There has been a hell of a lot written in the past week or so since the New Statesman published feminist writer Suzanne Moore’s article Seeing red: the power of female anger, and I really do not want to go over the details again. There’s more to be written on transgender issues by people with far better knowledge than I. Suffice to say, people got angry over a phrase in Moore’s piece, she was rather forcefully criticised, responded in kind, and gave up her Twitter account as the weight of group anger became too much. Then Julie Burchill further fanned the flames with a massively controversial article in the Observer.
What I want to briefly focus on here is the frankly disastrous response to the furore over Julie Burchill’s Observer article by International Development minister Lynne Featherstone. Weighing in to the twitter discussion on Sunday evening, Featherstone tweeted that Burchill should be sacked by the Observer, and subsequently implied agreement with another tweet suggesting that Observer editor John Mulholland should also be sacked.
Let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that Julie Burchill is not actually on staff at the Observer, and can’t be sacked, and examine just what’s happened here: a government minister in a modern democratic state has demanded that a journalist be punished for writing a contentious article. And then nodded along with the notion that a national newspaper editor be sacked for publishing a contentious article. An article that has not, as yet, been deemed illegal, or even in breach of the Press Complaints Commission code.
Featherstone has made a mockery of Britain and the EU’s declared commitment to promote free speech. Cast your mind back to the 2011 riots, when it was suggested that social networks be shut down to prevent people co-ordinating movements. The state media of regimes such as Iran and China gleefully reported this suggestion, using it both to mock the UK’s hypocrisy and to justify the censorship of their own people.
Now imagine the next time a newspaper such as China’s Southern Weekly steps out of line, and a senior Communist Party member calls for the head of a reporter or editor. Should a Foreign Office official even attempt to condemn such censorship, be in no doubt that the authorities in China will point to Featherstone’s intemperate tweet and say the UK is in no position to lecture.
There’s the international aspect. Now look at the domestic. Independent editor Chris Blackhurst has said he fears that politicians will use post-Leveson statute to “wreak their revenge” on the press. Speaking on Sky News, Blackhurst commented:
“Once a draft Bill goes into the Commons and the Lords and once they get their teeth into it they can add all sorts of amendments.
“That’s where the revenge will happen. That’s one reason why some of us are very keen that there should not be statute.
“It’s not just expenses, let’s not forget there are a lot of MPs, all sorts of shenanigans down the years, many of which we all know about and have been highlighted, and they can’t wait. They are sort of ‘bring it on’.”
Pro-statute campaigners such as Hugh Grant tell us that we should not be alarmed by the prospect of a new press law. But when, even before such a law is debated, a government minister thinks it’s OK to interfere with the press in this manner, why should we trust politicians with free speech?
Sometimes, arguments move on — and when they do, those who were once at the forefront of intellectual and political thought are left high and dry.
So it may be with Julie Bindel, and many of her supporters, who were outraged on Friday as a bunch of uppity “trannies” and advocates of other causes (from sex workers to gay rights) turned out variously to picket, leaflet and heckle her appearance on Queer Question Time at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern.
A great deal of hot air has already been expended on this ruckus, so here are the edited highlights. Julie Bindel is controversial. To begin with she restricted herself to targets that fellow progressives agreed needed taking potshots and over the years she has been a staunch ally and campaigner on behalf of lesbians, gays, victims of domestic violence and trafficked women — amongst others.
That is radical stuff: it is also dangerous stuff in a world where cuts in public services are on the cards, tough choices need to be taken, and the next government is likely to be looking round for places where they can swing the axe with little fear of recrimination. Populist cuts, in this context, could spell the death knell — literally — for some transsexuals, as one of the key reasons that gender re-assignment is catered for by the NHS is the serious psychological trauma suffered by those forced to continue in a gender that is simply wrong for them.
Which brings us back to Queer Question Time. The venue is a place usually considered one of the safest “queer” venues in London: organisers of the demo against Julie Bindel claim that their intention was never to argue “no platform” — but rather to protest the insensitivity of inviting someone who denied their very existence into what had previously felt like their home.
The demo passed relatively peaceably: events inside rapidly descended into farce, as it seems that the event organisers had courted controversy — but not prepared themselves for its arrival.
Heckling — on behalf of many causes — rapidly turned vicious, and much interesting debate was drowned out and derailed.
The Guardian, which has in the past been accused of acting as house magazine for the Bindelite strand of feminist thought turned out Bea Campbell on Sunday to defend Ms Bindel against those who were being nasty to her — and to conflate the events at the Royal Tavern with a recent decision by NUS Women’s Conference not to share a platform with her in future. This, in turn, set the phone wires buzzing, and another piece landed on the screens of puzzled readers on Monday morning, as blogger CL Minou turned out to argue against giving Bindel air space.
Should Ms Bindel be denied a platform? If one reads her own views on the topic, she sees this as a vicious and inexplicable ad feminam campaign against her. In exchanges — on Facebook — with one of the demo organisers, she appears genuinely outraged that she, a “lesbian feminist jewish woman” should be accused of being partly responsible for the deaths of transwomen.
On the other hand, arguing against the right of a group to be recognised — to exist —goes beyond commentary that can be put down to a “just a difference of opinion”. Bindel’s Facebook comment typifies a certain strand of gender and sexual politics and it may sound the death knell for her position at the forefront of that movement.
It is known as the “hierarchy of oppressions” and is the bad joke that sits at the heart of New Labour thinking on equality: the idea that certain groups and minorities are oppressed and others are oppressors — as opposed to a broader Human Rights approach that simply condemns oppression and discrimination wherever it rears its head. As one academic put it: “Equality is the framework that makes discrimination possible”.
Feminist academic Alexandra Dymock — reacting angrily to the Bindel-centred fuss — wrote this weekend: “Ask your average feminist working in academia whose research has been systematically ignored or refused funding by Labour in favour of the socially conservative spin Bindel and co spit out that happens to back their policy plans up and they’re enraged and disillusioned. It also allows the general populace to dismiss any potentially progressive thinking about gender equality upon the logic that feminism means ‘female advancement’.”
For now, the argument is about whether an old guard feminist should still be allowed the space to speak – though through the traditional left-wing media, she still has a pretty powerful platform. The real story may be that this confrontation with the trans community may be the beginning of the end.
Ideas that were once radical are becoming more mainstream: and a new, queer, non-heteronormative debate is breaking out around sexuality and gender. Its out of the box — and won’t go back inside, no matter how hard its opponents push.