“I only said…”: the verbal sleight of hand that allows transphobes to claim they’re not transphobic
Anti-trans campaigners keep claiming that they are only exercising their right to “free speech”: their claim has more in common with the average stroppy teenager than anything akin to grown-up discourse.
Reading through press reports on the defenestration of Graham Linehan, I was fascinated not just by how neatly these fell into two distinct camps, but also how the camp that commentators camped in was a pretty good clue to which side of the issue they came down on.
In the blue corner (conservative corner, reactionary corner, evangelical corner) were those shocked and horrified by the claim that all it took for Twitter to ban from its site an internationally renowned writer was a single tweet rejecting the notion that “Trans Women are Women”. I shan’t link: there are just too many in similar vein. Though I did observe an interesting progression.
Sleight of hand
Early reports taking this tack tended to go with Linehan being banned “after” the dread tweet. That’s a neat bit of word trickery right there. As a writer and sometime journalist, I appreciate the cunning usage, because I have, on occasion, been required to perform the same sleight of hand: mostly by editors worried about being sued.
It is done when you have a pretty good idea that one thing is the outcome of another, but you don’t quite have the evidence, or the nerve, to say so explicitly. For instance: “the small child was run over by the drunken motorist. The child later died.”
It is pretty foregone conclusion that the death of the child was caused by the actions of the motorist but, absent a court ruling on the matter, it would take a bold writer indeed to prejudge the issue and take to print asserting motorist manslaughter. Write, on the other hand that B followed A, and the average reader will assume that A caused B. But the lawyers are happy because they know that in a court of law, the lack of a connecting word or statement lets their publication off the hook.
Later reports were less circumspect, with at least one (US) paper claiming that Linehan was banned “for” a particular tweet. How would they know, I wondered, seeing as how Twitter moves in ways exceedingly mysterious when it comes to bans.
Also because over in the pink corner (progressive corner, LGBT corner) were reports, sadly fewer in number, observing that it was rather more complicated. He had tweeted hundreds, if not thousands, of tweets widely considered transphobic. More recently he had been involved in a spat with an academic who he accused of “grooming”.
Perhaps that was what led to his ban. Or his reluctance to back down in that matter. Or maybe something entirely other. Who knows? Only Twitter and, as far as I am aware, they are not saying.
It’s all about the speech
This division mirrors something else about anti-trans discourse, hinted at in the Hate Incident court case earlier this year. Because those defending anti-trans content are very keen to locate their words in the realm of free speech and the kingdom of “I only said…”.
“I only said a true thing.” Namely, that, trans women are biologically not women. Or their genes don’t fit. Or some other banal micro-aggression. And this, taken one comment, one tweet at a time, is minor irritant, no more. And very much “so what?”.
But then, if you have ever been at the mercy of a sulky teen — and I have not only endured one on either side of the binary divide, but been one myself, a lifetime ago — you will understand the force of that “I only”.
I only….asked when we would get home. Yes. Only asked for the 17th time in the last half an hour! Only asked …if I could eat the last bun: asked why THAT MAN is so FAT; why I should not make jokes about disability. Or race. Or transgender.
It is the repetition and the sly, subtle jibe that accompanies each ask that is the issue. Like, though not quite like, the crime of Harassment. For, in law, behaviours that, in isolation are perfectly ordinary, unproblematic can become criminal, if repeated when someone has asked you to desist.
That for me was the problem of the Hate Incident case. I sympathised with the plaintiff’s claim that the Police action was disproportionate, as the evidence given in court suggests it was. Nor do I want the law to head down the cul-de-sac of making perceived offense the yardstick of hate. I am big enough, ugly enough not to dissolve into tears at the knowledge that some random person I have never met does not consider me a woman, and I do not believe it helpful to police language in this way.
But discourse is far more than words
Yet I know, from long ago study of language and linguistics, that far more is communicated outside the “referential content” of a remark than within. By which is meant that the meaning of what you say is only partially transmitted in the words. Estimates, then, put the word-meaning percent at c.20%-30%. Far more important were all the bits that go with the words, from tone of voice and manner of delivery, to posture, expression and wider behaviour.
At the same time, when you engage in a conversation with someone, you do far more than converse. You establish boundaries and power relations. Over time, your words can have a real effect on an individual, upsetting them, triggering them, harassing them: not because of the words alone, but through their frequency and the context in which they are uttered.
For which reason it felt wrong and misguided for the court to be overly concerned with judging the words: as though the only issue here was whether a person “said a bad thing”. Whether they were or were not “transphobic”. This is where the anti-trans lobby, and the media who support them, want you to focus. Like a bad carnival magician they are all about the misdirection. They want you looking at the content of their speech and arguing the toss over whether this or that particular sentence goes too far.
Never look at the big picture. Ignore the pattern. Always focus on the latest remark, last weekend’s article and do not ask awkward questions like: if the Times is NOT transphobic, mommy, why is pretty much every week marked off with yet one more piece of anti-transness?
If JK Rowling is so innocent, why does she tweet out tweets that are deeply offensive and must be excused as “middle-aged moments”: and why so many of them? And how come most of the media treat each utterance of hers as though it comes entirely out of the blue: has nothing in common with anything else she happens to have said?
In the end, transphobia thrives off that disconnect. So long as each and every instance of transphobic behaviour or comment can be explained away as unique and individual, without link back to what went before or forward to the future, then like the proverbial outraged teen, they can continue to deny plausibly from behind an expression of hurt innocence.
“I only wrote this one bad thing”
If that makes you get angry, then you become the bad person, at least as far as a large part of the commentariat are concerned. It is you who is unreasonable; you, who really ought to be apologising!
Never the anti-trans ideologues, who can continue to anti-trans to their heart’s content.