The issue is compulsion

Two stories caught my eye yesterday. Both concerning different presenting issues, in distinctly different contexts, but nonetheless stemming from the same underlying issue. I thought it worthy of some comment.

The first was the refusal of Quinton de Kock, the South African cricketer, refusing to take the knee (and subsequently deciding he would do it in future) during a T20 match against the West Indies. For balance, you can read the story covered in The Times, Daily Mail and Guardian. The other concerned the BBC being accused of transphobia for publishing an article concerning lesbian women being pressured into sex with trans women. You can read the offending article here. Again, for balance, you can read the coverage of the fallout in The Times, Daily Mail and Pink News.

My intention here isn’t to discuss the relative merits of taking the knee nor of the BBC article. You can make your own mind up about those things. My purpose here is much more focused than that. Indeed, you may be wondering what either article has to do with the other. As far as I can see, and the thing that troubles me in both cases, is the issue of pressure brought to bear such that someone is ultimately compelled to do something. Something that they may or may not ultimately be comfortable with, or actually think, but nonetheless compelled to do.

In the case of De Kock, he has been clear in his follow up comments on his position. He was not happy at being told he must take the knee. He comes from a mixed-race family himself. Nevertheless, he states:

For me, black lives have mattered since I was born. Not just because there was an international movement.

The rights and equality of all people is more important than any individual. I was raised to understand that we all have rights, and they are important. I felt like my rights were taken away when I was told what we had to do in the way that we were told.

He went on to note, in his view, the futility of the gesture:

When you are told what to do, with no discussion, I felt like it takes away the meaning. If I was racist, I could easily have taken the knee and lied, which is wrong and doesn’t build a better society.

Again, to be clear, I don’t want to get into the rights and wrong – benefits and drawbacks – of taking the knee itself. That is not my aim here. Instead, I want to focus on the issue of compulsion that clearly exercised de Kock.

It is notable that he has since agreed to take the knee in future. It is unclear whether that, of itself, is by compulsion since he was removed from the team and this is a bid to be reinstated or whether that is his particular position. Regardless, it is the compulsion to engage in a gesture that is deeply troubling.

It is notable that when the black football player, Wilfred Zaha, determined that taking a knee was a pointless gesture, he was not widely condemned for that perfectly reasonable stance. Similarly, Marcos Alonso – the white Chelsea football player – also explained that he would no longer be taking the knee and doesn’t seem to have faced the same opprobrium either. I assume because both had opportunity to explain their position before they did it.

But what stands out in de Kock’s case is that he appears to have been dropped from the South African cricket squad because of it. His U-turn on the matter appears to be prompted by the pressure brought to bear to engage in the gesture or never play again. Nobody appears to have stopped to ask the question, if de Kock really is a racist (an accusation with which many have charged him), is it likely that he would have chosen the international stage of the T20 world cup, and the specific issue of taking a knee, to announce it? If nobody was aware of it before, why would he suddenly decide to out himself by not actually doing anything racist of itself, but not engaging with a gesture he was compelled to do? I just find it odd that he would be considered a racist on those grounds. But the issue of compulsion is the important one here.

The other story concerns the BBC report regarding lesbians who are being pressured into having sexual activity with trans women, essentially on the grounds that trans women are women. Again, there is the issue of compulsion. Except, in this case, it is not a mere gesture. Unless one women is prepared to engage in sexual activity with a trans women, they will necessarily be castigated as transphobic.

The furore has risen over the implications, many believe, that the BBC is pushing a narrative that lots of trans people are preying on lesbian women and coercing them into sex. Caroline Lowbridge, the author of the story, stated in response:

Her aim was to find out how widespread the issue was across the country. She added that several people had contacted her about pressures to “accept the idea that a penis can be a female sex organ”.

The Times report:

The article said it was “difficult to determine the true scale of the problem”. It quotes a survey in which 56 per cent of 80 respondents said that they had experienced coercion to accept a sexual partner who was trans.

Whether the article is accurately portraying the scale of the issue or not is difficult to say and I don’t presume to know. What is clear from the article, however, is that it is happening with more frequency than anybody should be comfortable.

This is a similar issue to the one Jordan Peterson faced in Canada. He was castigated for allegedly refusing to use somebody’s preferred pronouns. What was interesting is that Peterson frequently affirmed that he would most likely use somebody’s preferred pronouns should they ask. His concern was not what pronoun somebody used; he was concerned about compelled speech. In a furtherance of that same thought process, the BBC article suggests in the name of affirming that “trans women are women”, we have moved beyond compelled speech to compelled action – nothing short of affirming trans women as women through sexual activity will be acceptable to some; despite what others may feel or believe about that.

In both cases – the issue highlighted by the BBC or taking the knee – the merits of either activity can be debated endlessly. I don’t intend to do that here. But the issue of compulsion is one that should trouble us all.

If I have an issue with taking the knee at all, it lies here. I have no problem with the gesture of itself. If people want to do it, and they believe it is a helpful thing to do to fight racism, have at it. I am broadly of the view that it has both lost its power and doesn’t really achieve very much in truth. I doubt we’ll be seeing boardrooms filled with black and ethnic minority people in the weeks to come, or racially motivated violence decrease, as a result of it. It certainly hasn’t happened yet. However, if others feel it is a valuable thing to do, I have no desire to stop them. Nevertheless, I do not like people being compelled to do things. I think de Kock rightly points out that to compel people to take the knee somewhat undercuts the point of the gesture itself. The irony of calling folks fascists while forcing them to take part in a form of gesture politics, threatening them with consequences such as losing their jobs, income and platforms unless they comply, seems lost on many.

Perhaps most troubling, however, is the gesture itself has now become a shibboleth. Whatever its inherent merits, to not do it is now a proxy for being a racist. The speed at which de Kock was inferred to be racist because he didn’t do it is instructive. His actual reasons for not wanting to do it – and you can agree or disagree with him over them – were deemed unimportant. His refusal was, by definition, evidence he was a racist. Which, as I noted earlier, would be both an odd way and a very strange stage on which to announce that to the world. But much like authoritarians of the past, the gesture is all and a refusal to engage, or being the first to stop, will not be tolerated.

It is reminiscent of this passage from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago:

At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up (just as everyone had leaped to his feet during the conference at every mention of his name). For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the stormy applause, rising to an ovation, continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin.

However, who would dare to be the first to stop? … After all, NKVD men were standing in the hall applauding and watching to see who would quit first! And in the obscure, small hall, unknown to the leader, the applause went on – six, seven, eight minutes! They were done for! Their goose was cooked! They couldn’t stop now till they collapsed with heart attacks! At the rear of the hall, which was crowded, they could of course cheat a bit, clap less frequently, less vigorously, not so eagerly – but up there with the presidium where everyone could see them?

The director of the local paper factory, an independent and strong-minded man, stood with the presidium. Aware of all the falsity and all the impossibility of the situation, he still kept on applauding! Nine minutes! Ten! In anguish he watched the secretary of the District Party Committee, but the latter dared not stop. Insanity! To the last man! With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers! And even then those who were left would not falter…

Then, after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a business like expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved!

The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel. That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed Form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him:

“Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding.”

It is precisely the same approach taken by Saddam Hussein. He committed his crimes in public and then ensured that loyalty would follow. You can find video clips of this very event, which are chilling, but as the Atlantic reported:

On July 18, 1979, he invited all the members of the Revolutionary Command Council and hundreds of other party leaders to a conference hall in Baghdad. He had a video camera running in the back of the hall to record the event for posterity. Wearing his military uniform, he walked slowly to the lectern and stood behind two microphones, gesturing with a big cigar. His body and broad face seemed weighted down with sadness. There had been a betrayal, he said. A Syrian plot. There were traitors among them. Then Saddam took a seat, and Muhyi Abd al-Hussein Mashhadi, the secretary-general of the Command Council, appeared from behind a curtain to confess his own involvement in the putsch. He had been secretly arrested and tortured days before; now he spilled out dates, times, and places where the plotters had met. Then he started naming names. As he fingered members of the audience one by one, armed guards grabbed the accused and escorted them from the hall. When one man shouted that he was innocent, Saddam shouted back, “Itla! Itla!“—”Get out! Get out!” (Weeks later, after secret trials, Saddam had the mouths of the accused taped shut so that they could utter no troublesome last words before their firing squads.) When all of the sixty “traitors” had been removed, Saddam again took the podium and wiped tears from his eyes as he repeated the names of those who had betrayed him. Some in the audience, too, were crying—perhaps out of fear. This chilling performance had the desired effect. Everyone in the hall now understood exactly how things would work in Iraq from that day forward. The audience rose and began clapping, first in small groups and finally as one. The session ended with cheers and laughter. The remaining “leaders”—about 300 in all—left the hall shaken, grateful to have avoided the fate of their colleagues, and certain that one man now controlled the destiny of their entire nation. Videotapes of the purge were circulated throughout the country.

Whilst, of course, we are not into firing squads and labour camps – nobody thinks those things are happening here – we are following the same playbook. The “consequences” might be different – it may be losing your job, your home, being hounded publicly, harassed online, there may even be some violent “direct action” at times – but the setup remains the same. Engage in the gestures, affirm the views, do as we say or face the consequences.

I remember laughing at somebody years ago who insisted that, with the LGBT+ movement, soon it will not be good enough to simply state that one is not gay, we will all be compelled to try it out before being allowed to demur. I still find that broadly ridiculous – I don’t think we are heading toward legislation of compelled sexual activity. But I do note that for lesbian women, who are not convinced trans women are in point of fact women, what I suspect remains a ludicrous suggestion more broadly does not appear as incredible as it first appeared for them.

Whilst I doubt we will all be forced to have sex with gay people just to check we’re still straight, it does seem that some – in the name of affirming that trans women are women – are at least being put under some significant pressure to engage in sexual activity because doing other would not affirm that particular position. And to not affirm it is to deny it. And to deny it is to shatter the deeply held identity of that person. And to shatter their identity will lead to suicide. And if it prevents suicide, it seems right to ensure we stop that from happening. So if that means you affirming what you don’t believe, to prevent a death, you better get with the programme or, as ever, face the consequences. And what sympathy will there be for someone actively inducing or inciting suicide? You’ll only be getting what you deserve.