In Umberto Eco’s essay about Ur-fascism, he describes 14 signs of fascism or a pre-fascist state. The list includes the cult of tradition, the rejection of modernism and contempt for the weak; it also includes fear of difference and the obsession with a sinister plot orchestrated by the people who are different.
The UK’s government is showing a worrying number of these signs in its demonisation of Black Lives Matter and its Trump-esque “War on Woke”, but anti-trans activism has been there for some years.
Here’s Sarah Ahmed writing in 2015.
Those who are oppressed – who have to struggle to exist often by virtue of being a member of a group – are often judged as the oppressors. We only have to turn the pages of feminist history to know this. When lesbians demanded entry into feminist spaces, we were called a “lavender menace.” We got in the way of the project of making feminism more acceptable. To be rendered unacceptable is often to be treated as the ones with the power (the power to take something away). I recently heard a heterosexual feminist speak of lesbians in feminism in exactly these terms: as wielding all the power. When black women and women of colour spoke of racism in feminism we were heard, we are heard, as angry, mean and spiteful, as hurting white women’s feelings. The angry woman of colour is not only a feminist killjoy she is often a killer of feminist joy. She gets in the way of how white women occupy feminism.
The current media narrative is one of silencing. People with extraordinary power – politicians, millionaire authors, celebrities – claim to be silenced by a sinister trans lobby, a lobby so powerful that it controls the government, the judiciary and the media despite there being no trans MPs, newspaper editors, newsreaders or judges.
The people who claim to be silenced make their claims loudly, repeatedly and in some cases lucratively as they go on programme after programme or write article after article about how you’re not allowed to share the views they constantly share. As I’ve written before, the sinister trans lobby is paying quite a few anti-trans writers’ mortgages right now.
Whenever people keep being given a platform to say they have no platform, or whenever people speak endlessly about being silenced, you not only have a performative contradiction; you are witnessing a mechanism of power.
Inevitably, many of our supposed free speech warriors are highly litigious. In recent months multiple authors and a politician have threatened people with defamation suits for daring to suggest that loudly expressing anti-trans views and supporting anti-trans hate groups might possibly be transphobic. And those are just the ones we’ve heard about: most SLAPP threats (strategic lawsuits against public participation) require a vow of silence.
These dynamics are familiar to me from my work on racist speech acts (racism is so often defended as freedom of speech). Racists present themselves as injured/ under attack/a minority fighting against a powerful anti-racist lobby that is “busy” suppressing their voices.
For some people the demonisation of the “woke” is a grift, an opportunity to build a media brand on the backs of vulnerable people; for others it’s misdirection, a way to distract attention from things like the UK having the highest per-capita COVID deaths in the world. And for others it’s part of a wider ideology of right-wing populism.
Free speech has thus become a political technology that is used to redefine freedom around the right of some to occupy time and space. It is “the others” who become the oppressors; those who in speaking of a wrong are judged as speaking wrong.
We need to say it: this is wrong.