Suzanne Moore defended my views on sex and identity. Now it’s my turn to stand up for her Selina Todd in The Times 21.11.20
The original article is here.
The columnist Suzanne Moore resigned last week from The Guardian, the paper for which she had written for more than 25 years.
Her writing is unafraid to challenge groupthink or ridicule tribes. It can often be infuriating, partly because she’s so damn good at it. I have disagreed with many of her opinions over the years. Suzanne, 62, even once had the audacity to make a minor criticism of a book I’d written.
Part of her reason for leaving was a remarkable letter sent earlier this year by 338 of her colleagues at The Guardian to its editor, Kath Viner. The letter didn’t name Suzanne, but it was written after a column by her had been published. It complained about the paper publishing “transphobic content”.
To demand the silence of a writer at a supposed bastion of the liberal press is breathtaking. That Viner didn’t rush to her defence is even more shocking.
A navel-gazing storm in a media teacup? No, this episode is a worrying portent — or perhaps a clue to how we might build democratic dissent.
And I should know: when Suzanne’s colleagues complained about “transphobic” writing, they were referring to a column she wrote defending me. Now it’s my turn to defend her.
I am a professor of modern history at Oxford University. In February, I was due to speak in Oxford at a 50th anniversary celebration of the first Women’s Liberation Movement conference. But the day before, the organisers withdrew my invitation.
I disagree with attempts to change the legal definition of women from one grounded in biological sex to one based on gender identity, and I have voiced my view at meetings and conferences organised by Woman’s Place UK, a mainstream women’s rights group.
My association with Woman’s Place UK led trans activists to target me. By the start of this year, security officers had to accompany me when I gave lectures. Some colleagues offered support but many — at Oxford and other universities — shunned me, refusing to discuss our differences. Professional associations declined to defend my freedom to debate.
Even before that February talk, I had endured 18 months of endless letters of complaint to Oxford, petitions calling for me to be sacked and threats to disrupt my teaching, not to mention an unceasing campaign against me on Twitter. None of those who insulted me, or claimed to be offended by me, ever contacted me. Yet I learnt, via supportive colleagues and my husband, who is also a professor, that I was being excluded from events and described as transphobic by scholars I’d mentored or enjoyed good relationships with, as well as those who knew nothing about me or my work. I began to dread attending meetings or conferences without a friend at my side.
Hostility undermined my confidence — not in my legal, researched views but in my ability to do my job. When it became known that I had security at my lectures, some — including Jo Edge, now women’s officer for the University and College Union — suggested on Twitter that I was overreacting. Others claimed I’d courted trouble.
I was shaken, until a friend reminded me that these unfounded accusations are routinely levelled at female victims of verbal or physical abuse. That threw me: I’d never thought of myself as a “victim”. I’d worked hard to establish a career, my financial independence and a professional reputation.
As a woman in a world that’s still dominated by men at the top — only a quarter of the UK’s professors are women — I’m acutely aware of my privilege. I regularly pause outside Oxford’s Radcliffe Camera and marvel that I’m paid to research and teach here. But I’m also in a minority, and like most people in that position I can believe that anything bad that happens to me is down to my ineptitude. It’s an experience with which many women are wearyingly familiar.
None of the petitions or complaints against me were upheld, but invitations to speak at other universities dwindled. Those who were brave enough to invite me had to deal with protests from their own staff and students. This wasn’t because I was planning to speak about transgender people. My research focuses on working-class history and women’s history. But trans activists claimed that my definition of women was so offensive I should not be allowed to speak.
What hurt most was how my treatment affected my students. No one I’ve taught protested against me. I always make clear that they’re free to disagree with me on anything — and they frequently do! But some confided in me about the pressure they faced, from staff as well as students, to denounce me. I don’t know how many others were dissuaded from working with me.
Then, on Friday, February 28, I was “no-platformed”.
Being robbed of the right to speak made me acutely aware of how precious a freedom it is. Women who speak out have long attracted disapproval and worse — think of the scold’s bridle.
That weekend I had invaluable support from my head of department, an army of women and some good men who protested against my silencing. But I felt powerless, reminded anew that neither the University and College Union, nor, at that moment, any political party, would represent my point of view — one shared by many other women.
Three days later, on March 2, Suzanne wrote: “The treatment of Selina Todd this weekend was a warning.”
She shared her own experience of being incorrectly labelled transphobic: “It has meant death and rape threats for me and my children, and police involvement.” And she gave a voice to me and those who bravely supported me when she wrote: “We have the right to speak and organise without being told that speech itself is dangerous.”
Like my detractors, The Guardian’s letter-writers did not explain why Suzanne was mistaken. That poses a worrying question for democracy that neither universities nor The Guardian seem interested in discussing: who gets to decide who is no-platformed or silenced in the supposed interests of “inclusion”? Disagreement isn’t tantamount to discrimination: Suzanne was clear she wanted trans people to have the right to “live the best lives they can”.
The Guardian’s management — which has not taken down Suzanne’s column from its website — will be looking nervously over its shoulder at the moral crisis playing out at The New York Times, where a senior editor, James Bennet, was forced to resign in June. He had published an opinion piece in which Tom Cotton, a Republican senator, recommended the military be used to quell the riots that followed the death of George Floyd. As at The Guardian, it was New York Times employees who led the outrage.
The right-wing columnist Bari Weiss quit the paper a month later complaining that “my own forays into wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views”. Twitter, she added, had become the New York Times’s “ultimate editor”.
This is not an issue restricted to newsrooms and lecture theatres. History shows that the alternative to disagreement is not cosy consensus (infinitely duller than a world in which Suzanne Moore writes spiky columns); it’s the silencing of those who dissent, by any means possible. Editors, vice-chancellors, employers, trade unions and the government must do better at upholding our legal right to freedom of expression.
Suzanne’s story, like mine, is becoming Everywoman’s. Last year, Maya Forstater lost her job at a think tank for expressing views similar to my own; JK Rowling is abused on social media for her feminism. I’ve met countless women who are silenced by fear; Suzanne has too.
“Now, I feel a huge sadness,” Suzanne wrote, “when I look at the fragmentation of the landscape, where endless fighting, cancellations and no-platformings have obscured our understanding of who the real enemies are.”
I hope her story provokes others to speak up. As she concluded that courageous column about me: “There are more of us than you think.” And as she tweeted last week: “The efforts to shut me up seem not to have been very well thought through.”