As a child, I was taught — over and over and over again — that I needed to speak up about issues. My opinion, for some reason, mattered and the world would be better off if I expressed my views. Further, I was taught to believe that I was morally obliged to express my opinions. Slogans like ‘Evil flourishes when good people do nothing’ and ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor’ called me to action to always speak up and be counted.
Good opinions are cultivated. They are studied, refined, and sharpened until they’re something worth hearing. Mind! This is different to hearing alternative perspectives which, frequently, are unstudied and uncultivated arising from diverse experience. And we can distinguish and respond appropriately along those lines: Am I listening to somebody give an account of their experience, or am I listening to somebody give an opinion? And then I have a spectrum: unstudied, unrefined, sloppy opinions from white guys aren’t worth my time; experiences from people beyond my social structures are.
So when Germaine Greer expresses an opinion about transgendered people and femininity, how should men respond? Spoilers: they shouldn’t.
There is a lot of pressure on outspoken feminists to be market-friendly. The brand needs to be inclusive, it needs to accommodate all oppressed people, and it needs to be fun and accessible. Outspoken feminists, according to the market, need to be everything that Germaine Greer isn’t.
On the other hand, there are a group of people in our society who are very clearly marginalised, suffer serious problems as a result of social stigma (from isolation to violence), and who are forced to respond to society through a lens of legitimacy.
So when Germaine Greer says that transwomen are not women, there is a lot of pressure to perform two mutually exclusive acts: to stand up for the rights of the oppressed and let minorities give expression to their own identity; and to stand up for the rights of the oppressed and let minorities give expression to their own identity.
I actually don’t have an opinion on the ‘are transpeople really a gender’ pseudo-question. Mostly because I have absolutely no skin in the game, but also because I can see that a range of positions on the issue are intellectually serious. Importantly, as a straight, white guy, I am not in a position to criticise any of the positions in the debate because my frames of reference are entirely irrelevant. Gender is fluid and people should be able to express their gender identities without fear of reprisal. The socially constructed ‘female’ is used to oppress women. Both of these seem true and yet they appear to be (at least substantially) contradictory.
But maybe they aren’t. I don’t know. Straight white guy.
When news broke of Germaine Greer’s views on transgendered people, I searched ‘Germaine Greer’ in Twitter. Lo and behold, the vast majority of the responses were from men. And (nearly) all of them were criticising Greer for expressing an opinion.
So I got to work…
Needless to say, nothing upsets another guy more than being told that he shouldn’t have an opinion. Those who identified as ‘male feminists’ (there’s no such thing, by the way) were outraged at the idea that they shouldn’t use their privilege to speak up for transgendered people. Solidarity meant they needed to use their privilege for good, and ‘good’ here meant telling an outspoken feminist to keep her views to herself. After all, you don’t want to support the oppressor by being neutral… even if you’re in no way qualified to spot who is the oppressor and what ‘neutrality’ is.
The best response I received was from a guy who thought that telling a man to be quiet was sexist. Equality meant that men could hold opinions just as valid as women about feminism.
But the strangest response was from a person who rage-quit the discussion after calling me ‘condescending’. I received a very lengthy e-mail. Here’s a snippet:
I’ve spent a day wondering what on Earth to make of any of this. Here was a guy who wrote a mini-essay explaining why he felt he shouldn’t be criticised in any way for having an opinion about something he felt strongly about. He wasn’t going to ‘shut up and listen’ unless he could also make a nice long speech afterwards about how silent and attentive he was as a listener.
Other guys — particularly liberals — felt that I was being terrible online for telling other guys to keep their bad opinions to themselves. The President of the Young Australian Skeptics (indeed) had this to say:
And this loops me back to the start. We have a culture that opposes the concept of self-censorship. We’re supposed to voice every opinion that we’ve got (especially where it can be monitored and sold as part of a data package to advertisers). But we only want market-friendly, inclusive speech to be voiced. So men telling a prominent feminist that her views are bad because they challenge their view of the inclusive, tolerant, liberal society is entirely consistent with this ideological framework. Conversely, it is antithetical to this ideology to allow women an exclusive space to discuss gender without being policed by men and have one of the most privileged people on Earth telling other privileged people not to express their opinions. When they’ve been conditioned their entire lives to voice every bozo idea that comes into their mouth, guys just can’t handle the idea of shutting up and realising that they’re not part of the solution.
[In before, ‘Hey, if you think shutting up is a good idea, why don’t you try it before opining about male feminists. lololololol’]