On October 23, the Cardiff Women’s Association launched their change.org petition calling for the University to cancel the lecture. The petition states in part
While one might have thought that the decision by the University that the lecture would go ahead would have been the end of the issue. Instead we have seen sustained criticism of what is unprecedented in the Anglophone world - feminist students calling for a speech they think is problematic to be cancelled. This call has been viewed as either a threat to freedom of speech (liberal and right wing commentators) or as building and strengthening authoritarian and repressive institutions (far-left commentators).
O’Shea’s understanding of Greer’s views on trans women, like a number of commentators, is limited to the “questioning of the legitimacy of trans women’s status as women and arguing that trans women being responsible for sexism” - which doesn’t really reflect this part of the position of Greer and other trans exclusionary feminists that trans women help to reinforce the gender binary - at the same time as they reject the concept of gender. Thus O’Shea’s solution, which she argues the petitioners refuse to do - is to mobilise the arguments that the left has developed to “successfully contest and discredit” Greer’s ideas - exactly which arguments O’Shea means are not specified in her article or anything published by Socialist Alternative in the last 18 years. O’Shea appears to be completely oblivious to the daily struggle by trans women and their supporters to challenge to transphobic and transmisogynistic views particularly within feminism and the left.
Moreover O’Shea, like the majority of Greer’s defenders, both downplays trans women’s experiences of oppression and completely misunderstand Greer’s position regarding trans women. While O’Shea acknowledges that trans women “suffer terrible oppression” her argument does not engage with the personal consequence of this oppression, particularly the experiences of violence and disadvantage that trans women experience. As Sølvi and Shanice point out in their contribution, members of the trans community experience significant levels of violence and marginalisation (although these experiences are uneven and vary both within and between countries and are heavily mediated by intersections with other experiences of oppression) as a consequence trans people as a group have higher rates of suicide than either the straight or the broader LGBTI community.
Central to O’Shea’s argument is that the petition reflects an authoritarian outlook of sections of the student left. I know for many readers the idea of a member of Socialist Alternative complaining about authoritarian petitioners came as comedic relief when they read the article. The first time I read it I had to get up off the floor. Wipe tears of pain and laughter from my eyes. Then check that I hadn't split my stomach (having only recently had abdominal surgery this was a real danger).
Of course it is easy to laugh at Socialist Alternative but the matter of promoting authoritarianism is a serious allegation and should be taken seriously. To be fair to Socialist Alternative the problem for them is not having a petition - they would freely admit they use petitions all of time (although you have to use the phrase "use petitions" very loosely it is probably more accurate to say that they ask people to write their details on pieces of paper to give them an excuse to talk to them) but the intent of the petition. By calling on the University to cancel Greer’s lecture O’Shea argues that the students are:
- “treating the university administration as the legitimate gatekeeper of public debate and saviour of the oppressed, student unions only strengthen the capacity of university managements to undermine staff and students’ rights in the long run.
- “[doing]] nothing to strengthen the collective organisations of staff and students
- “[not doing] anything help develop the political consciousness needed for our side to fight against injustice and oppression, including that against trans people”.
O’Shea counterposes to a petition on the university the organising of collective protests - while other commentators have suggested the organising of an alternative forum or seeking to insert a pro-trans speaker at the lecture or to challenge Greer from the floor of lecture. These arguments are problematic on a number of levels and generally do not reflect any sort of reality or deal with the concerns that trans women have with Greer.
First, it appears odd having drawn the conclusion that Greer’s position is not bigoted and “it is not the job of the left to call for her to be silence her”, that O’Shea would argue that there are any mechanisms by which an attempt to stop Greer from speaking could be viewed as acceptable. Secondly if you argue that a petition on the university to withdraw an invitation to speak treats the administration as “the legitimate gatekeeper of public debate” then having a protest calling on the university to withdraw the invitation would do the same - as any protest which falls short of an insurrectionary seizure of power is reliant upon applying pressure through the mobilisation of social power to force the social actor with the power to implement its demands. It could be argued that the intention of a protest would not have to been to achieve a cancellation of the lecture, but instead to be disruptive and articulate opposition to transphobia. However what happens if the speaker or the university threaten to cancel the lecture? Would we cancel the protest, or should their be liaisons with the university and Greer about the forms of protests are acceptable and wouldn’t lead to the university exercising its power as a gatekeeper?
Finally O’Shea’s argument would suggest that it is fundamentally wrong for progressive forces to call on institutions and the state to either adopt anti-discrimination policies or laws and more particularly to demand that that they consistently apply them. Like other institutions, universities adopt policies through which they purport to protect staff and students from oppressive behaviour - however the application of these policies is inconsistent and prioritises the interests of the institution over the interests of those facing discrimination. It is in the interest of all those who are opposed to oppressive behaviours to demand that institutions live up to its self-professed aspirations as a mechanism by which we are able to eliminate oppression and highlight the limits of institutions’ willingness to combat oppression. This approach has important historical roots most obviously during the civil rights movement in the US as reactionary southern Whites - through the police and the KKK - sought to terrorise Black communities that were fighting against segregation and for voting rights. In response to this violence members of Black communities from across the US called for the federal government to intervene to protect communities, including through the deployment of troops to the south. These demands were supported by the US Socialist Workers Party which argued:
- Petitions calling on Australian governments to change the Marriage Act to allow Marriage Equality
- denies that she has made the transmisogynist statement (then subsequently keeps repeating it)
- distorts and minimises the transmisogynist statement (then subsequently keeps on repeating it)
- complains about "why do I have to talk about everything?" (when people are simply challenging her on her transmisogynist statements)
- accuses the questioner of being a misogynist
When you combine Greer’s approach to “debate” and combine it with the power of being a speaker with a moderator picking who will ask questions and stopping questions/statements which “go too long” it makes intervening from the floor of a lecture extremely difficult and puts those intervening at a considerable disadvantage. An additional problem with a debate or challenging from the floor is that it suggests that Greer’s views are up for debate. As Sarah Ahmed has pointed out “When you have ‘dialogue or debate’ with those who wish to eliminate you from the conversation (because they do not recognise what is necessary for your survival or because they don’t even think your existence is possible), then “dialogue and debate” becomes another technique of elimination. A refusal to have some dialogues and some debates can thus be a key tactic for survival”.
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