Last month, a petition created by Rachael Melhuish, women’s officer of Cardiff university students’ union, called on the university board to cancel an appearance by second-wave feminist Germaine Greer on the topic of Women & Power: The Lessons of the 20th Century due to her unapologetically transphobic beliefs. This sparked a somewhat less-than-friendly conversation over whether or not one has the right to prevent someone from expressing their opinions, even when they are potentially harmful and triggering to those they pertain to.
This is not the first time Greer’s personal brand of feminism has come under fire. The author is best known for The Female Eunuch, a part scholarly, part polemical analysis of female sexuality, widely regarded as a key text of the second wave of feminism.
Its sequel, The Whole Woman generated controversy for several reasons, among them a comparison of female genital mutilation to male circumcision. She also asserts her belief that trans women who were assigned male at birth are not “real women”, claiming that “the insistence that man-made women be accepted as women is the institutional expression of the mistaken conviction that women are defective males”. Just two years earlier, Greer had attempted to oppose the appointment of physicist Rachael Padman as a fellow of the women-only Newnham College, on the grounds that Padman had been assigned the male gender at birth.
More recently, in The Beautiful Boy, Greer used the image of a 15-year-old boy for the cover of an art history book aimed to “advance women’s reclamation of their capacity for, and right to, visual pleasure”, without his permission.
Melhuish’s petition gained traction on social media, prompting Greer to give an interview on BBC Newsnight where she defended her views, branding Glamour magazine’s awarding of woman of the year to Caitlyn Jenner “misogynist”, and insinuating that Jenner’s decision to undergo sex-reassignment surgery was an attempt to steal “the limelight that the other female members of the [Kardashian-Jenner] family were enjoying”. Greer misgendered Jenner throughout her answer, before going on to state that “it is simply not true that intersexual people suffer in a way that other people don’t suffer”.
For the sake of argument, disregard the irony of a “feminist” (to use the term loosely) icon, who has fought to deconstruct our socialised ideas of femininity, insisting that transgender women “don’t look like, sound like, or behave like women”. By the standards of anyone who has any awareness whatsoever of trans issues or intersexuality, it’s hard to construe these comments as anything less than ignorant and grossly offensive or to be anything other than embarrassed on her behalf. Nevertheless, this controversy raises two questions; who should benefit from feminism, and should an unabashedly transphobic person be permitted to express these opinions?
Since its inception, the feminist movement has never quite reached a consensus on who exactly it is designed to empower.
The women’s suffrage movement of the early 20th century secured the vote for women, but in many countries this right was reserved for those who owned land, while in a number of Southern US States, African-American women could not access this right up until the 1960s. Meanwhile, the women of Saudi Arabia and the Vatican City have yet to be granted it.
This insensitivity towards women of underprivileged and minority groups was ironically reflected in the marketing campaign for the film Suffragette, in which its stars, Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep, Romola Garai, and Anne-Marie Duff, posed in t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”.
For every female celebrity who cheerfully announces that she’s “not a feminist” because she believes “men and women should be equal” (shout-out to Shailene Woodley , Madonna, Katy Perry etc., but that’s another issue entirely), there seems to be another who readily takes up the mantle but fails to educate themselves on, or even acknowledge, how their peers – disabled women, queer women, women of colour, trans women – are marginalised by more than their gender (T-Swizzle, J-Law, Miley – what’s good?).
Sexism isn’t a flat oppression; it interacts with every other form of institutionalised prejudice, which unfortunately often leaves it to the most privileged (white, straight, wealthy, cisgender, able-bodied) women to dictate the boundaries of feminism while those on the fringes suffer. This year alone, an unprecedented 25 transgender females have been murdered. Black women make up 8% of the US population, yet 22% of all domestic homicide victims.
While the cancellation of Greer’s scheduled speech is being reported as a no-platforming – a violation of her right to free speech and expression – it is worth noting that it was Greer herself who dropped out, with Cardiff University refusing to cancel the appearance under much pressure to do so, maintaining that their events “include speakers with a range of views, all of which are rigorously challenged and debated”.
The question of whether political correctness inhibits freedom of speech is one that consumes our popular culture, with both the Phil and the Hist debating it during this term alone. The rise of social media platforms like Twitter and Tumblr has given a voice to ethnic, sexual and gender minorities who quickly created their own niches and communities within these mediums, allowing them to raise awareness of issues and injustices they have experienced and create safe spaces for each other in a way that wasn’t before possible.
The social psychological phenomenon known as “the risky shift” (I know) describes how groups can partake in more extreme behaviour collectively than any individual member would normally. In a practical implication, an analysis of interactions between pro-life and pro-choice groups on Twitter illustrated them becoming increasingly polarised the more they interacted. In a similar vein, the gulf between the so-called “social justice warriors” and anti-political-correctness brigade widens with every scroll through the comments on an online article published on gender-neutral children’s toys or Donald Trump’s latest self-promoting tirade.
Despite this, political correctness need not be the antithesis to free speech. Censorship is certainly not the antidote to bigoted ideation. In the same way that prohibition increased alcohol consumption, in the same way that outlawing abortion only leads to women venturing abroad, preventing people from expressing and sharing their opinions can only lead to them going about it via an alternative route, which can often lead to the spreading of misinformation and even radicalisation.
Quashing free speech has frightening connotations – and while no-platforming a transphobe may or may not seem tempting depending on your beliefs, would this really be preferable to opening a dialogue on how this is exactly the type of prejudice the trans community faces on a daily basis?
Europe is filled with relics and museums dedicated to the atrocities committed by humankind. Mein Kampf is still in publication. 12 Years a Slave received an Academy Award for Best Picture. This is not in celebration or admiration for the events and ideas they depict, but out of respect for those who suffered extreme discrimination under various reigns of terror, and as a horrifying reminder to future generations that these violations of human rights must not recur.
The past few decades have been momentous for the advancement of women’s, queer and trans rights and these issues are now a focal point of media coverage. In the pursuit of equality, becoming bogged down in the minority of dissenting opinions is a waste of time. How we attain social justice should reflect its inclusive and all-encompassing end-goal, and this does not license the suppression of opinion.