Germaine Greer’s views are extreme, but so are her critics’

Black and white picture of Germaine Greer, an elderly white woman with glasses, holding a glass of drink.The Goldfish last week posted an entry in which she examined the complaints of ‘silencing’ and ‘censorship’ regarding the petition to prevent Germaine Greer from speaking at Cardiff University on the grounds of having transphobic views, as well as picking apart an article by Roger Scruton, on the BBC News website, in which he complained that freedom of speech was being infringed by recent laws banning the incitement of hatred and by politicians seeking to introduce more such bans. Neither can claim to be suffering silencing or censorship, she says, because both have platforms in the mainstream press and on TV which far outstretch the audience they might reach at some university auditorium, and that some of the other claims of harassment against people who have expressed sexist, anti-gay or transphobic views (e.g. Tim Hunt) have been wildly exaggerated, while some of those affected by the views in question have suffered real social costs.

It’s true that Greer (along with many of the feminists who signed the letter in the Observer complaining about censorship by pro-trans feminists earlier this year) gets a much bigger audience than the activists campaigning against her. However, the argument that one cannot be experiencing censorship if one has articles published in the mainstream press or appears on TV while being denied publication in smaller-circulation publications or denied university appearances is flawed. First, not everyone with the views that might attract a banning petition on a university campus has access to the mainstream media; Julie Bindel, for example, has a much lower profile than Greer and others have even less access. But the ‘niche’ platforms may be where you need to be appearing to work successfully or effectively in your field, and in some cases the ‘lay’ media may be shunned because it is not peer-reviewed, for example, or just not run by the “right people”.

The reason could be that you believe that a disease many of your colleagues believe doesn’t exist, in fact does; it could be because you are trying to speak out against domestic violence or some widespread unhealthy practice such as FGM or vaccine refusal in a religious community. The journals and platforms you need to be seen and heard on to get your work done may be controlled by the faction that opposes your view. Getting such material published in the Guardian, on Newsnight or at a TED talk will not get it noticed with your target audience; it may well increase their arrogance, intransigence and sense of self-righteousness and persecution. (In some cases, though, specialist media refuse to publish certain views because they are known to be wrong, while the mainstream media picks them up because they offer a story, or because of a perceived need for ‘balance’, as with climate change or, in the past, cancer and AIDS deniers.) So it is not only bigotry that is stifled by the censorship of smaller-circulation journals and niche and minority platforms.

For me, the biggest reason why these petitions should not succeed is that well-organised and vocal lobby groups should not be able to dictate who can speak where and whom the rest of us can see and listen to. I’m opposed to that whether it’s the Zionist lobby, who have long been able to intimidate the media and academia with co-ordinated letter-writing campaigns and prevent public appearances and appointments with money or a “word in the ear” of powerful people, or the trans lobby. If one looks at the messages left by people who signed the petition to keep out Germaine Greer, one finds that many of them are not from Cardiff or even south Wales at all; in fact, a fair number are from the USA and Australia. It’s an international campaign, not a local one, and not a very substantial one. A similar petition to bar “the TERF Julie Bindel” from speaking at the university of Essex last year (see earlier entry) gained only 296 signatures, again, many of them not local.

Germaine Greer’s views on the status of trans and intersex women are extreme, even by the standards of the radical feminists, but unlike some of them she has never threatened anyone or been associated with any group that uses violence. (When I say violence, I mean actual violence, as in physically assaulting people, threatening people with such treatment or smashing things up. I point this out because certain trans activists like to use it to mean wronging anyone, as they see it.) That is the key difference between most radical feminists, with one or two exceptions, and the racists who were the subject of “no platform” policies in the past — the latter were heavily associated with violence and criminal behaviour, and still are. What she has done is express an opinion, one that some people (but not actually most people) find offensive because it does not validate their view of themselves.

In some areas her views were demonstrably wrong from the beginning (such as where she suggested that if it became possible to transplant a working female reproductive system, demand for sex reassignment surgery would collapse; womb transplants have become available, though not yet to trans women, and there is demand, despite the difficulties having one can sometimes bring) but in other areas, she has been proved right: she criticised the practice of reassigning intersex babies as female because they would not develop full male organs or function as a male, as in the case reported in the media in 1998 of Joel (then known as Joella) Holliday (as well as a number of other incidences that were used as case studies), a practice which has become discredited (and as reported over the summer, Holliday was never content as a girl and began living as a male as an adult).

The Goldfish notes that on the issue of homosexuality, “our society had an argument and the argument was won”. The problem here is that there can be the appearance of a debate, when in fact some voices are excluded or shouted down — the ‘debate’ over headscarves in schools in France being a classic example as Joan Wallach-Scott’s research has shown. It’s possible to ‘win’ a public debate (and thereby help to cause or block change) by using fallacious arguments, which it is less easy to do in an intellectual debate where establishing facts is the aim. In this country, the ‘argument’ was won when Labour won power in 1997, for a whole host of reasons which had nothing to do with homosexuality (and anti-gay causes tend to weaken themselves in this country because they are usually closely associated with other anti-minority causes). But in the case of the status of trans women and the issues of what gender is or isn’t, and who is or isn’t a woman, the debate is nowhere near being settled, and it is dishonest to pretend otherwise.

It’s possible that the debate will be settled at some point, but it is no more likely to be on the wild and baseless claims and demands of the trans lobby than on the opinions of Germaine Greer or Sheila Jeffreys. The trans lobby demand not only that people who have transitioned, physically, from one sex to (as far as is possible) the other be accepted; they also insist, and demand that the rest of us accept, that people who haven’t, and have no intention of doing so, but who proclaim themselves to be another gender on the basis of ‘identity’ are what they say they are or be branded as ‘bigots’. They insist that physical sex should not matter, that not only are manhood and womanhood ‘social constructs’ but that male and female are as well, a plainly nonsensical claim. We see them interject into conversations about serious female medical concerns as well as FGM, claiming that referring to the people who usually experience these things as girls and women is “cissexist” and insisting that “cis” be prepended whenever we talk about girls and women as if they were female and as if they were subject to the medical realities (periods, childbirth, gynaecological disorders, FGM in some places) that come with that.

It’s understandable that women should resist the incursion of males who bear only a passing resemblance to women and who in some cases have no intention of removing their male characteristics into women’s spaces. Men are generally bigger and stronger than women, and men have been known to hurt and indeed rape women. Some trans women, especially those who retain male characteristics, are also known for violence, and violent men (even rapists) who have become transgender have secured the support of this lobby. I am not sure how representative of women victims of rape and domestic (and other male) violence the radical feminists who claim to speak for them are; I know many who disagree with them. But I have not seen any research done on where women, or these specific groups of them, stand on these issues. All we have are two sets of loud voices expressing extreme opinions, some of whom have gained the favour of people of influence or gained control over certain key organisations (e.g. university women’s or feminist societies). That no more makes them authoritative than any other factional group gaining control of any other organisation. The idea that the body does not determine gender is not a settled fact. It’s an opinion of one group, and in my opinion (and I’m sure many others’, and not just radical feminists and conservative religoius people) an extreme, self-serving, false doctrine.

There are many writers and thinkers who hold all manner of repugnant views, including those who support bombing other countries on dubious grounds, who support oppressive regimes, who support the occupation in Palestine and demonise its victims, apologists for police brutality, climate change deniers, apologists for the bombing of Hiroshima who support nuclear expansion, and so on, who regularly get broadcast in the mainstream media and if they ever give university lectures or other public appearances off the TV, we never hear about it because nobody raises any great objection. Usually, when I hear objections being raised to someone being invited to give a public lecture or take part in a panel or debate on the grounds that they are a bigot, the usual target is a Muslim (often on the grounds of views expressed over something unrelated to the topic, or someone they have shared a platform with) or a feminist who insists you have to be female to be a woman. Just because these views aggravate a vocal minority, it doesn’t make them morally equivalent to racism or fascism and we should not entertain the idea of refusing a platform to such a speaker unless strong evidence of a threat of violence or some other nefarious behaviour can be shown. We should not be treating a small group with contentious views as if they represented the truth and those who disagree with them as bigots equivalent to racists, and ceding control of public and intellectual spaces to those who shout the loudest.

Image source: walnut whippet, via Wikipedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence.

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