‘READS like climate change denial … incredibly Western-centric … reeks of Christian, creationist propaganda … worthy of the Mail or Express and The National should be ashamed for printing it.”

I was a little taken aback to read these remarks in response to a recent column, in which I sought to interrogate assertions by young people that they were deciding against having children because of the effects of climate change.

Naively, I had not considered that anyone would imagine that in doing this I was denying the fact of climate change, rather than asking very specific questions about who will be affected by it, when and to what extent.

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My “Western-centric” focus was the whole point of the piece, given the vast difference between the impact of climate change in places like Scotland and Canada compared with Chad, Syria or Bangladesh.

I’m not clear what inspired the “creationist propaganda” claim, but suspect the reader may be muddling up being “pro-creation” (ie being pro-procreation) with a belief that the Bible describes quite literally and factually how the world came into existence.

While I mentioned that some people risked ending up miserable and resentful if they abandoned their dreams of having children for flawed reasons, it does not follow that I was suggesting child-free-by-choice lives – like my own happy one – were bound to be characterised by those feelings. I said nothing of the sort.

This comment was a perfect illustration of some of the difficulties in trying to engage in serious discussion about hot-button social issues – especially those that relate to some of the most personal decisions we as individuals can make about the way we live our lives.

In fairness, I do accept the reader’s criticism of my brief reference to legally binding climate targets as “borderline delusional”, as it was reasonable to assume I was suggesting the targets would be met. (A whole additional column would have been required to examine the likelihood of that.) My point, however, was that if a young person is going to make a big decision about their future based on pessimistic claims, they should make sure their facts are up-to-date.

But the reader’s comment neatly swerved the substance of the column in favour of seeking to discredit me. An ad hominem attack putting me in a box labelled “climate-change denier” gave them the perfect excuse not to engage with the substance of my arguments, and therefore to avoid the risk of having his beliefs challenged.

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The same sort of tactic is used regularly against feminist writers who seek to question so many of the assumptions on which societies are based. Engaging with feminist analysis can involve some truly unsettling realisations about who we are as individuals, and why, so it’s little wonder so many people bristle at the idea of it, preferring to brand feminists as man-haters and avoid thinking about the implications of their arguments.

Later this month the Scottish Government will go to court to challenge the UK Government’s unprecedented use of a Section 35 order to block the Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) Bill.

The significance of this legal tussle should not be underestimated, as its implications go far beyond the passage or continued block of that one piece of legislation.

This is a test of the devolution settlement, and therefore of crucial significance for the independence campaign. But many will have mixed feelings should the ruling be in the UK Government’s favour.

For example, one might be supportive of the GRR Bill but also support the principle that devolved laws must not have any “adverse effect on the operation of the law as it applies to reserved matters”.

One might oppose the GRR Bill but also oppose Westminster interfering to block a bill on grounds that might seem worryingly easy to apply to other attempts by the Scottish Parliament to make its own distinctive policies in what are theoretically devolved areas.

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It is possible for someone who is pro-independence to welcome a UK Government win here even if they are indifferent about the need for reform of the Gender Recognition Act, because of what will be exposed about the limits of the Scottish Parliament’s powers.

But for some of those who want both gender recognition reform and, ultimately, the independence that would allow Scotland to make all of its own choices, the villain of the piece here is not Alister Jack or the UK Government as a whole, but the women who have campaigned against the GRR Bill – or even those who just highlighted aspects that were likely to be a lot more legally complicated than suggested by the people pushing for them.

For years now, ad hominem attacks have been used to try to discredit anyone who dares ask questions about the bill, including – crucially – how it interacts with the UK Equality Act.

If the name-calling – terf, transphobe, bigot – was designed to stop activists from asking questions, it did not work. Activists tried to play the women, not the bill, and the tactic failed. If we are to move forward positively, once the matter has been settled one way or another, the name-calling has to stop. Smearing is no substitute for critical engagement and debate.

Trying to discredit opponents by putting them in boxes might work for a while, but eventually you’ll run out of boxes for every subset of beliefs. In any case, putting people in boxes doesn’t shut them up: it just makes them shout louder to be heard.