Comment: The attack on Germaine Greer shows identity politics has become a cult
Article updated: See below
By Rebecca Reilly-Cooper
By now we all know that Germaine Greer was going to give a talk at Cardiff University, and now she is not. You might see this as a victory for Rachael Melhuish, women's officer at the university, who led the protest and set up the petition calling on the university to cancel the event; or you could spin it as a triumph for freedom of expression, as the university refused to capitulate. But since the outcome is that a 76-year-old veteran of the frontlines of feminist activism felt uneasy enough about her safety to pull out of a speaking engagement, it's hard to find much to celebrate.
It will doubtless come as a surprise to the average bystander to learn that Germaine Greer – Germaine Greer! She of The Female Eunuch and "lady, love your cunt"! – is a misogynist, but it is apparently true. Melhuish, and the 2,700 people who signed her petition, have decreed it to be true, and therefore you must believe it too or you are a misogynist as well. In her petition, Melhuish claims Greer has "demonstrated time and time again her misogynistic views towards trans women, including continually misgendering trans women and denying the existence of transphobia altogether". In an article in support of the petition for the Huffington Post, Payton Quinn, with an air of confidence and stridence of which Greer herself would be proud, asserts that "if you believe that trans women are women, as you should because they are, then what Germaine Greer is espousing in her campaign against them is misogyny". This then is the crux of the objection to Greer, the thing that makes her, to use the current parlance, "problematic": she does not believe that trans women are women.
In the petition, Melhuish suggests that this belief "contribute[s] to the high levels of stigma, hatred and violence towards trans people", but doesn't explain how exactly this is supposed to work. In her article, Quinn makes some oblique references to hate speech – speech which incites violence, hatred or discrimination – but stops short of actually accusing Greer of hate speech against transgender people. She also alludes to violence and harassment experienced by trans people, implying – but again refraining from explicitly stating – that by holding the beliefs she does, Greer is in some way responsible for this violence.
Certainly Greer has made comments in the past about transgender people that you might find offensive, and has continued to do so in response to recent events. In a Newsnight interview with Kirsty Wark, Greer remained characteristically uncompromising. Among the many things she said during that interview, the focus has been on two statements which directly echo Melhuish's complaints: "I don't think that post-operative transgender men, ie MtoF transgender people, are women" and "it is simply not true that intersexual people suffer in a way that other people don't suffer" (given the context, it's reasonable to assume she was referring to transgender as opposed to intersex people here).
You might not like these opinions very much. You might find them rude, obnoxious, blunt and hurtful. You might think it is disrespectful and unkind for Greer to openly proclaim that she does not share trans people's perceptions of themselves and their identity. You might think she is mistaken, that trans women are in fact women, and do experience forms of discrimination and marginalisation that other groups do not share. But whatever your view about the truth of these opinions, it requires quite an argumentative leap to define them as hate speech, or to claim convincingly that merely holding and expressing such views is equivalent to inciting violence, hatred and discrimination against trans people. Crucially, Greer was explicit that she was making no statement at all on what treatment trans people ought to have. "I'm not saying that people should not be allowed to go through that procedure. What I'm saying is that it doesn't make them a woman. It happens to be an opinion. It's not a prohibition." She also said that when speaking to trans women, she would "use female speech forms, as a courtesy".
So Greer said nothing about what rights trans people ought to have or how they ought to be treated, and certainly nothing that could plausibly be interpreted as an incitement to violence. Believing that trans women are men is neither an incitement to violence, nor is it dehumanising, unless you also happen to think that men deserve violence and are not human. So the two main offences she is accused of are ones she openly admits to: not believing that transgender women are women, and not believing that transphobia – prejudice and bigotry towards transgender people – exists.
— Jane Samuels (@Jane_Samuels) October 28, 2015
Both of these offences are solely concerned with the propositional content of Greer's beliefs. That is, the objection is that she believes things that her opponents believe to be false, and that these beliefs are, for reasons that are never properly articulated, "dangerous". So what Greer stands accused of is, essentially, thoughtcrime. She is guilty of holding the wrong thoughts, of believing the wrong things, of entertaining ideas and defining concepts in ways that diverge from some doctrine to which all decent people are supposed to subscribe. One must believe that trans women are women, and one must believe that trans people are subject to forms of prejudice and discrimination that others are not, and if you do not hold those beliefs, then you are by definition dangerous, a potential threat to others, and must be silenced. The possibility of reasonable disagreement on these issues is ruled out, ex hypothesi.
The response to Greer and her alleged transphobia is just one example of a creeping trend among social justice activists of an identitarian persuasion: a tendency towards ideological totalism, the attempt to determine not only what policies and actions are acceptable, but what thoughts and beliefs are, too. Contemporary identity-based social justice activism is increasingly displaying the kinds of totalising and authoritarian tactics that we usually associate with cults or quasi-religious movements which aim to control the thoughts and inner lives of their members. The doctrine of "gender identity" – the idea that people possess an essential inner gender that is independent both of their sexed body and of the social reality of being treated as a person with such a body – has rapidly been elevated to the status of quasi-religious belief, such that those who do not subscribe to it are seen as not only mistaken and misguided, but dangerous and threatening, and must therefore be silenced.
If you haven't witnessed this first hand, this might sound a touch hyperbolic and overwrought. But in the methods and reactions of those who espouse the doctrine of gender identity, we see many, if not all, of the features of thought control identified by Robert Jay Lifton in his classic study of indoctrination in Chinese re-education camps, to varying degrees:
- Milieu control – seeking to establish domain over what the individual sees, hears, reads or writes. Students at Cardiff University must not be permitted to hear Greer's views, because those views are supposedly dangerous.
- Demands for purity – dividing the world sharply into pure and impure, good and evil, believer and nonbeliever. There are people who believe that trans women are women, and there are transphobic bigots who "deny trans people's right to exist". No intermediate position is possible.
- A cult of confession – individuals are required to reveal their sins and transgressions in order to be redeemed. As a non-trans person, the only way to secure one's status as an ally is to confess to one's "cis privilege" and to engage in repeated, performative privilege checking. (My own personal experience of this came when I publicly stated that I do not accept the label "cisgender", which resulted in my being accused of the chillingly Orwellian-sounding crime of "privilege denial").
- Loading the language – the use of thought-terminating clichés and complex and ever changing terminological rules. Just try to critically examine the soundbite "trans women are women" and see how fast the accusations of prejudice and bigotry come flying in. This is a phrase intended to stop you asking difficult questions.
As with so many of the current high-profile no-platforming cases, Greer is being ostracised and shunned, cast out of our moral community and declared beyond redemption, simply for the crime of believing the wrong things, of holding the wrong thoughts in her head, of defining concepts in ways that run counter to those of the newly-established doctrine of gender identity. It is not sufficient to behave towards trans women in a certain way, to respect their preferred pronouns and to support their right to receive the medical treatment they need. You must also really and truly believe that they are women. And if you cannot be made to hold this subjective mental state in your head, that is sufficient to justify silencing you, in the name of protecting the believers.
What all of this assumes is that we have the right to make these kinds of claims on each other's inner lives. It supposes that I can legitimately demand that you believe the things I believe in order to validate my identity, that I can demand that you share my perception of myself because it would be injurious to that perception if you do not. And from there, it's a quick step to the belief that if you do not share my perception of myself, you are committing an act of psychic violence against me. That by refusing to accept the narrative I tell myself about who I am, you harm me just as much as if you really did incite physical violence against me. Thus I become justified in using any tactics at my disposal to ensure that you see me the way I see myself, in making use of authoritarian methods of thought control and indoctrination. Acceptance of the doctrine is the only path to salvation and enlightenment, and dissenting views are not only mistaken, but threatening – both to my understanding of myself, and to the ideology itself.
So it should come as no surprise that the non-believer in gender identity is so often told to "die in a fire, TERF". It’s simply the twenty-first century's "burn the heretic".
Rebecca Reilly-Cooper is a lecturer in political theory at the University of Warwick. She tweets as @boodleoops.
The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.
Article update 15:09 28/10/15: Following talks between Germaine Greer and Cardiff University, she is now once again scheduled to deliver her lecture next month.