encouragement and kindness – he’s only two, bless him, and that carton is awfully big and heavy.
My husband regards these exercises with more of a gentle briskness. “Thanks mate” he’ll say in his usual tone of voice, excising my white lie. In this, I’ve learnt, my husband is typical of other men. In a 2015 study led by Mark VanDam, a professor in the Speech and Hearing Sciences department at Washington State University Spokane, researchers outfitted preschoolers and their parents with recording devices to monitor social interactions over the course of a normal day. The mothers, they found:
… used higher pitch and varied their pitch more when interacting with their child than with adults. The fathers, on the other hand, did not show the same pattern, and instead talked to their children using intonation patterns more like when they talked to other adults.
As an instinctive speaker of so-called ‘motherese’ – that is, baby talk – I find that when our son mispronounces a word (‘tawtah’ for ‘water’ or ‘mulack’ for ‘milk’) I will automatically echo it back to him, while my husband will automatically respond with the correct pronunciation. These differences persist despite the fact that we share childcare almost exactly equally within our family.
It turns out we’re not alone in this sex difference, and that it may well have some adaptive purpose. "We think that maybe fathers are doing things that are conducive to their children's learning but in a different way,” writes VanDam, “the parents are complementary to their children's language learning.” Mothers speak down to children, while fathers speak to them like equals – in combination, these two kinds of stimuli promote the development of adult language.
The adoption of motherese is an instinct that, in its correct context, is both comforting and developmentally useful. But it can also, in some circumstances, be dysfunctional. And, as I have become more and more fluent in it, I have started to notice that motherese is no longer confined to the nursery or the classroom, but is now to be found also in public life. Not in its full expression – “have you got a boo-boo, honey?” – but in a more subtle form.
I heard a lot of motherese, for instance, in the responses to philosopher Kathleen Stock’s appearance this week at the Oxford Union – a political event considered significant enough to attract commentary from the Prime Minister and rolling updates on the homepages of several national newspapers.
Kathleen Stock arriving for her talk in disguise and with security.
Students at risk of being traumatised by Stock’s mild-mannered, centre-left brand of politics were ushered towards ‘welfare rooms’ offering ear plugs, bottles of water, and snacks. “The Union has made the choice to amplify a voice that actively harms trans students, trans people and the trans community at large” wrote one student politician, “we’re tired of [the Union’s] refusal to listen to the communities they hurt” insisted another. It was as if Stock was a rampaging bully on the playground, knocking other children to the ground, and her critics were leaping to the defence of the persecuted toddlers.
Witnessing the backlash against her, you’d never guess that Stock’s only sin is to offer a careful academic critique of the doctrine of gender identity – that is, the claim that one can become a member of the opposite sex (or some other identity category in between) merely by force of will. As she reiterated in her Oxford Union speech, to reject this doctrine is not to deny the humanity of trans people, but rather to balance their interests against those of other people, particularly women.
But I am by no means the first to notice an unexpected feature of the crowds that formed outside the Oxford Union this week, and indeed all of the crowds that congregate in support of trans activism (now a regular occurrence, and not just in the Anglosphere). While the occasional acts of outright aggression are overwhelmingly committed by men, the crowds in general are mostly composed of young women.
Polling reveals this to be a wider pattern. In the UK, women – and particularly young women – are far more supportive of trans activism than are their male counterparts. The same gap can be seen in US polling. The public figures who have received the most flak for their criticisms of trans activism are disproportionately women – I’m thinking not only of Kathleen Stock, but also of JK Rowling – and yet so, too, are the movement’s most devoted allies. This is, in the main, an intra-female conflict.
But if trans activism poses a threat to women’s interests – as Stock and Rowling insist that it does – then why have so many women come out in support of it? I want to propose two explanations for this seeming paradox.
Firstly, in socioeconomic terms, the women who have the most to lose from the disintegration of female-only spaces – prisoners and domestic abuse victims, for instance – are not actually the same women who are draping themselves in blue and pink flags outside the Oxford Union. This is a textbook example of what Rob Henderson has termed a ‘luxury belief’ – an idea that confers status on the rich, while causing harm to the poor.
But then I am begging the question, because why on earth would trans activism confer status on the rich, or indeed anyone? This is where we come to the second factor: the extraordinarily well-documented differences in personality that have been observed between male and female populations cross-culturally.
Note that there is a crucial distinction to be drawn between average and absolute differences. It is not true that all men or all women exhibit only masculine or feminine personality traits, in the same way that not all women are short and not all men are tall – rather, average differences between the sexes are obvious only at the population level.
One trait on which men and women differ substantially is agreeableness. To put it bluntly, women are usually nicer than men – that is, they are “more nurturing, tenderminded, and altruistic more often and to a greater extent than men,” as psychologist Professor Yanna Weisberg puts it.
This nurturing instinct often finds its way into polling on political questions. For instance, a typical study from 2017 asked 3,014 college students the following question: “If you had to choose, which do you think is more important, a diverse and inclusive society or protecting free speech rights.” 61% of male students chose to prioritise free speech, compared with only 35% of female students – exactly what you would expect from two populations that differ in this most crucial of traits.
Don’t think that I’m bashing agreeableness per se – it’s one of those personality traits that really does offer advantages and disadvantages all along the spectrum. Disagreeable people are often rude, but they can also be refreshingly honest; agreeable people are often pleasant, but they are easily taken advantage of. Think of agreeableness as motherese: soothing and lovely in the right circumstances, cloying and foolish in the wrong ones.
The problems arise when an agreeable style of politics gloms onto a group that seems to offer plentiful opportunities for babying. Right now, it is trans people who have found themselves in the hot seat (or the high chair). For just one example of this babying tendency in action, observe the progressive response when then-66 year old Caitlyn Jenner came out as trans (a response parodied exquisitely in a South Park episode titled ‘Stunning and Brave’). When Glamour honoured Jenner as the magazine’s 2015’ Woman of the Year' – despite the fact that Jenner had not yet lived as a woman for a full year – I couldn’t help but hear the high pitched notes of motherese (“you look so pretty sweetie”, “well done that was very brave.”)
Observe, too, the trans celebrity Dylan Mulvaney’s recent appearance on Drew Barrymore’s talkshow, which culminated with Barrymore kneeling on the ground, looking Mulvaney straight in the eye, and offering a heartfelt pep talk on self-love. Some gender critical feminists looked at this scene and saw a woman prostrating herself before a man. What I saw was a mother kneeling down to reassure a young child – for some bizarre reason, Barrymore was speaking motherese to a grown adult on national TV.
At the risk of stating the obvious, trans people are not babies. Nor are they pets. They do not need earplugs and snacks to withstand an academic discussion, and they do not need to be spoken to like toddlers. Real two-year-olds may benefit from the gentleness of motherese. The rest of us need to grow up.
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