Max catches up with infectious disease doctor and presenter of CBBC’s ‘Operation Ouch’, Dr Chris Van Tulleken, about recent developments in the Covid-19 pandemic, children returning to school and what we can expect to see happening with C19 in the future. This episode contains no strong language, and is suitable for younger listeners.
It hardly needs saying that freedom of expression is important. The introduction of free speech laws allowed us to criticise the King or the government or the church without fear of arrest or imprisonment. They allowed scientists like Charles Darwin to propose radical new theories that would previously have been censored as heresy, driving forward independent thought, and with it, our understanding of the world.
Without this fundamental principle underpinning modern society, we might never have seen the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the end of Section 28, the Gender Recognition Act or the introduction of civil partnerships and, later, equal marriage. Our Muslim friends would not be able to practice their religion, celebrate its festivals or wear their traditional dress. Women would not be able to work or vote or ‘disobey’ their husbands.
But whilst the good that has come of this principle is fairly obvious, in the social media age, free speech is all too often corrupted to serve as a shield for those disseminating divisive, dangerous and damaging ideas that target the most vulnerable among us.
To take but one example of this, the current onslaught against trans people in the press and on social media, the deliberate misgendering, the fear-mongering, the egregious mischaracterisation of trans people as sexual predators hell bent on grooming young people, the recycled, reheated homophobia, barely altered from 30 years ago and re-weaponised to direct at people who are, sadly, now seen as a more socially acceptable target, all dishonestly cloaked in the language of ‘legitimate concerns’ and their right to be expressed.
But freedom of speech, like any other right, is not, and cannot be, absolute. There are numerous necessary limitations that exist in order to prevent one person’s ability to speak, write or publish freely causing harm to others. Libel, slander, copyright violation, food labelling, national security, perjury and incitement to violence are all examples of valid and appropriate ways in which free expression is limited.
In all but a tiny minority of cases, the line between what is and is not acceptable is perfectly obvious. ‘Nigel Farage is a toad-faced Hitler tribute act who should yeet himself into a fucking skip’, for example, falls well within the definition of acceptable free expression, whereas ‘this is Nigel Farage’s home address and here are detailed instructions on how to make a shit-infused petrol bomb’ almost certainly does not.
Now, of course, outside of the legally proscribed exceptions, anyone is free to express themselves however they see fit, but in doing so, they must be prepared to face the inevitable consequences of voicing opinions that are injurious to the safety, dignity and mental wellbeing of vulnerable communities. It is not reasonable to expect that you should be able to proclaim a racist, homophobic or transphobic mindset, and the only negative ramifications be those visited on your victims.
David Starkey is a relevant and topical example of this. He was perfectly at liberty to appear on a podcast and say, “Slavery wasn’t genocide or there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks,” but he could not expect to do so without facing widespread public condemnation, professional censure and loss of income.
Maya Forstater, the researcher lauded in JK Rowling’s recent manifesto of prejudice, is another such example. Forstater had a contract with the CGD, which they failed to renew in light of her persistent transphobia and misgendering of those she didn’t consider worthy of the title ‘woman’. She subsequently sued the CGD, and lost.
The judge concluded:
“It is a core component of her belief that she will refer to a person by the sex she considered appropriate even if it violates their dignity and/or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.
The approach is not worthy of respect in a democratic society.”
As both of these cases show, the right to free speech was both available and exercised by those who were later ‘cancelled’. Neither Starkey nor Forstater were imprisoned for their beliefs, but they were made to face the eminently reasonable personal repercussions that arose as a result of their actions. Any organisation with which either of them were affiliated had to make a choice between supporting them and, by extension, their harmful ideals, or severing ties to protect both the reputation of the organisation and the dignity of its employees, stakeholders and patrons.
In neither case was anyone silenced. Starkey is free to continue being racist, and Forstater is free to continue being transphobic. It is their right to do so, but they have no divine right to a platform for their bigotry, or to continued employment in an organisation that does not share their discriminatory views.
And this is what the whole ‘free speech’ argument comes down to. Those who spend their days shrieking about being ‘silenced’ (usually on Radio 4, on Newsnight, or in their nationally syndicated newspaper column), are actually upset that others have exercised their right to free speech to decry whatever offensive belief they have sought to promote. It is not mere freedom they seek, but the right to punch down with total impunity at those who already subsist on a daily diet of abuse and intolerance.
Social media, for all its many (many, MANY) flaws, has been a tremendous force for good in this sense. Ordinary people who, for so long, were denied a voice, may now speak up in forceful opposition to those who would seek to denigrate, disparage and dehumanise them. If, before the advent of Twitter, a high-profile author had published a dishonest and unreferenced attack on a marginalised group of people, they would have had virtually no right of reply. Now, they can raise their collective voices to condemn their oppressor and offer detailed rebuttals of her hostile rhetoric. Unsurprisingly, those who have been used to wielding virtually unlimited power in the sphere of public debate fucking hate this.
This is why we’re hearing howls of anguish about ‘cancel culture’ and ‘stifling debate’ from those who disable comments on their own articles full of malicious untruths and well-worn tropes. They’re not at all concerned about debate being ‘stifled’, they’re simply enraged because they no longer have free reign to propagate their bigoted ideas unchallenged.
People who have spent decades howling about the need to slash foreign aid budgets on the basis that ‘charity begins at home’ were united today in the opinion that feeding hungry children in the UK does not satisfy their definitions of ‘charity’ or ‘at home’.
As schoolchildren across the nation face the prospect of a summer holiday without their nutritional needs being met, the heartless fucking ghouls who inhabit the comments sections of Daily Mail articles were immovable in their belief that hunger is both ‘character-building’ and ‘not the problem of the UK taxpayer’, despite the fact that six weeks ago they were enraged to the point of incontinence about the prospect of ‘sending money overseas when people need help in this country’.
The intervention of black footballer, Marcus Rashford, who has asked the government to reconsider their stance, has served only to enrage these definitely-not-racist individuals further, though this elevated anger has nothing to do with him being black, because none of these people are racist.
“Michael Ratchford needs to stick to bloody football and stay out of politics,” railed Denise, a Karen from The Cotswolds.
“People shouldn’t have children if they can’t afford to look after them, and it’s utterly inconceivable that a person’s financial circumstances might change after they have started a family, in response to, say, a global pandemic that shuts down the country’s economy and causes hundred of thousands of jobs to disappear.”
Darren Twatt, a chartered surveyor who has spent the past fortnight tweeting ‘ALL LIVES MATTER’, agreed:
“I don’t see why my taxes should be used to ensure that vulnerable young people who have no control over their family’s income are properly fed. That is the job of the parents, and if they are too feckless and work-shy to provide for their children, it is only fitting and correct that those children should suffer as a result.”
Following Rashford’s plea to the government to ‘make the U-turn’ on their decision to allow children to starve, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, issued the following statement:
“Lol, he’s having a fucking laugh, isn’t he? I don’t even bother to provide for most of my own indeterminate number of offspring, so it’s taking quite a lot of the piss to expect me to provide for ones I care even less about than that. If people are worried about their kids lacking essential resources, the only reasonable course of action is for them to pretend they don’t exist.”
Forensic Labour leader, Keir ‘Forensic’ Starmer, hit back forensically, however, saying, in the most forensic way imaginable:
“We are committed to working with the government on their important child-starving initiative, but wonder whether, in the spirit of cooperation and cross-party consensus, they wouldn’t mind considering, if it’s not too much trouble, starving them a bit less.”
We live in an age of absolutism. Everything is binary: right or wrong, black or white.
There are times when this approach is helpful. Necessary, even. My ‘never fuck a Tory’ policy, for example, has served me well for many a long year and will no doubt do so for many years to come.
But when we try to apply this way of thinking to bigotry, or rather, to judging whether a person is or is not a bigot, it all starts to unravel. There seems to be a popular, and arguably deliberate, misconception that a person may only be considered to be intolerant of a particular group if they have a history of screaming epithets in their faces and/or committing acts of physical violence.
Modern bigotry, however, is altogether more subtle than this. It’s a suggestion, a nudge, a nod or a wink. Nigel Farage doesn’t go dropping the N-bomb on Question Time, as much as we all know he’d love to. He’s fucking thinking it, of course, but he never says it out loud. At least, not on the telly. Instead, he couches his racism in phrases like ‘illegal immigration’ and ‘protecting our borders’, like the worst kind of Pavlovian shithouse. And obviously, the stench of racism wafts off him like the smell of stale chip fat (along with, almost certainly, the actual smell of stale chip fat), but his supporters will argue to their dying breath that he’s ‘not racist’, purely on the basis that they’ve never heard him say the P-word.
That’s not to say there aren’t bigots who are rather more explicit in their intolerance. One of them, weirdly, for such a famously non-racist country, actually managed to get himself elected to the office of Prime Minister, but for the most part, they’re a little more sophisticated. Some are so sophisticated that they get to utilise their massive celebrity status and huge social media platforms to target hate at one of the most vulnerable minorities in the world, and still, somehow, manage to emerge looking like the victim.
Step forward, J.K. Rowling.
The piece published by Rowling on 10 June was an absolute masterclass in the art of manipulating the narrative to suit a particular agenda, while maintaining plausible deniability for the damage that would inevitably ensue. This is unsurprising given that she’s amassed a billion-pound fortune from her use of language. She knows better than most how to tell a tale in a way that will elicit the desired emotional response in the reader, and that’s what makes the piece – and its author – so extremely dangerous.
If you’re not familiar with the cases she cites, if you don’t know the pressure points transphobes routinely exploit to demonise their targets, if you haven’t heard these same, tired arguments recycled and reheated time and time again over a period of 30-odd years, you might come away from Rowling’s essay thinking it all sounded perfectly reasonable. That was certainly the intention, and in a great many cases, it worked like a charm.
She begins, of course, like any halfway competent bigot would, by painting herself as the victim. The first couple of paragraphs are all about her being abused, threatened or ‘cancelled’ by those who object to her harmful rhetoric.
Now, to be clear, threats are always unacceptable. And I would never condone a man calling any woman – not even Katie Hopkins – a ‘bitch’ or a ‘cunt’. It’s misogynistic, unhelpful, and provides easy ammunition for anyone seeking to promote a narrative of victimhood. That said, it’s not for me to judge women who use those terms in anger, or for me to police the tone of the victims’ responses to the abuse they face.
We have a big problem in this country with ignoring the content and the intent of what a person says, and focusing instead on the language used.
For example, if someone said to me, “Respectfully, sir, I believe that all homosexuals are an abomination unto the Lord and destined for Hell,” and I responded with, “Go take a flying fuck at the moon, you Bible-shagging twat,” there are a great many people who would think I was the one who should be censured.
The same applies here. Rowling tweets out barely disguised transphobic bigotry to 14.5 million followers, but because she does so ‘politely’ and some of the responses are, to say the least, extremely impolite, she somehow gets to occupy the moral high ground, and in doing so, tar an entire group with the same brush as its most abusive members. She must accept, however, that if she’s going to take that approach, she must assume responsibility for all the truly appalling vitriol directed at the trans community as a result of her interventions.
So with the victim narrative firmly established, she goes on to profess her undying love for the trans community, and all her many trans friends, like an infinitely more articulate Donald Trump pointing to the African-American guy he’s just appointed to some role or other as proof that he’s definitely not racist.
Then come the tropes:
Any cis man can readily obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate to access women’s spaces for who knows what nefarious purposes, trans teens are simply confused gays or lesbians, children are being rushed into irreversible treatment options that will destroy their lives, ‘trans rights activists’ deny that biological sex is ‘real’, veiled ridicule of trans suicide rates, and, most insidiously of all, the mischaracterisation of trans women as sexual predators.
This last one, as ought to be obvious to anyone who lived through that time, has its roots firmly in the homophobia of the 70s, 80s and 90s. This is hardly surprising given Rowling’s proximity to noted homophobes, and her selection of a pen name that matches the actual name of a high-profile proponent of gay conversion therapy. It’s also, it should be noted, absolute fucking bollocks.
Rowling even introduces her own experience of domestic abuse and sexual assault to underline the idea that trans women are a threat to cis women and girls, despite the fact that her abuse took place at the hands of cis men. I can only imagine the pain that such traumatic experiences must still bring her, and my heart goes out to her and any woman who has had to live through this ordeal. There is absolutely no reason, however, to mention this in a piece about trans people, unless you’re trying to promote a very particular idea.
The fact is that men have been raping, abusing and sexually assaulting women for millennia, and it’s extremely rare that they’ve ever felt the need to pretend to be women to carry out these despicable acts. Does she really think that a man hell bent on forcing himself on a woman will refrain from doing so because they’re not supposed to be in the women’s toilets? Or that they’ll go to all the ultimately pointless trouble of obtaining a GRC, which they don’t legally require to access those spaces?
The vast, overwhelming majority of trans women just want to get changed after their swim, or go for a piss at the shopping centre, then quietly go about their day. They’re not lurking in darkened corners waiting to catch a look at your genitals, or to show you theirs. Trans people have had the legal right to use the facilities of their choosing for well over a decade, and there have been very few reported incidents involving trans women during that time. Countries that have already introduced Self ID have had no reported increase in sexual offences as a result. Of course, that’s not to say no trans woman is capable of being a sexual predator, just that they’re no more likely to be than an equivalent sample of cis women.
But still this narrative persists. The subtle nods, the plays to our primal fears, the gentle, persistent reinforcement of the idea that our wives and daughters will be forced to undress in front of ‘male-bodied’ individuals intent on causing them harm. And this is where so much of the the anger towards Rowling and other transphobes is rooted. I know, because I felt (and still feel) the same anger every time the ‘gay men are paedophiles’ trope rears its head.
The fact is, we have to get better at spotting the falsehoods, the dog-whistles, the misdirections and the fear-mongering, and highlighting them to those who remain blinded by the ostensibly reasonable tone of the ‘legitimate concerns’ crew. Rowling herself would no doubt ridicule the idea that all Muslims are part of some ‘rape gang’ or other, but yet she’s happy to point her readers toward the conclusion that trans people – trans women in particular – present a threat to the safety, and indeed, the very identities, of cis women and girls.
By hiding the iron fist of her transphobic attacks in the velvet glove of her professed ‘love’ for trans people, she has managed to pull off a great deception, and it’s one that will inflict untold and widespread damage on a community that was already at breaking point.
There are people whose lives are so empty, so utterly devoid of hope or meaning, that they devote their entire existence to following me around Twitter, saying, “Max is such an arsehole! He blocks anyone who disagrees with him! He is incapable of debate!”
Contrary to the opinions of these sweaty, basement-dwelling incels, and, at times, my own claims, I do not live in an echo chamber. I’d be lying if I said the idea of doing so wasn’t extremely seductive, but the reality is somewhat removed from that. I am around people I disagree with all the time, both in real life and on social media.
Debate is fine. Healthy, even. So if you want to disagree with my belief that the licence fee in its current form should not be payable by those who don’t watch the BBC, you’re quite at liberty to do that. If you’d like to oppose my view that an imperfect Labour Party in power is better than an ideologically pure Labour Party in opposition, we can have that discussion. If you would like to deny my objectively correct opinion that what the Pet Shop Boys did to ‘Always On My Mind’ was an atrocity deserving of an appearance at The Hague, pull up a fucking chair, pour me a gin, and I’ll happily spend as many hours as are necessary explaining why you’re wrong.
But there are some issues that are so important, so fundamental to the very essence of who I am, that they are simply not up for debate.
I will not ‘consider different views’ on whether gay people should be allowed to marry, or have children. I will not listen to your ‘legitimate concerns’ about whether trans women are women, or whether they should be able to go for a piss without some frothy-mouthed Karen demanding to see their genitals. And I will not engage in a ‘reasoned debate’ about whether white privilege or systemic racism exist, because there is no debate to be had.
Quite apart from the fact that I have neither the time nor the inclination to follow every ‘DEBATE ME’ dickhead who thinks they are entitled to my attention down some pointless rhetoric cul-de-sac, trying to convince transphobes (for example) that transphobia is an inherently abhorrent position is like trying to convince my Labrador that sausages are horrible and he definitely doesn’t want to eat all of the sausages.
That’s not to say minds can’t be changed, of course. But for that to happen, people need to be open to examining their own privileges and prejudices, to face the uncomfortable truth that their whiteness, their straightness, their cisness and/or their gender have provided an advantage for which they’ve never had to work. In the overwhelming majority of cases, particularly on social media, this openness rarely exists. It’s merely an exercise in sealioning from people whose only interest is in preserving the status quo.
For historically oppressed and marginalised groups to be able to live their lives without fear of violence, abuse or discrimination is not some intellectual exercise, where we all sit in a circle and discuss how, or indeed, whether, they get to exist in ‘our’ world. It’s a basic, fundamental human right.
So call me ‘intolerant’ if you will, but it’s a label I will wear with pride if my ‘intolerance’ is characterised by an unwillingness to grant intrinsically abhorrent views the legitimacy of public debate.
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This year will be the first year since the 1970s when, in all likelihood, there will be no Pride events taking place anywhere in the UK.
You might think this is a relatively minor consideration, and I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, it is. Somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 people have already died, and many thousands more will die before this is over. Millions have been plunged even further into poverty as this crisis gives them an additional kicking after ten years of Tory austerity, and yet more people will die as a result of this secondary impact of the virus. The mental health toll of the lockdown – being separated from friends and family, being forced to isolate with an abusive partner or family member, worrying whether you’ll keep your home or your livelihood when this is all over (if you survive at all) – is now beginning to bite, and will only get worse as this situation drags on.
So for those of you outside of the LGBTQ community, whether or not Pride events are held as planned is probably so far down your list of priorities that it doesn’t even begin to register. Pride is, I think, largely viewed by straight people as little more than a party. A day out. A piss-up. A colourful parade. A Britney concert.
And yes, for better or for worse, it is all of those things. But for many of us, it’s so much more than that.
Even now, in 2020, in the post-equal-marriage era, we still face a relentless tide of homophobia. Those of you who follow my Twitter account will know that I regularly receive responses calling me a ‘faggot’ or a ‘puff’ (literacy was never their strong point), or encouraging me to ‘slit my throat’. Some of the more considerate ones even offer to slit it on my behalf, which, I think we can all agree, shows a selfless commitment on their part to ridding the world of the scourge of The Gay.
Sadly, though, it’s not just online that we face intolerance. Thousands of young queer people still live in households where they are not accepted for who they are, where they face the choice of continuing to reside with those who despise their very nature, or joining the disproportionately large number of young LGBTQ people sleeping on the streets.
Trans people are now routinely vilified in the press, in public and on social media. This has become as ubiquitous and predictable the seemingly proud betrayal of sociopathic tendencies in a Donald Trump press conference. Transphobia is the acceptable face of 21st century bigotry. It’s not subtle or hidden, it’s just relentless and pervasive and viciously fucking unpleasant. You could justifiably speculate that an existential crisis like a global pandemic might have given these vindictive arseholes cause to think, “Maybe I’ll take a day off from being an unremitting shit while vast numbers of people are dying,” but sadly, such ostensibly reasonable thoughts never seem to enter their heads. Their dehumanising bandwagon rolls ever-onwards, unencumbered as it is by unwelcome and unnecessary considerations like ‘decency’, ‘compassion’, and ‘not being a cunt for five minutes’.
None of these problems are new, of course. They’ve existed in some form since the moment at which bronze age homophobes decided to attribute their anti-queer bigotry to the god they’d recently created. But in these most difficult of times, when LGBTQ people are facing all of the physical, emotional and financial issues cis-het people are facing, they present an added burden to people who, like the rest of you, are already fast-approaching breaking point.
Even those of us who have it comparatively easy, who don’t face homelessness or rejection by our immediate families, still face difficulties that simply wouldn’t occur to most straight, cis people: abuse and prejudice continuing unabated while we’re struggling with the day-to-day worry of all this, further delays to already indefensibly long waiting times for life-saving transition treatment, being cut off, not just from our immediate communities, but from those with whom we are able to truly be ourselves in a way that’s often impossible in any other scenario.
From a purely personal perspective, I know I’m very fortunate. I came out to amazing support from most of my friends, my wife and my son. My housing situation, though not entirely without risk given the perilous economic situation in which we find ourselves, is reasonably secure.
That said, I live in an area with a relatively small LGBTQ population, and with no recognised ‘gay area’ like you might find in London, Brighton or Manchester. So the opportunities to be around others like myself, to mix with people who are less likely to judge me for who I am, are quite limited, even in normal times. I attended Pride in London with some friends last year, one of whom observed that the ‘safe zone’ – that little cocoon in the heart of Soho where you’re less likely to face physical violence for public displays of same-sex affection – had been extended for a day. This was sharply observed, but it’s worth noting that, for many of us in towns and cities outside of London, there is no ‘safe zone’. It simply doesn’t exist.
I’m also, of course, still in a ‘straight’ marriage, and whilst I recognise that this is completely my choice, it brings with it its own unique set of challenges. My circumstances lead those who don’t know me to routinely assume – understandably, I suppose – that I am straight. I’m then faced with two equally poor options: play along and hide my true self as I have done for most of my life, or come out yet again and face the barrage of intrusive questions, raised eyebrows and disingenuous ‘sympathy’ for my poor, put-upon wife.
More often than not, I choose the former option because it’s just easier than fielding enquiries like, “How does that work?” and “Do you still sleep in the same bed?” and the never-not-tiresome, “Is she allowed to see other guys?” But having to make this decision over and over again, and having to deal with whichever shitty set of consequences that decision engenders, is utterly fucking exhausting.
I say all this not to garner pity – as I said, I know I have it better than most – but simply to paint a picture of some of the additional challenges LGBTQ people face, and to underscore why Pride events are so much more than a just ‘nice day out’. For most, they form a vitally important element of our community’s often precarious sense of mental wellbeing.
For me personally, my annual pilgrimage to Pride in London is one of the highlights of my year. It is a time when I can cast off the shackles of my half in-half out, northern existence and allow the real me to dominate, front and centre, without the questioning looks and the whispered, badly disguised speculations like, “Do you reckon his wife knows he’s bent?”
More broadly, it is a time when we can all be who we were born to be, who we’ve always known we are, but for whom we have never felt fully accepted. It is a time when we can hold hands or kiss each other in public without being spat upon or abused. It is a time when we can be unashamedly camp or flamboyant, without having to make a thousand real-time calculations as to whether that’s likely to jeopardise our safety. It’s a time when we can just be, without having to worry about ‘passing’ or ‘fitting in’ with people who don’t mind us being gay, as long as we do so in the very particular, strictly defined and understated manner they have deemed acceptable. It’s a time when, for just a few short, sweet hours of the year, we can be free.
I’ve read a lot recently about how straight people are missing pubs and restaurants and cafes. This is entirely understandable, and I do sympathise, but imagine if your pubs were the only places in which you could safely relax your mannerisms, speak freely about your home life, or hold your partner’s hand. Then imagine that you lived in a city that only had one pub. Maybe go on to imagine that this single establishment only opened two nights a week, from 10 pm until 6 am, when the majority of old bastards like me are tucked up in bed. One place in the entire locality where, if you don’t like sticky floors, banging music and drinking until it’s light, you’re basically excluded anyway. That is the reality for huge numbers of LGBTQ people in the UK, and Pride is one of the few precious moments of relief we are allowed from this frustrating, constrained existence.
The absence of Pride represents so much more than the cancellation of the queers’ annual road-closing, attention-seeking carnival. For many of us, it represents a real and tangible loss that will be keenly felt and difficult to quantify. In normal times, Pride provides some brief respite from the othering, the mistreatment and the denigration that punctuates our daily lives. It provides hope for a brighter tomorrow, and a chance, for one day, to experience what it might be like should we ever finally achieve true equality. It provides an essential mental boost to help us weather the darker times that will inevitably follow this priceless moment of optimism when reality comes crashing back down around us.
This crisis has, distressingly, not even begun to put an end to the attacks our community is so often forced to endure, but what it has achieved is to rob us of one of our most vital coping mechanisms in the face of those attacks. And for that, I will unashamedly mourn its loss.
Max talks to ‘Tracy Beaker’ and ‘Dumping Ground’ actor, Connor Byrne, about ballet, musical theatre, snow penises, LGBT rights and, inevitably, coronavirus.
Contains frequent strong language.
Max talks to director, writer and national treasure Kathy Burke about lockdown, the theatre and the places he can stick the questions she’s bored of answering. Contains frequent strong language.