Democracy Café, September

First in person meeting since the Covid crisis struck

After a long hiatus, we were delighted to hold a democracy café again in the flesh so to speak and at a new venue in Brown Street. Some will remember the Alzheimer building opposite the car park. This has now been bought and is now a mixed venue, café and bar. Numbers were smaller than when we last met in person at the Playhouse but we hope to build up to previous numbers as time goes by.

The topic which won most votes concerned issues of biological sex, gender and how we balance being inclusive and intrusive. There has been a lot of government interest in this topic for example cloning, choice of gender, human fertilisation and immunology. It is an issue which many politicians find embarrassing and too difficult to deal with.

It was agreed that public opinion has come a long way: it was not too long ago that homosexuality was illegal. Despite these changes, the issue of toilets and changing rooms was still a sensitive one. Women are still a little uneasy about transgender women using female toilets and changing rooms. It touched on women feeling vulnerable in society as a whole and the after effects of the Sarah Everade murder.

It was pointed out however that the Green Party is split on the issue of trans rights and it has been a major problem for them.

Was it a feature of British prudery? Visitors to the Low Countries often found women collecting money in men’s toilets and in some parts of southern Europe, male toilets were open to public view.

The point was made that to an extent it was a generational issue. Some people of mature years did find the ideas of changed genders and similar matters, difficult to accept although it was pointed out that not all people over 60 are intolerant!

The discussion moved on to more clinical matters. The question of sexing a baby was not always obvious at birth and doctors sometimes had to decide. The ‘true’ sex then becomes apparent at puberty which can clearly cause distress. There are also around 8 to 10 thousand people born each year who’s sex is indeterminate. This was not the same as people who are gay.

Perhaps the final comment was that there were political consequences which arise from how we think. This was a complex and sensitive topic and the implications for some individuals, are profound.

The second topic was the balance between a government having powers to protect the population versus the individual’s right to liberty and the right to choose. This has arisen in the case of the current Covid crisis and a suggested requirement that all people working in health or care should be vaccinated.

The first question was ‘who’s liberty?’ The state has a responsibility to protect its citizens. Where the state has taken action, for example with the law on wearing seat belts, the aim was to protect the wearer. It would also save costs with medical and social care resulting from an injury to someone not wearing a belt. In the case of vaccination, it was to help society as a whole. We were reminded of diseases such as polio, smallpox and diphtheria which have been eliminated from our society due to past vaccination programmes.

During the war, everyone had to have blackout to protect the population as a whole.

One of the problems today is that we have social media which is able to promote antivax views. This had contributed to a lack of trust in the government. Trust was essential in vaccination programmes since the government is asking citizens to forgo a piece of individual liberty in return for improved safety for the community as a whole. The government were doing little to counter mis and disinformation. There were vaccination risks for a small number of people so it came down to a matter of balance: a risk for a small number in contrast to benefits for the many.

There were some who felt that ‘their body was theirs’ and it was up to them to decide on vaccination. Long term side effects were another worry.

It was noted that government was trying to shift responsibility onto the people. They had retreated from laying down hard and fast rules into offering advice and guidance. Was this valid in the case of a virus as dangerous as Covid? Another point was that the government often seemed to be primarily concerned at the risk of the NHS being overrun.

Two difficult topics without clear answers to either. Perhaps a common theme was that society was complex. There were no certainties. All policy interventions were a balance of risks. In these circumstances, access to good and unbiased information was crucial. Trust in government and its agencies was crucial and this loss of trust was much to be regretted.

We shall be meeting in Brown St. next for next month’s meeting which is on 9th October starting at 10:00 as usual