Germaine Greer and the new ‘left’ authoritarianism

To a casual observer, it might seem incongruous that a campaign to prevent a prominent second wave feminist speaking on a university campus would be led by the women’s officer of the student union. But this is typical of the world we live in, and of student politics in the English-speaking world in particular.

The second wave feminist concerned is Germaine Greer, who was invited by the University of Cardiff in the UK to speak on the topic of “Women and power: the lessons of the 20th century”.

The campus women’s officer, Rachael Melhuish, initiated a petition calling for the university to cancel the event on the basis of Greer’s “misogynistic views towards trans women”. The petition attracted more than 2,900 signatures. While the university has resisted cancelling the 18 November event, it is unclear whether it will go ahead. 

There is nothing to celebrate here.

The episode reflects a widespread tendency towards knee jerk appeals to authority by student union officials as the preferred method of righting wrongs. Calling on a neoliberal university administration to use authoritarian measures to protect students from unpalatable ideas does nothing to strengthen the collective organisations of staff and students. Nor does it help develop the political consciousness needed for our side to fight against injustice and oppression, including that against trans people.

Rather, it sows illusions in the idea that the powers that be should and will play the decisive role in bringing about progressive change, while further diminishing traditions of collective action and confidence in the potential of students’ own actions to shape the world.

This is in stark contrast to a situation in which demands are made on a university administration with the backing of a real campaign by staff and students, and which helps to build awareness of the antagonistic relationship between the two.

By instead treating the university administration as the legitimate gatekeeper of public debate and saviour of the oppressed, student unions only strengthen the capacity of university managements to undermine staff and students’ rights in the long run.

The petition against Greer also intensifies the already highly morally charged nature of political debate that unfortunately pervades campus culture and politics.

Greer’s comments about the legitimacy or otherwise of trans women’s claim to the label “woman” are indefensible and utterly disrespectful. Those who suffer terrible oppression as a result of their gender identity conflicting with that assigned them under society’s rigid and oppressive gender code, however that gender identity is ultimately expressed, are in no way responsible for sexism. For women’s rights advocates to single them out for attack is disgraceful. The left has a responsibility to stand against such attacks.

But it is also wrong to equate such ideas with outright bigotry and demand they not be heard. Greer’s views regarding questions of transgender oppression reflect her particular history and framework for understanding gender and sexual oppression, which have been successfully contested and discredited within the left.

That she presumes to arbitrate between what constitutes legitimate gender expression and what does not leads to her indefensible rejection of trans women’s identities and experience, even though she might oppose formal discrimination.

It is not the job of the left to call for her to be silenced, but to explain how and why Greer’s ideological framework, which was once radical, fails to position her consistently as a champion of the oppressed. It is the left’s job to put forward ideas and strategies that offer a way forward for trans liberation, and for all those oppressed and marginalised by the capitalist system.

To do this effectively, we must be able to distinguish between errant ideological currents within the left broadly defined, and the ideological representatives of the oppressors, which Greer is not. Hiding from such debate will not advance the cause of trans liberation.

More broadly, to insist that Greer should never be heard simply plays into the more general climate of heresy hunting and authoritarian control over debate that increasingly characterises modern capitalism, including among the left.

This trend is ubiquitous at Australian universities. For example, it is now standard practice at the National Union of Students annual Queer Collaborations conference for participants to be required to sign an undertaking that they will not argue with other participants at the conference, because such behaviour might cause offence or make others feel unsafe.

Such officiousness is now commonplace within student unions. In practice, this reinforces mainstream ideas (supposedly more neutral and therefore inoffensive), lowers the level of ideological rigour and creates bureaucratic mechanisms through which people arguing radical ideas can be intimidated or sidelined.

It also borrows heavily from corporate management strategy, in which conflict is to be avoided at all costs (i.e. no union activity), “wellness” is paramount (but the boss won’t let you leave work on time) and any number of ridiculous euphemisms are thrown around to disguise the authoritarian nature of the workplace. In the current climate, the left needs to stand against this by welcoming debate, not stifling it.

Indeed, the premise that non-conformist ideas should not be heard is used overwhelmingly to strengthen the position of the powerful, not to aid the oppressed. Just think of the reaction to Zaky Mallah, who dared to suggest on the ABC’s Q&A program that the criminal actions of Western countries in the Middle East and bigoted, anti-Muslim politicians encourage some to turn to extreme Islamism. There was outrage that the ABC had given a platform to someone with such “extreme” views. He was even threatened with deportation by a government minister (something nobody seemed to find problematic).

Advocates for the Palestinian struggle likewise have been put on the back foot by this censorious atmosphere. Expressing any support for Palestine, or refusing to condemn Hamas, is considered beyond the pale of acceptable political discourse in Australia. Such positions have been successfully labelled anti-Semitic and their proponents intimidated into silence.

The pro-Israel lobby’s concern to maintain legal sanctions against “offensive” and “insulting” behaviour during the debate about changing the Racial Discrimination Act was underpinned by an aspiration to criminalise in effect pro-Palestinian words and acts. The left should not mirror this practice in our own activities by attempting to repress ideas that deviate from the dominant position on the left, as Greer’s do. To do so makes it more difficult to speak up for the oppressed in the long run, something that will rebound on trans women as much as anyone else. 

Perhaps the most insidious argument in favour of such repression is that ideas and argument alone do real physical harm to people suffering oppression, and that they contribute to “hatred stigma and violence”. Ideology is certainly a component of how structural oppression is maintained and perpetuated, which in turn has a real material and physical impact on those affected by it.

But as much as there is a connection between ideas and physical harm, there is also an important separation. Over the last 14 years, the Australian government has attempted, usually successfully, to blur this separation in the name of fighting terrorism. In particular, it has introduced draconian new laws that criminalise not only acts of terrorism, but also mere discussion of violent acts. As a result, 13 young Muslim men have spent years in the maximum security Barwon Prison for the supposed “crime” of talking about terrorist acts on the phone.

The left should not embrace the same logic as the state in relation to the separation of acts and ideas, as those who justify the campaign against Greer have done. Oppressed people are made safe from harm by building strong movements that create connections between people, win rights and help develop their confidence. Part of this must involve debate and taking on hostile arguments, not silencing them.

There are more subtle ways in which arguments about harm are used to push a right wing agenda. The conservative arm of LGBTI advocacy, for instance, has long argued against a public vote on marriage equality on the basis that a “no” campaign would lead to distress and harm among vulnerable LGBTI youth.

The idea that the oppressed are by definition too meek and damaged to mount a struggle for our rights is self-defeating and demonstrates a grotesque ignorance of history and how greater LGBTI visibility and acceptance were achieved in the first place. There is often a political agenda underpinning such arguments: such forces in reality have no interest in reviving the sort of grassroots struggle that would be necessary to win a public vote, preferring to network and lobby with politicians and the powerful elite whose circles they aspire to move in.

Within the student movement, Labor-aligned students have in a similar vein argued against the use of the word “cut” to describe government reductions in higher education funding, because it might trigger memories of self-harm among students. Language and tone are sanitised to be less upsetting to the powerful, all in the name of protecting the vulnerable. This logic has led to new depths of absurdity at La Trobe University in Melbourne, where red textas were recently banned from student union council meetings on the basis that they are “aggressive” and upsetting to some students.

Of course, this is not to say that callousness or insensitivity to the suffering caused by capitalism are to be celebrated. They are not. The traditions of struggle forged by workers and the oppressed are everywhere characterised by a tendency towards solidarity, collaboration and mutual respect. But too often, arguments about harm and offence aid a conservative agenda that is a barrier to rebuilding our side’s strength. Or worse, they are advanced cynically to put those looking to rebuild a fighting movement on the defensive.

The campaign against Greer has to be seen in its broader social context. In Western societies today, and Australia in particular, the trend is overwhelmingly towards greater repression, authoritarianism and paranoia, not less.

Our side silencing other voices on the left, focusing on our role as victims rather than fighters and relying on powerful institutions to wage our battles can only lead to greater weakness and defeat.