Well, having thought I’d done away with the topic of newsgroups needing to distance themselves from the disturbing opinions of their columnists, I was then astonished to find that Julie Burchill had reared her ugly head, and allowed me to re-enter the discussion.
I won’t quote her, link to her or say anything of her article except that it was riddled with privilege and hate speech. If she had been talking about women, she would have brought out the b- and q- words, and if she had been talking about black people, she would have laced her lobster-and-champagne fuelled tirade with the n-word, and probably a picture of a golliwog.
Except, because she was talking about transsexuals, a group not yet defended by the Observer/Guardian’s usually liberal house style, nobody is allowed to be offended by it. In fact, it is one of those ‘freedom of speech’ issues.
Freedom of speech is a troublesome beast. It is not absolute, for a start. It is limited by libel laws, so that you can’t just go around making things up about people. It is limited by obscenity laws, so that we don’t have to endure endless smut. It is also limited by the sort of laws which keep Abu Hamza et al quiet.
Admittedly, Julie Burchill hasn’t gone so far as to suggest cis people (as she so hates to be called), bomb trans people. Still, her defenders, and the supposed defenders of free speech, have overlooked something quite significant.
This arbitrary right to freedom of speech, which I hold dear, is not the bottom line. It is recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, not as a single entity, but as one of a pair. If anyone decides they are to exercise their right to freedom of expression, they must also be prepared to do so with responsibility.
Julie Burchill did not act with responsibility. She, clearly bored of being out of the headlines, scrawled a barely coherent column before possibly deliberately strewing it with top-level hate terms. Voila, the piece was withdrawn, the Guardian’s offices were descended upon by angry transgender people and their allies, and some more columnists decided to cash in by defending Burchill’s freedom of speech.
Simon Kelner’s defence of Burchill was indefensible in itself. He claimed in i that the genuine and unsurprising offence taken by the transgender community ‘has serious implications for free speech in 21st-century Britain’ and goes on to lament ‘What kind of country is this?’
I think that Kelner’s piece says more for the state of 21st-century journalism than it does for the state of 21st-century Britain. Free speech is a lovely little freebie when you make your money writing whatever you want week after week. If nobody is allowed to be upset when you call them (and I said I wouldn’t quote Burchill, but the hideousness of her backwards language is staggering) a ‘shim’ or ‘bedwetters in bad wigs’, then quite frankly I don’t want to live here any more.
Freedom of speech is all very well and good, but Julie Burchill’s quite considerable wealth means that this little trifle isn’t going to trouble her a jot. The real freedom at stake here is the freedom for transwomen, and transmen (yes, Julie, those exist) to walk in the street without being abused.
Until that day, freedom of speech comes with responsibilities.