On Tuesday 8th January, Suzanne Moore’s essay on the power of female anger went up on the New Statesman website. I read through it, liked it, winced at one line in it, and glanced at Twitter and saw I had not been the only one to like, but to wince. I also saw Moore’s reaction to the polite criticism she was getting, and I thought “Someone should explain to her why this is going to get people upset” and in this spirit (and because it seemed an appropriate article for LGBT.co.uk, for which I am contracted to Write Stuff) I wrote No, Not Moore Transphobia, pointing out too that a conversation about #TransDocFail had been going on before the article with the unfortunate line about “Brazilian transsexuals” went online.
I swear, I thought this was all going to calm down within a few days. Suzanne Moore did get a couple of very awful tweets (“cut your face off” / “you should have your head cut off”) were, while not (in my view, and I wouldn’t blame Suzanne Moore for differing in that) serious call-the-police threats, they were wretchedly unpleasant things to get – as unpleasant as the “cut your dicks off” line Moore tweeted – and I blocked both of the senders. But, most of the comments Suzanne Moore was getting initially were on the lines of “That line about Brazilian transsexuals is problematic” and I thought that once she cooled down, read the open letters and blog posts written by women for whom (I assumed) she could feel nothing but respect, she would have to admit; she screwed up.
What I didn’t think of either – and should have – was that the situation for trans women in Brazil was not going to get any better just for Suzanne Moore taking up all the media attention possible and claiming this was all about her hurt feelings. The distress of the privileged is real distress, even if it is different in scale from injustice. Moore was celebrating the anger of women: shouldn’t she get that anger is splendid even when it was directed at something she wrote?
On Friday 11th January, Cecilia Marahouse was killed. Word got out to the English-language blogosphere four days later, via Lexie Cannes:
THE GUERRILLA ANGEL REPORT — Based on a translated news report, Brazilian trans woman Cecilia Marahouse (or Mara House) was shot reportedly 6 times just outside of Fortaleza on January 11th. Marahouse was a performer and was well known in the LGBT community there. Her friends hope for justice but feel the government looks upon them as nothing more than numbers to be added to statistics.
This is pretty much all the information we have on this murder.
What of Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill? Ultimately to them and to most of their supporters on the left, this seemed a matter of an ugly, nasty mob saying distressing things to women who in no way deserved it. (Well, maybe, they said, Julie Burchill had been kind of provocative – though one feminist defender informed me that apart from the hateful language it was a “great article”.) Burchill was just defending her friend! Didn’t she have a right to be distressed when her friend was attacked?
Don’t we have a right to be distressed when we see our friends attacked? What makes Moore’s hurt feelings over not having her article get its just due of praise without criticism more worthy of comfort and defence than any trans person’s, no matter how threatened or how afraid they feel?
Confronting this distress is tricky, because neither acceptance nor rejection is quite right. The distress is usually very real, so rejecting it outright just marks you as closed-minded and unsympathetic. It never works to ask others for empathy without offering it back to them.
At the same time, my straight-white-male sunburn can’t be allowed to compete on equal terms with your heart attack. To me, it may seem fair to flip a coin for the first available ambulance, but it really isn’t. Don’t try to tell me my burn doesn’t hurt, but don’t consent to the coin-flip.
The Owldolatrous approach — acknowledging the distress while continuing to point out the difference in scale — is as good as I’ve seen. Ultimately, the privileged need to be won over. Their sense of justice needs to be engaged rather than beaten down. The ones who still want to be good people need to be offered hope that such an outcome is possible in this new world.
Meantime, some commissioning editor at the Observer had either thought “What we need here is some shit-stirring by Julie Burchill!” or had been offered a rant and had been unable to resist the possibility of good, Internet-warping hits-flying material. We all know now what she said, and why it was problematic will be explored by agencies from the Observer’s readers editor to GALOP to the PCC. Some of them may even take evidence from Trans Media Watch.
Pink News reporting on Cecilia Marahouse’s death:
Earlier this week, British journalist Suzanne Moore apologised for suggesting women were expected to look like “Brazilian transsexuals” in an article published first in the New Statesman and then in the Guardian newspaper.
Several prominent LGBT journalists, trans campaigners and commentators, criticised her use of the term and considered it to be insensitive, not least because more than 100 trans people were reported killed in Brazil during 2012.
To which Suzanne Moore responded:
In the morning, Suzanne Moore had a long article all about her hurt feelings – again – this one explaining that freedom of speech was really important to her. That was why she’d objected so strenuously to all those people exercising their freedom to criticise her, because their criticism infringed her freedom.
I asked then what I ask now: if Suzanne Moore is concerned for the freedom of the press, shouldn’t she get that this is not about her right to say whatever she likes without being criticised by her audience, but about Pink News and every Twitterer having the right to a free press?
“Press” doesn’t mean a profession and it doesn’t mean having a press card and it doesn’t mean being gainfully employed by a major newspaper (or more than one). Free speech doesn’t mean your right to say what you like without having to worry about any reaction from the public: each member of the public has free speech too, and the same protected right to express their views as Moore or Burchill.
Yesterday on The Media Show: Transgender, Roz Kaveney was invited on to debate these issues, and BBC Radio 4 decided her views weren’t of as much importance as Toby Young’s:
When I suggested that someone at the Observer had thought, o Julie will stir things up, and commissioned that piece for that reason, and no other, the presenter said I couldn’t know that was the case, to which I replied ‘the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.’
I did explain part of why ‘Brazilian transexual’ was unfortunate and mentioned I had contacted Suzanne Moore to explain why to her – again, that was cut.
More if I remember more – but there are points where I sound nervous because they cut me in mid-word, something they did not do to the verbose Young.
Oh, and I was asked to comment on whether I thought people should be sacked. I said that an internal process was going on at the Observer and it would be contrary to natural justice to discuss that while it was going on.
Freedom of speech is a great idea – I don’t think I got it.
Freedom of the press is not a special status granted to proper journalists, but freedom for anyone to use the tools by which you use to communicate your writing to the world. A printing press, a typewriter, a xerox machine, a blog, a Twitter account: we are users of the free press. What Suzanne Moore has been experiencing since 8th January has been the power of the free press, unleashed women’s anger.
“People died for my right to offend you”, Moore said, quoted in the Telegraph (where Toby Young had already repubbed Julie Burchill’s rant after the Observer decided to pull it).