Think, gentle reader, as you skim this column, of Galileo, one of the fathers of science and hence of freedom from assertive superstition. He looked through telescopes and observed the movement of the planets and the sun. He proceeded to assert, from his observations, that the sun didn’t circle the earth but, contrary to the firmly held doctrines and teachings of the Church, that our planet revolved and rotated, circling the sun, giving rise to day and night and to the seasons.
All hell broke loose on Twitter and Instagram. The bigots of Catholicism accused him of blasphemy! The earth doesn’t move, they insisted. The outcry led the leaders of the Church to arrest poor Galileo and subject him to a trial. If this pioneer of truth had any supporters at the time, they might have pointed out to the court, and indeed to the world, that Galileo had not called for the castration or execution of those who believed that the sun went round the earth. He hadn’t even called for the banning of all documents or teaching materials which asserted that the earth was flat or that it didn’t move.
Nevertheless, he was tried for merely saying what he had scientifically deduced. He was aware that if they found him guilty of blasphemy, he could be put to death. Such was the power of the prevalent orthodoxy. Realising this, Galileo confessed to the bigots of the Inquisition that he recanted his blasphemous outburst. Of course, the earth was the centre of the universe and, as God’s central creation, didn’t move a millimetre. He may not have been applauded by the court, but he was certainly spared twenty lashes of the whip or being burned at the stake.
The story goes that, true to his beliefs, as he left the court, he muttered to himself, or perhaps to his God if he still believed in Him, “eppur si muove” -- and yet it moves!
I don’t suppose one can quite call her the Galileo of our times but, gentle reader, here follows the story of an artist called Jess de Wahl who this week hit the headlines through a controversy which she had sparked.
Ms de Wahl is an embroidery artist, and her work is famous enough and deemed good enough to be adopted by and sold in the gallery shop of the Royal Academy of Arts. The RA is probably the premier institution run by artists of all sorts. Their permanent exhibition and other occasional displays are among the most respectable, reviewed and revered in Britain.
Apart from excellence in her floral patterns, Ms de Wahl declares a devoted, thematic commitment to feminist principles and to feminist radical activism through art. But! But she doesn’t believe that men and women can through assertion, surgery, hormone treatment or all of these, change their gender. She expressed her scepticism in a blog. She was very careful to assert that she absolutely supported the right of people to think as they like and for the political and social rights of everyone, including men who assert that they are women or women who assert that they are really men. Her reservations were about the scientific fact that you are born and grow with one gender determined by the chromosomes in your thirty trillion cells. I suppose the harshest way of putting it is that “trans-women are not really women and trans-men are not really men!”
The trans community’s representatives, if there are such people, took exception to her expressing this view. Eight people wrote to the Royal Academy to point out that the RA’s professed ethical stance was to respect and include, etc etc. The RA responded hastily and removed and banned all Ms Wahl’s exhibits and work from their shop, labelling her “transphobic”.
Ms Wahl objected, saying she had not been in any sense the perpetrator of a “hate crime” and that her freedom to express a scientifically valid view should be respected. There was, from her supporters, some mention of suing the RA for transgressing equality laws. No such action has yet been taken.
Following this row, Ms Wahl has received literally thousands of texts, tweets or whatever in support of her stance and also some nasty ones wishing that she was dead.
Her stance follows that of Harry Potter writer J.K. Rowling and feminist philosopher Germaine Greer, among others. It is also supported by feminists who object to trans-women entering women’s athletic competitions and even challenge the idea that trans-women should use women’s changing rooms and toilets and be confined in women’s prisons when they offend.
The strictures against Ms de Wahl are part of a new orthodoxy of intolerance. Of course, individuals can assert what they please about their own gender or sexuality -- though white people asserting that they are black would meet with the same intensity of strictures the orthodoxy favours. That “of course” should include the right to publicly assert scientific facts. The earth is not flat simply because I say so!