There are some rows which, while not of earth-shaking importance in themselves, have the force of a contemporary parable. So it has been with the fuss surrounding the transsexual community, the writers Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill, the government minister Lynne Featherstone and, possibly cowering under his desk as the battle rages, the editor of the Observer, John Mulholland.
It is a perfect storm, involving the great issues of the moment: the gender debate, online bullying, offensiveness and the limits of tolerance, class, the cult of apology, and politics.
It all started with Suzanne Moore’s powerfully written polemic, commissioned for the Waterstone’s anthology Red and reprinted in the New Statesman, about the rage of women in today’s sexist, recession-hit society. “We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body image – that of a Brazilian transsexual,” she wrote.
That last throwaway line about transsexuals caused row No 1. Moore was accused of something called “transphobia” (like homophobia but for transsexuals). A public apology was demanded. She was abused on Twitter until she left that particular stage, slamming the door behind her.
Enter Julie Burchill, never one to miss out on a public dust-up. In the Observer on Sunday, she argued that transsexuals telling Moore how to write was like “the Black and White Minstrels telling Usain Bolt how to run”. Working-class women writers like Moore and herself, having made their own way in the world without help, were “damned if we are going to be accused of being privileged by a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs”.
There was more along those lines. The phrase “dicks in chicks’ clothing” was used. There was a joke about nuts being cut off. Burchill has never belonged to the Hazlitt/Rees-Mogg school of essayists.
Along came row No 2. A mighty wave of hurt and outrage burst over the internet. Infuriated readers had never encountered anything so bigoted, cruel, insensitive, ignorant and threatening. It was a hate crime, in fact. The Liberal Democrat MP Lynne Featherstone, a minister with perhaps rather too much time on her hands, joined the mob with the demand that Burchill should be sacked. She added that Mulholland should go, too. Now Mulholland has withdrawn the piece.
At one point, an online poll conducted by this newspaper showed that 90 per cent of those who voted thought Burchill had gone too far. Something called The Scottish Transgender Alliance complained of “rising transphobia in the British media”.
It is official, then: the world has gone mad. Every stage of this furore has been marked by ridiculous and excessive hysteria and bullying. Moore said nothing wrong in her article. Burchill used her usual knockabout, head-butting prose to make a fair argument: that the transgendered should not demand special privileges over those who were born as women – the “cisgendered” as they are described in the increasingly complex vocabulary of the gender studies phrase book.
Would someone who has had the mental and physical courage to change sex really be upset by the appearance of the phrase “dicks in chicks’ clothing” in the press? It seems unlikely. The terms Burchill used may have been insensitive, but had the target of them been more acceptable to liberal opinion – Scientologists, say, or gun-toting American Christians – they would have prompted no more than a few fond chuckles. Good old Julie was at it again.
It is tempting, but wrong, to dismiss this kind of fuss as internet silliness. It matters when a government minister leads a highly emotional internet campaign, the aim of which is to get a writer, and the person who commissioned her, fired.
The offensiveness police are ever more powerful and vigilant, demanding views with which they disagree to be silenced, and individuals of whom they disapprove to be punished. We should be on our guard.
There have been signs of late that the Royal Family has at last found the ideal couple to take the monarchy through the choppy waters of 21st-century life, a smiling Ken and Barbie in Barbours who will not say the wrong thing, unlike his grandfather, or think too much, unlike his father.
The hilariously bad portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge, the kind of thing commissioned by proud middle-class families all over the country, has managed to capture – perhaps even exaggerate – her sweet blandness.
Prince William, meanwhile, has proved to be a perfect future Defender of the Faith by following the traditional Church of England approach to religion: moderation in all things, particularly belief. The royal couple “rarely, if ever” attend church, according to press reports. Taking a truly British attitude to faith, the Prince and his wife apparently see church as having an important role – at Christmas and on one’s wedding day.