The Burchill Ultimatum

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In Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen (spoiler warning by the way), the messianic billionaire superhero known as Ozymandias decides on a drastic plan to bring the world back from the brink of nuclear annihilation. He arranges a fake alien invasion, in the form of a giant psychedelic squid which wipes out half of Manhattan, in order to unite the warring factions in mutual horror and make their own grievances seem petty in comparison. Yesterday Twitter was Manhattan, Julie Burchill was Ozymandias and her Observer column about transsexuals was the giant psychedelic squid.

OK, so that wasn’t Burchill’s intention but, when her column made landfall, it had a similar effect. To most outsiders last week’s Suzanne Moore Twitterstorm was just depressing and destructive, with inflammatory remarks and pigheaded defiance on both sides. But then, like Crocodile Dundee declaring “THIS is a knife”, Burchill’s column came along and left no room for ambiguity. Is it upsetting and dehumanising to call transsexuals “a bunch of dicks in chicks’ clothing” and compare them to black-and-white minstrels? Yes. Would the Observer have published similar slurs directed at black or gay people? No. Does Burchill’s point about the viciousness directed at Moore by certain individuals justify such language? No. On this, it seemed, most people could agree.

Perhaps it’s an excess of New Year optimism but I’d like to see Burchill’s column as what the Americans call a teachable moment, because the Mortal Kombat approach applied to issues of social justice on Twitter in recent months clearly isn’t working. The debate – and I use the term loosely – has been dominated by a few dozen scolds and shit-stirrers who spend a disproportionate amount of their time “calling out” left-wing newspaper columnists for minor transgressions, drawing ever-decreasing circles of puritanical rigour, answering any dissent with a stock phrase (“Check your privilege!”, “Intent isn’t magic!”, “Google tone argument!”) and framing their tussles, via rampant use of .@ and RT, as a kind of self-aggrandising theatre. I’m often reminded of 60s activist Tom Hayden’s opinion of the more militant Mark Rudd: “sarcastic and smugly dogmatic” with “an embyro of fanaticism”.

It’s no wonder that most people, even those sympathetic to the causes involved, find this constant screech of outrage alienating — the fanatics could hardly be less destructive if they were double agents trained by Richard Littlejohn — but the blowback can be just as unhelpful. I consider Moore a Twitter friend but I was surprised how many of her defenders refused to accept that some of her more intemperate tweets caused real offence. To categorise the whole range of negative responses as the howling of a mob makes things easy but it occludes important issues and benefits nobody. When I searched Twitter for responses to Burchill yesterday I found the usual suspects strutting the stage and grabbing the chance for cheap shots at other writers, but I also found many transgender people who were genuinely, justifiably upset and they deserve to be heard.

One encouraging development was the number of people sincerely interested in learning what terms such as “cis” meant. (I confess I’d never heard the word until last year.) Unfamiliar jargon can be offputting, especially when used as a weapon by the self-righteous, but it often expresses simple truths. If you are cisgender (ie not trans) and you realise that you don’t have to endure bigotry because of your gender identity then that’s called being aware of your privilege. If you think that it’s not acceptable for Burchill to champion one unprivileged group (working-class women) while treading on another (transsexuals) then you’re thinking about intersectionality. These aren’t complicated or abstruse concepts and you don’t need to be au fait with gender theory or the genealogy of long-running feuds to grasp them. You can see the words that Burchill used and know they’re wrong and understand the hostile assumptions underpinning them and wonder how you’d feel if they applied to you.

There’s a certain kind of liberal defensiveness which we should all resist. My dad grew up in multiracial Brixton after the war but he couldn’t accept that “coloured” had become an offensive term. Because he wasn’t racist, he argued, then the word he used wasn’t racist, but words change their meaning and it takes very little effort to adjust. I grew up understanding the word “tranny” as a harmless abbreviation of transvestite rather than transsexual. Now that I know it is considered transphobic I avoid it, without pouncing on anyone who still innocently uses it in the older sense. My suspicion, or at least my hope, is that this recent row will make a lot of other people think twice, just as my dad eventually did about “coloured”. Otherwise we will have learnt nothing.

I’ve always been drawn to left-wing beliefs because I believe they prioritise empathy but that cuts both ways. If one person should accept that certain tweets sent in anger would be better off deleted or apologised for, then another should pause to consider that a Replies column full of vitriol looks like a mob even if some of the individual criticisms are civil and fair. And no, the “tone argument” is not an excuse for acting like an arsehole. I have no time for the kind of self-important social justice puritans who have decided, on the flimsiest of evidence, that Caitlin Moran is one of Britain’s most prolific bigots, but I don’t want their vindictiveness to distract me from issues that deserve consideration and respect, or the obvious truth that even the most well-meaning, socially conscious people have their blind spots.

Burchill’s column was a vivid illustration of what happens when you can’t be bothered with empathy anymore and you dehumanise the many in order to attack the abusive few. It’s horrendous. But if it makes people across the left-wing spectrum reconsider how they address and debate the issues that concern them, then it will have done some good.

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