Artillery Row

You can censor, but you can’t hide

The Guardian’s redacting controversial commentary on the gender wars does a disservice to readers

Retractions are near impossible in an age of Twitter. No matter what you publish online, or how quickly you delete it, it is almost guaranteed that someone, somewhere will have a copy ready to remind you.

Such is the problem for the Guardian, when it deleted a question and answer from an interview with queer historian Jules Joanne Gleeson and author Judith Butler originally published on Wednesday. The offending passage related to what Gleeson called the “furore around Wi Spa in Los Angeles”.

Unless they’ve been living under a rock, every gender-wars-interested individual knows that a rather ugly battle has been raging outside the spa, involving a wide range of right-wing nut jobs (including the Proud Boys), trans-activists, pissed-off feminists, religious zealots and angry staff all responding to the allegation that a trans woman flashed a group of women on the premises.

Unless you’re a shoddy journalist, you would have known that the Guardian ran several pieces earlier in the week (including an in-depth report) on the fact that the LA police department had “put out an arrest warrant for Darren Merager” who is facing “five felony counts of indecent exposure at Wi Spa in the Koreatown neighborhood”. The reports also point to the fact that Merager has a history of repeated “indecent exposure”.

Butler did what she does best and dove in at the deep end

With all this in mind, the Guardian claims that Gleeson’s use of the word “furore” for a charge like this might have been a little inappropriate. In a statement it claimed that the changes to the article were intended to address “a failure in our editorial standards” because the original interview was at risk of “misleading our readers”.

In another statement, Gleeson claimed she had not wanted to change the word furore, arguing that it was “a very hard affair to condense into a little correction note” because “it is still unclear if the person now arrested for public indecency is even a trans woman, or will even face trial”. Gleeson also claimed that she had wanted to insert a different question using a different example, but that the Guardian had simply decided to delete the lot.

What’s really misleading is the suggestion that this is all a big furore over a little vocabulary. What seems more likely is that the Guardian balked at some of the backlash for what came after Gleeson’s question: Butler’s answer. In response to Gleeson’s query of whether “some within feminist movements are becoming sympathetic to these far-right campaigns”, Butler did what she does best and dove in at the deep end, arguing that “anti-gender ideology is one of the dominant strains of fascism in our times”. Not a fan of pulling punches, Butler continued to argue that gender-critical feminists were “quick and fearful” and feeding our “anti-intellectual times” by being too populist with their response to trans-activist demands that sex distinctions are unimportant and even bigoted.

Gleeson claims that editors sent her a letter from the “reader complaints” section by way of explanation for why her interview was to be censored. She told Pink News (a publication that has called the Guardian “cowards” for the retraction) that she hoped the US desk might “stand by her as a writer” while the UK desk pushed for retrospective changes, but that no support was forthcoming.

I very rarely agree with Pink News, but here it is correct it would have been very easy to alter the wording of the question to reflect recent legal changes to the case. Even a link to the report would have sufficed. What seems extremely cowardly is the idea that the Guardian doesn’t even trust its own readers to see that Gleeson was not reporting fact but giving her own opinion while interviewing Butler. A cursory glance at Gleeson’s recent book or social-media profile will leave no one in any doubt as to where she stands in the gender wars. The Guardian should give its readers more credit we know its editorial stance on certain issues, and we’re able to come to our own conclusions.

Readers must be trusted to face things they don’t like

In statements made to the press Gleeson said that gender-critical feminists should not be “beyond criticism”, stating that “my question was flexible, but Judith’s answer was essential”. She’s right Butler didn’t incite violence, tells lies about an individual or offer an expletive-ridden rant. All she did was give an insight into what many trans-activists believe, that any debate about gender, sex, single-sex spaces or anyone in the “anti-gender movement” is “neo-fascist”.

As some have pointed out, Butler’s infamous ability to weaponise academic jargon often means very few people have the patience to figure out what is being said. Indeed, in the redacted passage Butler admits that this is a tactic, that “as important as it is, however, to make complex concepts available to a popular audience, it is equally important to encourage intellectual inquiry as part of public life”.

In short, the argument against the anti-gender movement isn’t really meant for lay people like you or me. The fact that Butler laid out the argument for Gleeson in such a clear and eyebrow-raising fashion is a rarity to be welcomed.

Those of us who take a more nuanced and normal approach resisting the idea that every trans person is at risk of becoming a predator and also having opinions on the benefits of single-sex spaces in some contexts ought to know where the extremes lie.

Butler is one of the key architects of contemporary identity politics, whose views on what is happening is pretty important for understanding developments in the gender wars. Readers must be trusted to face things they don’t like without crying for redactions, apologies and censorship. Likewise, newspapers must get better at defending their own freedom to publish, and understand that if they’re going to put out controversial opinions, they might need to grow a spine.

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