A queue of trolling columnists, let’s call them Trollumnists has formed to tell anyone offended by their incendiary ‘commentary’ to get the chips off their shoulders. Today's blogpost will look at why internal dissent is so important to the Left, and why the Right to Offend and Freedom of Speech are NOT one and the same.
A Bit of Context
I’m not going to rehash the story, but the highlights: Suzanne Moore (in an otherwise rather good article) made an insensitive remark about women needing to look like ‘Brazilian transexuals’ to impress men. On being informed that (given over hundred Brazilian trans* men and women are killed each year just for being who they are) this reference had caused offense, Moore responded by, well, throwing her toys out of the pram. It was her responses on twitter which threw petrol on an already smouldering row. These were rightly called out by Another Angry Woman in her (awesome) blog.
In fact Moore performed the Twitter version of leaving the room and slamming the door with this final tweet:"People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me. Good for them", before cancelling her twitter account.
She then returned to her turf, the pages of the liberal press, to counter attack. Moore’s subsequent article in response to the criticism was so paradoxical it's shocking that a worm hole didn't open. Moore essentially says we need to quit the infighting over these little issues and join together to fight bigger enemies. This argument needs to be addressed before we move on anywhere.
Infighting or Evolution?
It is true that the ‘left’ (although why one assumes all LGBT/Women are part of the ‘left’ is another question) can get quite navel gazey and infighty. However, an intrinsic element of Lefthood is that we are committed to make the world work for everyone: rich, poor, gay, straight, bi, asexual, male, female, disabled, ethnic majority or minority, cis or trans. So it is a natural expression of being Left which has us demand better of each other, to examine our own as well as other people’s prejudices and eradicate them like an unwelcome infection.
This does get messy and does stop ‘us’ presenting a single, united front sometimes and gaining ‘power’ (political). But that's part and parcel of valuing principle above reward.
There was an experiment in the 90s that the Left took called New Labour. It looked good at first. To let go of what we labelled 'little issues' for the sake of power.
It left so many outside the political tent that in fact, it was simply turning Labour into a slow motion Tory party, with the same policies delivered more slowly, with less short term pain but the same long term consequences. And now where is the political power on the Left?
Horsetrading principle for power is not the solution for the Left, because that’s what turns it into the Right. The Left can and should be focussed on changing one mind at a time, as it has succeeded in doing on a raft of social issues, if not economic ones. If we gain the power only to be like the Right, we have not gained power at all.
So, when Moore and others suggest we (whoever ‘we’ are…anyone who takes offense to her, apparently) simply sit on our concerns and get on board the bandwagon, she entirely forgets who she is talking to. She is talking to a broad community, many members of which have been told to be invisible and silent for a very, very long time. They are sick of it and did not expect a voice from ‘inside the tent’ to be the one silencing them now.
Enter Burchill, The Career Contrarian
Then comes Julie Burchill, probably glad at the chance to perform a bit of her usual verbal arson. In her article, which I will not link to on principle, she used her purported defence of Moore to hurl as many slur terms for trans* women as she could, in the column inches at her disposal.
Julie Burchill’s ‘article’ was hate speech. It suggested a sinister powerful lobby of trans* women (leaving out trans* men entirely for goodness knows why) ganging up on Feminists and trying to overtake the movement. The underlying message being: these evil ‘dicks in chicks clothing’ have come to mess with us ‘real’ women and we’re not having it. I’ve not read anything, in any paper, as disgraceful in my lifetime.
In the subsequent furore, with near consensus that Burchill was absolutely out of order, the Observer/Guardian editorial teamissued an apology and retracted the article from the online edition. Now, could we all get on with that calm discussion? Did Moore and others issue a mea culpa? Did they remember that we can all own prejudices and be mature in the face of having them pointed out?
Er, not quite. Instead were launched, the ‘We can’t offend ANYONE ANYMORE!’ articles.
We Can’t Offend ANYONE ANYMORE!
Whilst the trans* community and their supporters attempted to stay on topic, the Right to Offend(ers) went frothy at the mouth. In recent days the pages of newspapers have been ablaze with the cries these self appointed ‘prominent feminist writers’ accusing the trans* community and their supporters of political correctness gone mad, defended by a host of bourgeois hipsters claiming that The Right to Offend People is under attack. Follow? No?
It’s like walking into what you assume is a bar brawl to find half the bar sitting down quietly discussing the conflict, while the other half are repeatedly hitting their heads against the nearest hard surface, bruising up nicely and wailing about the injustice of it all. Suzanne Moore, Julie Burchill, Terence Blacker, Toby Young, Tom Peck….I am talking about you.
Terence Blacker in the Indy, and Toby Young (when will this creature be gone from my life?) in the Telegraph came on board, crying foul. Because you just don’t get enough opinions of middle class, white men on feminist/trans* issues! The guys waded in and invoked the Freedom of Speech argument on Burchill’s behalf.
Essentially their argument boils down to:
Freedom of Speech and the Right to Offend are synonymous. Moore’s castigation by her critics and Burchill’s public disgrace and column retraction are an attack on said Freedom of Speech/Right to Offend.
Tom Peck summarises t/his argument in the Independent, with this as his opening line:
“You’d think the trannies could take it really, their shoulders are broad enough.
There. I’ve written it. It’s a joke, of course. It’s one of those ones that are designed to get a reaction. There’s a few of them about. Jimmy Carr, Frankie Boyle, Suzanne Moore, Julie Burchill, have all largely made a living out of them. Distasteful it may be, but what with living in a free society, sadly, I’m allowed.”
That I could find this in the Daily Mail or the Express, I just about accept. They are base, bigot-rags and you buy them knowing that. I do not expect to open the pages of the Indy or Guardian and be faced with this. It genuinely brings tears to my eyes to think of trans* men and women having to read this in 2013 in the UK.
The Right to Offend is NOT the same thing as Freedom of Speech.
An Open Letter to The Right to Offend Lobby
Dear Mssrs Blacker, Peck & Young
CC: Moore, Burchill,
The point of the Freedom of Speech is not for powerful groups to say what they like about disempowered groups without fear or foul. It is to ensure that those groups can take on the vested interests without fear of retribution.
You are defending the right to use your platform to offend an already persecuted minority, from the safety of your writing rooms.
The exercise in Freedom of Speech here, is the trans community and their supporters being able to say, to the likes of you, that they will not put up with being offended, and certainly not tolerate being asked to muzzle their own dissenting voices to give you a quiet life.
Your Right to Offend is a right that has been the privilege of the few for a very long time and remains firmly in place, or Burchill’s article and these subsequent disgraceful apologist pieces would never have been published.
As for your opponents, their Freedom of Speech was not exercised at first in the mammoth mainstream media platform granted to you. No, it was in blogposts and tweets, the printing presses of the masses.
To put it plainly boys and girls, you got a taste of Freedom of Speech and you hated it. You hated that these ‘little people’ could give you a public dressing down and have an impact. This is the highest expression of Freedom of Speech: to tell truth to power. You're the power. This is the truth. Don't like it? Tough.
Infact, this group of well-to-do journos used not only the tools but the tactics of the old white boys network in their campaign of righteousness. Just look up Jim Davidson’s response when people have accused him of being offensive and see the parallels. This seems to be part of a broader movement by existing power structures, be they patriarchal or religious, to use the language of campaigns for equality to defend their 'right to oppress'. Be it evicting gay couples from bed and breakfasts, wearing a cross when jewelery is not allowed, or spitting insults at trans people; the argument is the same - we're having our rights trampled on by this politically correct, liberal mafia. Meanwhile, trans people are being ridiculed and murdered, women are being underpaid, underemployed and abused, gay people cannot marry eachother...and what rights exactly have this bunch lost? The right to gloat in the misery of others in the national press? Not even that! Simply the right has been granted to others to criticise them in a public forum. So shame on you Moore and Burchill for becoming the very monster you purport to oppose.
You Live and Learn
In conclusion, anyone (including me) who puts themselves on the record in a public space on an issue invites a critique of their ideas. Sometimes that means we discover our own prejudices, some we never even knew we had, when someone reads our views and is offended.
It is in that moment we can choose to seize an opportunity to learn about them and ourselves, or we can slap them down and lose that opportunity.
Yes, sometimes it feels like you are being attacked. Sometimes you are. But the likes of the aforementioned Trollumnists need to rise above these moments and set an example. Stonewall demonstrated how to do just thiswhen they faced a potential protest by disenfranchised members of the trans*community who felt left out in the cold. They opened the doors, sought to understand where they were being all LGB and no T and amended their policies accordingly. We live and learn.
So, Burchill and gang, before flinging around accusations about folks having ‘chips on their shoulders’, you might want to fling the potatoes off your own.