Members of the Society of Authors, we have our annual AGM on November 17th.
Usually, only a hundred or so members choose to attend the AGM, but this year is going to be different. This year, we face a well-organized attempt by a relatively small group of members to take over the AGM and push through two resolutions.
The meeting is virtual, so you can attend by Zoom. You can also vote on resolutions by proxy as long as you do so before the 15th.
Before we start, this post is mine, and not an official SOA statement. But –
As members of our union, there are a number of important resolutions for you to look at during this year’s AGM, which will help shape the future of the organization. I urge you to look at them all, and especially at resolutions 6 and 7, submitted by a group headed by some prominent gender critical members.
You’ve probably noticed that this year, there has been a great deal of attention given to our little group by a (mostly hostile) media. Much of it centres on me personally, and much of what they say is typically misleading, incomplete or untrue. Most of it has been driven by social media, where for several years I have been the target of abuse and attacks by gender critical people. I believe that the two following resolutions come as a direct result of this.
Resolution 6 is an attempt to get rid of me as Chair because of my “documented behaviour and comments”, which I take to mean my statements on social media in favour of trans rights, as well as my support of the three writers of colour who received racist abuse in the wake of the Kate Clanchy affair last year.
Resolution 7 includes a demand for a commitment to free speech, which, though it may seem reasonable in principle, in this context shows a basic lack of understanding of what the SOA already does for free speech, and implies that there is bias against certain groups within the organization.
First, let’s have a look at this accusation of bias, which runs through the whole proposal. Some of the people behind these two motions have made it clear that they think that my personal opinions, as tweeted on my personal account, somehow make me unable to exercise impartiality in my capacity as SOA chair.
Okay. Let’s look at my personal opinions. I have a lot of them, and I tweet a lot. I’m a Remainer. I’m left-wing. I’m pro-choice. I wear a mask in public places. I support trans rights. I’m afraid of climate change. I hate racism in all its forms. I really like musical theatre, and (full disclosure) once unfollowed someone on Twitter for saying they hated Les Mis. But the thing I keep being accused of bias over is – you guessed it – trans rights.
This harassment by the gender critical lobby has been going on for a long, long time. Here’s Graham Linehan calling for my resignation as early as October 2020: in spite of never having been an SOA member, and clearly having no idea what an SOA chair actually does.
Two years later, it’s still going on. If you look at the list of people proposing these motions (and if you take a glance at their Twitter profiles), you’ll find some prominent gender critical voices there. And all this has become part of a right-wing culture wars agenda that sees me as part of “a contamination by the woke”, as this blog post (one of many) typifies.
The way I see it, this targeting of the SOA is part of a wider attempt to force the organization to abandon its impartiality and to pander to the demands of the right wing, via the gender critical movement – demands that, in this case, amount to removing a democratically elected Chair, and effectively giving preferential treatment to people with gender critical beliefs.
I don’t think that having openly pro-trans beliefs is a reason to stand down as Chair. I don’t think that anyone would insist on this if I held any other belief – if I were Jewish, for instance. But having a trans son, and supporting his rights, is enough in the eyes of these people to justify this unfounded claim – a claim that either by expression my opinions, or by not supporting theirs, I have somehow “allowed” gender critical authors to be cancelled or to lose work, because of their gender critical beliefs.
This is utter nonsense. My Twitter is a personal account, like the rest of my social media. I don’t bring my clashes on Twitter into SOA meetings, or expect the SOA to defend me against criticism or abuse. Nor should anyone else: it’s not within the remit of the SOA to supervise social media, or to comment when authors disagree.
What the SOA is very good at is resolving contractual complaints. But anyone needing this kind of help needs to ask the SOA for help, not complain on social media that they weren’t offered any. If my car gets a flat tyre, I don’t complain to the management of my local Toyota garage that they didn’t help me – unless I’ve actually been there first. I wouldn’t expect them to look on social media to find out if I needed repairs. Why? Because what I say on Twitter doesn’t concern my local Toyota garage. For a start, they probably don’t follow me on Twitter. And I wouldn’t expect them to intervene if someone on Twitter complained that I’d left my Toyota blocking their drive, or if someone had left a rude message on the windscreen. Because – guess what? It isn’t their job. They’re a garage, not The Batman.
So, what do I actually do at the SOA? Well, I chair the Management Committee. We deal with finances and strategy, prizes and grants. We help direct policy and, with the help of the SOA staff, determine how best to serve the members. We are not a political party, though we do lobby politicians of all parties on issues that concern our members. We do not debate “what makes a woman” because the SOA has 12,000 members, including trans people and gender critical people, and we want to serve them all. The gender critical lobby has – or so it seems to me – consistently refused to understand this. I have been asked repeatedly to debate with them on Twitter over trans rights. I have been threatened over my refusal to sign a petition that I felt legitimized JK Rowling’s comments on gender. I have received death threats and abuse. I have been told that as Chair of the SOA I must engage with this debate, and then, when I have expressed opinions, have been told by the same people that I shouldn’t have said anything. But here’s the thing. Free speech is for all, even in the case of those with whom you disagree. And a democracy treats people equally, regardless of their status.
The gender critical lobby seems also not to understand this. It may have the support of some very powerful and well-connected people, but that doesn’t make their voices any more important than those of our other members. That’s why the SOA remains neutral in disagreements between individuals, whilst still supporting the free speech of everyone concerned. I’m very sure that if my opinion had swung towards the gender-critical side, no-one would be trying to claim that I was biased now. And I think that where there has been prejudice, it has been directed at me, for exercising my right to a belief that a very well-connected group of people in the media feel I simply shouldn’t hold.
Please don’t see this an an invitation to attack these people on social media. Whatever they may have said about me, whatever lies and smears they have used to make their case, I do not condone attacks or abuse in my name. If you feel there is a legitimate complaint to be made about anyone, then please do so via the SOA, according to their Dignity & Respect policy, not on Twitter. Twitter can be ugly, and things can quickly get out of hand there.
When I was elected to the Management Committee, I promised to concentrate on promoting diverse voices and ensuring that the SOA was an inclusive, fair and welcoming environment for every kind of writer. This current attack on our democracy by a vocal group of ideologues not only threatens that promise, but uses up valuable resources of time, expense and energy that would be better spent dealing with the needs of our members.
If you agree, please consider voting against Resolutions 6 and 7, either in person at the AGM, or by proxy.
And here’s a cat eating a cupcake.