QotD: “Bullies everywhere delight in coming up with new insults”

If so, the potential damage doesn’t conspicuously trouble many of the trusted adults associated, on the left, with Corbyn’s “kinder politics”. Some prominent supporters of proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) have been wondering, for instance, whether, if there really are diminishing returns in writing off as a “terf” anyone who disagrees, there might not be a better slur. What’s mean enough to mute the nervous, without actually being hate speech? Feminazi? Too Daily Mail. Nasty woman? Also taken. Transmisogynist? A popular option, but it uses up so many characters.

Progressive head scratching as to what word might project the same corrective menace as terf (originally a small group’s chosen acronym, now applied at random), seems to have ended officially with this offering from my Guardian colleague, Owen Jones. “If,” he mused last week, “TERF’ [Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist] is unacceptable, let’s just use ‘transphobe’ and ‘transphobic’, problem solved.” Given that this guidance comes from the man who admirably closed down “chav” because it “demonised” the working classes, there seems every chance that “transphobe” will become the approved term for people who think, for instance, that there might be one or two arguments for preserving certain women-only spaces.

Yes, given the heightened imputation of backward irrationality to women who might question, say, the value attributed by the proposed legislation to cultural norms of gendered behaviour, transphobe could well be the more effective insult.

And given that phobic is probably more widely understood than “terf” – even on the left – as being shameful, it could well be a better means of muting anyone who wonders, for example, whether if more and more children find their bodies and gender to be mismatched, it could be worth trying to ask what and where they are learning about gender.

Where the advance of terf, as a bullying tool, has already succeeded in repressing speech – and maybe even research – “transphobe”, while being less snarl-friendly, has the advantage of implying that any child-related caution – about, say, lack of research on the longer term outcomes of early transition – could never be reasoned, only pathological. To many campaigners, even to dispute that would be tantamount to ignoring trans suicides, and therefore tantamount to transphobia.

True, different views on the surge in female-to-male transition were reported brilliantly last week by the Times’s Janice Turner, one of the strikingly few women willing, in the face of concerted abuse, publicly to examine complex social and medical changes the authorities seem disinclined to explore. That such women are frequently and correctly described as “brave”, for all the world as if they were war correspondents, only underlines the extent to which conventionally abhorrent exhibitions of bullying and hate-speech have been allowed to flourish here – with some of our most trusted adults leading by example.

When noted equalities campaigners endorse the use of “terf”, events such as the recent walkout of Labour officials in Bexhill and Battle, following allegedly uninhibited bullying of a women’s officer, Anne Ruzylo, must be the predictable consequence. “If we can’t talk about gender laws and get shut down on that,” says Ruzylo, “what’s next?”

One thing that followed was an online compliment to one of her alleged denigrators, saying he looked, compared with her, “the more feminine one”. Sometimes, irked pioneers of gender inclusiveness can recall, more than anything, the instincts of a David Davis when denied a hug: “I am not blind.”

Even if one agreed, which I don’t, that the expression of any doubts about the GRA instantly identifies the speaker as a member of what our mentors call the “doomed anti-trans lobby”, the degree to which this debate has legitimised intolerance, targeting and recently, the physical harassment of women surely indicates a responsibility, on the part of undeviatingly debate-averse progressives, to do more than offer synonyms.
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At Speakers’ Corner, a woman was punched last month as she filmed women gathering for an event called “What is Gender?”. More recently, at the Anarchist Book Fair, Helen Steel was surrounded, she writes, by “around 30 trans activists who shouted misogynistic abuse in my face and at others, and who would not leave me alone. This included: ugly terf, fucking terf scum, bitch, fascist and more.”

To suggest that transphobe makes the more acceptable insult is like saying the Telegraph should have written slightly different words over its target practice; that the Daily Mail should have called its three pilloried judges something a wee bit nicer than enemies: the intent to bully remains.

“Stop, speak, support”, then. Though not if the banter has only escalated as far as transphobe. That’s just the progressive way of telling women to shut up.

Catherine Bennett

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