There is something endearingly British about Mumsnet’s bloodymindedness. A website that, in theory, should be about the extortionate cost of childcare and moaning that Dear Husband forgot to take the bins out again has somehow found itself in the vanguard of the radical feminist movement. That quirk has now cost the site a partnership with Flora, which severed ties over what activists called ‘trans-hostile posts’ on Mumsnet’s forums. A margarine substitute producer might not be the kind of firm you’d expect to have strong political views but women discussing their sex-based rights on the internet seems to scrape their toast the wrong way. I can’t believe it’s not misogyny.
Here’s what happened. Last Thursday, a Twitter user named Helen tweeted:
She had come prepared, citing the Human Rights Statement of Flora's parent company, Upfield. The fact a purveyor of spreadable plant emulsion has a human rights statement covering ‘gender identification or expression’ is highly progressive, though I would settle for a spread that doesn’t turn to mush in the tub after its third encounter with a knife.
Helen’s concerns were swiftly picked up by Upfield, who did the sensible thing and said: ‘We’re sorry to hear you have a political disagreement with one of our partners. We respect all points of view and hope you can still enjoy our product despite not seeing eye-to-eye with some users of the website in question.’
Nah, just kidding. They caved, even though the same human rights statement expressly commits to protecting ‘political opinion’. Replying to Helen, Upfield tweeted:
If it really is this easy to change corporate policy, Asda customers should self-ID as paid breaks and bank holidays and demand the supermarket’s employment contracts respect these identities.
Mumsnet, to its credit, did not cave. Instead, it released a statement defending its users’ freedom of speech:
You could easily shrug off this latest skirmish in the culture war: business terminates commercial relationship to protect its ‘brand values’. Not my battle, sarge. But here we have an illustration of why it is essential to build a culture of free speech and not simply rely on narrow legal protections. Progressives — who, your occasional reminder, are opponents of liberalism just as much as they are opponents of conservatism — understood before anyone else that state-guaranteed rights were of limited substantive value if corporations gutted them of meaning. (The First Amendment protected the Dixie Chicks’s right to criticise George W Bush but that hardly mattered if corporate-owned radio stations pulled their records.)
Progressives have performed a stunning switcheroo, capturing corporate culture (of course, not the bits that matter, such as fair pay, decent conditions and unionised workforce) so that instead of upholding conventional morality at the behest of one mob, executives now enforce the moral code of a new mob. Like the corporate cowards who ordered their radio stations to stop playing Travelin' Soldier to appease the patriotism police, Upfield has contributed to the narrowing of public debate by attaching a cost to merely hosting speech which might displease a vocal minority.
The Great Put-Upon, the bulk of the population who just want a quiet life, are no match for a well-organised core of determined activists. However instinctively they rankle at the latest radical incursion into their happily apolitical lives, they lack the niche obsession, ideological fervour, and, frankly, the time to put up much resistance. That doesn’t mean they’ve made their peace with it. An inchoate but keenly felt sense that they’re being shoved around will eventually build up and find an outlet.
Those of us who who belong to neither minority group in this beef (gender-abolitionist feminists vs gender-essentialists) are viewed with suspicion by both. Some feminists are wary of a free-speech case in what is for them an argument about sex-based rights. After all, porn can be defended on the same libertarian grounds. This is a mistake. Allies are not fixed; they change from struggle to struggle. ‘Lord, give me health and strength,’ a ruthless Tammany Hall fixer used to pray. ‘We’ll steal the rest.’ Some trans activists and trans people also object to free-speech arguments because free speech protects hate speech and dissenting from the gender orthodoxy is the rawest hate. This is a mistake too. To posit, as the ideologues on the internet and in the universities do, that contrary views threaten your gender identity is to say that your expression is contingent on the expression of others. Their speech, not how you feel, makes your gender real.
Helen may be celebrating her victory and some on Mumsnet are discussing a reprisal boycott of Flora, but corporate culture is an arena in which no one wins. Corporate culture cares in the end, and often from the beginning, about the bottom line alone. It wants the mob, it needs the mob, it bends to the mob, and, one day, it may turn, with the mob, on you.