Well, the explosion of articles and blog entries around Burchill’s vitriolic ‘defence’ of Moore continues, and the inevitable backlash has begun. Leaving to one side the reactions coming purely from prejudice, I’ve heard a number of defences of Burchill in the name of ‘free speech’ – particularly with MP Lynne Featherstone’s call for Burchill to be sacked, and the article having been removed from the Observer website and replaced with a mealy-mouthed apology about airing ‘difficult debates’ and presenting ‘challenging views’. (Jane Fae has written here on why this response was inappropriate: while it shouldn’t have been published in the first place, taking it down – and as such, removing all the comments which primarily showed people’s disgust – gives ammunition to those who would cry ‘censorship’, and feels rather like trying to escape responsibility. I believe they should have left it up, with an apologetic header – and closed down further comments if they really felt the need, but let the page stand as a piece of internet history.)
The terms of this backlash are incorrect – Burchill’s right to ‘free speech’ has not been challenged. She is free to set up a blog or a Twitter account and say whatever she likes, to call in to radio shows, to hand out leaflets on the high street if she likes. What is being questioned is not her right to say such things – disgusting and wrong as they are – but her right to say such things from the exalted position of a respected national newspaper, in print and online, and to receive money for them.
Moreover, framing this in terms of an abstract debate about freedom of speech elides the cost of hate speech in terms of human suffering. To normalise hate speech is to normalise other acts of hatred and violence: and unfortunately, in their rush to squeeze the latest juicy controversy for all it is worth, some papers have now done just that. The Telegraph has printed a very sensible article by Brooke Magnanti – and a reprint of the original Burchill article, which (in its header, and in another Telegraph piece by Toby Young) is described as ‘censored’ from the Observer. The Independent has published an excellent piece by Louise McCudden – and two defences of Burchill: one by Terence Blacker, who asks ‘Would someone who has had the mental and physical courage to change sex really be upset by the appearance of the phrase “dicks in chicks’ clothing” in the press?‘, and another by Tom Peck, which begins ‘You’d think the trannies could take it really, their shoulders are broad enough‘. The Daily Mail… well, you can imagine what they’re saying. (Meanwhile, The New Statesman has commenced a ‘trans issues week’ – still capitalising on this, perhaps, but also a valuable opportunity for education off the back of this media storm. The first two are here and here.)
Those who are crying ‘free speech’ here need to let go of this idea that mainstream media depictions of a marginalised group are irrelevant to that group’s marginal status. Demonising trans people in the popular press is actively harmful: hundreds of trans people are murdered or otherwise subject to violence every year as a result of their trans status, and recent statistics show suicide attempts for trans people are at a shocking 48%. Framing this ‘controversy’ as an abstract debate, as being about nothing more than free speech, where one side wishes to deny a marginalised group their dignity and humanity in a way that feeds directly into the prejudice and violence they face as part of their everyday lives – well, it’s shameful.
I’ve also encountered critical viewpoints which seem to hinge on the idea that this reaction is somehow inauthentic: that the pain and outrage displayed in the responses to Burchill’s words boils down to nothing but an online rent-a-mob who can be brought out to crucify anyone who makes an innocent slip-up, or that this is ‘me too’-ism, or even that the responses from those who aren’t trans – or even just those who aren’t trans women – are somehow ‘appropriative’. I am honestly boggled by this – hate speech is upsetting. And whether it’s aimed at you, or aimed at your loved ones, or if you’re just someone with a basic level of humanity and empathy, being upset is a legitimate response. The powerful and measured replies by trans people, to which I linked in my last update, are even more amazing when you keep in mind that they are doing this in the face of slurs, of threats, of people who see them as less than human.
Interestingly, Moore – whose ‘Brazilian transsexual’ line sparked all this – has returned to Twitter and apologised, even thanking Paris Lees for her letter, but this afternoon someone posting under Moore’s name has been responding in less-than-conciliatory terms to John Tatlock’s excellent article at The Quietus.
I’ll close this with some more links.
Jane Fae, The Independent (who I was most remiss in not linking to yesterday):
What we are seeing here is a form of victim-blaming. The press likes victims who conform: white middle-class and pretty female victims go down rather well. Black ones, disabled ones, trans ones: we-ell, its partly OUR fault anyway. And if we should DARE to have the temerity to point out that sometimes, we too can be victims, that is bullying on our part. Our real job, if we want acceptance, is to sit on the sidelines and cheer for the real women arguing for “real women’s issues”. Except we do that already.
The bottom line? Expect more of this in 2013. The trans community has grown up: it is no longer prepared to take this sort of abuse from icons of a bygone champagne feminism. There is anger abroad. A new unity, too. Expect to hear a lot more about the abuse of trans folks in 2013. Expect, too, to see some very well-placed journalists squawking back in outrage.
Meanwhile, let’s leave the last word to Deborah Orr, a writer who maybe HAS got it, who tweeted today: “No matter what troubles I face in future, I’m going to tell myself: “This could be worse. Julie Burchill could be leaping to your defence.”
People see someone suffering, and think “either the world is a cruel and essentially random place where people can suffer for no reason, or this person is suffering because of something they did, so they deserve it.”
Rarely is there any evidence for the latter conclusion, but it’s the one people go for as it offers some form of psychological protection. “It happened to them because of something they did. I didn’t do whatever they did, so it won’t happen to me”, that sort of thing. It’s not nice, but it’s the sort of logic that probably stops many people from constantly collapsing into a weeping heap.
Burchill’s article is an embarrassment to the British press, an embarrassment to feminist writing and a shameful abuse of a public platform to abuse a vulnerable minority. The Observer has now issued an apology, and rightly so, although I believe the decision to depublish the piece is not wrong so much as bizarre, since Google Cache never forgets. It’s even more dispiriting to see other mainstream media outlets, including the Telegraph, rally around Burchill’s ignorant screed as a ‘free speech’ issue, as if the right to free speech and the right to publication in a major national newspaper were the same thing at all in the age of Tumblr. That’s why, after a lot of thought, I’ve taken the decision to publish this article independently, on this blog. I don’t want it to become part of the symbolic face-off going on between British press outlets this week. I want us to get back to the issues.
I would like to see more non-trans writers … Suzanne Moore and some of her very capable writing friends … engage with showing that they can learn more about why trans people are so apt to get angry. It’s not pathological. It’s really quite reasonable if you’re in those shoes. The team at Trans Media Watch have offered to help.
A really good ‘win’ would be to see mainstream writers examining and writing about the claims of abuse expressed this week under the hash tag #TransDocFail.
Why wouldn’t a journalist do that? It might not be the most important story at any given moment. However, we are discussing right now how hundreds of people were not listened to or believed when being abused by Jimmy Saville. People are wringing their hands.
If they’ve genuinely learned anything from letting that happen over the course of fifty years then there’s a way to put that learning to effect. Over a thousand trans people have said this week that they’ve been abused … and nobody has wanted to listen. Am I missing something?
I shall continue to write in spite of having been threatened with rape, in spite of having been told that I’m a “shemale feminazi with too much sand in her fake vagina,” in spite of having been called every misogynist, transmisogynist, and transphobic slur in the book many times over, and in spite of having been accused of “man-hating, race-baiting, white-hating,” and the utterly unreal crime of “misandry.” In spite of being called too loud, too shrill, too whiny, too sexist (against men, of course), and “heterophobic.” In spite of being told I should avoid graduate school unless I had a “rich boyfriend.” In spite of all that, I speak.
I’m not British. But I am a Puerto Rican American who both grew up in and still lives in “the ghetto” and my struggle with class in this country is as much a part of my life, my experience, and my activism as gender and its manifold vicissitudes. Further, it is still a matter of routine for feminists in general to be slapped by accusations of overeducation and ivory tower moralising: jeremiads against “the sanctimonious women’s studies set” are a staple of populist editorialising these days and have been for a generation now. I have not the slightest quarrel with Burchill’s working class background– to hate her for that would be to hate myself. I’m merely baffled at the fact that she antagonises women like me for speaking by suggesting that our attempts to get an education are a bad thing.
It never fails to surprise me to see women like Burchill and Bindel resort to the tics of patriarchs when defending their own bigotries, just as it surprises me to hear her extol her working class roots while mocking “wretched inner city kids” in another breath, rolling a horrifically complex social problem and the people who live it into a neatly poor analogy that insults with stunning economy but does nothing useful.
(Edited to add this when it appeared on my Twitter feed, 5 minutes after publishing this blog entry) Ariel Silvera on the enabling structures of transphobia, in Gaelick:
However, I feel we are ignoring a significant part of the issue. We must remember it is crucial to critique the structures that keep enabling people like Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill to get away with having trans misogynist, transphobic and racist hate speech published in a newspaper with a supposed commitment to social justice. The sheer cronyism in the journalistic world, the way in which mass-media journalism has mutated into the PR arm of corporations, and the way in which it can and often is used to uphold the status quo, are all equally relevant to the problem.
Today it’s trans* women, tomorrow it’s Palestinians, asylum seekers, immigrants in general, women in general, the unemployed, the poor, and anyone else that doesn’t walk through the offices of a major news organisation as anything but the cleaning staff (who are not invited to the champagne dinners).
We must keep counteracting these kind of hateful tirades at every corner, particularly from those who present themselves as our allies in the struggle for a more fair society. Solidarity needs to be expanded among people from all walks of life, and we need to keep examining the overlapping issues of privilege/oppression in terms of race, in terms of disability, trans status, sexuality, gender and migrant status. But it is crucial that we remember the underlying systems of power, which continue to work against us, and which will look for us even in the safest of places.
And finally – to end discussion of this incredibly serious topic on a slightly lighter note – I recommend this satirical video from ‘somegreybloke’ and this apt and hilarious infographic from Dru Marland’s blog: