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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