Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Suzanne Moore, transphobia, anger and framing

On Saturday morning, I was woken up by my gentleman companion announcing the news that Suzanne Moore had been bullied off Twitter for "one misjudged word". He read out messages of support from Dorian Lynskey, Owen Jones, and others in the lefty journalist gang decrying the call-out culture which leads people to focus on one word to the exclusion of the rest of an article.

This was before I'd read the article, before Julie Burchill weighed in, before every conversation I had that weekend somehow came around to The Controversy. I thought this was about call-out culture and online bullying and all those difficult questions that are vitally important to the state of Feminism On The Internet. I was worried that the hoo-ha around calling people out - the 'focus on one little word' - would get us to a state where we couldn't point out that people were using offensive words/ideas/arguments for fear of being called divisive. Where we were only allowed to cheer unambiguously, or keep silent; where we were required to swallow our hurt and our anger For The Greater Good.

(Funny how it's always women who have to suck it up when the left has important business at hand - just get on board with the Democrats, even as they ignore women's issues, or the GOP will get in and they'll ignore women's issues! And it's always trans people who have to suck it up when feminism has a mission which apparently can't be completed without gratuitous side-swipes at them! Don't rock the boat, it's for the greater good, are you with us or against us?)

Turns out, that wasn't the story at all. It was actually a much simpler story, a sickeningly familiar story which apparently never gets old:

1. Writer uses problematic language
2. Someone politely points out the problematic nature of such language
3. Writer goes on knee-jerk fury, lashes out at anyone who isn't cheerleading their work in its entirety, ramps up the problematic shit to show that YOU CAN'T CONTROL ME, I AM A FREE SPIRIT
4. Entire online social justice universe lines up on one side or the other, form baying mobs
5. Julie Burchill globs onto the scene to resolve the issue by giving all sides something they can agree on: that Julie Burchill is awful.

Actually: I say 'baying mobs', plural, because that's what I've been told happened. All I know for sure is that this happened - and only one side of that qualifies as bullying. (Hint: it isn't the person suggestion that calling someone A Transexual is a bit fucking creepy.) I haven't been able to find the onslaught that's been described (though Twitter's being infuriatingly slow so if anyone has links/screengrabs I'd be very grateful.) - I'm not saying 'it's not there', I'm not saying 'prove it to me', I'm just explaining what sources I have been able to track down in a couple of hours' internet-trawling.

So in response to some very polite questioning of her word choices, Moore chooses to be as rude and cruel as she could possibly be without using the T word -

 - and yet this has become a story about how Suzanne Moore is the victim of online bullying?

How in the name of the black heart of Julie Bindel have we allowed the story to be framed this way? So that instead of talking about Suzanne Moore's transphobia, we're talking about Suzanne Moore's feelings? I'm not trying to diminish the awful power of online bullying. I acknowledge that call-out culture is crappy. I just don't want Online Social Justice to get into a situation where trans folk and their allies are not allowed to express anger at transphobia.

Of course, we're already in this situation, as this little episode has so vividly demonstrated. Anger is the prerogative of the privileged: which, ironically, was part of what Moore's original piece was about. Women, trans people, people of colour or with disabilities or any other marginalised group you can think of, are incorrectly accused of being angry, no matter how moderately we frame our suggestions that maybe the world's a little bit fucked up. And when we are angry, we're chastised for it, dismissed, as if our anger diminishes our argument.

My gentleman companion has said that, if he wanted to write about social justice issues, he wouldn't, because backlashes like this make it too dangerous: he's sure he'd use that infamous 'one wrong word' and be pilloried by the entire internet.

I don't think it's actually that hard. Yeah, I spend a lot of my free time reading a range of social justice blogs, so I know The Right Words to use and The Dreaded Words to be avoided, but, contrary to the political correctness myth, it's not about word choice: it's about the attitudes which inform your choices. So, if you use the T word once without realising that many people regard it as a slur, get corrected, apologise, and never use it again - you're probably fine.* If you instead respond by proclaiming YOUR RIGHT TO OFFEND PEOPLE and YOUR RIGHT TO FREE SPEECH and HOW YOU WILL NOT BE COWED BY A CABAL OF SOME OF THE MOST MARGINALISED PEOPLE IN SOCIETY WITH EXTREMELY LIMITED POWER TO ENFORCE RULES OF DISCOURSE... let's be honest, you're just being a dick.  I won't say you 'deserve' abuse in response, because that would make me a dick too, but you're not exactly King of the Moral High Ground.

(*There is the issue that, if you're going to be writing about this stuff, you have an obligation to research the correct terminology first, but anyway.)

Framing matters. Call-out culture and online bullying are a pox on all our houses. Transphobia is still bad. It's pretty fucking exhausting to have to reiterate this shit every day.


  1. It IS simple.. if you put your foot in it and use 'One wrong word', apologize, learn from your mistake and move on. This is what Suzanne Moore should have done. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

    P.S. In other news, I'm starting to seriously dislike Caitlin Moran.

    1. Yep. It's not saying the One Bad Word that matters; it's what you do afterwards.

      I know what you mean... in fact, I started working out my worries re the Moran right here but when it got to 500 words I thought it would probably be better as a blog post of its own! x

  2. Actually, people weren't polite, they were rude, abusive and made physical threats/used threatening language towards her. Which is never acceptable no matter what anyone says and a disgusting way to behave. Also, she did apologise on twitter, which didn't stop certain people tweeting her whereabouts in a threatening manner. And people are right to be scared of writing about feminism, I am too, because I know I don't read the 'right' blogs, or know the 'correct' language, which is the opposite of what we should be trying to achieve.

    1. I was referring to @jonanamary's tweets which were extremely polite and restrained.

      Agreed the location-tweeting was deeply creepy, and I'm not condoning abuse in any form, as I said in the OP.

      If you're scared of writing about feminism, that makes me really sad, I want to open the conversation up so that everyone can participate in good faith. That doesn't mean accepting abuse from people in the hope of making the biggest tent possible.