Free speech, feminism and trans politics: the will should be to respect

Re the transphobia Moore/Burchill debate: I wasn’t going to write about this topic again, mainly because it has already been covered eloquently and diversely by writers including Paris Lees, Laurie Penny and Brooke Magnanti to name but a few. But I want to make it very clear that I was both perturbed and disturbed by Julie Burchill’s diatribe in the Observer. I do not want to be associated with any feminism (or any argument in general) that can be that essentialist, prejudiced, misinformed and downright nasty about another gender. Not even when it’s meant to be defending a friend, highlighting the alleged prejudice and contrariness of others, and protecting the feminist castle itself.

Burchill’s general vitriol and contempt for transsexuals also served to compound negative stereotype about feminists –  their exclusivity, their contempt for men (a contempt Burchill cattily extends to ‘chicks with dicks’), the ‘if you’re not with us you’re against us’ mentality. I understand that neither being ’nice’ nor endorsing a ‘likeable’ feminism is of little concern to Burchill. But by invoking so many hackneyed stereotypes, by being so disproportionately vitriolic, Burchill undermines the credibility of feminism as a well-reasoned and humane system. Why give feminism’s doubters, let alone feminism’s detractors, any more reason to denounce it as philosophically and ethically unsound?

Springing to Burchill’s defence in the Independent, Terence Blacker says the line ‘dicks in chicks’ clothing’ is ok because: ‘would someone who had the mental and physical courage to change sex really be upset by the appearance of the phrase’? By Blacker’s reasoning, the more adversity you have faced, the less respect you require. Racial slurs, gay slurs, misogynistic slurs are all fine as long as the object of your tease has experienced far worse abuse in the past, Blacker asserts. Besides being uncompassionate, it’s also hardly the point. Maybe you might like to ask the transexual community, rather than telling us, eh, Terence?

Blacker doesn’t grasp that there’s a balance to be struck between free speech and being informed, fair and considerate. Nor does Toby Young, who made a similar argument on Radio 4’s The Media Show on the topic. By all means, produce misinformed cant. But don’t expect sentient people to let it slide without challenging you to justify that cant. Neither Blacker nor Burchill nor Young seem to understand that power – how it may be wielded and used to dismiss others – is at the heart of any debate relating to gender. In his Independent piece, Blacker goes on to say: “The terms Burchill used may have been insensitive, but had the target of them been more acceptable to liberal opinion – Scientologists, say, or gun-toting American Christians – they would have prompted no more than a few fond chuckles.” Targets, Blacker might want to consider, that are wealthy as hell with considerable power, having their backs covered by banks and politicians as well as the First Amendment. Targets that are not privy to sexual harassment, violence and social ostracisation on a daily basis the world over.

As for Burchill and Moore’s working-class backgrounds being cited as proof of their lack of privilege, the fact remains that both of them have aired their views in national newspapers – one of the most privileged public forums out there (although given their contempt for intersectionality, they may not see it the same way.)

There is of course one thing that trumps power. And that’s respect. Not when you’re debating nuclear disarmament or when there’s a gun involved, perhaps, but surely when it’s about human beings relating to other human beings. Whatever side of the fence we are on in this debate, can those involved not just apologise for causing offence, unwitting or otherwise, and move on? Whatever our power and privileges, showing respect is free.

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