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Silencing Germaine Greer will let prejudice against trans people flourish
Ideas progress through argument – no-platforming only serves the status quo @zoesqwilliams
Sun 25 Oct 2015 19.36 GMT Last modified on Wed 29 Nov 2017 08.33 GMT
Cardiff University ruled that the lecture should go ahead, in the interests of free speech, but said: “We in no way condone discriminatory comments of any kind.” This Greer called “as weak as piss”. She rejects the charge of discrimination as logically, of course, she must. If transgender women aren’t women, they can’t be discriminated against as women; instead, she says, she’s merely hurt their feelings. “People are hurtful to me all the time. Try being an old woman. People get hurt all the time, I’m not about to walk on eggshells.” Yet she’s cancelled the lecture herself, put off by the spectre of unpleasantness.
The rigidity and conventionality of Greer’s stance puzzles me: to define a woman as a person born with certain organs in certain places is uncurious – uncharacteristically so from this famously interrogative mind. The philosophical dimension of gender is far more complicated and interesting than the way a person looks or sounds; to refuse to brook any of that, appealing instead to the gut sense of an unidentifiable bloc of “a great many women”, is authoritarian and narrow. You’d expect it from Suzanne Evans, not Germaine Greer. Current Time 0:00/Duration Time 0:00Loaded: 0%Progress: 0%Mute Facebook Twitter Pinterest Speaking on BBC Newsnight, Germaine Greer says her views on transgender people are ‘opinion, not prohibition’ Advertisement
Does this add up to just cause for closing Greer down as a public intellectual? Those who would deny Greer a platform have made arguments of varying effectiveness. One is that her views are hackneyed, and need no broad airing: this falls down because Greer wasn’t invited to talk about transgender issues, but rather women and power in the 20th century. Another is that her ideas incite violence against trans people, which Greer rejects as she has never advocated a hate crime; she’s on shakier ground here. Anti-trans violence – real and growing – is predicated on the idea that being transgender is wrong and unnatural. To foment that violence, one need not literally call for it, it is only necessary to dehumanise trans people by rejecting their own account of themselves.
Those are both moot points, however, since the real root of no-platforming is this impervious modern absolutism. It was devised for racists and fascists, on the basis that moral legitimacy was conferred upon repellent positions just by allowing them in to debate. As a means of closing down the BNP or similar, it seemed like a good idea. There is very little to be gained from including a BNP supporter in a debate about, say, multiculturalism: if they state their views frankly, you have to go back to first principles and have an argument about how people’s qualities aren’t determined by their skin colour.
If they don’t state their views frankly, any argument provides a fig leaf for them. Logically, if racism should be frozen out, the same should hold for all discrimination. To no-platform a fascist but include a homophobe for freedom of speech purposes is to essay an impossible hierarchy of bigotry in which some people’s identities matter more than others. It’s hard to imagine the argument that would unlock the impasse over Greer, but whether that argument exists and how it would progress, we cannot know. Greer’s position has become unsayable; her scholarship, her pioneering, the creativity of her feminism, are as nothing. The determination of no-platformers to admit no context has its own rigidity and its own authoritarianism.
For comparison, take Theresa May’s drive to counter “non-violent extremism”, a bid to snuff out the terrorist threat at source by making its principles unsayable. In immediate practical terms, it looks like an attempt to win greater control over public institutions, principally schools and universities, as well as religious organisations. While May allowed that not all terrorism was Islamic – her tolerance for neo-Nazism will, likewise, be zero – it is impossible to imagine the Church of England suffering as much aggro from this drive as any given mosque. There cannot be anyone, in government or beyond, who seriously believes it possible to kill an idea by making it illegal to express it.
Either May believes her own rhetoric, in which case she has no understanding at all of human beings, or she is acting disingenuously. The cynical reading is that, even if these measures could never succeed in their stated objectives, they are still not worthless. The government has effectively awarded itself the power to redraw the map of political dissent. It can adjudicate between challenge and extremism, and broaden at any point the definition of “extreme”. Advertisement
The government has arrogated to itself the job not just of protecting its citizenry from terrorism, but also of determining which ideas can exist within the boundaries of moderation, where the mainstream begins and ends. It is strikingly authoritarian; indeed, all taboos ultimately serve the status quo. They may affect to protect the weak, but whenever you erect a barrier around the realm of the sayable, you put the power in the hands of the already powerful, and there it remains. The mainstream should never be described by a government, still less policed; its principles are in constant flux, ideally always moving towards greater sophistication and deeper empathy.
The application of this to the no-platforming debate is as follows: it is precisely because there is still so much prejudice against trans people that nobody should be silenced. In terms of social ideas, you progress from A to B – from saying homosexuality is aberrant, for instance, towards homosexuality is normal – not by shutting down homophobes but by argument, persuasion, rage and ridicule, openness and candour.