Germaine Greer is ruining the world again. Or, as many conservative or libertarian thinkers currently prefer, the world is ruining Germaine Greer. If you’re not caught up in this latest tempest, consider this both weather report and dismal global forecast. In short: everybody’s thundering but there’s little hope for rain.
Last week, news and opinion sites set about placing Greer at the centre of their ongoing, usually vacant, obsession with “freedom of speech”.
The writer had reportedly refused an invitation to speak at Cardiff University following protest by feminist students unhappy with her past statements on transgender women. It is absolutely true that Greer’s past statements on transgender women hold about as much intellectual value as Alan Jones’ radio editorials. Which is to say, they were discursive stink-bombs empty of anything but foul odour and detonated only to provoke fuddy-duddies into revealing themselves as they held handkerchiefs to their noses.
But now, many people are holding their noses on both sides and taking public opportunity to either say “this is political correctness gone mad” or “I’m finished with Germaine Greer”. Or, even a little of both. Whatever side, or sides, one chooses, the impetus is, in my view, identical. And that is to trivialise the speech of women, whether trans or cis.
This, of course, is a very regular act and one we may only beat, and have been somewhat successful in beating, by ignoring it. I, for example, am dimly aware that my own legitimacy as a writer is diminished by my vag and that criticism of my work engages more often with the “fact” of my biological sex than it does with anything I have written.
So, I don’t listen when she is “angry” or she is “deranged” or she is “contrarian”. “She” is, nearly always, responding to biological, emotional or social forces and is, hardly ever, capable of producing thought worthy of engagement in its own terms. Such attack on thought is terribly widespread and, unfortunately, this Greer business is another case of argumentum ad feminem. Ladies have been shut up all ‘round.
The young women of Cardiff University may have not been unfairly criticised for their public orgasm of tolerance. Sure, they’re naïfs so eager to preserve a “safe space” that they will not hear the necessarily dangerous and, yes, any university student wary of discomfort should probably not be a university student. You don’t become a doctor without first dissecting a few rats etc. But, feminist protest receives an inordinate amount of coverage in press. We can say “political correctness gone mad” all we like, but this conveniently discounts the many injunctions made by conservative faculty and students on campuses worldwide.
When, for example, the prestigious Northwestern University did its level best to ban Palestinian speakers from its campus, the fact gained little coverage outside student newspapers. Feminist or other progressive prescriptions might be common in universities but they’re no more common, nor as powerful, as other attempts to silence. Neoconservatives or libertarians may continue to chide feminist progressives as SuperNanny all they wish, but they’re pretty good at screaming “unasseptable” when it suits.
Having said this, Greer, in this case, might have earned some time on the naughty chair. It’s true that her comments on transwomen were made long ago and it’s true, as she offered to the BBC, “it’s not my issue”. But, gender really is a central issue for Greer and for her to say, even in passing and even more than a decade ago, that transwomen are not “real” women reveals curious, or even fatally unresolved, thinking on the nature of gender itself.
A serious feminist thinker simply cannot go about claiming that there is such a thing as a “fake” gender without calling into question her first principles. If Greer knows what a “real” woman is, then she might want to share this with the rest of the class. Because honestly, we haven’t worked it out yet.
Actually, this is a fascinating matter and one on which I, and many other feminists remain, divided. If you’re at all interested, the two dominant, and possibly incompatible, current views on the matter of “real” gender are, in very flat and hasty terms, (a) the social constructionism of Judith Butler and others which holds that biological sex functions as a social alibi to maintain two different classes of people or (b) the corporeal or difference feminism of persons like Luce Irgaray, Gayatri Spivak and Liz Grosz which holds that bodily experience is defining and that gender difference, although acquired, is also inevitable.
Neither of these views are derived from sociobiology, which — again for the sake of brevity — is that shit Richard Dawkins goes on with. But, actually, in this particular debate, it’s kind of the shit that both the feminists of Cardiff University and Greer herself are going on with. FFS, there’s been thirty years of really complex thinking on the question of gender and the best either side, in this case, can come up with is “there is such a thing as a real woman”.
What Greer has written about transwomen is not so much reprehensible as it is uninformed. What the women of Cardiff University have publicly offered — and I do not doubt that many of them may be privately engaged — is similarly disengaged with the matter of knowledge. Of course, it might be easier in one reading to take their “side” because they seem to be themselves more like “real” women in their desire to create a “safe space” than the not-nice Greer.
But what has happened here is not only the mutual shushing by two groups of feminists, but a failure by press, who has just taken on this “debate” in its most brutally simple terms, to actually talk meaningfully about the transgender experience at all.
We are left with two fairly useless options, here. We can either “celebrate” transwomen by opposing Greer or we can “defend” freedom of speech. What we cannot do, apparently, is engage beyond the point of discussing Caitlyn Jenner where, yes, we all agree that anyone can be whatever they want or we simply dismiss widespread transgender experience in a more obviously cruel way and call this “political correctness gone mad”.
I mean, if you think you know what a real man or a real woman is, good luck to you. It must be very nice to be certain of something, even in the serious absence of any scientific finding that demonstrates biological justification for present social difference between the sexes/genders. But, the rest of us might like to continue a chat about sex/gender that goes beyond the condescension of “celebration” or the cruelty of disbelief that such a thing is beyond question.
What we have in this dismal debate is not only the trivialisation of speech by women, but a trivialisation of feminism itself. I would urge the young women of Cardiff, whom I know meant well, or any other university to carefully consider their protest for fear of its public misapprehension — and, yes, it’s a shame you have to feel so responsible for the general health of feminism. Goodness knows, I had no such obligation as a young radfem and I remain grateful there was no Facebook to document the hairy vaginas I painted on the sandstone walls of the men’s colleges.
I urge these young women, because there’s no way Greer is going to change.
Greer is annoying, but she is not your average blockhead. Rather, she is a blockhead of uncommon sophistication whose public work it has been for more than forty years to give us the shits. Greer, who prefers the thrill of popular debate to the slow and deliberate torture of academic publication, is no longer in the business of making knowledge. She is in the business of consciously destroying it.
In news that will surprise no one familiar with my rot, I remain pretty certain that the destruction of knowledge is not necessarily terrible. To point to a serious flaw in knowledge, as Greer sometimes does, is not just to break ideas, but to make way for their reconstruction.
Of course, in an age convinced of its power to produce everything, including absolute knowledge, at speed, Greer is seen as a sinner. All she seems to do is make a mess and leave the rest of us to clean it. It’s fine to problematise, we say, but you must also “solutionise”, to use the hideous new language of productivity.
It is fine, and sometimes crucial, to leave a mess. It is often revolutionary and it is, in any case, almost always one’s only honest intellectual recourse in popular writing. One does not enable the “forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions”, or even mild progress in thought, without relating in the first place how everything is crap in a popular pamphlet.
What Greer has done in the “debate” on transwomen, of course, is in no way useful. And, to be honest, the integrity of her work on the nature of sex/gender is now called into question by persistent reference to “real” women. Young activists can ignore all this. But, perhaps, what they shouldn’t ignore is Greer’s long term project of making a mess.
Maybe stop trying to tidy things up? Perhaps it’s time to tear the renovated conventions of tolerance and of safe-spaces down. Dissect a few rats, break a few walls and, particularly if you’re a lady, and most particularly a transperson, don’t worry so much about causing short-term offence. You are going to do that anyhow by the very fact of being alive.
I suspect you won’t win anything by demanding safe spaces and acceptable speech. And remember, you have a world to win.