Melanie McDonagh

When a dictionary definition becomes hate speech

When a dictionary definition becomes hate speech
Text settings

So, when does a dictionary definition count as hate speech? When it’s the dictionary definition of a woman – 'woman/noun/adult human female' – and it’s on a poster in Liverpool during the Labour Party conference, that’s when, silly.

Admittedly, the idea, courtesy of a female blogger, Kellie-Jay Keen Minshull, to put the definition up on a £700 billboard for the duration of the conference seems a little eccentric. 'I wanted it to stimulate debate,' she said. The conversation she had in mind was probably about the gender pay gap, all female parliamentary shortlists, Twitter abuse of female politicians, all the usual stuff that gets feminists worked up at these events. I’m only guessing here, but I imagine the definition was meant to provoke reflection about whether the mere fact of qualifying the noun human with the adjective female should lead to different life outcome for the adults in question from that of other adults, male. Dunno. Just a thought.

Alas, the conversation turned out short lived because the posters provoked the scrutiny of one Adrian Harrop, who is not only a GP but has the altogether darker calling of 'Activist'. He accused the billboard company that hosted the offensive definition of being complicit 'in the spread of transphobic hate speech'. Naturally, the company capitulated and promised to remove the offending poster ASAP. Result!

But Mrs Keen-Minshull is not a happy adult human female. She takes the view that her freedom of speech has been curtailed and moreover that 'we’re in a new realm of misogyny when the word 'woman' becomes hate speech'. Not just that, I’d say. We’ve arrived at a moment when language itself has ceased to convey meaning, when all debate is null because we do not have access to words in which to conduct it.

It’s already the case that the mere facts of biology have been discounted in this preposterous public discussion – a philosophy student at Durham was disciplined for tweeting the observation that 'women don’t have penises', which until about five minutes ago would have been a statement of the obvious. At the risk of inflaming the situation, let me reiterate it: women don’t have penises – if they did, they’d be men.

There is the temptation to let the feminists and the trans fanatics fight it out on the basis that feminists are no slouches when it comes to calling out definitions that displease them – weirdly, the latest development in the Irish abortion post-referendum situation is that feminists are objecting to abortion being defined as the killing of a foetus (what else is it?) – but I think that would be a mistake. When the integrity of language is at stake, we’re all affected.

So, let’s get concrete. It’s time for the sane to do a bit of calling out themselves, namely, about the Government’s proposed, preposterous revisions to the Gender Recognition Act which would allow anyone to identify as a member of the opposite sex and have that definition legally enforced without so much as a doctor’s certificate. So, birth certificates and passports could be falsified; men would potentially have access to women’s prisons (that’s already had predictable consequences) and refuges and the Government would be complicit in the fraud. I’ve heard a Cabinet minister, by no means a lefty, express support for the move. Well, the Government’s consulting; let them know what you think.

Meanwhile the energetic Mr Harrop has declared that he is not denying Mrs Keen-Minshull free speech. 'She has freedom of speech and so do I', he says. Just not on a poster in Liverpool.