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“Are You Oppressed Enough?” is crude but not transphobic

Image credit: Wikipedia
Image credit: Wikipedia
Image credit: Wikipedia

An article for the latest edition of The Lemon Press has received a lot of attention for its supposed transphobia and offensiveness, even prompting Ben Leatham, the University of York Students’ Union (YUSU) President, to release a blog post explaining that YUSU approves controversial papers regardless of whether the regulator shares the opinion. (Of course, YUSU will block anything revealing about their own officers, but that’s an article for another day…)

I wish to counter the accusation that “Are You Oppressed Enough?” spitefully mocks transgender individuals. Though a joke is never funny if it requires an explanation, in these circumstances I think the lemons at The Lemon Press would benefit from someone outside of the satirical newspaper defending them against such a serious accusation. (The Lemon Press has not yet uploaded its latest edition on the website; as such I recommend that, to ensure that this article makes sense, you browse the campus and pick up a physical copy. Who knows? You might also find it funny. I do.)

In “Are You Oppressed Enough?” the author wishes to lampoon two prominent elements of student politics today. These elements being: the decision of the National Union of Students (NUS) to remove male homosexuals’ representatives from the liberation movement on the grounds that they no longer suffer much malice (and indeed take part in dishing it out to other people themselves); and the bizarre habits of the most radical student activists who fight for the rights of minorities in such a way that any criticism, even the most reasonable, equates to abuse.

The author presents a “handy test to see if YOU meet the NUS guidelines of being part of an oppressed minority.” The quiz is, of course, nonsense, but it is nonsense written to provoke both serious discussion and a few laughs.

The author describes three everyday moments in student life – walking to campus, witnessing some commotion on campus and reading something that you disagree with on Facebook –  and for each situation, the reader is presented with three possible reactions: one reaction is normal, the other is sad and unfortunate, and the last is patently overblown.

The author wishes to show that, contrary to what the NUS might think, gay men do suffer malicious mockery, causing them to feel “a bit sh*t about [their] day.” This is contrasted with a gross overreaction of an individual to a perfectly reasonable event. For example, a reaction like this:

Sprint straight for the nearest Safe Space. When you arrive you break down in tears… You proceed to post several times on Facebook about the vicious cat-calling you received.

Why would you react in this way? Because “Someone smiled at you whilst you walked in.” Obviously it’s a preposterous reaction to a perfectly normal (and in fact pleasant) event of the day. It’s like President Obama launching a nuclear strike in response to President Putin stepping on his foot by accident.

It’s reasonable to say that the author is taking things too far in the quest to lampoon, but you can’t say that this sort of thing hasn’t happened in reality. Recently, in Edinburgh, a student was almost ejected from a meeting for raising her hand in disagreement, on the grounds that it made other students uncomfortable. Does this not seem mad?

How about a second round of the test? “Someone says something you think is wrong on Facebook. What do you do?” Of the three options, you could: offer a response and engage in brief debate; disagree with them and be the subject of nasty abuse on the grounds of your sexuality; or…

…report them on Facebook and block them. You take several screenshots and email them to the University along with a harassment complaint. You also tweet the University abuse for not protecting you enough.

Well, this has happened at York and the quiz is clearly critical of students who do it. But it isn’t transphobic. Anyone can take screenshots and send nasty messages to the students’ union for not doing enough. People do it a lot about things besides oppression – the tedious world of social media is rife with angry open letters, boorish arguments exploded through sustained Facebook comments, Yik Yak mockery, all directed towards the University and the students’ union. And, as we should remember, this happens at plenty of places besides York.

I must make two concessions in criticism of this particular article. First, I concede that the humour expressed in “Are You Oppressed Enough?” is deliberately in bad taste. Of course, no joke is funny unless it is at the expense of something or someone, but the author is adding elements of mockery and satire targeted at those who both campaign for the welfare of and belong to marginalised groups. Thus, I don’t believe that “Are You Oppressed Enough?” is an article written with the very best of intentions in mind.

Second, I don’t really have much faith in the idea that “straight white males and Tory voters” are being forgotten by the NUS. Sure, the NUS’s attempts to fight for students’ rights without being critical of the Conservatives are typically dismal – indeed, YUSU officers once took part in protests against the government in which the Conservatives were specifically mentioned in the Facebook group dedicated to organising it. Also, at the time of the 2015 election I doubted whether there would have been such a backlash against the British electoral system if the Labour Party had entered office instead of the Conservatives. However, flamboyant defences of the “straight white male” often verge on the downward spiral that begins with “men are being oppressed,” a reasonable claim but a claim that needs elaboration, and ends with “feminism has gone too far; men are the underdogs in society!” These desperate arguments are rarely made without caricatures of feminism and occasional dribbles of misogyny, at least in what I have seen and read.

Nonetheless, “Are You Oppressed Enough?” is not transphobic. At no point does it make reference to transgender individuals, nor does it suggest that there is something inherently bad about being transgender. The author is taking a shot at individuals who exaggerate their problems and cry blue murder at the first sign of trouble – whether these people are transgender or not is about as relevant as their hair colour, their choice of ice cream or their favourite flower. This applies to their sexuality, race and more – a successful accusation of discrimination must demonstrate that the criticism is being made because of one of these factors; otherwise, criticising, say, someone who happens to be a lesbian for being a bad footballer, doesn’t make the critic homophobic.

Similarly, plenty of other people, institutions and groups are not transphobic. The author’s conclusion for those who reacted normally in his test is an exaggeration (“YOU TRANSPHOBIC PIG. YOU ARE A DISGUSTING HUMAN BEING AND YOU NEED TO GET OVER YOURSELF. YOU ARE SEXIST…!”) but the sad truth is that these serious accusations have been and will no doubt continue to be bandied about as if they mean nothing. The respected campus newspaper Nouse, the highly-regarded debating and public information group York Union, the students who wish for York to depart the NUS and even your favourite student newspaper The Yorker, have been called transphobic without the supporting evidence to make the claim worth believing. (You’re welcome to disagree and say that the piece in The Lemon Press is transphobic; I enjoy debate, though a response similar to “you can’t say it’s not transphobic, you don’t know what it’s like!” will only prove another of the author’s conclusions to be true).

“Are You Oppressed Enough” was off-colour and could be seen as a dig at the marginalised, but it draws on genuine examples of baffling overreaction and unsubstantiated hyperbole to make its points. Perhaps it could have been expressed much better, but there is no doubt that it got its point across.