26th May 2019
In my job as a web programmer there's a conversation I have with most new clients. It's a variation of this.
Me: "What if someone in the UK places an order of both smoked and fresh salmon and wants it delivered to a friend in the Channel Islands? Do we charge them VAT?"
And the answer is always:
"That hardly ever happens. You don't have to worry about it".
There then follows around 5 minutes of me explaining why I do have to worry about it. This is known as an 'edge case', something unlikely or rare which nevertheless has to be planned for.
It's hardly something restricted to software - edge cases are just as important in day to day life. If the government decided to have different speed limits for motorbikes and cars based on the number of wheels they have, a Reliant Robin owner worried about points on his license doesn't get told "it doesn't matter, there aren't very many of you". The law should be drafted to give certainty even for the edge cases.
I can't help thinking my need to consider edge cases in my work life spills over to influence my political opinions.
Recently the SNP and the independence movement in Scotland, (at least on social media) has been riven by an argument nothing to do with independence. It's over the right of people to self-ID as the sex they want to live their life as.
Clearly this is in no way an SNP or Scottish only issue. It's likely to affect all political parties before long. It may have hit the SNP early due to the large number of high-profile women it has, many of them gay. But also because Stuart Campbell, the influential Wings Over Scotland pro-independence blogger has taken a very strong stance against self-ID.
I greatly admire Stu. He's fantastic at analysis and holding the media and politicians to account. He is hated by lots of people who ascribe many faults to him, which he's not shy in repudiating forcefully, online and in the courts if he feels the need. Not many of us can point to a legal decision categorically stating we are not homophobic.
But I get the feeling he likes to see things in black and white, as undoubtedly do a huge proportion of his many followers. And I don't think that sex-based rights is a subject where that is helpful.
Are Mhairi Black and Joanna Cherry at loggerheads, daggers-drawn, holding utterly opposed positions on this issue? Or are they both feminists, supporters of equality, but with nuanced differences which lead to them taking slightly different views on some of the details of how to progress? I suggest the second is true, but it feeds the argument of people who prefer to see things in black and white to push the first scenario.
The idea that this argument can be taken forward through polarised arguments is nonsense - it will only lead to entrenched positions and prevent us from compromising when compromise offers the only solution.
I strongly support society helping everyone to lead their lives the way they want. If self-ID helps this, I support it. On the other hand, I don't want one part of society to gain rights if it's at the expense of the valid rights of another part. I, for instance, strongly sympathise with those who want to protect women's sporting competition from the distortions caused by entrants with the undoubted advantages being born male gives them.
But the sporting issue brings up an aspect of the argument which I don't think has received enough thought, and this is where the edge cases come in. I'm not talking about the Caster Semenya case here - that's an entirely different issue. What I'm talking about is how near-future improvements in medical technology complicate this argument.
The black and white argument is that women have XX chromosomes and men have XY, and never the twain shall meet. But if I give my wife a kidney, a small part of her body will be XY. Should this preclude her from women's sport? I'm guessing nobody believes it should.
But what of a young woman whose life is saved by a heart, lung and liver transplant from a male donor, which gives her significant pulmonary benefits over other women? Should she be allowed to compete in women's sport? Again, I'd guess most people would think she should. Would you?
But suppose it turns out she didn't need it to save her life? That she elected to have the operation solely in order to win an Olympic gold? What now?
These are the edge cases. And in a world of improving medical technology the edges are only going to become more and more blurred. When the time comes that head transplants are possible, or that a person's entire genome can be edited, how then do we decide who can compete in women's sport, or which changing room a person is allowed to use?
These technologies are not so far in the future that we can ignore them. It might be only a decade or two. 3 or 4 Olympics away.
The distinctions between male and female are disappearing. It's quite possible that a baby girl born today could be an entirely genetically and functionally complete man by the time they are 40.
Arguing about changing rooms now is like passionately arguing over the number of horse troughs in a city at the same time as Henry Ford is building his production line. It's pointless and will be overtaken by technology.
I've once tried to make this argument on Twitter with an opponent of self-ID. It didn't go well - I was accused of wishing for the extinction of women, which is nonsense and shows how difficult it is to discuss this subject with people who hold polarised views. Technological advances will continue whether I wish for them or not. Men and women will continue to exist irrespective of my wishes. But so will an ever increasing number of people whose sex and gender don't conform to the black and white viewpoint.
Medical technology advances will also change and blur what it means to be disabled or able, and how we decide on what people's race is. We need to change our emphasis on equality for some sections of humanity to one of ensuring equality for every individual person.
It's time for society and political parties to recognise this and start planning for the future rather than trying to plan for the past.☝