Most people won’t have heard of Selina Todd. The only reason I had was because some years ago the BBC invited me to appear alongside her on one of those slots that used to be for intellectual discussion. ‘Would you be interested in coming on Radio 3 at about 10.30 p.m. to discuss class?’ I was asked. ‘Absolutely not,’ I replied, the subject being the only national obsession I would leave the country to escape. ‘That’s precisely why we want you,’ began the producer. And so eventually I ruined a perfectly good dinner and headed to the BBC where I met the aforementioned Todd. She turned out to be an Oxford professor whose area of study is the working class and whose specialism is resentment.
If there is often a temptation towards camaraderie in these late-night conversations, it was a temptation that Todd resisted easily. During my on-air introduction the interviewer decided to mention my schooling. I spied a potential problem. When the explosion came it was of its type: one of those gaseous side eruptions in which Etonians figured prominently. If memory serves, I politely responded that I had obviously been rather better brought up than my fellow guest and so would not reply in kind. Straight away I knew two things: that I had acquired a new enemy and that I had ruined the programme. After all, it’s not what you’re meant to do. When the BBC prepares a cockfight, you are meant to play your part, collect your fifty quid and ask to be invited back once the bruise has subsided. If you fold your arms and say you’re not playing, the BBC doesn’t have a show. I later learned that this edition of the programme had been used at BBC training days as an example of editorial failure, which made me rather proud.
Anyhow — I mention this only because now I am forced to come to Todd’s rescue, a thing that will surely hurt her more than it hurts me. But she doesn’t have any say in the matter, for she is now national news.
It turns out that in her spare moments away from studying grievance, Todd has found time to get embroiled in the ongoing ‘trans’ controversy. Readers who play close attention to these things will have noticed by now — as all us writers have — that there are two subjects which get you into most trouble in 21st-century Britain. The first is insinuating that Islam is anything but a religion of brotherly love. The second is questioning whether someone with a penis can be a woman. As luck would have it, these two are among my favourite topics. Indeed, I have often dreamed of bringing them together, which may be why The Spectator’s editor always starts wiping his brow and running backwards whenever I say I have an idea for a column.
To Todd’s credit, her thinking about trans matters means she has emerged as one of a growing number of women who are realising that trans rights and women’s rights do not necessarily rub along in the most peaceful manner. In fact, they grind rather horribly against one another in certain places. Like some religions, you might say.
Prominent among the people noticing this are feminists like Todd who have spent their whole lives extolling all the correct views before stumbling upon trans. So now they hire meeting halls and book seminar rooms up and down the country to crawl towards truths that everyone else already knew. Some among their number — and Todd would appear to be among these — incur the wrath of that segment of the trans lobby which seems to think the best way to make everyone believe you are a lady is to go around threatening to punch people in the face if they refuse to call you ‘Miss’.
Todd’s story has come to national attention because it was announced that she had received threats on social media which meant she now required physical protection from trans activists. Of course, claiming that you have received threats on social media is one of the 21st century’s easiest short-circuiting hacks for privileging your own opinions, and personally I would treat the need for anti-trans protection with a pinch of salt. There have been some very ugly and unpleasant trans protests outside women’s meetings in recent years and the police have on occasion permitted a level of intimidation that is wholly unacceptable. Yet despite occasional violence, we probably shouldn’t overstate the risk of trans terror.
Still the development is an undeniably sinister one. ‘We all have to defend the right of people to have freedom of speech and freedom of debate,’ Todd said last week, adding she and her employers did not want to wait and see if she’d get ‘hit in the face’. And so at present two male staff members apparently arrive at lectures before Todd in order to ‘diffuse’ any negative reactions.
We men are in a Catch-22 at times like this. If we come to a woman’s aid we are accused of sexism. If we do not come to their aid we are also accused of sexism. But you have to choose your regrets in this life and I choose to stand publicly by my old adversary. People should be free to say what they think. I don’t much care for Todd, but since I admire anybody who’s willing to voice unpopular truths, she now has a new buddy whether she likes it or not. What is more I hereby declare that if Todd requires protection, I am willing to be one of those who donates a part of my time to helping her out. If anyone in a dress wants to take a swing at her then they’ll have to come through me. And if she wants to take a swing at me at the same time then I shall be proud to fall to the floor at one of the most fascinating intersections of our time.