‘TERFs,’ Free Speech, and Twitter
Or, the heresy of calling a man a man
Following Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, liberals have bleated about how he is a “free speech absolutist.” In one sense, they mean that he will permit, say, neo-Nazis to call for the extermination of Jewish people. This kind of convenient imagery typically is what they invoke with “trans genocide” rhetoric. According to liberals, women not affirming men as “women” and refusing to comply with castration is like the Holocaust. When challenged, they usually dial it down to saying “marginalized groups”—by which they mean men—will be persecuted by “speech” presumably against them. The speech in question usually happens to be women’s speech.
Whether dialing their hyperbole down or not, liberals say basically the same thing either way, but they just word it differently to make it more palatable. For example, NPR published a piece with the following headline: “Elon Musk Calls Himself a Free Speech Absolutist. What Could Twitter Look Like Under His Leadership?” Interviewed by NPR’s Michel Martin, Nina Jankowicz, author of How to Be a Woman Online: Surviving Abuse and Harassment, and How to Fight Back, says:
For a free speech absolutist to take control of a platform like Twitter, where so many people spend their time and when there’s where there’s a lot of debate going on, this is not just about, you know, allowing a free speech free-for-all. This is about eventually silencing marginalized voices. That free speech free-for-all is going to mean less speech for marginalized groups. Because what happens online these days—and I know this personally, as you said—is it’s not just the expressly illegal content or the content that directly incites violence. And that’s the stuff that Musk said he would prohibit. All the rest of the policies would go away. It’s not just that stuff that is silencing for marginalized groups.
Sure, dominant classes can use—and have used—“free speech” at the expense of subordinate ones. One may think of Joseph Goebbels and his propaganda about Jewish people—and, by extension, pornography as propaganda about women. Anyway, prior to Musk’s takeover, Twitter allowed child sexual abuse material on the site, without efficient moderation in place. Jankowicz does not make a note of this fact. In addition, it has long allowed abuse and harassment against women deemed to be deserving of it. Typically, the use of “TERF” and “SWERF,” as slurs, have been effective in designating certain women as subhuman. Expressing concerns about male entitlement to female bodies can result in targeted harassment. Not being compliant and submissive has been made into a heresy for women online. Jankowicz knows this reality, at least part of it.
Upon reading her book, I noticed that Jankowicz does not discuss the abuse and harassment directed at women as “TERFs” and “SWERFs.” Such women have been casually sent rape and death, largely by male users who declare themselves “trans women.” White heterosexual males, otherwise dominant, become “women” and “lesbians.” As “trans lesbians,” otherwise heterosexual males take up a mask and cry oppression at women, especially lesbians. These men claim “oppression”—and then proceed to further oppress women, especially lesbians. Clearly, men recognize the additional power they can possess over women by declaring themselves “women.” And online threats manifest as real-life attacks on women’s lives from men whose narcissistic rage has been unchecked. Jankowicz does not acknowledge this slice of abuse and harassment that has become normalized for women online.
Among the cases of women experiencing online abuse and harassment, Jankowicz discusses U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and comedian Leslie Jones. Both are Black women who have experienced extreme misogyny and racism from their detractors. According to Jankowicz, Harris had been referred to as “Heels Up Harris” and “Cumala,” with male users pasting her face onto pornography. And Jankowicz points out how users had put the face of dead gorilla Harambe on Jones’s body, both a death threat and public mockery. These kinds of imagery have the purpose of denigrating and silencing the subject. Yet, as useful as it may be, Jankowicz’s analysis neglects the marking of women as “TERFs” and “SWERFs,” typically accompanied by threats of violence.
While Jankowicz acknowledges misogyny and racism, she muddles the analysis by throwing in any man who declares himself a “woman.” Here is a passage from her book:
These tactics affect other women of color, transgender women and other members of the LGBTQ community, and disabled women. As my own research has shown, the most popular narratives of gendered disinformation against women in public life are sexual, racist, or transphobic in nature. Women from marginalized communities experience more and categorically worse abuse than their non-marginalized counterparts. The abuse often spills over to offline violence. The threats women with intersectional identities experience are pernicious. They are abhorrent. And until we address them as the intersectional problems they are, the wider problem of online abuse against women will not be solved. As civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer told the National Women’s Political Caucus at its inaugural meeting, in a speech about the struggle of Black feminists, ‘nobody’s free until everybody’s free.’
Though carefully, performatively kind, the above sentiments may as well read “All Lives Matter.” Men who declare themselves “women,” especially the heterosexual males declaring themselves “lesbians,” are not “women from marginalized communities.” They are not really marginalized as men either, though violence they experience would be far better addressed by considering sex, not so-called “gender identity.” Such men, as men, are not uniquely vulnerable to violence. Men who declare themselves “women” are not like Black women—though we almost constantly see the analogy made. The implication has been the equally misogynistic and racist assumption that Black women are “like men.”
I am surprised Jankowicz used a quote from Hamer instead of Audre Lorde, since the latter has been the more usual go-to. For example, Julia Serano, a white man, similarly used a quote from Lorde, a Black woman, as the epigraph to his 2007 book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Interestingly, these white men do not regard themselves as other “white women,” per se, but rather as “trans women” oppressed by “cis women.” Their declaration of “trans” status gives the oppressor a convenient opportunity to reposition himself as the oppressed. To authorize this otherwise evidently self-serving framing as “social justice,” male entitlement to female bodies appropriates not only Black feminism but also Black women. Thus, Serano uses Lorde, as white men use Black women to undermine the rights of women across race and class.
With “TERF” used for the purpose of suppressing women’s speech, we need to think about the dynamics involved. How free is “free speech” when “trans” occupies the position of a sacred caste? Excitingly, Meghan Murphy, founder and editor of Feminist Current, has been reinstated on Twitter, after years of being banned. So, there is some good reason to be hopeful. Elon Musk has been regarded as both redeemer and destroyer, celebrated and condemned for defending free speech.
Twitter locked my account over “abuse and harassment” from November 11 to November 18. I suppose it may be trying to fix the internal issues, but I still found the experience annoying, in light of what has been allowed. “Free speech” from men talking about killing “TERFs,” for example, has long been permitted. Women like Meghan Murphy telling men they are men has been penalized as “hateful conduct.”
When Twitter locked my account, I deleted the tweets and made an appeal through the form on the site. Then, after hearing nothing for a few days, I sent the following email:
Dear Twitter Support,
I attempted to reach out a few days ago and never received a response.
My account has been reported by those using the tool maliciously for the purpose of targeted harassment. I remain locked out of my account for at least a few more days, according to the message it shows.
I do not think it was right to classify the reported tweets as being “abuse,” much less “targeted harassment.”
Here are the three tweets with explanations why:
“I am not afraid of cowardly, vile men. They deserve their suffering. He should be afraid of more people finding out just what he did. I hope that everybody around him knows and reminds him what he is. Ebony Nicole Williams’s photo should be the last thing he sees before he dies.”
This tweet speaks in the third person about a man named Synthia China Blast, who tortured and murdered a thirteen-year-old Black girl and burned her body. He is a cross-dressing man who declares himself a “woman” and who, after killing a little girl, demanded the state pay for his “sex change” to uphold his “human rights.” I did not say that he should die or how he should die and have made no threats to his life, and it is not “targeted harassment” to talk back.
Here are two links about the case involving Blast murdering Williams:
Blast is currently on Twitter harassing women and misusing the reporting tool, as discussed in this article:
(I have blocked both of his accounts.)
“You’ve heard of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,’ now get ready for ‘The Man with the “Girl Dick” Tattoo.”
This tweet is transparently not “targeted harassment” and is not directed at the user whose image I retweeted. She shared an image of a man who had a tattoo that he called a “lesbian love story” with ejaculating penises in it. Therefore, I made a joke about “The Man with the “Girl Dick” Tattoo.”
“Straight women being given endocrine disorders and surgical interventions and declaring themselves ‘gay men’ is dystopian. If only we could go back to the 1970s and tackle all of this nonsense harder—and way earlier. It has very much grown far bigger than it ever should have.”
Again, this tweet is also not “targeted harassment.” It does not incite others to harass anybody and does not wish harm toward others. Meanwhile, grotesque homophobia from straight women who declare themselves “gay men” goes without question on Twitter. Men who declare themselves “women,” as well as “lesbians,” can engage in misogyny and homophobia. Yet Twitter does virtually nothing.
I would be thankful to have this mistake resolved today and get the functioning of my account back.
To which Twitter responded, after a few more days:
We’re writing to let you know that your account features will remain locked or limited for the allotted time due to violations of the Twitter Rules, specifically our hateful conduct policy.
We do not allow people to promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease.
Please note that continued abusive behavior may lead to the suspension of your account. To avoid having your account suspended, please only post content that abides by the Twitter Rules: https://twitter.com/rules#hateful-conduct.
You can learn more about our policy against hateful conduct here: https://help.twitter.com/rules-and-policies/hateful-conduct-policy.
In response to the above message, I submitted my first email through the online Twitter form, as opposed to emailing. Twitter followed more quickly with the following response:
We’re writing to let you know that your account features will remain limited for the allotted time due to violations of the Twitter Rules, specifically our rules against abusive behavior.
To ensure that people feel safe expressing diverse opinions and beliefs on our platform, we do not tolerate behavior that crosses the line into abuse. This includes behavior that harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence another person's voice.
Please note that continued abusive behavior may lead to the suspension of your account. To avoid having your account suspended, please only post content that abides by the Twitter Rules: https://help.twitter.com/rules-and-policies/twitter-rules#abusive-behavior.
Finally, I responded by criticizing Twitter Support:
Dear Twitter Support,
This experience has been far beyond ridiculous. You assert something as “abuse” that is simply not. The following does not even apply to the three cited tweets:
“To ensure that people feel safe expressing diverse opinions and beliefs on our platform, we do not tolerate behavior that crosses the line into abuse. This includes behavior that harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence another person’s voice.”
There was no “behavior that crosses the line into abuse.” And the examples, as I have taken great pains to explain, against functional illiteracy, are not “abuse.” The person whom I replied to in Tweet #1 was harassing and threatening others, including me. Neither Tweet #2 nor Tweet #3, especially, even constitutes “abuse.” Various times, I have experienced abuse on this platform, including targeted harassment, and Twitter has not intervened.
I thought Elon Musk said that he cared about upholding “free speech” on Twitter. Why, then, has Twitter Support continued behaving like the Ministry of Truth from Orwell’s 1984? I demand a real answer and not some nonsense meant, as you put it well, “to silence another person’s voice.”
No further response followed, and the time on the lock ended, with my account restored to regular functionality. I presume the employee placing me in Twitter jail for thoughtcrimes may be gone by now. Perhaps the loss of certain employees has improved the platform, though much remains to be seen. Since my account’s restoration, I have been given notifications adding “sensitive content warnings” to my tweets. However, I have appealed them and, so far, Twitter has been reasonable in not behaving in that quaint totalitarian manner. In any case, I celebrate the return of Meghan Murphy and, hopefully, many other women formerly muzzled by Twitter. Though I am skeptical, as usual, I have some hope.
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