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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31 Comments

  1. Thoughtful and articulate – this should be the last word on the Moore/Burchill debacle.

  2. A very quick thing, and firstly to say this is a good article.

    But I do find some of the language used here strange. How is a few people on twitter criticising someone a ‘mob’, but a bunch of people on twitter praising someone not a ‘mob’? Should people simply not respond on Twitter or the fear of others also doing so – and maybe those others saying something a bit nasty?

    What I find weirdest about this entire thing is that the main abusive party on Twitter was Suzanne Moore herself. She gave much more outright abuse (much of it genuinely bigoted) out than she took, then she and her friends spun the reaction to her bigoted abuse as an ‘attempt to silence her’.

    equally, she wasn’t ‘pounced on’ for her ‘Brazilian transsexual’ comment. A few people said, we really liked you article but found that bit offensive – and that was it. All she had to say was ‘sorry’, especially since the original quote seems both inaccurate and also an unfunny attempt at a joke – in an article about how everyone should stick together ffs.

    • I’m not saying it is a “mob” – I’m saying that people often don’t realise how much abusive voices distort the debate and how hard it is for a writer with an @ column full of criticism to calmly go through it sorting the wheat from the chaff.

      And “pounced” refers to people saying “tranny”, not Moore’s specific line, which I found rather bizarre and unhelpful. I agree that a simple “sorry” early on would have been by far the best response.

      • Ah, ok, thank you and fully understood. Though to expand on this – it surely works both ways – I think you’re right that the internet and Twitter especially does lead to responses looking like a ‘mob’ and it being hard to respond in a civil manner to what looks like a barrage of intemperate nonsense. but it also affords the person who had done the offending to paint all their (mostly reasonable) critics as hate-filled weirdos in the ensuing reflective piece they pen – Moore is in my opinion unforgivably guilty of this as are almost all of her friends, including Cohen and Burchill.

        Apologies on ‘pounced’, i was reading it too much as a straightforward analogy, got that wrong.

    • Yes, I obviously haven’t read every tweet or blog in response to Suzanne Moore, but most of what I *have* read seemed pretty gentle and measured. If anyone was abusive – that’s wrong – but in no way excuses Burchill’s response.

      What a good OP too – I didn’t investigate Caitlan Moran stuff much because I thought it seemed one of those cases where it was a bit off but probably not the worst thing in the world or part of a pattern on her part or anything. Similarly with Suzanne Moore. But JB …

  3. Brilliant piece. I feel like I just emerged from a dense forest – some sense at last.

    As you argued in your earlier piece about Twitter, many of these problems could be addressed if people just took a couple of beats between reading and replying. The mad scramble for ‘first’ with the callout is incompatible with a considered response. A lot of the time, empathy means taking a diagnostic pause between your ingrained impulse to respond and your response. And then changing your response – or, perhaps, not responding at all. As you say, if we all thought about who would actually be helped by our words, we’d surely post far fewer of them.

  4. Great read. And spot on. Thank you.

  5. Thanks for the clarity. I’ve also felt confused about some of the terms being used in the current shit-storm, and about some of the arguments. As a writer who focuses mainly on comedy, I’ve been engaged with the debates around ‘offensive’ comedy, and with the struggle to take responsibility for the way we exercise and celebrate free speech. The one thing that always seems to emerge is that we need to learn more about empathy. That is, what it feels like to be someone else, and how to bring our own experience of feeling hurt or offended (and we’ve all felt hurt or offended, or treated unfairly at some point) to an understanding of another person’s experience, and the position they take as a result of that experience – whether we believe it’s ‘justified’ or not. People’s feelings are real, even if we think the reasons they have for feeling that way are irrational or absurd. We may never persuade someone to change their beliefs but we can experience empathy and compassion for their suffering, whatever its cause. I seriously believe this is something that can, and should, be taught in schools. It’s just as important for the health of the human enterprise as anything else.

  6. [...] but most of what I would have said has been expressed much more clearly by Dorian Lynskey in this excellent post. Debate on Twitter can resemble a load of cats scrapping in a bag. Everybody ends up arguing about [...]

  7. [...] that ended in Julie Birchill’s astonishingly offensive piece in The Observer on Sunday, this blog post by The Guardian’s Dorian Lynskey is a must-read. He says everything I wanted to say, only puts it far better than I could have [...]

  8. “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”.

    Excellent piece, and for me, this is the key point – political language and identity is a process, and both sides of this whole furore would do well to remember this. I hope that Dorian’s comment here rings true with many of the journalists who knee-jerkingly defended the initial Suzanne Moore article. It’s unsurprising that those who see themselves as pretty PC and liberal don’t like being pointed out occasional blind-spots in their language uses, and in many ways the overdefensive response suggests that it may have hit a nerve. But they should be big enough to acknowledge that though they get paid to write about this stuff, they can get it wrong sometimes and still learn (in much the way Dorian describes above) without fear of being outed as liberal ‘frauds’ or whatever – politics is a process. Likewise, activists who call out others on this sort of stuff, whilst being right to do so, should generally remember that their own activist language is more often than not a point of arrival rather than something they were born with. Many anarchists used to be socialists, and many socialists used to be Labour Party members. Likewise, activists will have learned correct uses of language over the course of their life, and so to be aggressive and supercilious when identifying such errors forgets the fact that they once had to learn this stuff themselves. Otherwise, in the flurry of RTs and @s, it becomes easier for the culprit to use the ‘baying mob’ dismissal as a get-out clause. As Dorian says, it would be better that everybody would learn something from all this.

  9. I’ve no idea if Caitlin Moran deserves the ‘bigot’ label, but I still remember her from her NME days, casually suggesting that Jonn Penney from Ned’s Atomic Dustbin might want to consider suicide because she didn’t think their new album was very good. For me, she never shook her air of smug superiority when presenting Naked City, either.
    People can change, I guess…

    • She was about 15 then, wasn’t she? Teenagers can be a bit over-passionate and superior especially if they have bagged a music press and then tv job.

  10. Social justice puritan and proud! Or _something_. It’s been really interesting seeing these concepts – intersectionality, privilege checking, challenge, &c – emerge from radical social justice circles, where they’re relatively comfortable (though there are definite points of tension), into liberal discourse, where they’re hugely thorny. The liberal perspective, in its distaste for the worst excesses of the radical fringe – what you identify as puritanism, self-righteousness, screechiness, self-aggrandising, though they feel very different from the inside – carries a fair sting in the tail itself, too: some of the nastiest stuff I’ve seen online has been from horrified liberals justifying their baby/bathwater thing. If I’m honest, I suspect that that distaste isn’t going anywhere: the well-intentioned liberal and the carping radical aren’t good bedfellows, and for some, antipathy to privilege checking is the ‘PC gone mad’ it’s OK to like.

    But I suggest we each have our uses. I agree with you completely that this is a teachable moment: that actually, for all the posturing you talk about, trans* discourses have reached a tipping point thanks to this episode, not just despite the involvement of screechy social justice types but (only) partly because of us. Allyship, the work of solidarity from people politically invested in the struggles of others with less privilege, is hugely contested, and its positives are often hard to spot among the sea of annoying negatives. But a lot of the people I’ve seen criticised for being professionally offended are really politically engaged in a lot of ways that most of my liberal friends just aren’t: fighting cuts, welfare reform and other hideous neoliberal wankstorms.

    There’s a stage that many social justice allies, especially white middle class educated allies like me, go through: realising the giant, sickening weight of privilege and its effects, and rather than dealing with them in our own lives and actions, instead substituting an attitude of constant critique against others who haven’t taken on the same politics. It’s definitely a real problem (but perhaps no more of a problem than the tendency of liberals to weigh in on subjects about which they know little or nothing, armed only with good intentions, an unshakeable belief that those are enough, and, often, truth be told, just as much appetite for argument as the radicals).

    But sometimes it does take a group of allies to make a step change in discourse, to point to our resources lists, to (smugly) explain new terms. Often it’s done really poorly, with misdirection, ranting, appropriation &c, but not always. Sometimes when the annoyance dies down the message remains, I hope I hope.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful response Petra. I think where I have a problem with the recent activity of social justice “allies” is the complete tone-deafness – a group of people using jargon that’s very common in their bubble but confusing and alienating to anyone outside it, and then acting as if it’s everyone else’s problem if they don’t understand. (To be honest I still don’t get why trans needs an *) I think some of the de rigueur concepts, especially “tone argument”, are extremely problematic and I’m never going to use the word “ally” in this context. The same happened with 90s political correctness – some terms were useful and became common, others faded away. But I agree with a lot of your analysis and I share your hope.

  11. If this whole storm (Burchill’s trolling aside) can start some sort of debate about damage that identity politics has done/is doing to the social contract and any sort of empathy (god spare us from ‘intersectionality’) then something positive may come of it.I doubt it will as I think for too much is invested at an academic/activist level, but may be at least those on the ‘inside’ might start to get that there’s a lot of people who hold the unfashionable view that it’s counter-productive and self defeating, and they’re not the enemy.
    This applies as much to religious and racial politics as it does to gender.
    Activists may well be engaged on a wide variety of issues, but the left has never been more divided, and never more struggling to engage with the lived lives of the constituency they need to be getting onside. Yes, privilege operates on many levels, but if we’re to obsess over the hidden ways in which it operates and respond on the basis that others can’t perceive or understand that without ‘education’ we’ll all be long cold in the grave before much progress is made.
    Maybe insiders need to accept well meaning liberals for what they are, rather than seeking to alienate them. Of course, listening & trying to understand others lived experiences is important, but what seems to be happening now is the creation of an approach which requires anyone to navigate with care less they cause ‘offence’.

    • Oh god, no– the terrifying consequence of identity politics is that people might have to speak and act with care, or else experience criticism! That sounds awful.

      • No, you’ve describe politeness, not identity politics.

        It’s easy to glibly dismiss it, but the divisive cul de sac that it identity politics has done about as much damage as anything on the right has to the very causes it claims to advance.

  12. nice 1.

  13. Interesting that so many journalists seem to overlook the comments Caitlin Moran made about the link between the shoes a woman wears to her advertising herself a likely/viable target for attack. You might need to read that again….THE SHOES SHE WEARS.

    “It’s on that basis that I don’t wear high heels – other than I can’t walk in them – because when I’m lying in bed at night with my husband, I know there’s a woman coming who I could rape and murder, because I can hear her coming up the street in high heels, clack-clack -clack. And I can hear she’s on her own, I can hear what speed she’s coming at, I could plan where to stand to grab her or an ambush. And every time I hear her I think, “Fuck, you’re just alerting every fucking nutter to where you are now. And [that it’s a concern] that’s not right

    Ignoring the stranger danger “rapist in the bushes” bogeyman fallacy, may I ask why so many journalists, you included, are not asking why this victim blaming is ok from Caitlin Moran but if Liz Jones had written it she’d be verbally hung, drawn and quartered?

    As a side note, I’ve been at several of the same events Caitlin has attended in the past year. She had heels on each time so she’s a bloody liar, too.

  14. I can say that I’ve been genuinely upset by her article. Initially gobsmacked, skipped anger and then went to sadness and dismay. I’m not interested in the personal views of Burchill or whether or not she keeps her job. What upsets me is just how it was ever deemed acceptable to be published. Is the general view of transsexual people so low that literally anything goes? Do my gender identity issues mean I can be strung up like a fake woman piñata and be battered about with the “real” woman’s stick?
    I’ve not even started transition yet due to fear, shame and guilt. It’s Burchill’s kind of journalistic mockery and shaming which I heard as a child and it still gets to me. If it weren’t for the counter balance from the likes of Paris Lees, Juliette Jacques and Jane Fae, there’d be no trans-positive mainstream content out there. Was the reaction mobish? Yes. But it wasn’t unjustified outrage. It’s a genuine issue, it affects many people, and for every transitioned transsexual there are plenty more, absolutely terrified to come out for fear of social ostricization. And that includes children and teenagers, who definitelty shouldn’t be reading that kind of abusive language, from an adult on a supposedly respected newspaper website. Despite this, praise should be extended to Moore for her apology. I do also hope that there can be a saving grace from this and transgender issues become more widely understood. Otherwise I’ve been compared to a black and white minstrel for nothing, and that’s bloody annoying.

  15. very GOOD

  16. [...] Last week I found myself frustrated to hear some of the loudest voices for feminism (put it in inverted commas if you like) becoming embroiled in verbal jousting with members of the transgender community, largely in the bird-cage that is Twitter. Lots of people got offended, quite fairly, there was a lot of puffing and blowing, and no-one seemed to come out of it terribly well. [...]

  17. well done

  18. [...] From Dorian Lynskey: [...]

  19. This article is all just so reasonable and as a result it’s almost shocking. I’m sure I’m not the only one who followed this debacle, read the articles and the comments and did not add anything at all. For me, it was about what you put so clearly in this article – the screeching and inflammatory tone that are off-putting/terrifying.

    I really wish WordPress had an option to share to Tumblr because a lot of the SJ bloggers are incredibly intolerant (part of the “Check your privilege” cacophany) to the detriment of using their forum to increase understanding of the issues they claim to cherish. I really wish they would read this and take it to heart.

    (And let’s face it, any article that starts with a Watchmen reference is already a winner.)

  20. Dear Dorian – I would like to get your 33RPM for 3rd Ear Music’s Hidden Years Music Archive Project (HYMAProject) in South Africa. Is there a South African distributor? Importing would be too costly; I’m certain that the few other music archives in the RSA (such as they may be) and perhaps the Universities, would like copies? (A friend loaned me a library copy from the South Coast kwaZuluNatal, Umzumbe / South Port, of all places.)

    Here’s my comment (Classically ignored, for what it’s worth?) Despite your well written and riveting research (we are still ploughing thru’ it – with admiration for what you’ve done here), the big BUT remains: I’m surprised that researchers continue – in this digital age – to avoid or ignore (so-called) popular (SAfrican) musicians who, under apartheid did indeed compose, record and perform (so-called) protest songs, often at the expense of their own careers. (>>3rd Ear Music Forum – Foot Soldier for Apartheid <> http://www.3rdearmusic.com/hyarchive/hyarchive/malombo.html http://www.3rdearmusic.com > thirdear@iafrica.com 3rd Ear Music is a member of the Southern African Music Rights Organisation (SAMRO) P. O. Box 50633 Musgrave Road 4062 Durban kwaZuluNatal Republic of South Africa Cell (083) 359 -5610 Home & Office: (039) 684-6148 Fax: 086 648 1074

    Juluka – UMVOVO SHELEMBE & JOHNNY CLEGG – Market Theatre 1982 – Photo Frank Black

    Disclaimer – This message may contain information which is private, privileged or confidential and does not necessarily reflect the views of the project’s musicians, sponsors or funders. You are free to use this copy, but please note; if you are not the intended recipient of this message, please accept our apologies and notify the sender thereof and delete the message. Neither the sender, 3rd Ear Music or HYMAProject musician’s shall incur any liability resulting from information or views expressed herein.

    3rd Ear & HY Archive Music now on YOU TUBE:

    MOUNTAINS of MEN – DAVID MARKS & THE HIDDEN YEARS BAND (1964-1997)

    Video live on You Tube @ >> http://youtu.be/6gcXjYO9Ngk <> >> http://youtu.be/1dD7vdDCECM <<

    • Hi. I know that some South Africans have read the book but I don’t know about distributors. If I ignored those South African musicians, some of whom I’m aware of, it was for reasons of space and narrative clarity and not because I didn’t respect their contributions. In a chapter which focussed on the Special AKA, the apartheid boycott, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, among others, there just wasn’t room to do justice to all of the different stories in South African music.

  21. [...] and other people are free to be offended about it and to tell her so. As Dorian Lynskey and others have pointed out, the problem here is not that anyone’s freedom of speech is being squashed – it clearly isn’t [...]

  22. [...] Lynskey blogs “The Burchill Ultimatum” for 33 Revolutions per [...]

  23. [...] to police the borders of womanhood Good Men Project – in defence of the tone argument 33 Revolutions Per Minute – The Burchill Ultimatum Pink News – Record sales increase for Azealia Banks since [...]


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