Did someone declare Transphobia Week without telling me? The torrent of vile hate speech that seems to be making its way around the Internet, from Twitter to normally at least vaguely respectable sites like Comment is Free, started earlier this week with the publication in the New Statesman of an essay by Suzanne Moore on female anger, which contained the ill-advised throw-away line
We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape - that of a Brazilian transsexual.
What does that even mean?
I watched the ensuing train wreck "live" on Twitter, as Suzanne Moore - instead of taking the high road, saying "Oops, my bad, lazy writing, sorry" and asking her editor to remove the line - degenerated into a veritable tirade of genuinely shocking hate speech. Much though I like some of Moore's writing, the comments she made were unacceptable to me, and I unfollowed her, expecting - perhaps somewhat naively - that that would be the end of the story.
Of course, the next day Moore went on the offensive in Comment is Free, and the article ended up in my Twitter feed anyway. What got me this time was the following line:
Intersectionality is good in theory, though in practice, it means that no one can speak for anyone else.
If Moore was trying for self-parody, she's right up there with the Church of England. Before we go on any further though, let me make one thing very very clear: I am a cis woman; Moore's comments are transphobic; Julie Burchill's comments, spawned by the reaction to Moore, are also transphobic; they make me feel physically sick.
But let's talk about that incredibly complex, difficult to grasp, highly theoretical concept that is intersectionality. Stavvers in another similar debate recently put it wonderfully: for some people, things suck harder. Think things suck because you're a woman? Try being black, or disabled, or non-straight, or a trans woman. Things suck harder. This does not mean that things don't suck for straight, white, able-bodied, cis women. But it does mean that for some women they suck even harder. This is not a difficult concept to wrap your head around if you have a minimum level of human empathy.
Now let's go back to Suzanne Moore's comment above: Intersectionality means that no one can speak for anyone else. Imagine the same comment being made by David Cameron; or Nick Clegg; or, frankly, any straight, white dude. Imagine a straight, white dude complaining that they weren't allowed to speak for women, or people of colour, or gay people. Suzanne Moore would be the first on the barricades. That's precisely what her original, unfortunately formulated essay that started all this is about.
When she complains about men legislating on women's reproductive freedoms, she is objecting to others speaking for her. When she complains about certain parts of the left rallying around Julian Assange, she is objecting to others speaking for her. When she complains about David Cameron telling Angela Eagle to "calm down dear", she is objecting to others speaking for her. What kind of cognitive failure does it take to write all that and then complain that intersectionality means she is not allowed to speak for other people?
There are some cases when it is appropriate to speak for others. They are few and far between, but they are there. They are those occasions when you have taken the time to truly listen and understand others. They are the occasions where your privilege - no matter how limited - gives you a voice more likely to be heard. They are the occasions when you can act as an ally.
Unless that is what you are trying to do - and you have truly taken the time to listen and understand - you are better off keeping your thoughts to yourself. And if, occasionally, you do slip up, then have the backbone to apologise and learn from the experience when called on it.