Public debate and conversation is not in great shape. There are siren voices, hatred, bigotry, intolerance and insult, along with false claims and flags, and an endless set of exchanges that aid obfuscation and avoid wider understanding. Such behaviours do not always come from marginal voices but from people in institutional power and even – in some cases – from government offices.
There never really was a 'golden age' of public debate. The Scottish Enlightenment may have changed the world, but it was never as Andrew Marr once claimed that: 'all Edinburgh engaged in a public conversation'. It was not even called 'the Enlightenment' until the early 20th century – 1909 to be specific – but things were never like they are now.
In Scotland, this state of affairs is often linked to the independence question. The language cited by one side is of a 'bitter, divisive referendum' that 'tore families apart', while on the other side is a sense of injustice and of being unfairly robbed, citing 'The Vow', Gordon Brown and the BBC.
But in recent times there has been nothing else like the legacy of bitterness and distress injected into public life by the trans debate and mutual antagonism on both sides. This has not just bordered on hate but has sometimes exemplified it – and denied the right of the other side to exist.
It isn't going away and has left festering wounds. This is despite the Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) Act being passed by the Scottish Parliament, then struck down by a Section 35 order by the Secretary of State for Scotland Alister Jack – the first time this has happened in the 24-year history of the Scottish Parliament.
None of us get everything right. None of us communicate perfectly all the time, listen all the time, and engage and show respect to others in ways beyond improvement. Similarly, people in public life must recognise the right of others to hold different views from their own, and that there might well be merit in them. And that all of us make mistakes – myself included.
The bigger picture matters. People have to take ownership of their own words. And we need to find ways to reach common ground and a shared language, and ways of understanding each other.
To go back to the toxic trans debate. There is a case for both trans rights and women's rights – and for respecting both. And for calling out excesses on the extremes of both sides – of the insult of TERFs, of going after and bullying people like Joanna Cherry; or, on the other side, of transphobia and denying the right of trans people to exist.
Looking at this in a more nuanced way, much of the historic debate on equality and rights was an incremental march of progress and greater empowerment of people previously marginalised. The current trans debate has posed something different. It is more about the framing of the rights of one group (trans people) in a manner that it is seen to encroach and challenge the rights of another (women) who have faced obstacles and discriminations through the ages and still do.
For this to ever reach some conclusion we must reframe how we think of equality and rights. It cannot be seen as just incremental progress. Nor can it just be seen as zero-sum game. This needs some serious reflection. Otherwise the trans rights debate will merely be the first in a series of high-wire public debates filled with contestation, charge and counter charge, and bile and hatred that make it hard to see who exactly gains.
One of the big takeaways from the above and from recent times is how we listen to each other, and how we move beyond distortive, dysfunctional binaryism, with its black and white 'othering' and Manichean view of the universe. In short, how do we come together, find common ground, language and values, and respect, listen and comprehend views other than our own? And in so doing, how do we move beyond being keyboard warriors and the mythology of the sovereign self, into something more inclusive and accepting?
Underlying all of this is what do we do in Scotland, the UK and West, if not quite after God, then after the retreat of official Christianity? Once upon a time – maybe in Scotland and the UK into the 1940s and even 1950s – Christianity informed our sense of who we were, how we engaged with others, the moral parameters and ethics we live by, and our sense (or not) of mutual obligations in society.
Today such assumptions no longer hold in what can increasingly seem like a Wild West shoot-out. How do we find a moral code, set of values and language to live by? And why are we every day moving even further away from trying?
This question (or set of questions) is fundamental to being human and retaining our common humanity, and is something that great thinkers and writers have mused on. George Orwell, for example, presciently saw that in a world where religion and faith could not automatically call on the allegiance of people, there were major implications in how they behave and act.
Orwell's observations over 70 years after his death are even more acute than when he posed them in the late 1930s and 1940s. How do we act at the end of a 2,000-year tradition which defined good and evil and personal morality and immorality through the idea of an afterlife and Heaven and Hell? After the fear of damnation has been removed, the thought of 'cancel culture' or being shamed on Twitter is hardly in the same league.
Orwell increasingly believed that the worship of power, and our servitude and powerlessness towards it, amounted to a new religion – a faux faith which replaced any culture of virtue and worth. This analysis informed both the core of his last two works: Animal Farm
and Nineteen Eighty-Four
. We need to reflect on these insights and consider how we not only maximise our common shared humanity but address the issues of what motivates and informs us.
We need to question the values and ethics we draw upon and are informed by, so that we can stand against and marginalise those who hate without any thought – wherever they come from. And we need to think about how we create and live by a set of ethics after Christianity, and those other secular gods which have failed: socialism and free market capitalism.
Who are we after the retreat of God?