Monday, November 16, 2015

Silencing who? How Greer's defenders trivilise transphobia and trans women's experiences

TW: Discussion of intersex experiences, transmisogyny; transphobia; genitalia; violence against trans women; holocaust denial

Lisbeth Latham
 
On November 18, Germaine Greer will be speaking at Cardiff University on the topic of Women and Power: Lessons of the 20th Century. The lecture, which is at the invitation of Cardiff University's administration has been at the center of controversy after students from the Cardiff Women’s Association (CWA) launched a petition calling for the University to withdraw its invitation to Greer. The call for the invitation to be withdrawn is on the basis of Greer’s well documented transmisogyny. This call has seen a large wave of condemnation for being an attack on free speech, with criticism coming from across the political spectrum. From the right-wing Spectator and Spiked Online to the Australian far-left newspaper Red Flag (although with a title denouncing “left authoritarianism” you would be forgiven for thinking it was an article written by Andrew Bolt or another right-wing commentator in the News Corporation stable). In general the critics of the petition present a poor understanding of the issues at stake around feminism and transphobia along with a superficial understanding of free speech in modern capitalism.
 
On October 15, Cardiff University announced that the speaker for its annual lecture, to honour former Cardiff deputy vice chancellor Hadyn Ellis, would be Greer.

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
 
Greer has demonstrated time and time again her misogynistic views towards trans women, including continually misgendering trans women and denying the existence of transphobia altogether … 
 
“While debate in a University should be encouraged, hosting a speaker with such problematic and hateful views towards marginalised and vulnerable groups is dangerous. Allowing Greer a platform endorses her views, and by extension, the transmisogyny which she continues to perpetuate.
“Universities should prioritise the voices of the most vulnerable on their campuses, not invite speakers who seek to further marginalise them”.
In response, the university announced that the lecture would go ahead with vice chancellor, Professor Colin Riordan, saying in a statement:
 
Our events include speakers with a range of views, all of which are rigorously challenged and debated. This event will be no different.
"At Cardiff University we work hard to provide a positive and welcoming space for LGBT+ people and we are in consultation with student and staff groups to ensure that the views of LGBT+ people are represented at our events.
"We in no way condone discriminatory comments of any kind."
 
While Greer initially indicated that she would not proceed with the lecture, on the basis that she was too old to deal with protesters, she has since indicated that she we will speak.
 
It is unclear what further action the Cardiff Women’s Society or other supporters of trans rights will take either in the lead up to or on the day of the lecture.

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).
 
A number of writers have variously expressed forms of surprise that a feminist organisation would object to Greer speaking at their university, or that they would would call Greer a misogynist. However this surprise shows both a limited knowledge of Greer’s writings and other public statements but also to the long struggles over inclusion and exclusion of voices within feminism.
 
Greer’s misogyny is not limited to her transmisogyny towards trans women. It extends to her her broader view that women with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome are not “female” and thus should not be raised as girls (which given that most people with CAIS are not identified as such until they are at least into puberty - this would seem difficult unless all children born with vaginas are to be screened to see if they have XY chromosomes at birth - an incredibly invasive position which Greer has expressed support for) and a position which is at odds with her article on South African athlete Caster Semenya, which contains both icredibly transmisogynistic language and language which is obnoxiously stigmatising in its discussion of intersex experiences. However she also comes down on the side of supporting Semenya’s right to be able to compete as a woman - which in many ways show the contrarian and internally inconsistent character of Greer’s thinking. Greer is also famous for making sexist statements about other women including former Australian prime-minister Julia Gillard. Indeed Greer’s attitude towards other women has been described as “unsisterly”. All of this should mean that the suggestion that Greer is misogynistic should not be a surprise.
 
The history of feminism is the history of struggle over who is and isn’t to be included in the movement, with those being marginalised within the movement often being labeled as the problem. As Sara Ahmed noted in February, when Betty Friedan sought to exclude lesbians from the National Organisation of Women she labeled them as a lavender menace and that “when black women and women of colour spoke of racism in feminism we were heard, we are heard, as angry, mean and spiteful, as hurting white women’s feelings”. It shouldn’t be surprising that trans women would push back against those who advocate not only their exclusion from feminism but deny their existence and make statements that legitimate violence against them. It is also not surprising that the struggle against this discrimination would be seen as the problem, but more on that later.
 
Central to the narrative in articles critical of the student petition, is the idea that the student petition is a serious attack on Greer’s right to free speech and an attempt to censor her. I must say that it is an interesting violation of free speech where a person not only gets to go ahead with her, filled to capacity, lecture at a university, but also appear on multiple television programs and have their “silenced” arguments repeated in hundreds of articles globally. Of course you might say, “that is because we have resisted the effort to silence Greer! What would have happened if the university had relented to the demand!!!” Well probably that Greer would not have spoken at a lecture on November 18, but she would have continued to have been able to able to sell her more than 17 books, make media appearances and have articles in newspapers around the globe, again it is an odd form of “silencing”.
 
At the same time those defending Greer’s right to freedom of speech have made it very clear that they believe that it is absolutely wrong for students to call for the lecture to be cancelled. Suggesting that these authors do not believe that there is a right to discuss whether particular ideas have a place in a modern society - irrespective of how little capacity that the person or persons discussing the legitimacy of the ideas might have to actually silence those ideas. Of course given that the petition was aimed at individuals who could restrict access to a platform, if such a restriction constituted an unconscionable restriction of free speech the petition would be problematic. So there are two questions - would the canceling of lecture constitute a violation of free speech and is there an absolute right to freedom of speech?
 
As both Timothy Laurie and Jeff Sparrow point out, there is no right to speak at a university lecture. In selecting Greer to speak, the university decided to not invite other speakers - we don’t know who those speakers were or why those speakers were not chosen, but was that a violation of their right to freedom speech? Also universities exercise significant power over the ability to speak on campus. Cardiff University, in its Code of Practice to Ensure Freedom of Speech, reserves the right to both refuse a venue booking for a speaker or to cancel a meeting “in light of changed circumstances, or factors not know at the time of application”.
 
Of course a university can effectively block a speaker even if they don’t formally block it. Last year, a friend sort to organise a public meeting examining “Human Rights in the Basque Country” at a university in Sydney. They submitted a booking application form with their details and indicated that members of the Basque Sydney Club Gure Txoko would be participating. The university then provided these details to the NSW Police to determine if any of those involved were linked with the Basque armed nationalist organisation Euskadi Ta Askatasuna. The police informed the university this was not the case, but that some of the Basques were former political prisoners, although in fact none of them were - the university indicated the booking could go ahead with a booking fee of $700. Unable to afford this cost the student association were approached to see if they could help with the booking - the association’s president informed my friend that this was not possible as the university had told them not to help with the booking as the university did not want to be accused of supporting terrorism. In the end the meeting was held at another university.
 
A number of liberal writers while defending Greer’s “right” to freedom of speech suggest there are limits to freedom speech. Helen Lewis argues that Greer does not advocate violence against trans women which she argues “used to be the rationale for ‘no platform’” - however in Lewis’s view even if Greer was actively advocating violence against trans women that would only be a basis to cancel to talk if that was an intended component of the talk, arguing that no platforming was only applied to holocaust denier David Irving “when he was talking about Holocaust denial”. I think that Lewis is being entirely disingenuous with this argument because if David Irving was invited to speak at a University - even it was not on the topic of the Holocaust - you could expect widespread anger and outrage and attempts to shut that meeting down.
 
A central feature of the argument of Cardiff University management and many commentators is either a denial or downplaying of Greer’s transphobia and its impact on people’s lives. Cardiff’s vice chancellor says they would never support discriminatory language at an event.  However this position would only be  possible if they intended to vet everything Greer says, also  all questions that she would be asked or if you don’t believe that Greer’s views are discriminatory.
 
A counter petition calling on Cardiff University to allow Greer to speak argues thatThis reactionary tactic of calling a woman a 'transphobe' is no different than calling someone a 'commie' in 1960's America during the cold war. It's a slur that contains no analysis, just an emotional response that is primarily used against women who talk about women's biological realities, not gender identities.” Aside from the reality that not just women are called transphobes, this hyperbole is detached from any analysis of the difference in power relations between the US state and its promoters in the 1960s and trans women - who as a group are highly marginalised across the world.  
 
It is true that Greer doesn’t advocate physical violence against trans women. However she has actively called for discrimination against trans women, including opposing the appointment of Rachel Padman as a fellow at the all woman Newnham College at Cambridge University - on the basis that Padman was not legally a woman (while this might make it lawful discrimination it is discrimination none the less). Also in arguing that trans women are rapists, she advocates a position that helps to both legitimise the violence of other transphobes towards trans women - particularly those trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFS), such as Kathy Brennan, who conduct online harassment campaigns against trans women - including seeking to get them fired from their jobs and stop them accessing medical treatment (an activity that would be helped by Greer’s views that gender reassignment surgery is unethical). These views also help to buttress campaigns by both TERFS and more traditional right-wing activists against anti-discrimination legislation including the ability to access toilets of their affirmed gender and the ability to access medical treatments to assist in their gender affirmation.
 
A number of commentators, including Cardiff’s vice chancellor, argue that inviting Greer, or any other speaker, to speak does mean endorsing their views. However it does legitimise them, which is reflected in the publicity for the November 18 lecture describing Greer as “widely considered one of the most influential commentators on 21st century life”.
 
Louise O’Shea writing in Red Flag, acknowledges that Greer’s views are transphobic, but also argues that it is wrong to describe Greer as a bigot - because her views “reflect her particular history and framework for understanding gender and sexual oppression”. O’Shea also argues that we have to distinguish between Greer’s views and those of the  “ideological representatives of the oppressor which she is not” . The Merriam Webster dictionary defines bigot as “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially  one who regards or treats the members of a group with hatred and intolerance” - personally this would seem an accurate description of Greer’s attitudes towards trans women. Attitudes she has expressed for more than thirty years despite constant engagement with her around these ideas by the trans community. Moreover there is very little difference between Greer’s views towards trans women and right wing commentators, which is why there have been a large number of right wing papers defending Greer’s transphobia in the current dispute - despite their loathing of Greer’s feminism.

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.
 
While the majority of critics of the Cardiff petition are concerned by it as an attack on freedom of speech - for O’Shea, Socialist Alternative and a range of left activists - the petition reflects a right wing authoritarianism within the student left, an authoritarianism that risks threatening both the strengthening of University administrations, stifling discussion amongst the left and undermining political consciousness and organising capacity of workers and students..  

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:
 
“If there were any truth to the declaration for democracy and freedom that come out of Washington every day the brazen challenge of the Mississippi lynchers would be taken up by the government. Troops would be sent immediately to Mississippi. The lynchers would be brought to justice and the dictatorship of Jim Crow would be removed so the people of Mississippi could freely elect their own government
 
“The two capitalist parties, Democratic and Republican, that share the power in Washington are not going to take such a step of their own volition. They are too preoccupied with the filthy game of courting the Southern Dixiecrats as a “balance of power” to even utter one squeak of protest against what is happening in Mississippi.
 
“Moreover, the rule of Big Business in the US is bound up with the maintenance of the open-shop, cheap-labor system in the South. The open-shop South, in turn, depends on the perpetuation of the Jim Crow system. And the Jim Crow system cannot survive without racist terror”.
 
While these demands were not always successful in forcing the US federal government to act - they were instrumental in achieving the deployment of troops to Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 which enabled the desegregation of Central High School in that city.
 
Far from building illusions, calling on a university, or any other public institution, to live up to their own rhetoric on being opposed to discrimination is central to shattering illusions in those institutions. If the organisations fail to live up to their rhetoric we demonstrate that it is just that, rhetoric. If they respond to the call, and uphold their rhetoric, they will attempt to paint their act as reflecting their “strong commitment” to the issue - but that’s realpolitik turning a defeat into victory, turning something you did not want to do into something you always intended to do, the task for those who consistently oppose oppression primarily is to oppose that oppression - if there is a danger in people developing illusions in an institution then it is necessary to combat those illusions by arguing against them not by avoiding placing pressure on institutions to act.
 
A big problem I have with O’Shea’s argument is that it is not consistent with Socialist Alternative’s political practice in other campaigns. Socialist Alternative in their publications have reported favourably on:
 
  • Petitions calling on Australian governments to change the Marriage Act to allow Marriage Equality
  • A student campaign, involving their own members, calling on Sydney University to sack Barry Spurr over the sexist and racist content of his emails that were published by New Matilda in October 2014, this campaign also featured a change.org petition calling on the University to discipline Spurr.
 
O’Shea’s arguments relating to the impact of the petition on political consciousness are  untrue and ignore possible reasons for petitioning the university administration beyond illusions in the administration. I don’t know the motivations of the members of the CWA in launching their petition beyond what is written in the petition, however I can think of a reason why you would launch a petition before organising any protests (I say before as petitions and protests are not counterposed) and that is there is limited consciousness around transphobia in our society and it would be far easier (at this stage) to gather signatures on a petition (particularly an online petition) than to have an effective protest around Greer’s lecture - if confronted by a similar situation at an Australian university you could not rely on Socialist Alternative members to support that protest (again unless they are happy to protest against someone who is a legitimate part of the left and the left shouldn’t be silencing). However as one Facebook user argued, in organising the petition the CWA are asserting “that transphobes should not be welcome to speak on campus, which blatantly helps to develop political consciousness. Signalling solidarity with trans women does strengthen collective organisation of staff and students in that it challenges divisively oppressive ideas”, moreover a petitions such as those on Change.org enable the initiators to communicate with those who have signed it,  which may lay the basis for further organisation, including protests, in the future.
 
Finally there are a number of problems with the arguments of those who suggest that rather than a petition it would have been better to organise an alternative forum; seek to be on the platform with Greer, or to have individuals challenge Greer from the floor. First there is nothing counterposed between the petition and any of these actions. Secondly to suggest that it would be better for trans women and their supporters to simply organise an alternative forum ignores the very real difference in both resources and legitimacy between a major public lecture organised by a university and a public meeting organised by a university women’s collective. Those arguing that it would be better to try and be on the platform with Greer - both ignore the reality that this would fundamentally change the forum into a major discussion of Greer’s views of trans women - a discussion that the university clearly isn’t interested in - it also ignores the university’s motivation in the forum, which is to boost the university by hosting a prominent speaker - which would not be helped by a debate around the bigoted views of that speaker. The limited chance of success for this approach is also highlighted by the inability of trans women to get speakers onto panels featuring Greer at various feminist conferences. The ability to debate Greer is also limited by Greer’s intellectual dishonesty when confronted around her transmisogyny. When confronted Greer tends to use one of four tactics:
 
  • 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”.
The public discourse around the CWA’s petition demonstrates the widespread problem of the prioritisation of the”right” to make discriminatory and oppressive statements over the rights of marginalised communities to live free of oppression and to challenge those who promote discriminatory attitudes towards them. As Sarah Ahmed has argued any feminism [and left] that participate in the deligitimisation of the oppressed acting against their oppression are not worthy of the name and indeed are part of the problem.

 
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