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The latest TERF controversy is the perfect example of how cancel culture can backfire

By Louis Shankar

Jun 23, 2021

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LGBTQI rights

Jun 23, 2021

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Last week, the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) removed work from its shop by artist Jess de Wahls after receiving multiple complaints about transphobia. The arguments and debates around this single example are a microcosm of the ongoing culture war, not just tolerated but stoked by our government: trans rights, cancel culture, no-platforming. Acronyms abound: TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists), GCs (gender critical people), TRAs (trans rights activists).

De Wahls wrote a blog post almost two years ago entitled, rather cynically, “Somewhere over the  Rainbow, something went terribly wrong…” It’s not worth reading, filled with disinformation, misinformation, and transphobic dog whistles. It has all the buzzwords and stock phrases of such gender-critical writings: there is little to no original critical thought involved.

De Wahls—who isn’t an academician and, thus, has no permanent relationship with the RA—has received a lot of press in the past week from the usual sources such as citations in columns in The Sunday Times and The Telegraph. It’s the paradox of cancellation: having one’s work ‘cancelled’  elevates their status among certain right-leaning, ‘anti-woke’ commentators. The Daily Mail and, far too often, BBC Radio 4 will jump on board and uncritically give out a platform for sharing and elevating opinions.

The Royal Academy, in the minds of many, immediately became a traitor to women’s rights where previously it had been considered a bastion, when, in fact, the art world is notoriously conservative. It wasn’t until 1922 that the first woman was elected to the Royal Academy—although there were two women among the founding members, Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser. And the current  President, Rebecca Salter, became the first woman elected to the role in 250 years. It’s just that,  now, they have been deemed the wrong kind of conservative—kowtowing to the ‘woke mob’ who are, more often than not, campaigning for progressive inclusion.

Many anonymous Twitter users have pointed out that the RA is happy to still sell work by Picasso, a notorious misogynist. That’s a difficult thread to pull at, though—especially when many at The  Telegraph, for example, don’t want Western history and its statues to be threatened or interrogated. Accusing an institution of misogyny as part of this ongoing culture war, while scapegoating the trans community, is much easier than actually addressing the complex mechanisms and legacies of exclusion, racism, and misogyny that permeate so much of our society.

Free speech, and the free market—both core principles of liberalism—apparently have their limits; they apply differently to individuals and to institutions, or so it would seem. Artists should be allowed to say publicly whatever they like, without repercussions; yet if galleries want to distance themselves, they cannot be allowed to.

I found de Wahls on Instagram, where she had posted work by the Guerrilla Girls, a feminist collective that raises awareness about the lack of diversity and representation in the art world. After pointing out that the collective not only supports but includes trans women and non-binary people—“we’ve had transgender and gender-nonconforming members since the beginning”—she swiftly blocked me. It seems that there are limits to the discussion and debate that many people claim are being shut down.

There are occasions to debate with people who have different opinions—and there are times when this is, at best, uncomfortable and unproductive or, at worst, profoundly dehumanising. This was on the tip of many tongues this past week after writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie published on her website an essay on cancel culture and trans rights. It was praised by many on the right, but I recommend reading, instead, Aja Romano’s astute and sensitive analysis of the piece.

Anyone who wants to hijack the extension of rights for trans people—for misogyny and violence—is an enemy to us all. There’s no secret organisation funding trans rights internationally, it’s strange how often this conspiracy theory pops up on Twitter.

Prominent gender-critical activists have recently been emboldened by a tribunal that declared their beliefs to be “protected” within English law—many anonymous accounts are now dedicating their lives and livelihoods to opposing trans rights under the guise of feminism. Recently, I attended a talk by a prominent lesbian feminist and activist who noted how in America, progressives and activists look at what’s happening in the UK, aghast. These supposedly liberal groups have the most in common with the furthest-right, Trump-supporting facets of the Republican Party.

Because there are some who ultimately want to use free speech and open debate to restrict the rights of trans people—and then all queer people, and then all women. Prominent gender-critical groups have aligned themselves with pro-life, pro-abortion groups in the US. Their common ground? Wanting to control the bodies of the marginalised.

De Wahls ends her rant by asking, “who really benefits from an imploding liberal and feminist  movement?” Whenever people insist on debating the human rights of the most marginalised in society, there are no winners, just a perpetuation of our ongoing, unfair patriarchal hegemony.