Sunday, 25 November 2018

The Faux Silenced...

Opinion: An open letter to Kenan Malik about his article in the Observer today.

Dear Mr Malik,

I was dismayed, saddened and angered by your article in the Observer today, yet another in a long line of articles telling everyone that it is trans people who are “shutting down debate”. 

The “silencing” argument is now a common one and has been made in the Guardian/Observer at least five times in the last five weeks with no opportunity for trans people to counter it. It is an easy argument to make since it is part of the current oppressive media consensus and it is therefore an easy piece to write as it is unlikely to be challenged or contradicted in any mainstream media any time soon. 

In this letter I am going to set aside the objection that it is extremely stressful to sit in a studio, usually with a hostile presenter, and argue for your own right to exist with a transphobe (it's really very bad for one’s mental health). I am also going to ignore the fact that most trans people just want to get on with their lives rather than subject ourselves to “debates” with people we will never talk out of their bigotry (and yes they are bigots, even though they dress this bigotry up in “respectable” language). I’m going to also set aside your assertion that arguing with a bigot will be productive (it will not, ever). I’m also going to set aside the notion that these anti-trans groups have any legitimate arguments (they do not), and I’m going to avoid mentioning the vicious treatment of trans people and our allies (which is very common) when we do enter into any debate about trans people. 

I’m just focus on your idea of “debate”.

When it comes to “debate” about anything in this country the main forum for that debate is the national media. It is obvious that you want to focus this issue on small-scale “debates” held by anti-trans groups in meeting rooms around the country, but these reach a tiny audience and exclude many people. Recently one such event in the north-west barred two trans people I know for example. If you are going to talk about “debate” then the debate, such as it does (not) exist, in the national media is where your arguments need to be focused. The national media is where any meaningful “debate” is held, and consequently it is the national media where the focus of the “silencing” debate needs to be. The national media reaches millions, rather than dozens.

The “I’M BEING SILENCED!” article is a trope that goes back a few years, and which, as Sara Ahmed explains, is actually a self-contradictory one; 

"Whenever people keep being given a platform to say they have no platform, or whenever people speak endlessly about being silenced, you not only have a performative contradiction; you are witnessing a mechanism of power."

The mere fact that those who are claiming to be “silenced” are able to get their complaints reproduced repeatedly, at length and without contradiction in articles in national mainstream media tells you that they are not being silenced in any way. So let’s have a look at the scoresheet in terms of silencing…

I have a friend who is monitoring media output and who has counted well over 100 anti-trans “news” articles just since the first of August. The T*mes alone has published around 65 of these. Yet there have only been a handful of articles in national daily media during this time arguing in favour of trans rights, countering those of the anti-trans activists, all of whose arguments get a regular and uncritical airing. Last Sunday alone there were 10, yes ten anti-trans articles published, with no trans person permitted to respond. Today there were at least five. People whose opinions about trans people are no different from those of Donald Trump are able to get their arguments heard pretty much everywhere without challenge.

What is problematic is that “SILENCING!” and “debate” articles like yours focus entirely on the meetings of transphobic hate groups (groups you describe as “feminist” even though I know loads of feminists who disagree that they are feminist in any way) that have “debates” around the country. Trans people protest these meetings as an act of free speech because they have no access to the media in the way these transphobic groups have, and consequently the only way to make their voices heard is through protest. These protests are the muffled and misrepresented voices of those who are truly silenced, not those of the faux silenced whose opinions appear daily in national media often telling us how SILENCED! they are. 

One of the main problems is the way the media conducts its business. Being allowed to write an article in response to something published in the media is such a rarity that I can only think of a couple of instances of it happening. This is especially a problem when one wants to counter disinformation. The problem for trans people is that most of the anti-trans articles published in the national dailies are full of misleading material and would easily be countered with reference to verifiable facts were we allowed to do so. For example the “conflicting rights” argument that you bring up simply doesn’t stand up to any kind of intellectual challenge. There have been no reported problems in countries like Ireland or Malta where statutory declaration of gender has already been in operation, indeed there has even been empirical research published that undermines this claim, which you fail to mention (and let's face it if you did mention it then your entire argument would vanish in a puff of evidence). 

For the media the “trans debate” is not a debate at all, it is an asset; it enables journalists to produce material that Roz Kaveney has characterised as “The Monetization of Distrust”. Profitable clickbait in other words. If the trans rights argument is ended, which it could easily be, by trans people pulling apart the, actually very flimsy arguments of the anti-trans campaigners, journalists would lose this asset, no more articles of this kind could be churned out on an industrial scale. Journalists would have to resort to going out and finding some actual news. Consequently there is every incentive for the media not to permit trans people to engage in this debate in any meaningful way. This explains why there is so little pro-trans material in the media; if there were, the “debate” would have ended a long time ago, as every argument put forward by the anti-trans activists got taken down with logical argument and evidence. Trans people are literally being harmed by this propaganda in order for the media to make money. Imagine making your money by harming others, including children…

On the rare occasions that trans people do get the opportunity to present their arguments it is in a very different way to that of the anti-trans activists. Anti-trans activists, which include many journalists, regularly publish anti-trans articles in the media where they do not have to respond to any counter-arguments. When trans people are invited to air their arguments in the media, as I have been, it is normally in a “debate” situation in which we are opposed by an anti-trans activist. In other words the anti-trans activists get their ideas circulated in the media without challenge, while we can only get access to the media in a gladiatorial spectacle rather than a debate. Indeed Jane Fae has recently described how those “debates” tend to go; trans people typically get three soundbites, at least two of which are normally responses to an opposing statement. Compare that to the lengthy (and largely dishonest) arguments developed on the anti-trans side regularly and persistently, with no opportunity for us to challenge them anywhere. How can trans people possibly take part in a debate, how can we possibly develop arguments that go beyond brief soundbites when the media excludes us? 

However since you wanted to talk about "debate", let us see an example of when there was a debate; Mr Malik you may not have realised that there was a debate about trans people in parliament this week, hosted by extreme right-wing Tory homophobe and anti-abortionist David TC Davies MP. I can understand why you may have not realised that it was a debate, because the way it got reported in the media you literally would not have known it was one. If you had read Christopher Hope’s “report” in the Telegraph about it, you would have had no idea that it was a debate because only Davies’s views were reported. In fact if you read the Hansard report of this debate it shows that Davies’s arguments were comprehensively pulled to pieces by a number of women MPs. So even if trans people or our allies do engage in a “debate” about trans rights that debate gets comprehensively misreported by the media. What is the point of engaging in any kind of debate if it is going to be unfairly reported like this? The media doesn’t want a “debate” it wants one-sided propaganda.

So I think it is time journalists like yourself started to be a bit more honest about this subject. Yes there is silencing, but it is you, the media, who is doing the silencing, and the people overwhelmingly being silenced are trans people and our allies. To be frank, articles like yours today are a part of that process of silencing, and part of the industrial-scale propaganda against us. 

So my challenge to you Mr Malik is this; first, get this letter published in the Guardian, I am happy to reformat it to fit the “Long Read” article rather than a letter. This might demonstrate that you really do want to engage in a genuine debate. Secondly campaign to have trans people’s voices heard in the media on the same terms as those of those who wish to erase us. Thirdly, call out news platforms like the T*mes, which persistently exclude and misrepresent us, and fourthly support trans people and our allies to respond to the regular false and unfounded claims made by our enemies. 

If you do this you might be able to avoid the charge of being a dishonest, disingenuous, hypocritical, biased propagandist. And if you want a genuine debate about structural and cultural media transphobia, which is the real issue, I am happy to discuss this with you any time.

Kind regards,

Natacha Kennedy

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