The moral high ground can be a treacherous place

Jo Brand: joked about "throwing battery acid" at Right-wing politicians
BBC comedian Jo Brand joked about "throwing battery acid" at Right-wing politicians Credit: Jay Williams

Almost daily, I witness a cyclist fly gaily down the one-way street on which I live… in the wrong direction. Roughly half of these aren’t wearing helmets and a mind-blowing quarter are plugged into headphones. But none of this matters, because cyclists have the moral high ground.

That it’s their own lives they’re putting in danger makes them unusual, it struck me on Sunday, as I read about the breach of privacy that has been revealed to have taken place within the leading UK transgender charity, Mermaids.

Moral high-grounders tend to casually imperil others, not themselves. And what better example of the breed’s dangerous mix of thoughtlessness, arrogance and defiance could there be than Mermaids’ accidental leakage of confidential data?

We now know that 1,000 pages of private emails sent between 2016 and 2017 – including anguished confidential messages from parents detailing their children’s suffering, as well as names, addresses and telephone numbers – were accidentally uploaded onto the internet for anyone to view.

It was an accident: no question. Anyone who has ever listened to CEO Susie Green’s TED talk on the very personal story behind her involvement with Mermaids - and the daughter Green took to Thailand for full gender reassignment surgery aged 16 – cannot doubt the authenticity of her beliefs and motives.

Susie Green, chief executive of Mermaids, with daughter Jackie, whom she took to Thailand aged 16 to undergo full gender reassignment Credit:  Ken McKay/REX/Shutterstock

But neither conviction nor authenticity automatically makes one a force for good; that much history has taught us.

And in this case, I suspect both played their part in the shameful accident that resulted in the leaking of emails from the mother of a nine-year-old trans boy struggling to cope with his transition (“I have wondered if we have done the right thing… But I didn’t feel that I had a choice. He was telling me how much he hated himself and tugging at his clothes”), and the experiences of another, whose trans son – born a girl – would wet himself on purpose in order to be given boys’ clothes by his nursery teachers.

Because as a former IT consultant, Green should have paid closer attention. And why, in any case, were these confidential emails being uploaded for correspondence with the charity’s trustees, which is far from usual?

But when you have the moral high ground, it can make you as careless and risk-prone as those cyclists or Jo Brand, who thought it would be funny to suggest “throwing battery acid” at (Right-wing) politicians – so blinded are you by the bigger picture righteousness of your mission.

As calls for Green to resign multiply, I wonder whether far from making her the best person for the job, it’s precisely the authentic and personal nature of Green’s beliefs that is making her a liability.

Isn’t it because she’s ‘on the side of the angels’, that the Mermaids CEO – who has been nominated as Role Model in the National Diversity Awards and lauded for convincing the National Lottery Community Fund to award the charity £500,000 over five years – has been strident enough to make what could be seen as her biggest ‘blunders’ to date?

Yes, Mermaids wanted to make some noise, and yes, the charity was always going to be considered ‘controversial’ at a time in which we attempt to make a big and long-needed leap forward.

But over the course of her tenure at Mermaids, the charity has become one of the most controversial in Britain, continually butting heads with the NHS in its efforts to refer children as young as four to the Tavistock Centre and overturn an NHS ban on under-16s being treated with cross-sex hormones, which cause permanent body changes and compromise fertility.

In that time, Green – a consultant on the ITV drama, Butterfly, which promoted the line “I’d rather have a happy daughter than a dead son” – has also repeatedly been accused of exaggerating trans suicide statistics (with her claims that 48 per cent of ‘trans youth’ have attempted suicide widely discredited). She has engaged in several foul-mouthed Twitter tirades, and last year reported a Catholic journalist to the police for “deliberately misgendering” her daughter in Tweets – claiming it was a “hate crime” – before subsequently dropping the allegations.

It’s understandable that a mother with Green’s experience would feel as passionate and emotive about helping others as she clearly does. And beyond the profuse apology Mermaids promptly issued on Sunday – an apology making the important point that the leaked information “could not be found” online unless you were expressly looking for it – one imagines the CEO must feel personally devastated by the breach.

But the fact remains that, far from showing the support and sensitivity Mermaids was expressly set up to provide, the charity has only made those children and parents feel more vulnerable.

And maybe what’s needed in a debate that has become foul-mouthed and uncivilised to a degree that has only entrenched views on both sides, is an acknowledgement that heading blindly and defiantly into oncoming traffic, ears plugged, isn’t just dangerous but self-defeating.

Read Celia Walden's weekly column on every Monday from 7pm