It’s the second time in a few days that I’ve had to open a blog like this, but I will leave it to (many, many) others to explain why Julie Burchill’s Observer column today is so offensive and hurtful to trans people. Just to be clear on where I stand, I think it is the most vile, hate-filled, bigoted rant I have ever read in either Guardian or Observer. It is as if she made a simple list of all the most offensive things one could say about trans people and wove them into a clumsy cowpat of prose. But the trans community are more than capable of speaking for themselves on that, so I would like to focus on something else.
Of the issues raised by Suzanne Moore’s Twitter meltdown last week, one that has I think been overlooked is the privilege of the commentariat. I touched on this last week, but events since have added whole new layers of significance. One of the odder remarks in Moore’s Guardian piece was when she criticised the feminist jargon of intersectionality, saying
“Intersectionality is good in theory, though in practice, it means that no one can speak for anyone else.”
In Burchill’s piece, she (presumably quite deliberately) begins by describing a lunch with Moore where they ate lobster and drank Bollinger champagne, before quickly reminding us that both women (along with Julie Bindel) are from working class backgrounds.
“She, the other JB and I are part of the minority of women of working-class origin to make it in what used to be called Fleet Street and I think this partly contributes to the stand-off with the trannies. (I know that’s a wrong word, but having recently discovered that their lot describe born women as ‘Cis’ – sounds like syph, cyst, cistern; all nasty stuff – they’re lucky I’m not calling them shemales. Or shims.) We know that everything we have we got for ourselves. We have no family money, no safety net. And we are damned if we are going to be accused of being privileged by a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs.”
Leaving aside the transphobic hate-speech, I think this is a fascinating glimpse into what Burchill (and presumably her friends) believe is meant by both class and privilege. She is saying class is something one is born into and that it is immutable. She believes the precise same of gender, conveniently enough. In recalling the lobster and champagne story, Burchill was, I think, explicitly telling us that she was born working class, and whatever expensive meals she might have eaten, she will die working class. By implication, if you’re born a man or a woman, you will stay that way whether you like it or not.
I think privilege is a useful concept in understanding ourselves in relation to the world, how we perceive and interpret people and situations around us. I do not doubt that the ways in which Burchill, Moore and Bindel see the world are heavily informed by their upbringing as working class women. However to really understand the world in relation to ourselves (which is not quite the same thing) we need to look not at privilege, but at power. It is not privilege which controls people, constrains people, oppresses people and discriminates against people, but power. A straight white male may have privileges, but he does not necessarily have power (although for obvious reasons they often coincide). Your boss has power, political and religious leaders have power, your abusive partner has power, and their power is not necessarily lessened by their ethnicity, gender or sexuality. A working class entrepreneur turned billionaire corporate boss may not have been born into privilege, but it would be ridiculous to say that he (or theoretically she) does not have immense power. When Julie Burchill says she is not privileged it is no less ridiculous then when Lord Alan Sugar says much the same.
Whether they have attained their position through talent and hard work or old school ties and nepotism, star newspaper columnists wield enormous power. They can not only help to shape news agendas and public discourse. They have the power to brighten the day or ruin the week of millions of readers. More specifically, they can choose to wield that power to incite or (more commonly) validate the hatred and bigotry of others, which can have a direct influence on the safety and quality of life of their targets.
It’s almost got lost amid the nonsense, but the at heart of this dispute over the past six days has been the allegation that there is a “powerful lobby” of trans activists who control the debate, stifle freedom of speech and bully opponents into silence. Quite obviously, if the lobby were that powerful neither Burchill’s article nor Moore’s before it would ever have been published and the types of horrors uncovered by the #TransDocFail hashtag would be history.
To the best of my knowledge, trans activists have no powerful allies in the establishment or politics. They have no financial backing to speak of. They have little influence over cultural norms and discourse, or the setting of the political and social agenda. Just about the only weapon they have at their disposal is anger. The anger directed by (some) activists towards Moore, Burchill and Bindel comes from a position of virtual powerlessness. Sure, the outbursts of a few dozen angry activists can ruin a newspaper columnist’s day, perhaps make them feel picked upon and sorry for themselves and earn the tut-tutting sympathy of their friends. The anger of a newspaper columnist, on the other hand, can poison the air for millions.
While I acknowledge and unequivocally condemn nasty trolling, bigoted hatred and needless personal abuse, I have never had much sympathy for journalists at any level who complain about the negative feedback and genuine anger they encounter online. I’m not just talking about the Three Sisters of transphobic feminism here, Robert Fisk was talking just as much nonsense the other day and similar issues come up whenever powerful journalists discuss civility in discourse. It is as if they want all politics to be conducted by the rules of a debate at the Oxford Union, which is entirely alien to a large proportion of the population and always has been. There is hypocrisy in it too – I rarely see complaints about the compliments, fawning praise and adulation that also come with interactive media. It’s not just that the negative is the price to be paid for the positive, it is that it is an essential counterbalance.
Few things make us humans more angry than someone co-opting our voices, speaking for us without our blessing or consent. Anger is the weapon of the weak against the strong, the powerless against the powerful. That doesn’t always make it correct or justified (BNP, EDL or Hizb Ut Tahrir activists are angrier than anyone) but it makes it explicable. People get angry with journalists, and columnists in particular, because of our power, not our privilege. The irony, if you haven’t noticed, is that if we go back a week to the first article by Suzanne Moore that kicked this off, she made almost the precise same point. Forgive me for ending on a cliché, but they do say to be careful what you wish for.