The freedom to offend

In my most recent blog post, I spoke out against Julie Burchill’s transphobic article in the Observer, published on Sunday. Burchill’s piece was written in defence of her friend Suzanne Moore, who has now written her own response to the whole affair.

In it, she argues that she is “on the side of liberation, which seems so often to be on the opposite one to equality” and suggests that she embraces the freedom “to question certain words: cis, date rape, Islamofacism” – “People died for my right to offend you.”

Here is the thing that bothers me about this line of argument: the freedom to speak out cuts both ways. Moore is free to question whatever she wants, and other people are free to be offended about it and to tell her so. As Dorian Lynskey and others have pointed out, the problem here is not that anyone’s freedom of speech is being squashed – it clearly isn’t – the problem is the tone with which the debate is carried out.

Moore’s remarks have generated violent opposition, both on this occasion and in the past, and she quotes at the top of the page some of the more outrageous things that have been said to her: “They say I haven’t apologised enough and I probably haven’t. No one has apologised to me for saying that I should be decapitated and I support the English Defence League.” The problem is that she seems to be taking this as an excuse for some of her own remarks, and framing debate as a race to the bottom – ‘certain people haven’t apologised to me for being offensive, so why should I apologise when I offend others?’

I think this is a line most of us probably took when we were kids, and it makes about as much sense now as it did then. Yes, people can be over the top, vile, and offensive in debate, on Twitter and elsewhere – and does it convince anyone? I’ve never been persuaded by an insult.

Moore included a throwaway line in her original piece that upset some people, and in this article she ventures an explanation for those words, and a defence of them. You may or may not be persuaded by her explanation, but her right to hold the opinion and to discuss it with others who disagree with it is incontrovertible. The problem is, she didn’t do this initially. She responded to those questioning her statement with blunt opposition and a refusal to explain or add any context to her flippant statement, ending with the angry words: “People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me. Good for them.” (You can see the tweets reproduced in the body of this article.)

Of course, you can’t have a rational debate with everyone (especially not in the tiny character limit on Twitter) and sometimes it’s better to cut your losses and move on from an argument when it’s going nowhere. But you shouldn’t come out with a statement as unpleasant as that and be surprised when you find yourself in the middle of a storm of unpleasant and angry words. It cuts both ways.

Moore talks about anger in her final paragraph, and there’s no doubt it has its place in debate (even if it didn’t, it tends to be a natural by-product of disagreement) but it needs to be managed and used sparingly. If she had saved her anger for the target of her original article, rather than blazing it at those who objected to her characterisation of trans women, this storm might never have found its way into the teacup. You aren’t obliged to respond to the anger of others with your own vitriol, and as most of us found out as kids, the line  “but she punched me first” doesn’t usually get you out of trouble.

Nobody censored Suzanne Moore. Julie Burchill’s offensive piece was taken down by the Observer – an action I disagreed with – but it still exists on the internet and The Telegraph has reprinted it. Lynne Featherstone somewhat foolishly called for Burchill to be sacked (again – she’s entitled to her opinion) but no such knee-jerk response has been forthcoming. In this context, Moore’s final statement seems rather overblown: “But if you take away my freedom to love, be intemperate, silly, angry, human, ask yourself who really wins? Who?”

I don’t see anyone taking away her freedom to do any of these things. We can all be as silly and angry as we like – but we’re unlikely to achieve anything constructive that way.

About alittleroad

Creative but confused.
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8 Responses to The freedom to offend

  1. organic cheeseboard says:

    it does seem a bit odd for her to complain about her freedom to speak being ‘taken away’ via the medium of a column she’s been paid to write, using the example of her temporary, personal decision to stop tweeting, as evidence. It’s also very odd that she and her ‘free speech zealot’ friends seem incapable of giving a truthful account of the matter – every single one of them has overlooked the ‘cut your dick off’ comments and her subsequent rants on The Quietus, etc. None of them seem interested, either, in the fact that Burchill piece was bigoted and repellent from start to finish. Moore was, of course, entirely free to tell her critics to ‘cut their dicks off’ and to ‘fuck off’, but this is hardly the action of someone whose primary concern is ‘forging alliances’ as she, and all her friends, are desperately trying to claim.

  2. alittleroad says:

    I think she’s less interested in freedom of expression than she’s interested in freedom from criticism.

    • organic cheeseboard says:

      Yes. I think it’s symptomatic of a lot of opinion journos in fact. They frequently tell us that they’re free speech zealots who oppose all censorship and believe in debate, but almost all of them are simply lying in their accounts of her ‘non-bigotry’. This was never a freedom of speech issue, I don’t think, and trying to turn it into one demonstrates her, and her friends’ inability to handle genuine criticism.

      • alittleroad says:

        She doesn’t need to be bigoted to have inadvertently used words that caused offence. This is the problem with angry debate, on either side; it becomes insulting and personal so quickly – “You’re a bigot” “You’re a fascist”. The whole farrago has opened my eyes to some of the nuances of language used by and about trans men and women, and being unaware of those nuances isn’t a crime, but an angry refusal to listen when someone tells you that you’ve stepped on their toes is a problem.

        I find it laughable that it can seriously be claimed as a freedom of speech issue when it’s being carried out in the newspapers. I’m sure plenty of people in repressive regimes would love to experience Suzanne Moore’s version of repression, and have their freedom curtailed to the extent that they’re given a space in a national newspaper to state their opinions. With the exception of the Observer taking down Burchill’s rant, everyone has been saying whatever the hell they please about this for days.

  3. organic cheeseboard says:

    No, the initial New Statesman piece wasn’t evidence of bigotry, more like not really thinking (and also, I might add, trying to get a LOL and failing). It was her subsequent Twitter meltdown where she exposed her actual bigotry while refusing ot listen to those whose toes she trod on.

    It’s pretty transparent why it’s being spun into a feedom of expression thing – because her mates have realised her and Burchill’s statements on trans people are unjustifiable when looked at any other way.

    Reports of the debate she was invovled in last night (I say ‘debate’, actually it seems more like a love-in) are that she spent a lot of time badmouthing the Guardian. Presumably if she DOES leave as a result of this it will again be ‘shameful attempt to silence her’ and she can once again be the martyr.

    • alittleroad says:

      Really? Well, the Observer do come out of it badly – they should never have published Burchill’s article, and once they did that they were damned if they took it down and damned if they left it up. (Incidentally, this article is quite interesting about why they took the decision to remove it: http://bit.ly/105UcSP) I’d be interested to know what the Guardian have done to Moore thought, apart from publish her rather self-pitying justification.

      I just don’t see Moore’s problem, unless, as you say, she’s genuinely bigoted. How is her cause hurt by accepting that her phrase was ill-judged? It seems that part of it is having her position as the fearless enemy of oppression challenged – suddenly she’s the one in a position of power who’s slighting a minority, and she can’t deal with that in a classy way, so she resorts to this awkward oscillation between whining and being even more offensive. One of the things that I found most troubling about both Moore and Burchill’s positions was this implicit suggestion of a hierarchy – Burchill’s between “natural-born women” and trans women, and Moore’s comments about trans people being “more feminist” than she is. I don’t like this way of thinking about the issue, and it seems like a big part the problem is a refusal to admit to a mistake, because that will somehow result in you being demeaned or losing, or otherwise slipping ‘below’ someone else on some kind of Scale Of The Oppressed.

      • organic cheeseboard says:

        I dunno, it’s from a fairly disreputable source (Paul Staines aka Guido Fawkes) but she apparently called Comment is Free ‘a failed experiment’ the other day.

        Yes – it does seem really odd for the Obs to ever have thought Burchill’s piece publishable (and not just because of all the vileness – it’s also a really awful piece of writing in terms of argument). EVen weirder is the fact that it was sent round their offices on the Saturday morning and nobody mentioned it’s nastiness and poor quality – Nick Cohen enthusiastically tweeted one of the worst lines from it – and it’s impossible to consider that this Readers’ Editor thought it ok.

        I think that underlying the Moore weirdness over this is the idea – borne of prejudice mostly – that transgender people and ‘their champions’ are somehow diluting and obscuring genuine feminiism with lots of focus on ‘jargon’, the body, philosophy, and that sort of thing – it’s a commonly cited reason for why Caitlin Moran’s book is ‘so good’. And I can sort of understand the point, though i disagree, but it makes no sense for her not to back down over this all the same. I mean that line she kept on using, ‘not a single transgender person opposes the govt’s cuts’, is just not true, and I think demonstrates a willingness to lazily stereotype people which, surely, she should not be doing. And I tihnk part of THAT, though, stems from the opinion journo’s need to get a LOL out of stuff – thus resorting to cheap insults and easy targets. Moran and Moore are both v bad on that score.

  4. alittleroad says:

    Yes, it’s a worry that trained journalists didn’t look at the Burchill piece and immediately recognise that, not only was it gratuitously offensive, it flagrantly breached their own policy on what could and couldn’t appear in print! Anyone who thought the “minstrels” line was brilliant polemic needs their head examining.

    I didn’t hear that line from Moore. Has she asked them all, then? I mean, I don’t usually see transgender people asked for their opinion on anything much – I’m struggling to think of a high-profile trans woman or trans man in the media who would be invited onto Newsnight to discuss welfare policy (or, indeed, be commissioned to write articles on welfare in the Guardian / Observer. Cough, cough.) I doubt that’s because they don’t HAVE opinions, though, or don’t care about this stuff…

    I suppose this goes back to a bigger argument about how people have supposedly abandoned campaigning for big social causes in favour of ‘identity politics’ which apparently doesn’t get anybody anywhere (I think this is what Moore was groping towards when she mentioned gay people being “pushed into the conformity of lifelong monogamy”, i.e. gay people are abandoning their radical political potential in hurrying to become just like the heteros, when really they should be in favour of smashing the system or critiquing capitalism or whatever). But surely people should be able to campaign for whatever they damn well please – I mean, this whole argument has shown that a social crusader like Moore doesn’t give one about what the trans community thinks, so who’s going to speak up for them if they don’t speak up for themselves? Really it just seems to come back to “Everyone doesn’t agree with ME about what *I* think is important, and that is WRONG.” Dylan Moran (no relation to Caitlin, as far as I’m aware) put this brilliantly in one of his shows when he said “everyone doesn’t agree with me all of the time… and that’s where the fault lies.”

    I’m also surprised by how incoherent Moore and Burchill’s pieces have been (I’m referring to the Moore piece I link to at the top of this post). If they can’t make their arguments any more clearly than that, what the fuck are they doing being employed by a major newspaper? Pretty much every blog post I have read about this has been clearer and more articulate.

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