Peace at last

On women being 'held accountable'

There's a famous anti-suffragette postcard captioned "Peace at last", depicting a woman with a padlock through her lips. Recently some wag produced an updated version, showing tubes of superglue with the caption "Finally, a line of lipsticks made exclusively for TERFs". 

The silencing of women's speech, stretching back to scold's bridles and shrew's fiddles, has always been accompanied by fantasies of violence justified by the positioning of women as aggressors. We are scolds, shrews, harridans, TERFs. The word "woman" is not for us. 

Contemporary debates about liberty and hate speech tend to skirt over this gendered history, focussing instead on divisions between left and right. There’s little acknowledgement of the way in which men have always used the idea of hate to silence women, portraying female speech as hateful and female speakers as hate-filled non-women. Perhaps this is because women’s access to public forums is still considered an act of benevolence on men's part, contingent on good behaviour. The internet is awash with violent misogyny but hey, boys will be boys. Meanwhile, us ladies had better behave ourselves or lose the privileges we've been so generously granted.

This is not an observation you will find in the average left-wing piece on cancel culture. There, men such as Billy Bragg preach the virtues of accountability: "without accountability, liberty can mutate into the most dangerous of all freedoms – impunity". God forbid! I’m guessing Bragg must be delighted to see women such as Sasha White, Beth Rep and Claire Chandler being "held accountable". The revolution’s got to start somewhere so why not with, um, women being impoverished for attempting to defending themselves as a class. 

While White has lost her job as a literary agent for personal tweets about the salience of sex to women’s oppression, Chandler has faced an anti-discrimination complaint for pointing out the injustice of forcing female rugby players to compete alongside males. Meanwhile Rep has been fined 10,000 Australian dollars for liking Facebook comments which refer to the transgender activist Bridget Clinch as male. This is particularly remarkable; it's not enough for a woman to police her own speech. She must now police that of others. 

I have no idea what was going through Rep's mind when she liked those particular comments, which describe Clinch as a "male bully" or state that "none of the older women in any of my craft classes [...] believe that Bridget is a woman". She might simply have been being polite since the posters were expressing their support for her (the original post was an apology from Rep for misgendering Clinch). It may indicate that Rep’s apology is insincere, or it may not. Either way, it is ludicrous that Clinch was able to sue Rep under the Discrimination Act, alleging unlawful vilification and victimisation based on gender identity. According to the court, Rep should have deleted the comments and in 'liking' them she was guilty of vilification and victimisation of Clinch.

Now, let's all think for a minute. Can you imagine a world in which all the dehumanising things men say to women mattered in the slightest? I'm not even talking about conversations they might have about us among themselves (to think anyone else would care about those is just laughable). But the stuff they say to your face? The lies they spread about you? All the things you hear day after day yet you don't even mention because, well, you’re just glad they’re not raping you (because if they were, it’s not as though you’d see justice even then).

Look, for instance, at the backlash endured by JK Rowling for her careful, considered piece on sex and gender. Dick pics, rape threats, choking fantasies – all of it she endured yet when she finally dared to ask a publication to retract outright lies, she was accused of punching down and being against free speech entirely. It is clear which people are supposed to take, and take, and take, without complaint. No one pays women compensation after spreading misogynist hate. If that were the case, we’d be rich and misogynists, poor. Instead the most powerful countries in the world are headed by men whose contempt for women isn’t remotely hidden. 

It’s especially ironic that the way “misgendering” is policed implicitly misgenders, by treating one group of women as males and another as females. The ruling against Rep makes it perfectly obvious that it is only the latter group who must be denied the right of self-definition, thereby severely limiting their ability to advance their own interests. Women – in the old, unacceptable meaning of the word -- can no longer name the social hierarchy that disadvantages them in everyday interactions; someone with they/them pronouns can’t be accused of mansplaining, while a she/her can’t be deemed capable of using the old boy network. The women who are treated as (but cannot be called) female depend on the approval of those who have traditionally held power over them to describe their own social realities. Any failure to comply will be punished.

Clinch herself has raised no objection to the court failing to treat her with similar, gender-appropriate disdain. The message seems to be that unlike other women, trans women have suffered so much – made so great a sacrifice in rejecting maleness – that they deserve the right to preferential treatment in situations where it advantages them over non-trans women (access to men’s networking clubs, inheritances, protection of hurt feelings). This, apparently, does not constitute misgendering. Only women misgender when prioritising their own needs, and anyhow, they're not really women, but bigots. 

I doubt that the creator of the scold’s bridle would have heard the expression “it’s not cancel culture, it’s accountability culture”. I bet, in some form or other, he thought it. No one ever silences a woman without telling himself she deserves it. The new methods – vilification, threats of violence, withdrawal of access to public space and economic support -- are no different to the old ones. Whether your memes involve Superglue or padlocks, courts or village ponds, you’ve made it quite clear who you are.