Thursday, 17 January 2013

Free speech with responsibility 2

I was going to write a reply to Innis Anity's comment on my previous post, but it went over the 4,096-word limit, and so she gets a full post in response. I think her comment merits this anyway, because it highlighted an issue that I feel strongly about too: the use of obscure  jargon.

She began with this quote (not mine, but near enough): "Free speech is everyone's right as long as it doesn't cause unnecessary friction or offence."

This is how I have taken the theme onwards. By the way, this is not an anti-feminist/pro-trans debate. It's about the issue of free speech, and if you have it, how to achieve the best clarity in communication. Skip all of this if such issues bore you to death.

To my present regret, I let myself be hustled into unpublishing nine posts which some readers took issue with. Some of these persons, but not all, used language which I found threatening: and I thought of people who might also be threatened, by their association with me - including the other Lucy Melford, no connection with me at all, an ordinary non-trans woman with a family who posts on Facebook. There was a serious danger that she might be mistaken for me, and bombarded with messages that would upset her. This kind of thing does happen. Anyway, I decided to take these posts down, and remove the controversial words from the public domain. But it bothered me that I had given way. My language in these posts hadn't been intemperate. They hadn’t been my finest writing either. But mostly it wasn't free speech's finest hour.

The Leveson Enquiry into UK press standards, commissioned by the UK government, has now reported and made recommendations for the government to consider. For a very long time the British Press had misbehaved by misreporting 'news' about various people, and had taken more and more advantage of its 'right' to a free voice. You have to bear in mind that in the UK there is no 'Bill of Rights' and the general position is that one can say what one pleases until it runs foul of the laws of slander and libel, or contravenes legislation such as the Official Secrets Act. It's a prohibitive regime in which a great deal is nevertheless permitted, rather than a positive regime in which anything goes. Leveson was proposing a minimum legal framework for the press to work by. If adopted, it wouldn’t mean an immediate return to the typical laws on sedition current in the 1700s; but some of cautious disposition regard any legislation in this area as a creeping denial of freedom of expression. They may be right: it depends on how far you trust the integrity of the government, its regulatory arms, and the courts.

You can see a clear danger here: if the press can be curbed, why not the rest of us? Publishing on the Internet is no different from publishing in print. It seemed to me that a personal call for moderate messages, expressed in moderate words, was well in order, to help protect all who have something to say.

The people who really make the rules are the people in power. If the membership of that ruling clique is skewed in the wrong way, so that one section of society has unfair sway, then - in societies where the popular vote can change things - it has to be the ordinary people's fault if that clique carries on.

If, for instance, you are a feminist, I say this: let your message be heard in full, as much and as often as you like, but express it in terms that the ordinary person can understand and vote on. In other words, set up the Women's Party, publish your manifesto, and contend in public elections. I'm serious. In theory, as there are more women alive than men, you ought to win every election, every time.

The problem for feminists, and trans people, and indeed every kind of minority, is that we are all on the margin of society and therefore seem odd and strange to most, and certainly misunderstood. The greater part of society can get along without thinking about us at all; and even if aware of us, most people are largely indifferent. That isn't going to change without a lot of well-directed effort. It's a hard thing to accept, that most of our current posturing and debate and learned articles matter not a jot to the ordinary people in this country. They are ignored because they are fringe. That’s why it pays to become mainstream.

I absolutely agree that the strange labels we use are very unhelpful. The ordinary public doesn't know them. I don't for instance think the ordinary public even has any true notion of what a 'modern second-wave feminist' stands for. Let alone what 'white racist heterosexual homophobic autogynephile' could mean, and I'm sure it's possible to locate corresponding phrases in the published posts of trans and other groups. It's all a woeful use of English. Presumably stuff like this isn't intended to be read by the ordinary public, but if there is a hope that the public at large will understand this kind of thing, then the hoper is being unrealistic. 

The public exasperates the trans community mightily by not distinguishing between 'trans', 'transgender', 'transsexual' and 'transvestite'. Although in a way they are right. They are all of them artificial words whose meaning is hardly fixed or abundantly obvious. But an umbrella phrase like 'non-standard social-role variant' is too general to mean much. Tough women who lead governments, and effeminate men who lead fashion houses, might all be to some degree 'social-role variant'. But so would Hitler and Gandhi, Florence Nightingale and Greta Garbo, Queen Elizabeth the first and Queen Elizabeth the second, Batman and James Bond. A label like that doesn't get to the heart of what kind of people they are, what makes them tick, and what they are capable of achieving. 

We should ask ourselves: if we do have a message worth propagating, how can we get it across to the plain man or woman waiting in the rain for the bus, with a worry on their mind? 

We have all become lost in a mire of unnecessary terminology. It reflects the tribal tendency to fragment into little groups. It’s a jargon we could urgently do without. We all need a lucid common language, so that meaning and understanding can cross boundaries.

I don't myself use the word 'cis' because it's not a word that ordinary people use. My neighbour next door would look at me very oddly if I used 'cis' when chatting to her. I don't even like the sound of it. I can't of course speak for ordinary natal women, but I will readily accept the suggestion that they dislike it. And certainly can't see the need for it. I can easily see why.

It’s wrong to speak of 'the trans crowd' if it were a vast army of similarly-minded people. I’d say it was in fact a very diverse array of individuals, male and female, bound together only by The Process, the years-long bid to transition to their own personally-desired state. There is indeed a small number of vocal politically-aware persons who do their best to educate and defend. And there are indeed some crass hotheads who will react to any provocation. But the trans people I personally know all want a quiet life, a useful life, a life with personal ambitions and interests, and are not members of any mass movement. Although it’s not rare for trans people to blog, it isn’t normal to do it, and most of my friends don't. They seem to prefer Facebook, but that's another story entirely!

Bottom line: at the end of the day, we are all just 'people'. And we all need to get on with each other. Now isn't that true?

3 comments:

  1. So very much true Lucy. All it takes is a respect for others and their views. There are ways to communicate one's stance and beliefs on any subject without offending anyone, it is all about being diplomatic.

    Shirley Anne x

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  2. Thank you for such a thoughtful response. I do agree that, "...at the end of the day, we are all just 'people'. And we all need to get on with each other."

    Perhaps you might explain to me then how it is that those who rely on what their senses tell them are to deal with the hatred and vitriol being hurled at them in response to their inability to accept what is patentedly untrue.

    A specific example might be that part time, or even full time, male bodied transvestites are in fact "women"...and that such womon are entitled to expose their male member in women only areas under the guise/umbrella of transgenderism.

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  3. I think you are talking about reports of people in America declaring themselves to be female and not male, when they still have male genitalia, and then going into female spaces primarily to shock and distress. Spaces such as changing-rooms and showers, where women and young girls feel vulnerable to male intrusion.

    I would personally say this is highly provocative, and even if 'legal' is not the behaviour of anyone of good judgement and a down-to-earth sense of what is reasonable.

    I am of course coming to this from my British perspective. I find it difficult to imagine that anybody in their right mind would dare expose their male genitals in a female UK changing room. It's a different culture in the UK, and ordinary people don't do such things. I never did, pre-op. I'd go home after a sweaty game of badminton and clean myself up there. I'd avoid embarrassing anyone, and would fear the police being called, and the local paper getting hold of the story. Ordinary British people shrink from arrest and media attention.

    Post-op, well I don't know...I believe I'd easily pass muster, and of course my Gender Recognition Certificate gives me an absolute right to enter any public female space anywhere in the UK. But frankly it's now all about not wanting anyone to see my fat figure and make damaging judgements about my eating habits. And I don't think I'm unique.

    Toilets are different, provided one uses a cubicle. I used female public toilets from very early on, when I was still pre-op, and was never noticed because I was unobtrusive and behaved as the other girls did. In the UK toilet etiquette can be very tolerant. It's a gentler, less combative society, where, on the right occasion, in the right place, with the right sense of humour and cheerful cheekiness, a man in drag can use women's facilities risking only giggles and some ribald comments.

    I don't want to go deeply into the difference between a 'transsexual' person and a 'transvestite'. I will say that as far as I understand these terms, a 'transvestite' is normally a man who needs to crossdress regularly, but remains a man nevertheless. He might for instance take on a female persona professionaly, as a stage performer. Whereas a 'transsexual' person, male or female, has an inner compulsion to be other than what they appear to be; and that person wants the entire life that goes with it, not merely the clothes and other outward trappings.

    I think that post-op transsexuals in particular demonstrate by their driven pursuit of transition - which after all lasts several difficult years, and is fraught with problems - that they have a mindset at odds with their anatomy at birth.

    I wouldn't take that too far though. I would say of myself that I now have a feminised male-type body that looks female enough for ordinary purposes. And the hormones may well have made some internal changes in the female direction. But it isn't a female body as natal women have. Nor do I claim to have 'female emotions' or a 'female brain', although the hormones do seem to have had some effect on me, much as you'd expect. The sum total of what I am now is nevertheless different from what it used to be. I do as a fact socialise as a female, with a transformed public presence.

    Most important of all, I'm much happier than I used to be. It's this happiness that I wanted: and nothing else really. Certainly not political power, nor the right to shock and distress.

    Lucy

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Lucy Melford