May 19, 2022

Why John Dickson’s Undeceptions Trans Gender Podcast Episode is 73% Good

John Dickson’s Undeceptions podcast is undoubtedly the best Christian podcast in Australia in terms of content, production values, and breadth. It also has that elusive ingredient; the ability to take crunchy, high fibre material and break it down into manageable, masticable morsels.

I must confess I have come to listening to it later in the journey, but am sensing a dire need for some binge listening. Perhaps I need to do some country driving (though about ten hours flying next week might help with the catch up). Plenty of goodies in the back catalogue to get me through the evening flight back to Perth from Sydney.

Dickson has for many years been at the cutting edge of the apologetics scene in Australia (and beyond) across a variety of media, and Undeceptions is the latest iteration. It’s a podcast well worthy of your – longish – commute.

The most recent episode, Trans Gender is no exception. Given what is going on in the cultural discourse, it is a brave and noble goal for a Christian man to create such an episode in podcast form. It’s out there. And if the purpose of Undeceptions is as claimed on the can: “Advocating for the Christian faith in a sceptical world”, it’s doing a good job. A very good job.

As someone who has written and spoken into this space in recent years, and having received some hostility online for doing so, you have to believe that John would not have tackled this topic lightly. We’ve all seen the response to the likes of JK Rowling, who is basically trolled and doxxed 24/7 for daring to tackle the corporate, cultural and legal narrative around this issue (but more of that later). And that cuts both ways, as John indicated about the comments he received on social media when he mooted his topic.

So after listening to the episode, here are some of my reflections on what is both good about the episode in the current debate, but also some observations about where I want some more, given the podcast advertises itself thus:

undeceive: to free from deception, illusion or error

Every week on Undeceptions, we’ll explore some aspect of life, faith, history, culture, or ethics that is either much misunderstood or mostly forgotten. With the help of people who know what they’re talking about, we’ll be trying to ‘undeceive ourselves’, and let the truth ‘out’.

Now I have to confess, my “73 per cent Good” is not an arbitrary rating plucked from the air, merely a cheeky little poke at John after he said my book Being the Guys, (about which he was effusive and generous in his praise), was 73 per cent right. I see you sir, and I match you (replete with effusive and generous praise also), as I explore this episode! And in the conviction that thesis and antithesis form synthesis, here is my not so anti (indeed quite glowing) antithesis:

The 73 Per Cent I Liked About The Episode

  1. It’s irenic: In the heat of the culture wars around the trans gender issue, John cuts through that with a sense of calm, compassion and Christlike peace. There is something of the non-anxious presence about him in this medium. Super helpful.
  2. It’s personal. John traverses the often hard trans border and shares the story of a trans woman, Dana, who has a story to tell, or as John puts it of us all, “a lived experience”. In the current toxic online shoutiness, there was something special about honouring a person enough to hear their story and empathise. A truly worthy turn.
  3. It’s honest. John allows Dana to be honest, and he himself is honest. He puts his opinions out there on these matters, and isn’t afraid to show that he goes against the grain in ways that could get him “cancelled” by ardent ideologues (probably on both ends of the spectrum of this issue). That’s brave.
  4. It’s intellectual: John has Wheaton scholar, and clinical psychologist, Mark Yarhouse, on the show, and he is a world leader (in the Christian world at least) in speaking, thinking and clinical practise in the area of gender identity. Yarhouse also exhibits the warmth and intellectual robustness that is a signature of John’s public ministry over the years.
  5. It’s pastoral: This is a great episode to sit and listen to if you are a paid or lay leader in pastoral ministry in the church. This issue, and the foundational framework that it explores, is something that the church, and other alternate ethical communities, are grappling with, either unsuccessfully or unwittingly. If you’re a staff leader in a church, assign this episode as homework for your team, then get together and discuss it.
  6. It’s challenging: I came away from this podcast challenged to explore the deep complexities of the trans issue even more than I already have. There were plenty of nuances there, especially around Mark Yarhouse’s unpacking of the variety of Christian responses, and their strengths and weaknesses (yes, even YOUR position has its weaknesses!) when dealing with this matter.
  7. It’s inquiring: When it comes to actually listening and actually asking questions that cut through (questions that we’re sitting listening to and going “Yes that’s what I want to know!”), John has few peers. Lord deliver us from being know-it-alls who have stopped asking questions. John is an example par excellence of a good listener in an age when few do.

There’s probably another few things in there too that add up to 73 per cent.

So What About the 27 Per Cent?

So what didn’t I like about the episode? Well, nothing! I liked it. I liked it a lot! It’s probably only this: it left me wanting something more – the missing 27 per cent. Just over a quarter of my mind was still wondering “Now what do I do with that beyond my private relationships with people?” I wanted a public undeception moment because so much of the heat is not in terms of private relationships, but how we live with deep public differences in a fracturing culture. Now perhaps John would say that Undeceptions is not that podcast, and if you want that podcast, then go to the effort of producing one yourself McAlpine! (which I might, but which would nowhere near the quality of John’s work).

But if, as Undeceptions says of itself, the aim is to “undeceive” ourselves and “let the truth out” then for me the biggest deception around the trans issue is that the many Christian and non-Christians, both self-identifying conservative and self-identifying progressive, believe that the true deception being experienced around this matter is a public deception. Undeception needs to occur on a public scale too. The truth, in order to be unleashed, and therefore to truly be true, has to be acknowledged as public truth, or at least admitted into the realms of possibility.

I can hold the tension of, when being asked by someone privately to use their preferred pronouns, to do so on the basis of their “lived experience”, and plenty of Christian clinicians have been doing this for years. But when state coercion is increasingly requiring people to affirm what they believe to be a deception in the public realm, then something more deceptive is going on, something that is incredibly self-deceptive at the level of the social imaginary. The real heat in this issue is not private, it’s very, very public.

The queering of our culture requires a “social imaginary” – an accepted public givenness about reality – in which the very conception that truth might be otherwise is a priori rejected, or reduced to the realm of private belief, unfit for and unwelcome in the public domain. Now in a sense this is what one must expect of a culture that has turned its back on the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Indeed that’s par for the course.

But to roll over and acquiesce to putting a pinch of incense on the altar to Caesar publicly, while holding whatever views you wish to privately, has always been a bridge too far for Christians. History has not viewed kindly those Christians who wished it both ways. And of course it’s not a case of sexual identity issues being the gospel, but they are integral parts of its outworking. No Roman citizen truly believed that Caesar was saviour and lord in any functionally ultimate sense, but the Emperor cult was required to be affirmed by all publicly for the sake of social cohesion. And social cohesion is the mantra of the day around this matter.

Simply put I don’t think Christians are all that perturbed about what they would believe are the self-deceived, private lives of trans people any more than they are perturbed about the self-deceived private lives of any other persons (insofar as it doesn’t affect them). But that’s not what is happening here. When the perceived deception is both public and prosecuted by cultural, corporate and legislative power, then something different is happening altogether in terms of deceit.

Former Czech dissident, poet and President, Vaclav Havel, in his seminal piece on state authoritarianism, The Power of the Powerless utilises a memorable example of the green grocer living under a suffocating regime that merely requires public allegiance to the social imaginary. The green grocer has a sign in his shop front window: “Workers of the world, unite!”

Vaclav’s piece is lengthy, but his main question is this: What is to be gained (or lost) by the green grocer placing that sign in his shop window, a sign he clearly has no allegiance to? Why this sign, and not say, something that reflects his “lived experience” such as “I am afraid and therefore unquestionably obedient”. Vaclav posits:

…his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.

Note those words “conceal from himself” The person most being deceived is himself. By himself. For the sake of himself. That’s how ideologies work against truth.

Now I don’t think for a minute that this podcast episode was deceptive. Not at all. But for the average Christian in a progressive work environment that coercively advocates a social imaginary (and neither John nor Mark work in a secular setting), this requirement to publicly self-deceive has became a huge stress point. I have those pastoral conversations all of the time. I rarely, if ever, meet a Christian who does not wish to be kind to a trans person, but not at the expense of their own intellectual, moral or spiritual integrity in the public square. As John rightly pointed out, this issue has come down to one of competing rights.

Which does raise another matter in my 27 per cent. A caveat on the show notes may well have been: “No cisgendered female was interviewed in the production of this podcast.” John, Mark and Dana were all assigned male at birth. John rightly alluded to the lived experiences of many women in this matter, especially in terms of sports involvement. The likes of JK Rowling and Abigail Shrier have paid a high price for being women speaking out about what it means to be a woman in a social imaginary well on the way to erasing the term from all shop signs that go into all shop windows. Yet no women, the gender with the most to lose and, bravely, often the most to say, were on the show.

John noted Shrier’s book, Irreversible Damage, but his introductory descriptor of her was “polarising”. That too is part of the social imaginary in which every large corporation that controls the book trade attempted to punch down on Shrier. I have read her book, and the truly polarising elements in the current debate are the ideologues attempting to shut her down. John rightly pointed out that the average trans person is not an ideologue, so we must deal with who presents in front of us, not a caricature bred by social media hostilities. But just because there were more green grocers than politicians in Havel’s authoritarian state, does not mean that they held the balance of power. They certainly didn’t shape the public discourse.

A cursory look at the field of clinical psychology in Australia would prove this point. As Yarhouse noted, the field is struggling to deal with the whole trans issue, and partly this is because there are certain stances on trans that, while privately held by individual psychologists, are being squeezed out in that clinical field’s social imaginary. Self-selection means that solutions may be ignored, to the public ill, because the social imaginary has declared that only affirming positions will lead to better outcomes. Alternate viewpoints, are occasionally backed with evidence. But it’s all stated sotto voce, and carefully labelled with a dozen caveats. Perhaps things may change, but it will be slow and painful. (thanks to Michael Paget for pointing me to a more recent statement by the professional body representing psychiatrists in Australia at odds with the psychological profession).

The obvious problem is that if you are not permitted to declare the problem as a problem then the problem will grow. As Shrier points out, in what other allied health profession would a client/patient’s self-diagnosis upon entering the practice be regarded as the diagnosis, one that must be affirmed and not merely not challenged, but not explored? It’s greengrocers all round.

So we see the Australian Psychological Society publish an article which states:

Therefore, it is important to consider how the treatment of young people is regulated. In particular, it will be important into the future for affirming treatment teams and gender centres to evaluate when legal action may be required if children are not receiving adequate parental support. This may include hospitals advocating to courts for treatment if it is otherwise being refused by legal guardians (i.e., with regards to puberty suppression). More broadly, it behoves all clinicians as mandated notifiers to consider when less-than-affirming approaches (either on the part of other clinicians or on the part of family members) may constitute forms of neglect, and to make reports as needed to the relevant bodies to ensure that young people receive the affirming clinical care that they need.

Perhaps the APS will soon consider signs for your clinic window, or popups on your website: “Affirming Mental Health Workers of the World Unite”. And if you are a clinician more inclined to ask questions that probe much deeper than mere surface affirmation, then a sole practice may be the way to go, for as the article notes, clinicians should take it upon themselves to report their colleagues. Those practice walls may be way too thin for your liking. Well, that is until the documentation you need to sign off for accreditation requires you to affirm what you won’t, – the pinch of incense so to speak – and then that particular profession is out of bounds to non-affirmers such as you, religious or otherwise. That’s where the public and private meet, and by then it’s a little late.

Yarhouse also points out that, in line with his field’s findings, very few gender dysphoric people de-transition. But the evidence pool is shallow on this outside of the adult cohort. Shrier’s assertion that there is a social contagion issue among teenage girls (a hitherto small group within the gender dysphoria field) fuelled by technology and advocacy means that we are ten years away from knowing who and who will not de-transition. Litigation is certainly coming, as the APS would indicate, but maybe not for the reasons it so passionately advocates for.

The earlier, and more radical, interventions are cause for alarm. I believe that the trans issue is exceptionally complex, and that Yarhouse is likely right, that most long term gender dysphoric adults who made their transitions in late teen/early adult years in the 1990s will never de-transition. And if we take social justice seriously – all social justice – then the Christian must publicly advocate for the refugee AND the rights of parents to challenge – or at least explore without fear of state intervention – what is going on in their own child’s life. That’s what Keller’s third way is going to have to look like going forward, and that’s why it will be harder, because cultural hostility will be met – is being met – with corporate and legislative hostility.

This will take time and effort. And courage, a now sadly lacking virtue in our Western setting. But as Havel lived to find out, and indeed to celebrate, a time came when the green grocer in his authoritarian state was able to rip up that sign, cease the self deceiving “low foundations of his obedience” that, united with every other green grocer’s sign, had formed a public self-deception. He was finally able to adjust to a reality he covertly believed, but had never been given the public opportunity to state, at least without huge personal cost.

Even with that liberty, self-deception costs. There is always a deep, subterranean cost to ourselves that will work itself out in our lives, imperceptibly at first, but which gathers pace the longer we have held to it. Public deception works because we allow ourselves the luxury of holding private conviction about matters that we won’t publicly commit to, and that’s usually because the personal cost of of truth-telling publicly is just too high.

John definitely touched on these things, and he did so, ironically, in a way that left me wanting more! 27 per cent more, most likely. The 90 minutes scooted past. I would have circled the block in my car for another half hour’s worth. I’d love a follow up episode which deals with the “what must be done” question for the myriad people getting up to go to an office or education system that hands them a sign, along with their weekly KPIs” and says “Here, put this in your window”. Because I think that’s where the real anxiety for Christians lies.

And that’s my 27 per cent’s worth.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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