Radicalism and Open Discussion Are Frequently at Odds

Whoa if true (photo by Flickr user Oxton)

Michelle Goldberg has an interesting piece on the split between the "radfem" (radical feminist) and transgender communities in the latest New Yorker. There are a profusion of fascinating moments in the piece (the left really is nothing but identity politics all the way down), but I want to drill down on one very specific point. And that is the radical left's natural aversion to, simply, speech.

Briefly—and I do mean briefly, you should read the whole thing to get a sense of everything at play—Goldberg's report focuses on efforts by transgender activists to break the spirit of anti-trans radical feminists, who believe that a man is a man and a woman is a woman and no amount of "mutilation" (their word) can change that. Trans-activists are, shall we say, displeased by this belief, as well as by the radfems' exclusion of the transfems from the radfems' reindeer games. That exclusion has led to death threats and calls for boycotts. Here's Goldberg:

Abusive posts proliferated on Twitter and, especially, Tumblr. One read, "/kill/terfs 2K14." [terf=trans-exclusive radfem] Another suggested, "how about ‘slowly and horrendously murder terfs in saw-like torture machines and contraptions’ 2K14." A young blogger holding a knife posted a selfie with the caption "Fetch me a terf." Such threats have become so common that radical-feminist Web sites have taken to cataloguing them. "It’s aggrieved entitlement," Lierre Keith told me. "They are so angry that we will not see them as women." …

Radfems Respond was originally to have taken place across town from the library, at a Quaker meeting house, but trans activists had launched a petition on Change.org demanding that the event be cancelled. They said that, in hosting it, the Quakers would alienate trans people and "be complicit in the violence against them." The Quakers, citing concerns in their community, revoked the agreement.

It wasn’t the first time that such an event had lost a scheduled venue. The Radfem 2012 conference was to be held in London, at Conway Hall, which bills itself as "a hub for free speech and independent thought." But trans activists objected both to Radfem’s women-only policy—which was widely understood to exclude trans women—and to the participation of Sheila Jeffreys, a professor of political science at the University of Melbourne. Jeffreys was scheduled to speak on prostitution, but she is a longtime critic of the transgender movement, and Conway Hall officials decided that they could not allow speakers who "conflict with our ethos, principles, and culture." Ultimately, the event was held at a still secret location; organizers escorted delegates to it from a nearby meeting place. Radfem 2013 also had to switch locations, as did a gathering in Toronto last year, called Radfems Rise Up.

In response, thirty-seven radical feminists, including major figures from the second wave, such as Ti-Grace Atkinson, Kathie Sarachild, and Michele Wallace, signed a statement titled "Forbidden Discourse: The Silencing of Feminist Criticism of ‘Gender,’ " which described their "alarm" at "threats and attacks, some of them physical, on individuals and organizations daring to challenge the currently fashionable concept of gender."

Goldberg also recounts the stories of artists who have suffered from boycotts after appearing at radfem conferences and others who have pulled out of conferences following being targeted by boycotts. It's all quite amusing (and, honestly, saddening if you believe in things like open and honest debate).

As an interested observer with no real horse in the fight—I am neither a radfem nor a trans-activist, believe it or not—I do wonder whether or not it's self-defeating for the transfolk and their allies to behave in such a way. Bullying to gain acceptance, rather than persuading those who do not understand who you are or what you have gone through, is a tactic that could easily backfire on a community that comprises roughly one thousandth of one percent of the population. Then again, perhaps the transfolk have an understanding of how outré their cause appears to the rest of us and believe that persuasion is impossible.

Goldberg has covered similar territory before. She wrote about Twitter Two Minutes Hates and the #CancelColbert phenomenon, calling it the "return of the anti-liberal left." "Liberal" concepts such as freedom of speech and open debate on the issues mean little to the angry, activist left. Indeed, they are almost negative qualities, tools that serve entrenched privilege. "Freedom of speech" is a smokescreen; "open debate" is a derailment technique. These things must be stamped out in order to aid the marginalized and lift up the oppressed.

Only then shall we all be equal. And free.