Anyone read the Julie Burchill column in the Observer the other day? Can understand if you didn't as it was only posted on their website for a few hours. Editor pulled it; reckoned it was likely to cause hurt and offence, not least for members of the transsexual community. Trouble is, by doing so he not only interrupted a most contentious and important debate; he managed to change the topic to that hoary old chestnut: censorship.
Potted story. Burchill writes about her friend and well-known writer, Suzanne Moore, being harangued by transsexuals for a comment made in the book: "Red: The Waterstones Anthology". The offending comment? That one of the things that made women angry involved "not having the ideal body shape - that of a Brazilian transsexual". Moore not only refused to apologise to her detractors, she told them to f*** off (and much more).
Intemperate language; clumsy stereotyping? Perhaps. But Moore's tone and pitch wasn't a patch on what Burchill was to produce in her defence. Provocative, edgy, sharp-witted and, above all, wonderfully descriptive, her piece was both worthy, and unfair towards the people it targeted. It was also instructional; enlightening even, in that it shone a light on one of the issue's most closeted features: the feud between feminism and transsexuality.
Everyone will have their own opinion on Burchill's piece but, must admit, I left it feeling better informed. Not that I necessarily considered her right or wrong, it was simply a fascinating exercise in understanding someone's point of view. Helped the reader come to grips with another piece of an extremely complex puzzle. The editor was wrong to cut the online version. Whatever offence might have been caused was outweighed by the insights provided.
Yes, Burchill's comments were disparaging of a vulnerable minority; yes, she made the mistake of judging an entire community on the actions of a few, and yes: she probably did set out to piss them off. On the other hand, readers can see that for themselves; her excesses count against her argument, they don't help support it. To spike the story out of a fear of causing offence is to treat readers as idiots. Not to mention rob of us of the worthy points she raised.
Am no fan of their political persuasion or philosophy, but the same goes for provocative Kiwi commentators such as Sir Paul Holmes, Michael Laws and Hone Harawira. The late Sunday Star Times columnist Frank Haden was, depending on your leanings, a red-neck or a refreshingly-straight shooter. Could probably count the Garth George columns with which I agreed on a hand with no fingers. Still, all played (and some still play) an important part in our daily debates.
Surely it's better to encourage people to air their views, however warped they might be, than to take away their soapbox and send them underground. There's nothing quite like the disinfectant of publicity when it comes to some of our dodgiest attitudes, after all. Rather than allow misguided perspectives to ferment in private; between the like-minded, let's have the issues out in the open where we can examine them for what they are.
We've talked about this before but you can't have both a right to freedom of speech and a right to not be offended. The two are pretty much mutually exclusive. Burchill's column should never have been pulled, for two fundamental reasons: Not only did she make some candid points, with which many readers would agree, she unwittingly revealed the prejudice that her targets so rightly complain of. Whatever your view, we were the richer for having read it.
» Read more of Richard Boock in the Sunday Star Times.
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