What happens now, asks Polari’s editor, in the wake of the controversy over Julie Burchill’s unhinged tirade against trans women?
As the virtual tides recede in the wake of the latest Twitter storm, and we gather in front of our screens, physically isolated yet electronically together, it is time to survey the wreckage. One thing is for sure: the façade has been undeniably stripped from the Church of the Unholy Trinity where the cultural commentators Suzanne Moore, Julie Bindel and Julie Burchill used to look down on their flock of readers and instruct them in how to view the world. Now the workings are revealed, and it’s clearly not a Church but a playground, and the three journalists have been shown for what they are: angry, name-calling bullies.
What can be now be said about the storm that started on Twitter, and raged into a tsunami when Julie Burchill penned an unhinged rant in defence of Suzanne Moore? Roz Kaveney, in the article ‘Julie Burchill has ended up bullying the trans community’, said it clear: “The basic point behind everything [Burchill] says is that trans people lead essentially inauthentic existences and that hers, as a working-class novelist with a taste for lobster and champagne, is real life. The idea that some sorts of human life are true and others fake has a worrying history; you find it in many sorts of religious belief and various sorts of totalitarian philosophy.”
Rather than debate the issues raised by the wrangle on Twitter over the use of the phrase “Brazilian transsexual”, the three writers went into attack mode. First, Suzanne Moore hit back at all criticism, which ranged from the reasonable to the abusive, and ended up closing her Twitter account. “People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me. Good for them,” she tweeted.
Then Burchill seized the opportunity to launch an attack on all things trans. She was “indignant that a woman of such style and substance should be driven from her chosen mode of time-wasting by a bunch of dicks in chicks’ clothing.” And from there she discharged a tirade of insults, calling trans women over-privileged “shims, shemales” and “bed-wetters in bad wigs”. Burchill champions the fact that she is a “natural-born” woman “of working class origin”, and writes as if this gives her carte blanché to say whatever she likes.
Following on from that, Julie Bindel, who rather imperiously doesn’t approve of anything trans or bisexual, jumped in and tweeted, “This has been a long time coming, the bullying has to stop”. In her eyes, remarkably, it’s the journalists who are the target of bullying from – in her paranoid conservative phrase – “the trans cabal”.
And the battle rages on as journalists and editors react in panic and cry “free speech”. Editors at the Independent stepped in to defend Burchill. They write with self-righteous indignation and cannot see the difference between hate speech and free speech. Why should they? Like the Unholy Trinity, they know better than “the Twitter mob”, as Simon Kelner calls it, or “the sensitivity police”, to use Terence Blacker’s reactionary Daily Mail-esque phrasing. Yet after Burchill’s article was published in the Observer, the old media and social media debate was no longer about the initial confrontation on Twitter. It became about the right of a journalist to publish a pejorative attack on a minority group and have that attack endorsed by a national newspaper.
In February 2012, the footballer Ravel Morrison was fined £7,000 by the Football Association for a homophobic tweet. The following month, Federico Macheda was fined £15,000 for doing the same. The Independent reported both stories, but no editorials were written invoking their right to free speech. Yet when Burchill writes a litany of insults that are then published in a respected newspaper – not on the unregulated Twitter – free speech is all of a sudden under grave threat.
Instead of getting worked up over free speech, perhaps these writers should try showing some basic humanity, and recognising that this vile outburst is just not acceptable. “She’s still got it,” writes Simon Kelner, in a deplorable interpretation of Burchill’s right to view controversial opinions. He thinks she is a maverick thinker who challenges the accepted order, and so consequently anything goes.
What this comes down to is neither censorship nor free speech. The Observer granted Burchill a platform to air her ignorant rhetoric in an inconsistent, third-rate article that should have been rejected based on nothing more than standard editorial policy. The Observer does not publish every rant that comes its way. If Burchill wants to exercise free speech she can write a blog. To afford her special privileges in a national newspaper is irresponsible.
And what of Suzanne Moore? In an article published in the Guardian about the Twitter scandal (but not the substance of Burchill’s subsequent ‘defence’) she accepts a certain amount of responsibility. It’s an extremely well-written polemic, with a careful use of learnéd quotations, and a considered amount of deflection in order to position the issue squarely on her own terms. “I believe in sexual liberation, which is not the same as equality,” writes Moore. “I live for a left that is about freedom, a sexual politics that is about choice.” It all sounds good, but what does it actually mean? Moore has shown before that she will not defend the principle of equality if she doesn’t approve of its sexual politics.
In October 2011, the Guardian published Moore’s opinion piece on the subject of equal marriage rights. It starts out with the proposition that “gay marriage, as proposed by David Cameron, is utterly conservative”. So far, so good. “Gay politics,” Moore reasons, “loses any radicalism if it has to spend all its time reassuring the heterosexual world we are all exactly the same.” No argument there. Then it all falls apart when Moore concludes, “I do not resent anyone’s ‘big day’, but any progressive would not waste time arguing the case for gay marriage. Quite the opposite.”
The catch in Moore’s logic is that she sees equal marriage as nothing more than a desire for conformity, and she talks about “homosexuals” in the same way that right-wing commentators do: as a single group with a common agenda. Not only is that culturally naïve, it’s an untenable generalization. Sexuality is not the same as club membership. What’s more, Cameron’s idea of marriage as a lifelong monogamy is not the only definition of marriage. And so instead of talking about equal rights, which is the real point, the “gay marriage” question, or so Moore’s argument goes, demonstrates the failure of a minority group to be sufficiently progressive.
This only works if the interpretation of marriage is a patriarchal 1950s one. And so Moore arranges the issue within this framework and pronounces it reactionary. Marriage, she thunders, is “an institution set up to protect property to protect rights that we choose to overlay with our need for sex, romance, passion and companionship”. That may be true for some, but she uses this argument as a stick to bash the idea of “gay marriage” whilst trying to remain progressive. After all, what happens to the gender binaries of marriage when two men or two women get married?
Moore brings her own discontents to the debate, and in the end she sounds like a disappointed aunt whose nephew, formerly the black sheep of her family, has renounced his radicalism and started to drink his coffee at Starbucks. The polemic only works if there is a monolithic definition of marriage. Moore is only interested in that view, and so sidesteps the question of equal rights and the sexual politics of choice. An alternative that would allow for elasticity and complexity does not come in to it.
That is the way with Burchill, Bindel and Moore: each one tends to write as if she is the Law, and equal rights are treated as a political selection box. I don’t see how this squabble is going to change that. Yet if this Twitter storm has revealed anything it’s that the three are out of tune with twenty-first century sexual politics. “Being openly anti-gay or racist is not acceptable in the public domain,” Moore once wrote in the Daily Mail. And neither is being anti-trans. You may disagree with individual people, but to lash out at an entire group on the back of that is equally unacceptable.