Germaine Greer Must Speak

In the Digital Age, Audre Lorde’s austere sentence “Your silence will not protect you” might be more instructive if modified as “Silencing others will not protect you.”

Yet silencing has become a kind of chosen strategy of avoidance palpable in online spaces as well an in academic ones. In fact, there is a noticeable confluence between the two. We expect academic spaces to mirror the controlled environments that we deliberately craft and finesse on social media. When we don’t like what we read online, we can “hide [the] post,” or “block” the offensive Twitterer, or even shut off our devices. Digital natives believe their experiences as students should be the same — that they should harness the same amount of control over what they hear, read, and learn.

When a 76-year-old Australian feminist by the name of Germaine Greer is trending on social media, you know the scales of Internet Justice are balanced by the pitchforks of Fury on one side and Castigation on the other. The current on-fleek rhetorical posturing of “take a seat” feminism will “sip some tea” and “throw shade” and tell that old lady “what’s good.”

Greer is a Fallen Feminist, trapped by the confines of her essentialist thinking, which has been preserved since the 1970 publication of the seminal second-wave feminist text, The Female Eunuch. Even then, her myopic view of women denigrated lesbians and viciously excluded trans women, deriding the latter as “men who mutilate themselves and are given passports as statutory females.” Her feminism smacks of a kind of self-sabotage that has become historically endemic to feminism, and especially second-wave feminism. It’s a self-sabotage rooted in fear and frustration — of not being heard, of being pushed aside.

With the rise of the trans rights movement and the increased visibility of trans identity in the American cultural landscape (accentuated by the Time cover line, “The Transgender Tipping Point” last year), the ideological divide between feminists like Greer and trans-inclusive feminists is more than just an argument about identity politics and the possessiveness over the oppressed identity of “woman.” Feminism has changed since the 1970s; the Third and Fourth waves of feminism have endeavored to make the movement more inclusive and intersectional. The ideological divide marked by clear generational differences is not surprising — in recent years, Greer’s critical work in feminist history has been siloed into topical concerns about trans rights and visibility, albeit with some help by her unencumbered, unapologetic mouth. Her talk, which she backed out of, even though Cardiff supported her visit, was about 20th century feminism — it was not scheduled to be an indictment of the trans community.

“I don’t really know what I think of it,” Greer said to the Guardian, in response to a question about an online petition asking the university to cancel her talk. “It strikes me as a bit of a put-up job really because I am not even going to talk about the issue that they are on about.”

While Greer’s right to give her talk within a university setting is indeed a matter of academic freedom, the larger question emergent from this situation is whether there is space in the feminist movement for her — and for women like her: cisgender women who don’t believe trans women are women. (“That happens to be an opinion, it’s not a prohibition,” Greer said in acknowledgement.) These are women who police the category of woman and deem “what makes a woman.” It’s a question that finds a correlative in thinking about the political space of feminism: Can a woman who doesn’t believe women should be legally allowed to have abortions be feminist? What about a woman who doesn’t believe in a federal increase in the minimum wage (when women make up tw0-thirds of the minimum-wage workforce)? What about a woman who doesn’t believe that black lives matter? Or that the police state’s sexual terrorism against black and brown women is not a feminist concern?

When we imagine creating an intersectional feminist movement filled by diverse voices, does it include these women?

The short answer, as I’ve written before, is No.

But before we are able to make those conclusions about the politics and moral compass of feminism, we need to actually allow critical discussions about these topics to take place. Zoe Williams, in a smart piece about the Greer case at the Guardian U.S., explains that social progress transpires “not by shutting down” dissenting or unpopular voices but by “argument, persuasion, rage and ridicule, openness and candour.” Hannah Rosin, in a 2014 opinion piece for the Atlantic, regards this “art of debate avoidance” a problem of both conservatives and progressives, the latter of whom “indulge a shouting match of competing identities,” with the consequence of failing to actually listen to and hear oppositional and different voices. Silencing voices is not an effective tactic to creating change or fostering consensus among differing opinions. This is why Williams contends that “it is precisely because there is still so much prejudice against trans people that nobody should be silenced.”

But instead of having the opportunity to engage with this 76-year-old firebrand about her ideas and ask her questions about living through feminist history, and even getting a chance to interrogate her beliefs about gender and gender identity, there is and will continue to be silence.

“I’m getting a bit old for all this,” Greer told the BBC, on her decision to withdraw from Cardiff. “I’m 76, I don’t want to go down there and be screamed at and have things thrown at me. Bugger it.”

Shutting down conversation, silencing voices — these are not feminist ethics. Women do a disservice to our movement by refusing to confront and negotiate the very real differences among us. Differences that include, in Greer’s own case, the vestiges of internalized misogyny. Because we can’t move beyond misogyny if we don’t address it within our very own movement.