This article was originally titled "Why I stand by my demand that the guardian media group – and now, those that have leapt to its defence - apologise with actions, not words." and was contributed by Reubs J Walsh on 22/01/13
Much of what is below has been inspired by the insights of much more articulate activists than I. I have attempted to link to all the articles that have inspired me, within the text, but if I have failed please contact me and I will attempt to address it. The thoughts that I think add the most new ideas to the debate are in bold, for those who, like me, are beginning to tire of rehashing old ground. In the hopes of completeness, however, I am including my thoughts on all the directly relevant issues to this demand. NB I am not linking to articles about which I am expressing concern, for reasons that will become obvious.
Anyone who thinks I’m overreacting should read this article which says why everyone should care – a sort of western argument for Ubuntu, this evisceration of Burchill's original article - and then this article which explains something about how transphobia works.
In the clip of the protest on their website, a GMG (Guardian Media Group) journalist asks the protesters what more they want of the guardian following the removal of the article and the issue of an apology on the website. I do not know whether the following answer was offered by any of the people they asked, but I know exactly what I want, and it didn’t appear in the video that GMG produced and edited.
Further to the response given by the protesters interviewed, which was largely to say that GMG needed to give assurances that this kind of hate speech would not appear again, I want to say that a written apology on the website is not adequate for what amounts to a speech act of transphobic violence.
“How is this violence? It’s only words!” I hear my internalised Radfems (who keep me in my place when I begin to suspect I’m a real human being after all) screech.
"...she legitimises the basic currency of hate speech"
My response is simple. Speech acts, in law, are utterances with direct physical consequences. For example, if one fraudulently shouts “fire” in a crowded cinema, and someone is subsequently crushed, you may be charged with manslaughter. Roz Kaverny noted in the Guardian’s “Comment is Free” “Once you decide that some people's lives are not real, it becomes OK to abuse them; for people without the outlet of writing for a national newspaper, it becomes OK to shout things in the street, or worse. The trouble with Burchill's list of negative epithets for trans people is that she legitimises the basic currency of hate speech.”
Accordingly, if you, as one interviewee noted, validate the misconceptions of trans people that underlie the staggering level of violence that is levelled against us on the street, you contribute to those acts of violence. By denying a transwoman her womanhood, you deny her safety to use public bathrooms; you deny her safety to be seen as attractive by other people who might, as a result of this speech act, now see her attractiveness as not only deceptive but predatory, and attack her; you deny her the right to look at her face in the mirror and see herself looking back. When you tell someone they are less-than, they will believe you. And if someone believes they are less-than, they may cease to value their own life, and that is when words become weapons of murder, just as sure as if you’d hypnotised someone into being your hit-man. Incitement to violence IS violence. Incitement to hatred for a population you should know are especially likely to be the victims of violence, is violence. Incitement to self-hatred among a group prone to suicide (the Guardian article on the protest notes that a sickening 84% of trans people consider ending their own life) is more than just bullying; it’s violence.
Many of the commentariat have leapt to defend “Freedom of Speech”. This is not about freedom of speech. This is about freedom to live authentically. This is about freedom from violence. This is about living up to the responsibility that comes with the awesome privilege (yes, in the socio-political sense) of being an editor or a near-unimpeachable columnist like the so-called feminists at the centre of this storm (the eye if you ask me)! (see here) Many others more articulate in matters of law than I am have written on the hypocrisy of these defences; specifically that:
However, I think the strongest and most galling indictment of GMG’s actions here, and probably the many other papers who have waded in too, is the deeply amoral and capitalist decision of the editors who succeeded in selling many more papers and counting many more clicks to their pages (thereby gleaning additional advertising revenue) by publishing material that sensationalises, demonises and validates the oppression of what may well be the country’s single most vulnerable and oppressed group; trans people. This is not new. Anyone who regularly reads the Daily Fail will know that they have been sensationalising trans people and “sex changes” since what seems like the beginning of time, and certainly since before I was born. But even the Guardian have been at it for some time, with articles by the unholy trinity of Burchill, Bindel and Moore among others, calling gender reassignment variously cosmetic, mutilation, and even a misuse of taxpayers’ money. I battled with the PCC and the Telegraph for a long time following the publication of some highly inaccurate and harmful articles, including one that misgendered then 4-year-old transgirl Zachy Avery and, more worrying still, one “expert’s view” by a deeply transphobic ‘scientist’ universally reviled by trans people and their allies for his bizarre, antiscientific and sexualising theories of the ‘causes’ of ‘Gender Identity Disorder [sic]’ which even manage to demonise homosexuality and erase bisexuality in the process.
Needless to say, this expert is not himself trans; perhaps their definition of ‘expert’ needs to be reviewed. (The PCC found for the Telegraph, and I am not surprised. Self-regulation does not work, and this incident needs to spark a new debate about how best to implement the findings of Levenson, and whether they go far enough to protect people from speech-acts (or print-acts ?) such as these. The point I am coming to is that these so-called ‘news’-papers have been at it for ages, and there is one glaringly obvious reason; it pays. It pays to play into people’s already held prejudices, because it validates a view that jostles with their conscience. As even Susanne Moore admits, “You don't commission someone like Julie Burchill to launch an Exocet missile and then say: 'Oh dear, we only really wanted a sparkler.” And yet this is exactly what they have done. This is why my open letter to the Guardian (which I notice they have not chosen to publish) demands that they donate the profits for the day of business in which they engaged in this publicity stunt, to a transgender advocacy charity of their choice. This is an urge that I would like to extend to all other newspapers that have marred their reputations by defending this bigoted vomit for the day of business in which their articles were published. Following his claim that “a lesson has been learned” in a long online apology (that was printed in Sunday’s Observer) that continues to mischaracterise the issues at play, will Mr Prichard demonstrate this learning, or is it mere fluff? Consultations are afoot, and we shall soon see.
As a student of neuroscience, I am concerned to see the way that the structure of our society seems to increasingly favour the psychiatric traits of psychopathy in those with power, be it political, media or financial. As a human being I am concerned by the way the right to defame seems to come above the right to live a life free from persecution – seen also in the bizarre notion of ‘skivers and strivers’ in an impossible job market. As a feminist - who began campaigning for equal treatment of women (well, girls) after reading a children’s history book about the suffragette movement at age 6, when I subsequently noticed that girls were not welcomed by their classmates to play football – I am concerned about what this will be saying to my and my young brothers’ and sister’s generation of activism about what it means to call yourself ‘feminist’. I have heard too many smart insightful activists of my generation say they can’t use the term ‘feminist’ because of Radfem and their clan, but that they nonetheless fight for the equal treatment of people regardless of gender.
This was my original open letter to the Guardian Media Group (addressed to the Observer’s Readers’ Editor) on the day after the publication of “Transsexuals should cut it out” by Julie Burchill:
It's pretty clear that this was published with consideration either
(a) by a deeply transphobic and generally inadequate editor OR
(b) by an editor whose only concern was for the maximum web traffic and paper sales, regardless of ethical standards or meaningful content.
Either way, a piece of writing designed to cause hurt to a demographic with a 40% suicide attempt-rate was published by a newspaper (and I'm treating the Guardian and Observer as one here, which they are in corporate terms) that has been consistently poor in its treatment of trans issues, which is at discord with its excellent standing in terms of LGB issues, race, immigration, science, economics...
As such, I would like to summarise what I see as the reasonable demands emerging from those affected, that is, trans people and feminists who have been misrepresented here as transphobic:
1)The three 'feminists' whose 'journalism' has been at the center of this debate, Burchill, Moore and Bindel, must be no-platformed and never given access to use these papers' platforms to peddle their hatred ever again. If you can induce any of them to write apologies acknowledging that their ideological objection to transgender identity is based on misapprehensions, then that alone may be published, without payment.
2)The writings of these authors in the Guardian and Observer must remain on the website under a new category, "things we regret" or "transphobic nonsense". (contracts permitting)
3)The Observer editors with responsibility for this article must be investigated, and identified as either transphobic, unethically capitalising, or both, and subsequently fired. This probably includes you, since you have refused to take the swift and decisive action that is so obviously required here.
4)Take onto permanent writing staff, if you can, a transgender journalist, who can also provide editorial support for any and every article referencing trans people or issues. Perhaps a regular column? Also try and recruit some more 3rd/4th wave (as opposed to 2nd wave) feminists to write in the place of Burchill, Moore and Bindel. These may be either cis or trans, but must be acquainted with trans issues.
5)Have this new member of writing staff publish a full-page article explaining why Burchill is wrong, where her mistaken views come from, and the danger it posed and continues to pose to the mental and physical well-being of trans readers who saw it. This should be in a prominent position in tomorrow's Guardian, and again in the Observer. It should also be available online as soon as possible.
6)Try to get a respected academic, ideally with a good track-record on trans issues, to write an article with similar prominence, on the subject of intergroup conflict and oppression, and intersectionality, to explain from an academic perspective where this kind of prejudice comes from and how it contributes to systemic oppression and discrimination.
7)Donate all the revenue from www.guardian.co.uk visits and Observer sales on Sunday 13/1/13 to an organisation dedicated to furthering trans people's rights, perhaps Trans Media Action or Press for Change.
This may seem like a lot, but the fact is that by allowing this to be published you have worsened the lives of every trans person who reads your newspaper, and we are numerous; not only that, but many trans people suffer from mood disorders from decades of discrimination and hatred, and so seeing these sentiments published in a national paper has very likely caused a deterioration in the mental wellbeing of many, and may even cost a number their lives. As such, any less than what I describe here will be seen as a wholly inadequate apology, and the many people and groups who are considering legal action will likely proceed. It is also likely that if legal action is not possible, the PCC will be utilised to enforce the appropriate contrition.
With best wishes for your coming job search,
Mx Reubs J Walsh, no-phd-yet!
Former Trans Rep, University of Oxford.
Reubs J Walsh