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Prisoners of Our Own Action
When we deny someone the opportunity to speak publicly, we deny ourselves and others the opportunity—the right—to hear, and listen. The case of gender-critical animator and director Nina Paley.
January 25, 2022
By Jon Zobenica
The artist and director Nina Paley once enjoyed widespread success and acclaim. Her animated feature Sita Sings the Blues premiered in Europe at the Berlin International Film Festival and in North America at the Tribeca Film Festival, and the same work was hailed by A. O. Scott of The New York Times as a “tour de force”—“dazzling,” “affecting, surprising and a lot of fun.” She has more recently been sought out, with enthusiasm, to participate in screenings of her films at festivals and film series large and small, scattered from San Mateo, California, to Brattleboro, Vermont, to Brussels, Belgium.
In the interim, Paley has also come out as candidly “gender critical,” meaning she’s a feminist who affirms biological sex over gender. This amounts to a de facto morals-clause violation these days, one for which, owing to pressure from outside activists, she has been summarily disinvited (sometimes apologetically, but always summarily) from festivals and film series that had enthusiastically sought her out—those in San Mateo, Brattleboro, and Brussels. Those activists label Paley a “notorious transphobe” whose “violent” words “contribute” to nothing less than “murder”and “torture,” and whose films therefore deserve no showing or commentary. (Her films thus far have had nothing to do with gender.)
If words are to indicate anything real—if violence and murder are to have any meaning beyond the rhetorical—these accusations must be examined, and if necessary confronted.
An admittedly incomplete sampling of Paley’s interviews and blog posts reveals nothing that could accurately be called violent—no more violent, in any case, than the charges of violence levied against her. She has said (and drawn) things that are certainly disagreeable to those who, well, disagree. And some of those people insist that Paley’s words (and drawings) are violent, but insistence isn’t its own proof. Given all this, there’s no point in citing and litigating anything specific Paley has said or drawn. She’s online, and people can do their own browsing and reach their own conclusions, which most of us who have followed the broader debate have reached already, whatever our opinions.
The basic charge, however, is that because she maintains there are qualifiable differences between, for example, transwomen and biological females, Paley and gender-critical people like her take away others’ humanity, thereby clearing the way for the murder of transgender people. It is a kind of “society made the murderers do it” assertion, with the gender critical personifying society. So just like that, they’re accessories to murder. Ergo, their utterances must be “violent” at the very least—no matter the words of support they might and often do otherwise express for transgender rights and well-being.
Sometimes invoked as proof of their vaguely proximate contribution to homicide are sites like the Trans Murder Monitoring Project, where one can find this useful document, which tabulates the murders of transgender and gender-diverse people worldwide from January 1, 2008, to September 30, 2020. The information is broken down by year, by region and country, by the occupation of the victim, and by the cause and location of death. One instantly notices that 79 percent of the homicides come from Central and South America (2,894 out of 3,664). But even that number is unfairly broad. Brazil alone accounts for more than 41 percent of the worldwide murders (1,520 out of 3,664). Add to that the tally from Mexico (second overall on the list), and you’ve accounted for almost 56 percent of the global total for that time period. Two countries. The United States, third on the list, contributes a little more than 7 percent to the total (its number being roughly half that of Mexico’s). Also of note: nearly a quarter of the victims worldwide were sex workers (881 out of 3,664), and the leading causes and location of death were gunshot (38 percent) or stabbing (20 percent) in the street (31 percent).
Every one of these deaths is heartbreaking, and the Trans Murder Monitoring Project’s findings jibe with those of a National Institutes of Health study that states plainly: “It has been estimated that women involved in street prostitution are 60 to 100 times more likely to be murdered than are nonprostitute females.” Another NIH study confirms that, “Prostitute women have the highest homicide victimization rate of any set of women ever studied.” In other words, sex work, particularly that involving street walking, is—no matter who does it—an exceedingly dangerous activity.
But to take these verifiable data, scrub them of all context (region, country, profession, etc.), and use them to indict on charges of deadly harm a feminist animator from Illinois (or anyone else who is merely gender critical—J. K. Rowling, for instance) is an act of bad faith or lazy thinking, which in either event follows a process that public intellectuals have warned us about for decades. In 1979’s The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch observed: “By using accurate details to imply a misleading picture of the whole, the artful propagandist, it has been said, makes truth the principal form of falsehood.” In 1955’s The Passionate State of Mind, Eric Hoffer remarked: “Add a few drops of venom to a half truth and you have an absolute truth.” And in his 1945 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote:
But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better . . . What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about . . . [O]ne ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.
To observe any online forums, Twitter feeds, or comments threads, however, is to come to the melancholy conclusion that anyone attempting to argue against the hyperbolic equating of “gender critical” with “violence” (or worse) ends up like Alice in Through the Looking Glass, contesting Humpty Dumpty’s fanciful abuses of language:
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
Indeed, this is about power—in this case the power to equate words with violence (or worse) and to have others relent or consent, for fear of being accused of such violence (or worse) themselves. What too few seem to consider is that if we’re conditioned to think of words as violence, then some among us will inevitably start considering violence a perfectly measured response to words—an outcome no less (perhaps all the more) tragic if that violence is turned on the self. Feminist icon Eleanor Roosevelt is quoted as having said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” (A variant that was once—though I suspect is no longer—current in schoolyards across the land was, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”) By the Rooseveltian way of thinking, any “violence” one presumes to have suffered from the mere words of another is at least in part self-inflicted—and not necessarily the smaller part.
But because of the vogue for declaring one’s own victimhood, the already vexatious heckler’s veto has become something of a self-styled mourner’s veto as well, which means not only that your proceedings (film series and festivals, in this case) will be disrupted by those who don’t approve but also that you (the series/festival organizers) will bear a charge of obduracy if you go ahead with the participation of someone who has unequivocally—if speciously—been deemed “violent.”
The problem with succumbing to such a veto is twofold, and was nicely articulated by Christopher Hitchens during a debate at the University of Toronto in 2006. Summing up the core idea of three seminal writings on free speech—John Milton’s Areopagitica, Thomas Paine’s introduction to The Age of Reason, and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty—Hitchens remarked “It’s not just the right of the person who speaks, to be heard. It is the right of everyone in the audience to listen, and to hear. And every time you silence somebody, you make yourself a prisoner of your own action, because you deny yourself the right to hear something.”
Hitchens went on to pepper the audience with a series of direct questions, which I’m paraphrasing only slightly: To whom would you delegate the task of deciding for you what you can read? To whom would you give the job of deciding for you what or whom you can listen to? Who should be selected to relieve you of the responsibility of hearing what perhaps you should hear? Hitchens asked for some nominees for the task. There were none.
Yet film festivals and series from San Mateo to Brattleboro to Brussels are giving to outside activists the job of deciding for others not only whether Nina Paley gets to speak at certain events but also whether attendees at those events even get the opportunity to hear this gifted animator and director speak on the subject of making animated films. This amounts to a kind of prior restraint—on both the speaker, who is anathematized, and the audience, which is infantilized.
On such prior restraint, Hitchens (still in Toronto) had this to say:
It may not be determined in advance what words are apt or inapt. No one has the knowledge that would be required to make that call. And, more to the point, one has to suspect the motives of those who do so—in particular, the motives of those who are determined to be offended.
The determination to be offended is a powerful cultural force these days, and if Nina Paley’s experience is any indication, it will take people of firmer stuff than the typical festival organizer is made of to stand up to it. None of the organizers really appeared to try. Either they capitulated as soon as outside pressure was brought to bear, or—having noticed themselves that Paley is “gender critical”—they reached out to local transgender activists for consultation, as if such activists were the organization’s own legal department or perhaps the town’s cultural commissariat, after which consultations the organizers generally did what they were told.
One organization, however, the Elles Tournent festival in Brussels, Belgium, tried—in irresolute fashion—to have it both ways. It had planned to screen Paley’s film Seder-Masochism, and had duly featured it on the Elles Tournent poster/program. But just as the festival got underway, transgender activists condemned the organizers for the planned screening. A power struggle ensued within the organization, during which Elles Tournent took to Facebook to apologize and to officially denounce Paley’s words as “violent” and intolerable. (It also struck Paley’s screening from the program—a move with hints of David King’s disturbing 1997 book, The Commissar Vanishes.) But in the same post, the festival admitted that with limited publicity, it would screen the film anyway, for free—a decision that only piqued the activists further. Commenting on the Facebook post, they hotly accused the organizers of hypocrisy and of contributing to (what else?) “violence.” Some vowed to boycott the festival outright and evermore.
If those organizers had been in the audience in Toronto in 2006, they would have heard this admonishment from Christopher Hitchens: “Bear in mind, ladies and gentlemen, that every time you violate, or propose to violate, the free speech of someone else, you are—in potentia—making a rod for your own back.” To earn pique in defense of a solid principle such as free speech is a difficult enough experience. To abandon principle in an attempt to earn favor is, inevitably, to find oneself in a far more difficult position. We should always, per Hitchens, bear this in mind.
A crucial question remains, however: What if Paley really were an unabashed bigot, a person of such turpitude that the only thing one could say in her favor is that she’s a talented animator and director? She would still be worth inviting to a festival or film series, because a person of her skills and experience has something valuable and even rare to impart about aesthetic matters, animation techniques, directorial judgments, and so on—all of which could help advance the cause of art, for which everyone has gathered, and for which she was invited in the first place. This is the raison d’être of these festivals. They’re not occasions for handing out citizenship awards. If arts festivals of whatever kind are required to become such, art itself will suffer, become duller, because much of the wisdom on which aspiring and future artists rely, that of perhaps otherwise reprehensible virtuosos, will be misplaced and maybe lost forever in a moral panic.
Even more important is to understand that blacklists are bad not only when directed at people we may (now), by consensus, consider good. They’re just as bad when directed at people who are abominable but who nevertheless are making whatever worthwhile contributions to the sum of human knowledge and/or creativity (say, in the fields of science, the arts, scholarly research, etc.)—contributions that should be judged on their own merits and not rejected out of hand because of what we consider a guilty association with the scientist, artist, or scholar as a person. We need to judge the scientist qua scientist, the artist qua artist, the scholar qua scholar. A deplorable man (say, a white supremacist–cum–sadistic husband) might be a great scientist, in his capacity as such, and were he to discover the long-sought cure for cancer, it would be outright misanthropic to seek to deny everyone the benefit of that discovery lest we appear to be validating such a man (or “contributing to violence,” as the saying goes).
This is not to suggest that one purchases immunity through outsize contribution, because this isn’t about immunity. (If laws are broken, and not just norms violated, that’s its own matter.) Nor is it an appeal for magnanimity on everyone else’s part. Rather, it is a call to take the common good—big or small—where we find it, for the benefit of us all. It might be a highly original animated film done by a “notorious transphobe.” It might be some little-noticed but nonetheless scrupulous academic research done by a committed Communist or anti-Semite. It might be the donkeywork performed by that cancer researcher’s lab assistant, who by some people’s estimation is a moral degenerate: a sexual pervert, say, or a homophobe, a fascist, a misogynist, a misandrist, a radical Islamist, you name it.
If we can’t take the good with the bad, or take the good while—in a delimited way—reproaching the bad, then we are making ourselves unnecessarily poorer as a society and a civilization, by rejecting the commendable fruits of intellectual or artistic labor only because we disapprove of the soils from which they spring. ++