Offence as a Virtue
(Thanks to being sidelined with the flu several days, this is about a week late, but I thought I should archive it anyway)
A controversy has ricocheted across the comment pages of the daily newspapers across the U.K. which has raised questions about free speech, decorum and journalistic censorship.
It started with an otherwise excellent piece about female anger by The Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore in New Statesmen, in which she offhandedly commented, “We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.” Ms. Moore received complaints from trans people on Twitter, and fired back, which led to a larger uproar.
Her friend Julie Burchill, known for controversy and vitriol, responded with a tirade complaining that Moore was being persecuted by “a bunch of dicks in chick’s clothing” and “a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs.” Burchill tossed out some insults (“they’re lucky I’m not calling them shemales. Or shims” — later, she did anyway), deliberately misgendered trans women, and scoffed at the thought that trans people experience any kind of struggle.
The Observer, a publication of The Guardian and where Burchill’s screed appeared, eventually apologized for publishing the article, and removed it from the paper’s website. This has led to outcries among several columnists and publications, and The Telegraph reposted it. A number of others have followed — including at least one Canadian columnist, in his blog.
As someone who is trans-identified, I actually don’t take much issue with the original article. Ms. Moore was attempting to be flippant about lookism. I understand that, although it’s never a good idea to turn an entire class of people into a punchline. When said people are targeted for this kind of thing regularly, doing so can be button-pushing.
But then, along came Ms. Burchill, as subtle as a grenade in a bowl of potato salad.
Frankly, I don’t like being angry. It takes too much energy. And if I had to get angry at everyone and everything that deliberately invalidated trans people, used them as a punchline or categorized them as freaks, I’d need to find another planet to live on. But shutting up and taking it consumes energy, too, by consuming spirit. When a person faces a constant barrage of these attitudes, then no matter how thick a person’s skin gets, sooner or later, some barbs get through and wound. This is why trans people react, and often with a lot of anger.
Whether the energy exists or not, there is reason for the outrage. Transsexual and transgender people routinely face invalidation, and arguments about their very existence. In Canada, for example, Parliament is again wrestling with whether trans people should be included in human rights legislation, and there’s a chance that Randall Garrison’s Private Member’s Bill may not pass. Last week, every sitting Member of Parliament was mailed a two-page diatribe by reparative therapy advocate Dr. Joseph Berger, who asserts about transsexuality that “Scientifically, there is no such a thing. Therefore anyone who actually truly believes that notion, is by definition deluded, psychotic.” In the process, Berger claims to be writing a scientific paper which nevertheless includes no citations, and reduces the motive trans people have for transitioning (at the risk of losing their spouses, children, family, friends, careers, homes and economic stability) to “just unhappiness.” For this reason, Berger claims, Canadians shouldn’t have to dignify trans people with the “special right” to have equal access to employment, housing and services. We reserve those things for real humans.
There is some of this invalidation in Julie Burchill’s piece as well, such as her protest of the use of the recently-coined prefix “cis” as an antonym to “trans” (but from the same Latin root) — much like “heterosexual” is to “homosexual.” To Ms. Burchill, it seems, we’re simply being whiny and overreacting when we’re upset about terminology that compares us to “normal,” “real,” or “natural-born” men and women, and feel the need to invent something characteristically neutral. And if you’re wondering why trans people should be upset about being compared to “normal,” it illustrates just how ingrained marginalizing attitudes are in the social dialogue.
Burchill’s article comes in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry, which delivered its report in November of 2012. Initiated to look into the ethicality of practices exposed by News International‘s phone hacking scandal, the Inquiry took notice of harassment and invasions of privacy experienced by a pregnant trans man and by a trans youth. Looking further, investigators learned that while “Sex Swap” and “Tran-o-saurus” headlines were mostly limited to tabloids (which still go there almost weekly in the U.K.), even mainstream papers were regularly guilty of ingrained sensationalistic, comedic, demeaning or ridiculing portrayals of trans lives. Additionally, this is not the first time that The Guardian has faced protests for commentaries of this kind, although it has also worked most earnestly thus far to provide the opportunity for counterpoints to be made. It’s probably for this reason that the controversy has stretched into its second week of commentaries and even a protest.
As someone who is also a writer and op-ed blogger, I have mixed feelings about whether the Burchill article should have been pulled from The Observer‘s website. Once the commentary was out there, it couldn’t be unsaid, so neither option was likely to make anyone very happy. The article’s removal is an acknowledgement that there was a “collective failure of editing” (as editors of The Observer put it), but also makes it more difficult to point to its failures and pick the attitudes within apart. But the best policy would have been to have considered the column carefully before it went into print.
Opinion columnists today do not usually turn in pieces riddled with the N-word or flippant jokes about disabled people. This isn’t because they fear the dreaded banhammer, but because we as a society have learned enough about many minorities to realize the need to show a little empathy and respect. And if a columnist did turn in an article of that nature, most editors would certainly raise questions, for the same reason. Journalistic freedom of speech is not simply a question of saying or publishing anything that one might wish to say, but instead comes with a responsibility to provide balance, and call out attitudes that need to change. Burchill’s column is a cause célèbre solely because society feels no need to extend the same balance, empathy and respect to transsexual and transgender people. And as long as the Burchills of today are given widespread attention while trans people are dismissed and ignored, this is the way it will remain.
For all their complaints that crying “transphobia” shuts down the conversation, Burchill and Moore have failed to realize that crass invalidation, ridicule and indifference are already attempts to end discussion, thus maintaining a status quo in which transsexuality remains the stuff of lurid sensationalism and cheap stand-up comedy. The usual responses of “grow a spine” or “get a sense of humour” do the same, and defending it all by crying journalistic freedom of speech attempts to abdicate any responsibility for the consequences of that speech. It is also overlooks the imbalance that exists between the reach of noted opinion columnists, versus the almost non-existence of trans voices in mainstream media, to act as a counterbalance.
Or to put it simply, it’s a case of “a little free speech for me, and a little shut-up-and-take-it-like-a-man for you.”
But times change. Eventually, these social attitudes will be an anachronism. And maybe that assurance is why I’m not angry.