Germaine Greer believes some transphobic things. This isn’t new. It’s not even the first time this year she’s been in the news saying something transmisogynistic. Back in January she told a room in Cambridge that she doesn’t believe in transphobia. She went on to say that trans women don’t know what it’s like to have a “big, hairy, smelly vagina”- implying, I guess, that the state of someone’s vag has an impact on whether they can be a woman or not. Of course, Greer has been openly spouting transmisogyny for years. Back in 2009 she described trans women as “some kind of ghastly parody” in the Guardian. As far back as 1997 she was campaigning against trans women’s inclusion in women’s colleges.
Greer is notorious, and she’s done some valuable work in her time. Her views on trans women don’t make her other critiques go away. However, the converse is also true: the fact that Greer has written interesting things about women, the family, liberal feminism and sexuality doesn’t mean that her transmisogyny deserves a platform.
Last week, a group of students petitioned for Greer to be barred from speaking at Cardiff University because of her history of transphobia. Now, it turns out that they probably won’t succeed- so far, the university is rejecting the petition. But let’s say that they did.
I’ve seen three reasons why Greer should have her university platforms. The first- that her views have merit- we can dismiss out of hand. Trans women are women, end of story. The other two, related to each other, do have merit (although I disagree with them both). These are the idea that denying Greer a platform is an attack on freedom of speech, and that even if her views are terrible, the best way to handle them is through giving them an airing- the ‘marketplace of ideas’ approach.
Both of these are wrong.
Freedom of speech is not entitlement to a platform.
Ah, freedom of speech. That ubiquitous, misunderstood value that most of us (probably) share (most of the time). The internet would have you believe that this is about everyone’s sovereign right to call each other homophobic and misogynist slurs in comment threads. It would also have you believe, through things Voltaire never said, that there is nothing nobler than sacrificing yourself for someone else’s right to say odious things wherever and whenever they like.
Fortunately for all of us, that’s not the case. Freedom of speech is this: you won’t be arrested for expressing your opinion. That’s all. We get to say things if we want to. I have every right to walk up to the head of my government and tell them that I think they have all the charisma of my toenail clippings, barely a dozen braincells to bash together, and whose combover is fooling no-one. I’m not saying that I’ve any intention of saying that, by the way. But I could if I wanted to. I can also, of course, say whatever I please about their policies and campaign every day of my life for them to lose their job.
That’s all. It may seem like a small thing. It’s not.
On the other hand, there are a lot of things that freedom of speech is not. It’s not the right to be listened to. You can say what you like, and I can go somewhere else. It’s not the right to speak without objections, or to have other people defend your words. I can say what I like, and you can tell me exactly what you think of me. And freedom of speech is not the same as the right to someone else’s platform.
I haven’t seen anyone try to prevent Germaine Greer from speaking. She gets to say and write anything she likes. What she doesn’t have? Is the right to use any specific platform to do so. And she should not be immune from people telling her that her ideas are harmful, discriminatory and wrong.
The thing about freedom of expression? It goes both ways.
The marketplace of ideas
If you’re not familiar with the concept of the marketplace of ideas, it’s this: all ideas should get an airing. This way, all of us get exposed to a wide variety of views, and society benefits from our ideals being constantly questioned and developed. Through discussion and debate, the best will rise to the top. The best way to deal with harmful ideas isn’t to censor them: it’s to expose them to scrutiny.
I’m going to be honest here: whenever people talk about ‘free markets’, I cringe a little. Free for who? What do you mean by ‘free’? At what cost? And what about the argument that putting an idea to debate legitimises it?
But let’s take the marketplace of ideas at face value, because it’s one of the best justifications out there for freedom of expression. Markets have certain characteristics. Anyone can set up a stall if they like. They can show off their wares, advertise them as best they can, and passers-by have the choice of whether to buy them or to move on.
Germaine Greer can- and does- set up her stall any time she likes. But here’s another thing about a marketplace: you only get to upgrade your store and rent out a better position if people like what you’re selling. Greer’s had this- people found her ideas useful and interesting. Her books topped bestseller lists, and she became a sought-after speaker.
But remember: topping bestseller lists and being sought after as a speaker isn’t setting up your stall. It’s the equivalent of a high-street store. You need to invest a lot to afford that store. And you don’t buy the space- you rent it. If people stop buying what you’re selling, or when someone more interesting comes along? You’ll have to give up that space.
Greer doesn’t just want to be able to set up her stall. She wants to keep that high street space. And she wants to do it with products that she hasn’t updated in decades, which have flaws that we know are harmful.
Those ideas might have sold just fine forty-odd years ago. But we’ve looked at them, analysed them, and have already found them wanting. Speaking space at major universities is at a premium. If Greer wants that privilege? She’s gonna have to get to work, fix up what she’s selling us, and produce a product that meets 2015’s standards. If she can’t do that? Someone else should get her spot.
Free speech has worked here.
The market has spoken.
And we don’t want what she’s selling.
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22 thoughts on “Germaine Greer? The market has spoken. We don’t want the transphobia you’re selling.”
I don’t know about “market”. From what I can see, though, she represents a strain of feminism that is going extinct.
My experience of on-line feminism — which as far as I can tell is skewed towards younger feminists — is that it’s overwhelmingly intersectional, which includes trans-friendly, And most of the prominent TERFs are of my generation (62) or older. (And the rest I just don’t know about.) I’ve been getting increasingly gender nonconforming, and I notice that all of the flack I get is from my generation (or older); people of my children’s generation are overwhelmingly accepting of it. So my guess is that TERFdom as a force will die with today’s TERF leaders and in a decade or so, among feminists it will be confined to a few cranks.
This is not to denigrate the contributions that feminists of her generation have made. However, they also carried with them the prejudices of their time and class. Don’t forget that for a long time, lesbians were not welcome in mainstream feminist circles. And, as has been frequently discussed pretty much everywhere, the feminism of the past 50+ years has a history of racism and classism which, like transphobia, today’s feminists are still struggling with.
To look on the bright side, I would contend that it’s already confined to a few cranks, it’s just that those cranks are by virtue of seniority and past successes disproportionately influential.
Germaine Greer was one of the first feminists I ever heard of. She’s a “character” as we say and a remarkable person and I find her transphobia and nastiness here, well, disillusioning and saddening. I would have expected better from her. I agree with Aoife here too though.
Typo fix : Make that : “She’s a “character” as we Aussies say..
I’m not entirely clear what position you are supporting here.
If I’ve understood the chain of events correctly, it was like this:
1. GG was invited to speak by the University.
2. There were then some online protests and petitions from students who felt that the university should not have invited her because of her transphobic history.
3. The University opted not to heed the protests and to stick by their invitation.
4. Greer said she couldn’t be bothered with the protests and wouldn’t turn up but (as I understand it) has since been persuaded to attend after all.
Is that broadly accurate?
Because all of that seems entirely reasonable on every side to me. Surely that would mean that Cardiff University felt that she had an audience and something to say that was worth saying, so in that sense she had already passed your “marketplace of ideas” test? People *did* want to buy what she was selling, no?
It is not as if she had written to the University saying “please can I use your facilities and they’d said “nah, sorry, nobody is interested.” So she had a platform.
On the other point, I agree with you that this is not a free speech issue, but I’d argue there is a bit more to free speech than government intervention (or lack of). It is about power. So when you have a more powerful body intervening to tell a less powerful body “nope, we will not allow you to invite that person and we will not allow you to hear what that person has to say within our jurisdiction” that is an infringement of free speech.
But that absolutely has not happened here. Where this stuff gets tricky is in the question of whether protests, petitions and pickets are in effect a form of censorship. I personally don’t believe they are. I think the students had every right to protest, and the University had every right to ignore their protests.
Would you agree?
Well, it means that the *administration* was buying, anyway.
The event page says it is “fully booked” for the lecture.
The market has spoken, indeed.
The thing about this “marketplace of ideas” is that it’s usually vigorously defended by people whose humanity isn’t put up for debate (in that specific context. You get plenty of homophobic women putting queer people’s humanity up for debate).
Actually, she shouldn’t have been invited in the first place. Because yes, this invitation legitimises her views as being at least “a reasonable opinion worth for consideration” when they aren’t. Somebody already pretty powerful is given a platform to pontificate on people with very little power. You cannot serve a diverse population by inviting people who dehumanise parts of that population.
Personally, I’m glad I didn’t write my final thesis on gender in a department that would invite Greer…
“…this invitation legitimises her views as being at least “a reasonable opinion worth for consideration” when they aren’t.”
If she were invited to speak on trans issues, yes.
As it stands, no.
Man I love it when people are debating my humanity and they don’t even ask my opinion. /end sarcasm
That’s a perfectly reasonable position (and one I broadly agree with, for what it is worth.)
What I am getting at, however, is what you, I or anyone else does when someone at Cardiff University (or wherever) disagrees with us and does invite her?
Who has power to intervene, how do they do so, and on what grounds? Because it seems to me that is where questions of free speech etc start to arise.
Well, people protested, to which the University can listen. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with saying “Dear students, we listened to your arguments and came to the comclusion that you are right. We have therefore chosen to cancel the event because it should never have been set up in the first place”.
I don’t think that this is a free speech issue. On the contrary: what good is free speech if it cannot lead to change?
Totally agree with that.
But do we not also have to accept the corollary that the University also has the right to decide not to listen to those arguments, and to proceed?
What I’m getting at is that it is one thing to say “you are wrong to invite this person to speak” and something else entirely to say “You may not invite this person to speak.”
I think that distinction is quite important, and that’s what I’ve been asking about. The first is a free expression of opinion. The second is a restriction on free speech.
Of course the University has that right. They don’t have the right to invite her and not be judged for it. I think that’s the big fat straw argument that is constantly made. The sentence “you may not invite this person” is usually just the first half of the sentence. The full sentence is “You may not invite this person if you don’t want to give support to horrible people and horrible positions that have severe consequnces for marginalised people”.
Free Speech isn’t “freedom from consequences”.
I can’t help wondering: if Germaine Greer were spouting off about, say, “international Jewry” and “Jewish bankers”, instead of spouting hatred of trans women, would we even be having this conversation? Wouldn’t the notion of inviting her have been dropped like a hot rock before they even got to the stage of contacting her?
I think that the fact that we’re having to debate this at all is a sign of just how normalized transphobia and transmisogyny are in Western culture. (Not to mention misogyny — “big, hairy, smelly vagina” sure sounds misogynistic to me.)
BTW, does anyone know if she’s transphobic towards trans men? I notice that expressions of transphobia virtually always target trans women and ignore the existence of trans men. (Not that I imagine that trans men actually wish that transphobes would target them more.)
My take FWIW on the market place of ideas is that it is often described (as here) as working on the wrong axis.
Here it is described as working on the y axis where an idea comes to dominate others, it is said to “rise to the top”. However, I see the market place of ideas as working on the x axis where exposure to “extreme” opinion widens the scope of available discourse and shutting down one end artificially moves the center ground.
Its why I believe there is often surprise when homophobic or racist or transphobic violence occurs, or when a “thought leader” shocks people with racist/homophobic etc comments. That end of the axis has been closed off and people have assumed that the center ground is the comfortable one we inhabit.
Our job on the x axis isn’t to dominate the discourse but to pull the center ground towards us.
How about we just let people talk, hear what they have to say and judge it without looking through ideological lenses.
Yeah. “Women are subservient to men” “trans women aren’t women. The apporpriate pronoun is “it”. “Shooting girls in the face is a reasonable means to prevent them from getting an education.” “Black people are inferior to white people and should only count as 3/5th of a person.” “Earth is flat.”
Why don’t we finally leave behind all those ideological* lenses and discuss those totally novel ideas openly?
*Ideology is of course something bad, like Aids, and only ever found in people you disagree with. You yourself are Totally Rational
[…] of her views on trans gender people. A common opinion is that Greer’s views might “have sold just fine forty-odd years ago” but now are outdated, and that Greer’s view “will die with today’s [Trans […]
Somewhat OT, but the phrase “big, hairy, smelly vagina” is leaving me puzzled.
Do vaginas actually have hair in them?
I had always had the impression they didn’t. In fact, I would have imagined that it would make “normal” sex rather painful, what with all that friction pulling the hairs out. But Ms. Greer says they do, and as I don’t (yet) have a vagina, I’m clearly not in as good a position to know as Ms. Greer.
(Not to mention that I’ve just been educated that even if/when I do have one, it won’t be a “real” vagina.)
Further evidence that Germaine Greer is not, in fact, a woman.
No hair. They generally restrict themselves to the outer labia. Vaginas should also not be smelly. If they’re smelly there’s usually something wrong. And apparemtly I don’t have a real vagina either ’cause it’s not particularly big…
[…] the same lines, we have this concise definition from Aoife O’Riordan of The […]