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.