Sunday, 25 October 2015

Transphobes: Censorship and No-platforming are different...

Watching the latest saga in the “Free Speech” debate as TERFs and assorted TERF apologists tried to justify transphobe, and transphobia-denier Germaine Greer speaking at Cardiff University the thought that entered my mind is “Here we go again!” Once again TERFs tried to get a bio-essentialist hater of trans people, especially trans women, the “right” to speak at a university and spread her hatred around to a few more people.

The “Here we go again!” point is important however, because the TERFs long ago lost the argument on this issue; they have done their best to argue that Greer’s (and other TERFs’) rights to “free speech” are being violated. They claim that people at universities should be free to discuss everything and anything, as ususal. They clutch pearls over the spectre of the Trans Cabal 'dictating' to universities to silence “women” or “feminists”, when they actually mean “TERFs” - who do not represent anything more than a tiny minority of women or feminists. Ironically Greer even took to mainstream media to air these views and proclaim how much she is being silenced.

There is almost a kind of ritualistic element to it; repeat, repeat, repeat. Stick to your line, repeat the words ‘censored’, ‘free speech’, ‘banned’, ‘silenced!’  Get petition together to be signed by the great and the good, or at least by a few C-list fading Greats and Goods plus a few people who don’t know what they are signing…

This is the last resort of a group that cannot make a coherent case for their position, repeat the lie until it becomes the truth. Meanwhile as the arguments against their essentialist drivel stack up and go unchallenged, they repeat the buzzwords, avoid debate. 

This has always been the problem for the TERFs; they need to present themselves as the victims of silencing whilst at the same time silencing the voices of trans people. Back in the dark days of the last century, before trans people could organise and fight for our rights the TERFs were attacking trans people. They took every possible opportunity to have a go at trans people. Indeed, before the mid noughties the dominant media narrative about trans people was the TERF narrative. Every effort was invested in ensuring that trans people were unable to come out, transition and be open about who they were. This wasn’t just silencing in the conventional sense of preventing someone from expfressing an opinion, it was silencing in the sense that it attempted to prevent people from being who they were, it was the silencing of the grave, of the quiet suicide, of the knife in the back the brick to the head; better a dead tranny than a live one. Trans people were too often unable to oppose TERF lies not merely because they did not have the online platforms they have now but because they were dead.

Perhaps no-one has noticed but the majority of TERF action now seems to be focussed on getting transphobes to speak at universities. The reason for this, as I have pointed out before, is that university is the environment where most young trans people come out. It provides a relatively safe space for young trans people to come out and transition. No wonder TERFs are targetting this space, they clearly desperately want to make it less safe, to make sure that trans people coming out for the first time have to face fellow students “questioning” them personally, they want to make universities spaces where transphobia is not considered unacceptable. At the most vulnerable moment in their lives trans people should be protected from the abuse and harassment which people like Greer are only too keen to dish out.

The way to preserve these spaces as relatively safe is to continue to no-platform transphobic speakers. Why? Because it does four things: 

  • Firstly it flags up to everyone that this speaker is a transphobic bigot, that the content of his or her output includes hatred for and abuse of trans people. It makes an issue where there would otherwise have been no issue. Crucially it means the issue in question is transphobia not trans people. The issue here has been Germaine Greer, not trans people, as has so often been the case in the past.

  • Secondly it forces them to defend their stance on trans people, ie. to defend bigotry, hatred and discrimination. It puts them on the defensive, again it means the issue is them not trans people. This is important because it frames the starting point of the debate as being their transphobia. They are the problem.

  • Thirdly it exposes the gaps in attitudes towards inclusion, equality and diversity at the institution concerned, as it has done in Cardiff. It forces the university’s management to defend it’s stance, something which, in this case has exposed it as talking the talk but not walking the walk on trans inclusion and equality. 

  • Finally it enables other students, student unions and academic staff, as well as others outside the university to demonstrate their support for trans students and their contempt for transphobes. This is probably more important than most people think. No-platforming represents a vehicle by which fellow students can show their solidarity (yes I know solidarity is an outmoded word but that is in itself a problem) to trans students. Rather than trans students watching some classmates going to listen to a transphobe, and possibly coming away saturated in disinformation having soaked up TERF mendacity, they see fellow students signing petitions and attending meetings and demos to protest against these bigots. The effect of this cannot be underestimated.

The key here is that those who want to justify transphobia have to go on the defensive; the problem then becomes Germaine Greer and Germaine Greer’s bigotry, not young trans students. Greer and her apologists’ simplistic and hypocritical attitudes to “free speech” are put under the microscope.

Ultimately No-platforming is different from censorship or silencing, although many people, particularly TERFs and their friends in the right-wing media want us to think differently. No-platforming is about local people, showing solidarity with those in their midst who are subject to the kinds of lies, abuse and misrepresentation that bigots dish out, deciding they are going to support their peers. It is the very opposite of censorship, it is ensuring that those who are subject to intimidation and abuse in an attempt to silence them, are not put in a position where they are feel uncomfortable either expressing their views or being somewhere on campus. Censorship is top-down, the exercise of power to prevent a point of view being heard at all. No-platforming is bottom-up, it is a collective action of those whose voices are rarely heard. We recently saw a well-known writer come out as trans. They do not have to fear being placed in such a situation, their freedom of expression is not at issue. Ordinary young trans students at university don't always want to loudly proclaim their transness, many simply want to blend in and get on with their lives without harassment. This is what no-platforming is about. Ultimately it is the opposite of censorship, the opposite of silencing. 

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