Wednesday, 16 January 2013
Putting Words into our Mouths
As the dust from the Burchill transphobic article starts to settle it is time to step back a bit and look a little more closely at some of the untruths that have been said for trans people by others. In this case, in addition to Burchill, the almost as unedifying ‘intellect’ of Toby Young; the bone-headed tribal Tory reactionary journalist who stepped in to champion her cause...
There are the obvious and sickening insults from Burchill; deliberately provocative and reminiscent of some bad racist propaganda I got hold of at an Anti-Nazi League demo ages ago. But her diatribe of mindless working-class Tory bigotry (is there any other kind of working-class Tory bigotry?) also concealed an interesting, and rather nasty twist, which probably went unnoticed but which may turn out to be more significant than the more obvious stuff.
This was her deliberate misrepresentation or deliberate “misunderstanding” of the word “cisgender”. The way she presented us as using it as a kind of anti cisgender insult “syph, cyst, cistern.” Suggests that this represents one of the ways TERFs like her are going to try and misrepresent us. The fact that she suggested that “cis” is a term only used to describe women, is, of course not true, yet I have had a number of cisgender women friends contact me in recent days saying they don’t want to be called “cis” thinking that it is some kind of anti-feminist insult, which of course it is not.
A blatant attempt to deny us an important element of our vocabulary represents epistemological violence against trans people and aims to misrepresent what we say in an attempt to drum up transphobic hatred through promoting misunderstanding. It is an attempt to deny us the words with which to talk about out lives and our experiences. This is something we must watch out for. It is sometimes difficult to understand but people who have considered themselves “normal” and “unmarked” actually do find it uncomfortable to find someone else attaching a label to them. I’m not sure how many heterosexual people like the term “straight” for example. Unfortunately TERFs running round deliberately trying to make out that we are using it as a misogynistic insult is something only too true to type for these individuals; in the end since they have so little ammunition with which to attack us, they will use what they can…
Of course Burchill’s attempt to do this is probably unlikely to have much effect since it was associated with so much obvious bile, but Toby Young’s piece in support of her, and, for that matter from some other journalists, is more subtle. As such more dangerous, and not just for us but for other minorities that it is still not socially unacceptable to have a go at, Romany travellers, Chavs, genuine feminists, red-headed people, disabled people etc…
His argument is the “offence” argument, an old chestnut that needs to be exposed for what it is. The stock in trade, standard issue argument for right-wing journalists trying to silence others critiques of their own bad practice and unacceptable (and usually bigoted) views. The argument is that they should have the right to cause “offence”. Let us be very clear about this. Toby Young is using a what is in my view a thoroughly dishonest argument. He is telling everyone that we are against Burchill’s article because it caused us to be “offended”. This is a serious and disingenuous misrepresentation; I am “offended” almost every time I look at a news site, I am certainly offended every time I look at any newspaper that Young writes for, but I am of the opinion that the Burchill article should not have been published for entirely different reasons, and I believe Toby Young knows this but still chooses to misrepresent our views.
I am protesting against this article, and others like it by Richard Littlejohn for example, not because I am “offended”, but because they legitimize transphobic hatred. They make it OK for those people in the street who shout at you, to call me ‘mate’, ‘fucking tranny’, ‘I’m a Laydee’ or any other clever witticisms. It makes it OK for groups of young men to threaten me in the street, it makes it OK for men in cars to stalk me to my door at night because they want to have sex with a “TV”, like they have seen on porn sites. It makes it legit for men to try and chat me up when I’m walking home from the Tube at midnight; a scary experience because you don’t know what they want. And it makes it OK for schools to say; no, we don’t want your kind visiting our premises and “confusing” our kids.
Toby Young’s deliberate disingenuousness is easier to pick out but no less dangerous. If journalists can justify incitement to hate crime by simply describing it as the right to “offend” then almost anything becomes possible, including groups of people being “mandated out of existence.”
So, in addition to calling Burchill on her bigotry we need to call both her and Young on deliberate and dishonest misrepresentation. It is a classic right-wing bigot’s tactic in the absence of any genuine argument. We need to make sure it is a tactic that fails.