Transgender men and women have a powerful story to tell. Their experiences are often heartrending: we should be appalled that nearly half of young trans people have attempted suicide. Meanwhile, there is compelling neuroscientific evidence to suggest that male and female can overlap, and that for some people gender dysphoria is no more eradicable from their nature than, say, being an introvert. How all this plays out, in terms of law and culture and surgery and public bathrooms, is another series of questions. But the basic point – that trans people should be listened to and helped, and neither explained as a problem nor scorned and marginalised – is a pretty unassailable argument. You would need to do something really stupid to discredit it.
Enter the student censors, this time in Cardiff, who have decided that because of her crude remarks about trans women, Germaine Greer should be banned from speaking, even on a different subject. To his credit, Cardiff’s vice-chancellor Colin Riordan came out in support of the event going ahead, but Greer seems to have chosen not to turn up. It’s another bleak moment for free speech – and it may not be a particularly great moment for transgender rights, either.
For one thing, it makes the activists look as if they don’t trust their own arguments. It also allows Greer to seem a fearless speaker of truth to power, which may be more than she deserves. Her offensive – and increasingly foul-mouthed – remarks about trans people suggest that she finds this subject an awkward one. It’s not entirely clear why that is – though it’s interesting that The Female Eunuch attacks the belief in a distinction between male and female psychology, and that trans people’s inner lives sometimes seem to revolve around just such a distinction; but the point is that she doesn’t sound like somebody winning a debate. Banning Greer allows her an easy victory: it stops people asking why she might find this issue so problematic.
The word ‘problematic’, by the way, is used in that last sentence to mean ‘causing problems’. It is worth clarifying this because in the language of student censors it seems to have become one of the harshest terms of disapproval. Opinions are denounced as, say, ‘vile and problematic’, or (as the Greer-banning petition describes her views) ‘hateful and problematic’. What’s problematic about this use of ‘problematic’ is that, until recently, the word was generally used to draw attention to some difficulty, in an understated British kind of way. It is jarring to read it being hurled from the skies as a thunderbolt of judgment. A phrase like ‘hateful and problematic’ recalls Edward St Aubyn’s parody of a badly-written thriller, in which a terrorist is said to have been ‘responsible for the horrific, cowardly, tragic and completely uncalled for deaths of countless innocent members of the public’. Somehow ‘problematic’, like ‘uncalled for’, doesn’t quite cut it.
This is not a marginal objection: if you want to persuade people of your case – and, to repeat, trans people have a case well worth being heard – then it helps to talk in a language your hearers can understand. When you only use words people are unfamiliar with, like ‘misgender’, or words which they thought they were familiar with, like ‘problematic’, but now aren’t so sure, you alienate your audience. And the way to find a language which does appeal to people is by conversation. The more you listen to others, the more likely it is you will be able to communicate with them – another reason not to censor your opponents.
To give a platform to trans people’s experiences, and to find the right language in which to do so, needs the give-and-take of the public square. As long as Germaine Greer has the right to state her views, others have the opportunity to show just how problematic they are. Yes, there are reasonable debates to be had about all this; but at the moment, the transgender rights movement is most visible when its critics are being shut down. It makes it so easy to dismiss the whole phenomenon, suicides and all, with a wave of the hand.
Update: According to Cardiff University, the event will now go ahead:
FYI: Cardiff Uni have emailed to say that, after the @BBCNewsnight i/v they spoke to Greer, and the event is back on. (Have updated piece.)
— Helen Lewis (@helenlewis) October 27, 2015