Suzanne Moore, freedom of speech and uneven platforms

Trigger warnings for discussion of transphobia

Suzanne Moore doesn’t appear to have learned anything from being called out on her transphobic comments last week. She’s returned to Twitter, all guns blazing, and written another piece in the Guardian, entitled “It saddens me that supporting freedom makes me an opponent of equality” (clean version, with no clickthroughs to the Graun here, courtesy of @helen_bop). The article is problematic through and through.

Moore argues that freedom of speech must be preserved, in the light of the debacle surrounding Julie Burchill’s slur-riddled extension of things which Moore herself had said (I collated a lot of Suzanne Moore’s comments here). Indeed, rather than distance herself from what Burchill said, Moore defends her in a paragraph which would be better suited to Spiked magazine:

And I am serious about freedom of speech. If Lynne Featherstone can call for a journalist and an editor to be sacked, this does not bode well for having politicians and lawyers running the press, does it? Do you actually want to be governed by humourless, authoritarian morons? Don’t answer that, I may be offended. You don’t commission someone like Julie Burchill to launch an Exocet missile and then say: “Oh dear, we only really wanted a sparkler.” You cannot unpublish something any more because of the internet, something that Lord Justice Leveson failed to get his considerable head round.

Furthermore, according to Moore, “people died for my right to offend you”. Here, she ignores the fact that the beliefs of hers and Julie Burchill’s she has been defending have led to the deaths of a lot of trans people. At the beginning of her latest article, Moore complains:

The wrath of the transgender community has been insane. 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.

Here, she clearly implies that these insults came from the trans community. Maybe some of it did, but it is a complete lie to suggest that the comment about the EDL came from trans people or allies: here’s the tweet. One trans activist pointed this fact out to Suzanne Moore and promptly got blocked.

It’s not acceptable to scapegoat a vulnerable minority for something which was nothing to do with them. It’s downright fucking dangerous.

Tonight, there was a demo at the Guardian and Observer HQ to protest the publication of hateful, bigoted, transphobic articles, with particular focus on Burchill’s piece. Later that evening, Suzanne Moore would be speaking at a publicly event which had been heavily promoted on the social media, which those attending an already-organised protest may have been interested in picketing. I promoted the Guardian demo, and someone else tweeted about the Soho Skeptics event. Moore decided to RT these as an example of some sort of “bullying”:

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Following this, my mentions were inundated with Moore’s supporters lambasting me for being “threatening” by promoting a vigil against transphobia, or attempting to ridicule me for having nothing better to do with my time. As a matter of fact, I had plenty of things I’d rather be doing that evening, like rewatching Battlestar Galactica or fucking or something, but nothing more important than standing in solidarity with trans people harmed by mainstream columnists engaging in hate speech. I’m cis, and I have the luxury of being able to walk away from this at any time I like, as it does not affect me personally. I do not feel it’s right to take this route, though (if however, my trans comrades feel it would be better if I stopped engaging in this, I will respect these wishes).

I went to the demo at the Guardian offices, and nobody picketed the Soho Skeptics event, because protest is a cold, tiring business. As far as I’m aware, the Soho Skeptics event went smoothly, uninterrupted by any mention of the psychological harms inflicted by Suzanne Moore and the imaginary trans cabal never did make good on the imaginary threats they imaginarily made. The demo was attended by a mixed bunch–trans people, radical queers, allies. It was angry and sad all at once, as speeches reflected on trans oppression. One trans activist took to the megaphone and delivered a beautiful, eloquent speech on the inequality of platforms.

She spoke about how cis columnists and journalists have the platform and the power to spread dangerous myths and lies about trans people. Meanwhile, the trans community does not have the same opportunity to rebut this misinformation. They do not have the platform, while those with it abuse it. She spoke of how the demo was an expression of free speech.

Which is exactly what it was. Those same people who died for Moore’s right to offend also died for our right to offend Suzanne Moore by holding demos. It was an attempt to address this inequality of platform. Far from being threatening, it was a public attempt at holding people and institutions accountable for the wrongs they have committed. They probably do find this somewhat threatening, many being used to not having to hear criticism, particularly not as instantaneously as in the digital age. Yet it is a different threat entirely to the mainstream media closing ranks against an oppressed minority: this is where the harm came from, and it will continue to do so until they change.

It’s mighty disingenous of Suzanne Moore to claim to believe in free speech, yet continue to play the victim when those she upset hold her accountable. This, too, is free speech, it’s just words she doesn’t want to hear. She has the platform and the power to obfuscate the truth, while those she has harmed cannot so readily make their voices heard.

It’s a ghastly imbalance, and I cannot see it being righted any time soon. There’s too much structural bullshit to tear down. It’s not an unreasonable request to ask those with the power and the platform to use this responsibly, to try to avoid contributing further to this oppressive system. It’s not an infringement of free speech to try to hold those who do express harmful views to account. It’s a way of chipping away at a crack and letting the light get in.

I’m furious that in 2013, rather than living in cloud cities with our robot friends, we’re not even fighting to gain ground, but to hold the measly little patch that we’ve got.

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24 responses to “Suzanne Moore, freedom of speech and uneven platforms

  • Chris

    What’s with “cis”? Where did this term suddenly spring from?

  • Rory MacKinnon

    Reblogged this on Media Darlings and commented:
    Following on from Hyosho’s excellent post, cisgender feminist Zoe Stavri weighs in on Moore and her apologists’ double standards for free speech.

  • janefae

    Another piece to the jigsaw. Thanks for this. I’ve pitchesd a piece on free speech and how the simplistic do-or-die freedom for the press (but not for us) approach is an 18th century argument trying to survive in a 21st century setting.

    Very liked…as is the rest of your writing.

  • FXP

    What Burchill, Moore et al. don’t seem to understand is that free speech doesn’t mean that you can say whatever the fuck you want without taking responsibility for your opinions or facing consequences. Shouting fire in a crowded theatre when there’s none is irresponsible as people may get killed in the ensuing stampede. Similarly using slurs and demonising a minority group is irresponsible, especially when there’s already high levels of prejudice and violence against them. Why should the already oppressed be the only ones to suffer from Burchill’s thoughtless tirade?

    • Aoife O'Riordan

      Exactly! They seem to miss the point that the rest of us get free speech as well. Which you’d think would be obvious.

    • K

      Quite. Another aspect of this that is often ignored by people invoking their right to free speech is that freedom of speech means you can’t get locked up for expressing your opinions, not that no one is allowed to criticize what you say.

  • Steffi

    It is very disturbing that we, as feminists, are having to fight ‘one of our own’ to get her to see that her views are not acceptable. I just cannot see why Moore is not hearing both the trans community and those of us who are disgusted by her original reaction and to Burchill’s article. Did I miss something here? Is appears that there are cis feminists who cannot empathise with others who have suffered discrimination, and for me, by definition this means they are not feminists. Not in my name.

  • spudman101

    1. Even if Suzanne Moore has been sent offensive messages she can’t expect an apology from the “transgender community” any more than someone who was offended by her article can expect an apology from the ‘feminist community’ or the ‘female community’. These are all just bunches of individuals with only one thing in common, they’re not the fucking borg. Additionally, someone who sent her a message saying she should be decapitated is unlikely to apologise as causing offence was probably their aim. I doubt they’re sitting at home thinking “why is Moore so offended? How was I supposed to know she would be upset by the thought of her own decapitation?”

    2. If I have a controversial opinion and I tell it to thousands of people, lots of those people are going to want to tell me I’m wrong/stupid/an arsehole (and they’re unlikely to form a queue or elect a spokesperson to do it). It’s not bullying, it was my choice to talk to a shitload of people at once and now I have to deal with all of their responses at once.

    3. Fucking Martin Robbins et al. with their stupid “You don’t know what it’s like to be mobbed on twitter” argument for Moore’s reaction. Guess what? I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman. I don’t know what it’s like to be trans. I don’t know what it’s like to be another race. I don’t even know what it’s like to be any other white, male, cis, hetero guy but me. That’s why it’s so important that I listen to all those other people carefully.

  • ABC

    I agree, the whole free speech angle completely derails the whole discussion. It’s not about whether people have the freedom to say these things – they obviously do and it’s not really worth debating. It’s what effect they have that should be the point of discussion.

    And surely if you are going to go down the free speech road, how can you complain about people ‘attacking’ an article? It makes no sense whatsoever.

  • + Yvonne Aburrow (@vogelbeere)

    I have a confession to make. It’s embarrassing, but here goes. Once upon a time, in about 1995, I was one of those people who said that trans* people couldn’t be in women-only space, because they don’t have XX chromosomes (and ignored intersex choromosomes). I banged on about reinforcing gender stereotypes and the gender binary. My (pathetic) excuse was that because I am bisexual and genderqueer, and i wanted the boundary between the genders to be blurred, and preferably erased, people being trans* was upsetting the applecart. I apologise wholeheartedly for any distress i may have caused with my horrible views.

    It seemed to me at the time that my bad attitude was legitimised by reading articles in the liberal media which appeared to back up my views. One doesn’t feel bad about having a prejudiced view if it’s backed up by what one reads in the Grauniad, in academic papers about gender, etc.

    Then (around 2005) I started to meet real trans* people, hear their stories, and learnt that they were not the ones reinforcing that gender binary – it was the doctors who were forcing them to jump through hoops to prove that they needed gender confirmation surgery. Making them live as their preferred gender without benefit of adjustments. And all the other horrors that were detailed in the #TransDocFail hashtag. I started to rethink gender. I stopped being a prejudiced asshole. I grew up.

    I met FtM people and MtF people. I learnt that many of the writers I respect and admire are trans (e.g. Raven Kaldera, Patrick Califia). I met ordinary trans* people. I read more around the issue (books, blogs, articles). I realised that the same people who had sold me the line about trans* people reinforcing the gender binary were the same people who persecute sex workers and kinksters. They were the same people who rejected me for being bisexual.

    I think that is why there was a demonstration outside the offices of the Grauniad – because they are the one paper that might, just might, be expected to get it, and to make an effort not to be transphobic. It’s kind of obvious that right-wing papers will be transphobic, and a pleasant surprise if they commission articles from people who get it – but it feels like a stab in the back when the Grauniad attacks trans* people. It’s a betrayal of what they are supposed to stand for.

    I cannot understand why Moore, Burchill, Bindel and their cronies don’t understand that just as it’s totally unacceptable to use the N-word, or refer to women as “bitches” etc, or refer to gay people using derogatory words, the same applies to the horrible transphobic language that they want to use. And the reason that all these words are unacceptable is because they dehumanise the target group, try to make their problems seem trivial, and incite people to violent acts towards the target groups. Just as feminism and anti-racism have spent decades trying to get people to use polite words instead of hate speech, now it’s the turn of trans* people to receive politeness and consideration. And to feel safe walking down the street – a basic human right, I would have thought.

  • sabcatAndy

    The tragedy is that the only real responsibility that the press has is based on cash. Viewed from their perspective they’ve discharged their responsibilities admirably.

  • Roberta Wedge

    I followed yesterday’s #SohoSkeptics Leveson debate live. Suzanne Moore got a warm, i.e. positive, response from the audience. At one point she apparently referred to “a fatwa against transsexuals” . I pointed out on Twitter that a fatwa is in fact any formal ruling by an Muslim judge; using it as a synonym for “death sentence” shows a gross ignorance of Islam. (As an aside, the Iranian theocracy shows a marked preference for dealing with gender “deviance” through reassignment and surgery.)

  • Alex

    Has anyone got a recording of SM making the fatwa comment? Could the meeting be considered a public place? And, if so, could this be proven to be a transphobic hate-speech comment punishable through a court of law?

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