Why low stakes issues dominate discourse

A question I have pondered is, why are low-stakes issues so persistent in terms of discourse? The issues of trans rights and pronoun usage has exploded in recent years, since 2017 especially, after Trump won and Dr. Jordan Peterson became so popular. This includes: people choosing their preferred pronouns, gender fluidity, trans people in sports, if kids should be able (or if they are capable) of choosing what gender they want to be, and trans bathrooms. In the grand scheme of things, none of these issues are big deal (at least not relative to things such as foreign policy , the economy, and Covid), but they have exploded onto the stage of political discourse, especially online on Reddit and Twitter with equal or greater intensity of debate that rivals that of Covid and other more urgent/pressing issues. Not only that, unlike the Lebanon explosion, which was a huge deal for a couple days but has a relatively short self-life in terms of public interest and debate, the trans debates will keep raging on for years to come.

A recent study showed that only .6% of adults in the US identify as transgender, and of those, a far tinnier percentage compete or wish to compete in sports, yet trans bathrooms, trans people competing against cis-people in sports, and other trans issues, have engendered considerable debate, especially online in recent years. Blacks are only 13% of the US population, yet the media allocates a considerably higher percentage of its airtime to issues and topics pertaining to African Americans, such as BLM, police brutality against blacks, racism, reparations, etc. Or an even extreme example of this, the Trump travel ban, which in spite of the huge media coverage and comparisons to Nazism by by the left, the number of people actually denied entry by the ban was in the low double-digits. Or supposed humans rights violations against Uyghurs in China. There are only 10 million on them in mainland China out of a total population of 1.34 billion, yet the Western media is obsessed with it.

Although democracy and free speech give individuals a voice, it is a rather faint one, (a single vote or even hundreds of votes are statistically unlikely to determine the outcome of an election), so it is more effective for activists and the media to focus on individuals and small marginalized groups, than having such efforts diluted by focusing on large groups even if there are more total people affected or more total suffering. George Floyd dying is a tragedy worthy of constant media coverage, but hundreds of blacks dying every week due to violence perpetrated by others blacks? Not so much.

Perhaps a reason why the trans and pronoun debates are so enduring is that neither side can claim victory, and the inability of either side to make their argument concrete in any objective or scientific sense. We can all agree explosions are bad and Covid deaths are bad, but there is no consensus if masks work (or are effective enough to justify they be mandatory) or if social distancing works, so mask wearing and social distancing are the issues the dominate even if they are low-stakes relative to thousands of people dying. Neither side can summon enough evidence win the debate and win over doubters. There are no studies that definitively prove mask wearing or social distancing does or does not work; it seemed to work better in some countries than others, but there are too many other factors to know for sure either way. Slavery used to be a hotly debated topic in the US, but not anyone because everyone seems to be in agreement that slavery is bad, but it took a long time and bloodshed (a civil war) to get there, so either that is a sign of optimism or pessimism depending on how you look at it (although such issues can be reconciled, it is not without possibly great cost).

But even if the preponderance of evidence favors a certain side, some people are so emotionally or psychologically invested in a certain position, they they cannot concede the debate. But even studies by reputable individuals and institutions can be riffle with errors or flat-out wrong, such as the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team, lead by epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, which in Early March published a dire report about Covid, that in hindsight vastly overestimated the IFR.

In the case of pronouns and trans issues, again, neither side can decisively ‘win’ or prove their position as correct. Joe Rogan really takes a concerted stand in opposing trans women competing against cic-women, and I agree with him that trans women have an unfair advantage, but there is no good solution either. Excluding trans women is seen as unfair, but there are not enough of them to create a league either. In regard to trans bathrooms, again, no one knows the correct or optimal approach to the issue; should there be separate bathrooms for trans people or allow trans people to choose whatever bathroom they want? Regarding allowing kids to choose their gender, again, neither side is capable of making a case that is sufficiently strong so as to end the debate, so the debate goes on.