Last night I celebrated a good friend’s birthday at his sister’s restaurant, and this morning I woke with a marvellous hangover. I love an occasional hangover because they’re so reliably easy to fix: toast with marmite and Oxford marmalade, strong black tea, soluble aspirin, Lupe Fiasco, a hot shower, followed by phở gà đặc biệt and cà phê sữa đá for lunch and an afternoon nap. All these little rituals create an enjoyable program for an aimless Sunday. At some point during breakfast, I replied to a tweet by Salman Rushdie.
I was moving pretty slowly at this point and it took me a while to even notice he’d replied. When I did, what I noticed first was the massive derpstorm erupting on my ‘Interactions’ list. You know at a public forum, when someone up the back asks a question, the moderator usually repeats the question so the rest of the audience can hear it? The Twitter equivalent is retweeting someone before you disagree with them, so others on your stream can make sense of your objection. But Sir Rushdie didn’t do that: he replied directly to my tweet and his followers gleefully piled on, all of them tragically mistaken as to what I had replied to him about.
It wasn’t about the word, ‘heroine’. It was about his completely illogical argument:
Caster Semenya ran into trouble, if you’ll pardon a small sporting pun, because her performance on the field outstripped what’s expected of women athletes. An Observer article claims “The IAAF says it was obliged to investigate after Semenya made improvements of 25 seconds at 1500m and eight seconds at 800m – the sort of dramatic breakthroughs that usually arouse suspicion of drug use.” Yet the IAAF ordered gender verification testing and failed to protect her confidentiality in the process.
It’s impossible not to sympathise with Semenya over the ‘ordeal by gender’ she underwent. Nonetheless, to conclude that she was vindicated by gender verification testing would be to accord that process far too much credibility. It remains a deeply controversial procedure involving arbitrary line-drawing exercises amid the kaleidoscope of multi-factorial influences on primary and secondary sex characteristics. It was designed to pick out ‘impostors’ — people competing as women who were ‘really’ men — at a time when the sheer diversity and number of different intersex conditions was not well understood.
In the light of our new understanding of gender as a spectrum rather than a binary, ‘verification’ testing is begging the question. Let’s imagine the ‘verification’ test instead said Caster Semenya was intersex, or that her physical sex was male. To compete in the Olympics, she would first be required to undergo gender reassignment surgery. This is analogous to the social model of disability: the impairment isn’t purely physical; it’s equally caused by the impoverished concept of gender used in élite sport.
Hence the challenge I posed to Sir Rushdie: why support the system of binary gender differentiation that creates this kind of dilemma?
The answer has nothing to do with honouring Caster Semenya. If you read it carefully, his tweet makes very little sense. How can Caster Semenya be a ‘bigger heroine’ than two people not capable of being called a heroine? Unless gender doesn’t matter to heroism — in which case, why even register the difference? It would cost nothing and make more sense to write about ‘greater heroism’, but that wasn’t Rushdie’s real interest.
No, the answer comes from the delighted outrage of his followers. Sir Rushdie wasn’t offended by my tweet; he wanted an excuse to rant about “PC language policemen”. He was primed and ready to respond and didn’t even notice my tweet wasn’t about word choice. We’ve seen this before, when Justin Shaw and Ben Pobjie wrote about ‘hysteria’. It’s baiting up a crowd, getting them ginned up for action. And they lapped it right up: huzzah, a chance to rant about political correctness and prove I think alike with Salman Rushdie! Many of his followers were so concerned about the decline of the English language, they forgot to use verbs.
It was Britain that created a television show for Grumpy Old Men. And a spinoff, Grumpy Old Women. Given the thrust of this post, let’s collectively noun them Grumpy Old People, and permit me to abbreviate that to GOP. (Which may give you a clue as to how such people are positioned in American society.) Although they needn’t be old, there’s a strong correlation of GOP-ness with increasing age and self-importance, along with Relevance Deprivation Syndrome.
While I could quite happily watch 12 hours of Clive James in a sitting, his brand of mordant critique isn’t the usual fare on such television shows: instead, they’re invariably full of whinging about the price of milk (increasing) and the standard of English (declining). No, the essence of GOP is trivia, and that’s what’s so sad about this little tiff on Twitter. It’s Salman Rushdie performing cheap tricks for the peanut gallery; the smallness of it is depressing. This incredible writer, brain the size of a planet, seeming unable to perform the most basic forward thinking about ‘how my endorsement of wider gender norms might reinforce the specific instance I’m decrying’. Going from trolling an entire religion (if you’ll permit the exaggeration) to trolling a couple of feminists on Twitter. And when challenged…