‘Retweets are not endorsements.’ It’s possibly the most futile disclaimer of our times. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of the hate-pit that is Twitter knows that sharing something renders you wholly responsible, not just for its contents, but for all the actions and opinions of its author, and the responses that people have to it.
If you were, for instance, to retweet a link to a column this week by The Spectator’s Rod Liddle because you thought he made an interesting observation about, say, the BBC, you are of course endorsing something tasteless that he might have written in the Sunday Times last month or something horrible he did in real life a year ago. And you share responsibility for the upset those things have caused. That is how ‘conversation’ works on Twitter, isn’t it? Never mind logic or nuance or judgement, just be angry about stuff.
And if general run-of-the-mill Twitter is angry and stupid, gender-identity Twitter is angry and stupid on steroids. Simply liking the ‘wrong’ bit of content on Twitter can have you branded a transphobic witch and burned at the electronic stake, at least if you’re a woman. No one, or more accurately, no woman, is safe from the online inquisition’s charges of transphobia. You might think that JK Rowling was about as insulated as a person can be from online vitriol, since she’s lovely, kind, thoughtful, the creator of the world’s most popular wizard – and a billionaire. But you’d be wrong, because even JK has had her turn in the ducking stool (by the witch-finders at Pink News) for the heinous crime of ‘liking’ tweets that said Bad Things and, in one case, linking to a column by Janice Turner of the Times who is, of course, a Very Bad Person because, well, she has some weird idea that women should be listened to and children protected or something. The cow.
Anyway, the point is that if not even JK Rowling is safe from accusations of transphobia online, heaven help mere mortal women. Women like Ann Henderson, for example.
Henderson is a Scottish trade unionist and community worker who is currently serving as rector of Edinburgh University, elected by staff and students to chair the university’s governing body. She is also a Labour member from the left-wing/Momentum bit of the party that leaves a lot of Jewish people thinking hard about packing a bag and heading to the airport to buy a one-way ticket out of Britain.
In October, Henderson enjoyed a brief moment of fame thanks to the Edinburgh University student newspaper (which I edited, badly, a mere 23 years ago). That organ upheld the proud tradition of bad undergraduate journalism by accusing her of transphobia. Her crime? She retweeted about a meeting organised by A Woman’s Place UK, a feminist group largely run by left-wing women who organise public meetings to discuss changes to gender recognition laws to make it easier for men to change their legal gender and be recognised as women. The group worries such changes will undermine the legal and social standing of women, where ‘women’ is taken to mean ‘adult human females’.
Most WPUK meetings are public affairs where members of the public sit around and talk about equality law. In October though, the group managed to convene a meeting in the Palace of Westminster for MPs: all members of the Commons were invited to drop in to a meeting room in Portcullis House and hear from women about their concerns over gender law reform. Those concerns include worries over the potential for new rules to be misused by abusive men seeking access to vulnerable women in prisons or refuges; at least one of the women who spoke at the meeting discussed her own experiences of abuse and the importance of laws allowing all-women services for such survivors.
It was, in short, a fairly serious and important sort of meeting, the sort of thing that you might think MPs should take an interest in. And indeed, quite a lot of MPs did turn up, including some quite prominent Labour ones.
But of course, in the looking-glass world of transgenderism, MPs talking to women about the law isn’t OK. It’s awful and transphobic, and so is anyone (or at least, any woman) with even the flimsiest association with such an event. So the mere fact of Ann Henderson sharing a tweet about that event with her 1,200 or so followers was enough to bring down condemnation from the university Labour Club, the Students’ Association and merit coverage in Scotland’s national press. Henderson has also been criticised by Lily Madigan, a transgender Labour activist and women’s officer, for the earlier offence of following WPUK on Twitter. How dare she, etc etc.
So far so normal, by the dysfunctional standards of the gender debate, where ‘woman gets shouted at for having opinion’ is the equivalent of ‘dog bites man’. But now Henderson has a new job. She was this week elected chair of the Labour Party National Executive Committee’s equalities sub-committee.
This, according to LGBT Labour, a party group, is an outrage. ‘We are appalled by the election of Ann Henderson to the chair of the Labour Party NEC equalities sub-committee given her history of sharing material that has been described as transphobic,’ the group said, in a statement (on Twitter, natch) first reported by LabourList.
Note that last construction: Henderson’s offence here is to have shared material that ‘has been described as’ transphobic. As far as I can see from the full LGBT Labour statement, the group itself is not calling that material transphobic. Nor does its statement offer any other reason for being appalled by Henderson’s election.
What does this tell us? Three things, I think.
First, it says something about the threshold for offence in this area. Never mind what a person (woman) might themselves do or say or even think. Simply sharing something that some other people find offensive is enough for that person (woman) to be put beyond the pale, unfit to hold office.
Second, it’s a reminder that the wider issue of transgender rights and equality law is still deeply painful in Labour circles. Without rehashing a long, long story, the party allows ‘self-identified’ women to stand on all-women shortlists, something that some Labour feminists believe is not just wrong but possibly unlawful. That dispute is far from settled, and will very likely flare up again in the coming months and years, not least since those Labour feminists have some rather influential friends near the top of the party and in the trade union movement.
Third, this is yet another example of a woman in this debate being treated very differently to a man. Henderson is under fire from trans-rights activists, for nothing more than retweeting a tweet noting that WPUK were holding a meeting with MPs.
So what would those ‘appalled’ activists say about an MP who actually sat down to talk to a group that has been, in their accusatory words, ‘described as transphobic’?
Well, that depends on who the MP is, it seems. In September, according to the group, a Labour MP did indeed meet a Woman’s Place UK and listened to their concerns about gender law reform and Labour’s policies. The MP’s name is John McDonnell and he is the Shadow Chancellor.
And if LGBT Labour or any of the other activists seeking to burn Ann Henderson for nothing more than a retweet have condemned him for outrageous transphobia, I can find no evidence of their outrage.
In short, a woman taps ‘RT’ once and is condemned. A man does rather more than that and nothing happens. Make of that what you will, but always remember: the gender debate is all about equality.