*CONTENT WARNING – OFFENSIVE LANGUAGE*
(I’m not going to star out letters in the particular words because I’m not going to pretend that it means they’re neutered somehow by that, I’m not J*remy C***kson or the fucking S*n, to tip the hat to Marina Hyde et al http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/lostinshowbiz/2015/jan/22/page-3-no-more-tits-in-the-sun-campaign-stop-the-asterisk )
Ok, time to weigh in on the matter of whether TERF and SWERF are slurs (spoiler: they’re not). This argument has been bubbling around for a while, but seems to have come to the surface as a result of a Green Party candidate and spokesperson using the term TERF, leading to a demand for apologies from various persons both in and unconnected with the party. Some people have even gone so far as to compare it to calling someone a Paki, as if they haven’t already offended enough people. Pretty much everything here applies equally to SWERF, but I shall come back to that at the end.
This, relating as it does to feminism, obviously falls in the category of things somewhat outside my wheelhouse. I identify as a feminist and male (I’d prefer that you didn’t call me a male feminist, because it brings up the notion of the sort of people who could read the excellent Onion piece ‘Man Finally Put In Charge of Struggling Feminist Movement’ unironically. http://www.theonion.com/articles/man-finally-put-in-charge-of-struggling-feminist-m,2338/ But I’m not going to object too much, in line with what I’ll say later, as it is factually true – I am male and a feminist – and it’s not really a hurtful thing to say. It merely highlights that men need to be careful about how they try to participate in and support what is necessarily a female-led movement). But I’ll try to keep things general, and I’ll again observe that nobody else is required to read this – I’m writing to practice writing.
What is a slur?
The ‘TERF is a slur’ crowd have been acting as if any term one would rather not be addressed by is automatically a slur. This is disingenuous at best. I’d rather you didn’t call me Dave, because it’s not my name. I’d rather you didn’t call me a Male Feminist, for the reasons I outlined above. Neither would be a slur. A real slur can be objected to on two grounds: that it is untrue, and that it has significantly negative historical associations. The latter is relevant because history determines the meanings of words. We might like to pretend that words are unambiguously associated with objects/actions/qualities, but where they have come from, and thus how they are used, is essential.
To take the first point, it might be a slur to call someone a criminal, but only if they have not committed the associated crime. It is pretty offensive to publicly refer to a person as a murderer – and they might sue you for slander or libel – but there wouldn’t really be a good objection if they had wilfully and maliciously killed somebody.
Similarly, any complaint about being called a TERF is undermined if that is, in fact, an accurate description. A TERF is generally translated to be a trans*-exclusionary radical feminist. Now as far as I’m aware, nobody being labelled a TERF objects to being called a feminist – this argument is within the feminist movement, and while some people might like them to be excluded, they don’t want this themselves. The trans*-exclusionary is based on either explicit statements to the effect that trans women are not women – thereby ‘excluding’ them from feminism – or public association with people who have made such statements. As it turns out, the only remotely questionable term within TERF is radical. This originates with the label TERF was originally applied to certain self-identified Radical Feminists (i.e. those who see feminism as a struggle to overthrow the power system they call patriarchy). So, er, you could object to being called a TERF on the grounds that you’re not radical. But on to the second constituent.
(Note: various alternative suggestions have been made regarding the ‘R’, including that it stands for reactionary, or regressive. This doesn’t change the thrust of the argument – these may be accurate, in which case it’s hard to see a problem, or not.)
The other thing that is essential to a slur is that it must be have some historical basis for being regarded as offensive. I might not like being called Dave, but there’s nothing about it that makes it a slur. I could ask you nicely to not do it, or even stop associating with you, but that’s my call. Onto the most offensive part of the recent farrago. Again *content warning for offensive language* Certain of those complaining about being called TERFs have compared the term to ‘Paki’. I’m not sure what they hope to achieve from this; one is associated with centuries of violence and abuse, and the other… just isn’t.
This reminds me of the witless fools who try to argue that calling somebody of South Asian descent a Paki is no different to calling someone from a certain group of islands in the North Atlantic a Brit. As if the important part is that they’re both shortened versions of the relevant demonym (we’ll ignore the fact that the former is also indiscriminately applied to Indians, Bangladeshis, etc.). One is associated with racist violence, the other with mild ribbing about being uptight by Americans and Aussies. (note how the second of these is again, not offensive).
To return to TERF: nobody has been on the end of violence as the result of being a called a TERF. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has been on the end of violence as result of being a TERF. Being excluded from debates yourself because of your insistence on excluding others is not violence. Intolerance of intolerance is not only not a problem, but necessary to stop everything collapsing in on itself. Rather, it is TERFs who cause violence against trans* people, ironically by supporting an aspect of the very patriarchal system they profess to oppose. They will freely claim that gender is a construct designed to oppress [women]*, but then take upon themselves to police that construct, and extend that oppression.
*I’ve bracketed women here because RFs refer to a particular construction of what it is to be a woman, highly dependent on physical features.
As to SWERFs, which have not necessarily been part of the particular argument I was examining, but are seemingly omnipresent in feminist circles these days (and may often be the same people because if you’re going to pick on people at the bottom of the pecking order, hey, you might as well pick on all of them. Also, for various reasons, trans* people are more likely to be involved in sex work that cis people). The exact same conditions apply 75% of the way, the only difference being that it’s sex workers they won’t allow to be part of their ‘feminism’. This is egregious because they generally consider sex work to be a matter of major concern to feminism. Still, there’s no better way to to approach something that you regard as a problem than by ignoring the very people caught up in the middle of it (and who therefore might be expected to know what they’re talking about). Anyway, if you refuse to invite feminists who are sex workers – and there’s no reason why the two should be mutually exclusive – to your ‘feminist’ shindig, you’re a SWERF.
Some SWERFs try to defend their position by embracing former sex workers, which they like to refer to as ‘survivors’ (rather bafflingly, because I’m not sure what this makes active sex workers). Unsurprisingly, formulating your opinion of a group by only talking to people who have left it creates a pretty skewed impression. Anyway, this leads them to believe that all sex workers would rather be out, and those who deny this are either suffering under some kind of false consciousness, or are being paid off by some nebulous organisation they call the ‘pimp lobby’. It also fails to distinguish between people who are trafficked or otherwise directly compelled into the industry, and those who are forced into it by more mundane matters, which is to say because they need/want the money. For the latter group, it is probably true that in the loosest possible sense they would rather leave sex work, but only in the sense that the vast majority of us would rather like to quit our jobs if only we could afford to.
As a side note I think that gender can also be pretty oppressive to men, particularly those who don’t fit the stereotypical masculine template. Patriarchy is bad for all of us, apart from the elites who benefit most from the status quo. This is why we should all be working together to dismantle it. Which is not to dispute that it’s a hell of a lot worse for women, non-whites, and other ‘minority groups’ (not that either of the former is a minority on a global level).