“A strange new kind of fascism”

Why are editors and academics afraid of controversy surrounding the status of transgender people? To outsiders, it sounds like a feminist family feud — but it’s become dangerously radioactive.

The struggle is essentially about whether trans women, who are physiologically men but live as women and have undergone a “gender transition”, with or without surgery, are women or remain men.

Gendered feminists, known to their enemies as “Terfs” (trans-exclusive radical feminists), insist that biological sex is unalterable.

Their LBGTQ+ opponents accuse them of victimizing already vulnerable trans women and exposing them to further discrimination and violence. But it is more than an ideological dispute. Public figures accused of being “Terfs” or “transphobes” risk “cancellation” in public places and a torrent of insults on the internet.

South Africa first faced this strange phenomenon last year, when students at the University of Cape Town tried to block a guest lecture by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie because of her views on transgender people.

The world’s best-known feminist author, Germaine Greer, also took enraged trans activism.

In January, Warner Brothers will organize a 20and anniversary retrospective of the Harry Potter films. Who is excluded from the jamboree because of their alleged transphobia? None other than the woman who made it all possible, Harry Potter creator JK Rowling.

The divide is partly generational: the older liberal left tends to sympathize with Rowling and her harassed and distorted ilk; young people tend to think they get what they pay for.

The struggle of South African leftists in the 1970s and 1980s aimed to expand freedom and break down barriers, especially those imposed by apartheid. The new struggle is to restrict and keep people online – and the internet is the new enforcement tool.

“I spoke about the importance of sex and have been paying the price ever since,” Rowland wrote of his Twitter traffic. “I was transphobic, ***, a bitch, a Terf. I deserved the cancellation, the punch and the death.

Perhaps the most disturbing case is that of Kathleen Stock, the gender-sensitive academic who was bullied, harassed and abused until she resigned from the University of Sussex in August.

Based on her ordeal, I argued in a previous article that trans activists violated the fundamental democratic right to hold and express one’s own opinions, won by Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers at the cost of a huge blood money.

I lamented the resurgent medieval practice of banning heretical ideas and punishing heretics. Perhaps fearing a Twitter storm, most posts are keeping their heads down.

A complication is that with the exception of a few free market fundamentalists, most people have “red lines” where they feel free speech ends. Most Democrats, for example, would oppose the promotion of child pornography, slavery and genocide.

The underlying knot is therefore the limits of freedom of expression in a democratic society. Also at issue are the limits of protest, and when it turns into bullying and the intimidating suppression of ideas.

It is important to note that in the UK and South Africa it is completely legal to publicly maintain the unalterable masculinity of trans women.

A UK employment tribunal has convicted Meyer Forstater, a tax expert who argued her dismissal for allegedly transphobic tweets violated her rights at work, but that does not bind the judiciary.

Gender-critical academics like Stock seem unanimous in condemning discrimination against trans people, except where they think the safety of women and girls is at stake. UK law agrees, providing for “sexual spaces unique and separate” such as toilets and changing rooms.

As a legal category in South Africa, ‘unfair discrimination’ specifically involves the unjust imposition of burdens or denial of benefits. It would be a stretch to claim that Stock’s ideas have this effect.

Is gender perspective hate speech? South African law specifically defines this as “incitement to hatred” on prohibited grounds, including gender identity. UK law appears to prohibit any threatening or abusive communication intended to harass, alarm or disturb.

But Stock clearly wasn’t advocating hate or intending to harass – she’s an academic, not a hatemonger; some might even see her as a victim of hate. The university lamented her treatment and declared her innocent of “gross forgery”.

The South African Hate Speech Act expressly exempts academic and scientific investigations from its criminal provisions.

Consider the following statement from Rowling: “Trans women need and deserve protection…I feel nothing but empathy and solidarity with trans women who have been abused by men. This does not sound like hate speech.

Justifying the attempt to block Greer from speaking at Cardiff University, student women officer Rachel Melhuish said trans-exclusive views had no place in society.

Who is the self-proclaimed Melhuish to decide? It’s statements like this that have comedian Ricky Gervais complaining of a “weird new kind of fascism, of people thinking they know what you can say and what you can’t.”

There’s no need to agree with Rowlings’ defense of her position – in fact, I disagree with it – but I challenge any reasonable person to dismiss it as unbalanced or hopelessly malicious.

What is at stake is the right, within the framework of the law, to have and express one’s own thoughts. The famous maxim attributed to the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire applies: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

If trans law enforcement doesn’t follow the law, what do they do? Why does everyone have to keep pace with the femininity of trans women? Why isn’t it enough, as Rowling says, to be a “trans ally” who opposes harassment, discrimination and violence against them?

The goal, it seems, is to create “safe” environments where trans people never have to hear what offends them.

The question is whether this is the purpose of a university – or, indeed, of any democratic forum, courts and legislatures, for example, where outspokenness and the free exchange of ideas are paramount.

Some scholars complain that the current intolerant climate makes it impossible to explore trans sexuality and the important questions it raises.

There are serious dangers in trying to silence expressions that offend or hurt someone. Recognizing this, the UK Parliament recently decriminalized the use of “insulting” language under the Public Order Act on the grounds that it amounted to censorship.

One of the consequences of the stifling of voices is the debasement of intellectual exchanges. How can belligerent extremists silence Greer, one of the most important feminist thinkers and writers of the time, because of her stance on a controversial issue?

Coercively protecting people from emotional upheaval would be the death of independent journalism, higher education, and the democratic political process. “College is not a safe space,” scientist and author Richard Dawkins reminds us. “If you need a safe space, go home, hug your stuffed animal, and suck your thumb until you’re ready.”

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