A little background: A while ago a British journalist named Suzanne Moore, who specializes in women’s rights, made an offhand transphobic comment in an article about body image: “We [women] are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.” There was an ensuing backlash from many in the trans community, especially on Twitter. Her friend and fellow writer Julie Burchill penned a column in her defense titled, “Transsexuals Should Cut It Out,” which appeared last week in The Observer. Without ever saying what exactly the trans activists in question had said to Moore that was so horrific, Burchill just called them names: “A bunch of dicks in chick’s clothing… bed-wetters in bad wigs… trannies… They’re lucky I’m not calling them ‘shemales.’ Or shims.”
(Oh, really? They’re lucky you don’t use the most dehumanizing terms you can think of? Even though you just kind of did… But I guess every member of every minority really should feel grateful to anyone who refrains from attacking their freak qualities with the worst slurs. And in that case, thank you, Julie Burchill. Thank you for not referring to people with dwarfism as midgets or Paralympic athletes as cripples. I know the temptation is always there to vomit in disgust at people who are physically different and it takes a will of iron to keep the insults from dribbling out. You are truly strong. Anyone less magnanimous than you would mouth off. You have shown yourself to be the paragon of generosity. I for one am now going to get up every morning and feel grateful there are people like you saintly enough to walk down the street and not spit at those of us who truly belong in the circus.)
The Observer received a barrage of emails and commentary from horrified readers and promptly demonstrated that a small group of thoughtful citizens can indeed change the world when it pulled the column from its website. The editors have issued this apology (emphasis mine):
This clearly fell outside what we might consider reasonable. The piece should not have been published in that form. I don’t want the Observer to be conducting debates on those terms or with that language. It was offensive, needlessly. We made a misjudgment and we apologise for that.
A newspaper shouldn’t reject writing that merely argues against trans rights or any sort of human rights. As awful as bigotry is, dialogue between opposing sides is the only way to change minds and spur progress. But any publication looking to host productive debate should always be able to discriminate between substantive reasoning and a pointless list of pejoratives. I wouldn’t oppose printing Burchill’s piece because her argument was chauvinistic, but because she failed to be civil and because she wasn’t even addressing the trans activists’ stance. She was simply snarking about their bodies. And I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: If you can’t make your point without trashing traits your opponent has no choice about—their gender identity, ethnicity, biology, sexuality, or class background—then your argument doesn’t have a leg to stand on. At worst, it’s abuse, and doesn’t even belong in high school. (Indeed, that’s what anti-bullying policies are all about.) At best, it’s meaningless. (Would anyone try to convince the world to depose Saddam Hussein by ranting about the ugliness of his moustache?)
Upon first discovering Burchill’s piece last week, I assumed the only reason the editors would publish such an uninhibited temper tantrum was because they’re a business and believe feuds sell papers. It is a relief to see now that they do not want their readers thinking that’s the kind of business they’re running.
Unsurprisingly, The Telegraph and others have bellowed, “CENSORSHIP!” and—you can see it coming a mile away—“PC police!” and have joined up with Burchill in republishing her piece. They apparently have no qualms about profiting from the attention a semi-famous writer’s bad manners will grab. Which is why it is so important to commend The Observer. A week ago, I was deeply depressed by their descent into yellow journalism. Their current endeavors to wipe off the self-inflicted stains are better late than never.