Playing nice hasn’t worked

Even when I keep quiet about being cancelled, the censors don’t invite me back

This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

If you’re a writer, artist or academic who has strayed beyond the narrow bounds of approved discourse, two consequences will be intimately familiar. The first is that it becomes harder to get a hearing about anything. The second is that if you do manage to say anything publicly — especially if you talk about the silencing — it will be taken as proof that you have not been silenced.

This is the logic of witch-ducking. If a woman drowns, she isn’t a witch; if she floats, she is, and must be dispatched some other way. Either way, she ends up dead.

The only counter to this is specific examples. But censorship is usually covert: when you’re passed over to speak at a conference, exhibit in a gallery or apply for a visiting fellowship, you rarely find out. Every now and then, however, the censors tip their hands.

And so, for everyone who says I can’t have been cancelled because they can still hear me, here’s the evidence.

The first time I know I was censored was even before my book criticising trans ideology came out in mid-2021. I had been asked to talk about it on the podcast of Intelligence Squared, a media company that, according to its website, aims to “promote a global conversation”. We had booked a date and time. 

But as the date approached I discovered I had been dropped. When I asked why, the response was surprisingly frank: fear of a social-media pile-on, sponsors getting cold feet and younger staff causing grief. The CEO of Intelligence Squared is a former war correspondent who has written a book about his experiences in Kosovo. But at the prospect of platforming a woman whose main message is that humans come in two sexes, his courage apparently ran out.

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Next came the Irish Times, my home country’s paper of record. Soon after my book came out a well-known correspondent rang me, said he had stayed up all night to finish it and wanted to write about it. He interviewed me, filed the piece, checked the quotes — and then silence. When I nudged by email, he said the piece had been spiked as it was going to press.

I’ve still never been on the BBC to discuss trans issues

Sometime around then it was the BBC’s turn. I don’t know the exact date because I only found out months later, when I met a presenter from a flagship news programme. Such a shame you couldn’t come on the show, he said, to which I replied I had never been asked. It turned out that he had told a researcher to invite me on, but the researcher hadn’t, instead simply lying that I wasn’t available. I’ve still never been on the BBC to discuss trans issues.

Next came ABC, the Australian state broadcaster, which interviewed me for a radio show about religion and ethics. This time, when I nudged, I was told there had been “technical glitches” with the recording, but they would “love to revisit this one in the future”. They’ve never been back in touch.

Then I recorded an hour-long episode of Common Ground, a short-lived show on Sky News hosted by Trevor Phillips. Its premise was to seek points of agreement between people with differing positions on some current issue. The other guest on the episode I was on was Joanna Harper, a trans-identified man who argues that trans-identified men who lower their testosterone levels should be allowed into women’s sporting competitions.

Before we recorded I told the team that I would avoid “misgendering” Harper, or saying that transwomen were “men”. But I wasn’t going to use the words woman, she or her for Harper or any other transwomen, and I’d have to say that transwomen were male to make my arguments, which rest on the male sporting advantage.

All of that was agreed to, and yet as soon as I said “male” Harper objected, saying he’d been promised no one would use that word. He was overruled, and the recording went ahead. But it never aired, and I don’t know why; perhaps because I insisted on stating that transwomen are male, or because I stated that fact in front of a man so invested in denying it made for pretty awkward viewing. 

All that Sky told me when I asked was this: “After reviewing [the show], we felt that we weren’t really happy with it — basically our production standards were not good enough … This is absolutely no reflection on you (or for that matter Joanna): you were engaging and interesting, and we’d love to invite you back on Sky News.” 

Reader, they haven’t.

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I’ve no such striking story for bbc Woman’s Hour, because it’s never got as far as recording anything with me that it could then drop. The nearest I have to proof that this is deliberate rather than an oversight is something that happened in early 2022. 

Grace Lavery, a trans-identified man whose book Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis was about to come out, had claimed that none of the feminist critics of trans ideology were willing to debate him. I sighed heavily and decided to take one for the team. UnHerd agreed to host a debate between him and me, booked a venue and started selling tickets — at which point Lavery pulled out, insinuating that I, UnHerd and anyone on my side were fascists.

And who did Woman’s Hour invite on after this performance: the best-selling campaigner for women’s rights or the bloke who had written a book about his penis, and who insults and demeans women’s-rights campaigners? It’s not like the show’s producers and presenters can possibly think this is what its audience wants. Every August they tweet requests for topics and interviewees for “listeners’ week”; let’s just say I’m mentioned a lot in the replies and Lavery isn’t.

I’m such a contaminant that even people who write about me or quote me get into trouble. I recently met a well-known journalist who told me that in several decades she had had precisely one column spiked: the one she wrote about my book. 

And then there’s Kelvin Wright, an army surgeon who shared a quote from me on his personal Facebook page: “If women cannot stand in a public place and say ‘men cannot be women’, then we do not have women’s rights at all.” He was reported by a junior colleague for misconduct, and though he’s recently been cleared of wrongdoing he found the investigation so “hellish” that he has left the service. 

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Why all this matters isn’t because it’s unfair to me, although it is. It’s because what I’m trying to shout from the rooftops is that women’s rights are being destroyed in the name of a parody of social justice; that politics and policymaking are turning towards ideology and away from evidence; and above all that a socio-medical scandal is being played out on the bodies of children. 

People rarely share these stories. A big reason is financial

People rarely share these stories. A big reason is financial. That well-known columnist asked me not to name her because her column is her main source of income and she fears getting a reputation as “difficult”. Even though I’m out (and proud) about believing that sex is binary and immutable, I too feel this fear. It’s risky to talk about being censored because the censors don’t like it — and they’ve just demonstrated their power.

Another reason is shame. If you tell the world that someone interviewed you and then binned the result, some people will think you must have said something terrible. It also makes it more likely that more people will shun me for fear that the same will happen to them. And it’s even more shame-inducing to see people who quote you being attacked: I don’t much like being the cause of other people’s careers being harmed. 

Well, I’ve decided I’m no longer playing this game. I’m not the one who should be ashamed — that emotion is a better fit for the cowards who would rather turn a blind eye to the harms being done to children than risk social media blow-back. And playing nice has got me nowhere. Even when I keep quiet about being cancelled, the censors don’t invite me back. So I might as well tell the truth about that too. 

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