Charles Murray isn’t the only Murray encountering protestors at speaking engagements. Dame Jenni Murray is a writer and BBC presenter whose work includes diverse titles such as History of Britain in 21 Women, A Modern Woman’s Guide to Menopause, and the BBC Radio 4 program Woman’s Hour. Dame Jenni spoke last weekend at the annual Oxford Literary Festival on Feminism and Women’s History and though her progressive credentials are strong, certainly much stronger than Mr. Murray’s, they did little to protect her.
For those who don’t know, Dame is the title given to women who are honoured with Knighthood, the feminine version of the title “Sir.” That the use of two different titles for men and women is an impediment to gender equality is obvious, but at the moment this item is likely too far down the Social Justice To-Do list to be challenged. Much higher on that list, however, is something known as transphobia. Unlike other phobias, say, acrophobia, where the afflicted suffers a paralyzing fear of heights, a condition largely beyond his control and thus is deserving of our pity, those with transphobia are held accountable for their condition. Little energy need be expended in discovering the reason for this discrepancy, namely that transphobia isn’t a phobia at all. Instead, the word acts as a sort of catch-all for any opinions on the subject of transgenderism or gender dysphoria which are at odds with the conventional wisdom of a certain unconventional group. The term benefits from the implication that those who express sentiments characteristic of transphobia are, in fact, suffering from a mental disorder. Thus any attempts to argue your way out of the diagnosis are futile, for the tool with which you attempt to extricate yourself is the same tool that has been found defective. Such an advantage is probably the major reason why “phobia” has recently supplanted “ism” as the progressive suffix-of-choice.
Dame Jenni Murray was, until very recently, a darling of the left. As one of Britain’s leading female voices, she celebrated the underappreciated achievements of women, ferreted out sexism, and even shared her secrets about how to avoid being groped by men in the workplace (her more obvious deterrents went unmentioned). Her misstep came in March when, following an interview with India Willoughby, a transgender woman, Murray expressed surprise that Willoughby “held firmly to her belief that she was a ‘real woman’, ignoring the fact that she had spent all of her life before transition enjoying the privileged position in our society generally accorded to a man.” Whatever credit she may have been accorded for using the progressive buzzword “privileged” was more than negated by questioning the authenticity of this new member of the female community, and BBC, on whose broadcast she expressed this opinion, was quick to rebuke her. The more dramatic confrontation unfolded this past weekend when Oxford hosted its Literary Festival and the LGBTQ society turned out in force to express its discontent.
Similarly to those who protested Mr. Murray, those who condemned Mrs. Murray did so on the basis that she had said something that she had not. The members of the Society of Ever-Growing Consonants called for a public condemnation of Dame Murray and her removal from the Literary Festival, saying that to have her speak was “to both endorse and reward her transphobic views.” Now as I mentioned, Murray was scheduled to speak on Feminism and Women’s History; whatever her views about transpeople may be, they needn’t have any bearing on the opinions she has on this other very interesting subject. Though this could itself be a point of contention, I do not see any sense in the LGBTQ Society’s demand given these circumstances. If Heidegger can still be read despite his support of the Nazi regime then certainly we can afford to let the honourable Dame speak. One can be correct about a great many things and terribly wrong about a few others; to suppress opinions about the former on account of objections to the latter seems to me misguided. Is there any justification, however, for the suppression of the very opinions objected to? Had Murray been asked to speak on the subject of transgenderism, would the Society’s demands have had any more merit?
In the case of Charles Murray, a majority of people across the political spectrum supported his right to speak. But in cases like these, the question generally isn’t whether the speakers have a legal right to speak, but rather whether respected institutions should provide them a platform. Most people would agree that certain opinions should not be dignified with such a platform, yet where are we to draw the line? The protestors at both Murray events believed they were on the side of justice, that they knew where to draw the line. Were they right? I think not. Why? That for another day.