For most people engaged in equality, diversity and inclusion work there exists at least one moment where you are accused of being the very ‘thing’ you have invested your time and energy to fight against.
Nobody is immune from being accused. Some of the most dedicated anti-racist activists are labelled ‘racist’. Some people who have given their lives to LGBTQ causes are tagged as ‘homophobic’, ‘biphobic’ or ‘transphobic’. These accusations are often difficult to fathom.
In some cases, there is substance to these accusations. A history of activism does not excuse you from making mistakes. In other cases, people - intentionally or unintentionally - promote views that others perceive as contradictory to their vision of equality.
For anyone who has expressed online support for the rights of trans people and reform of the process for a Gender Recognition Certificate, they will have likely encountered a backlash of negative comments, peppered with accusations of misogyny. This problem is particularly endemic on Twitter, with accusations of misogyny often made by profiles that lack a real name, meaningful biography or personal photograph. It is therefore often unclear who exactly has made this accusation.
The use of language that conveys one message to the ears of some but appears perfectly uncontroversial to the ears of many.
Social media has made it possible to accuse anyone of anything. In under 60 seconds I could pull-out my phone, open Twitter, tag someone in my tweet and write ‘You are a homophobe’. Social media has made it far easier to make an accusation and, in the generally lawless world of Twitter, it is unlikely most users will face any legal repercussions.
Taking a step back from the particularities of speaking in defence of trans rights on Twitter, it is vital to consider what is actually at play here.
Rather than exchange slurs, we have instead moved into an online world where people exchange accusations. A battle of accusations brings less risks than a battle of slurs, which are more rigorously policed under hate crime legislation.
This tactic is also part of a bigger campaign where language is used to obfuscate. The dog whistle politics of ‘America First’ and ‘sex-based rights’, which often serve as bywords for nativist and trans-exclusionary ideologies, demonstrates the use of language that conveys one message to the ears of some but appears perfectly uncontroversial to the ears of many.
In some situations, accusations invite legal challenges. For example, in 2018 the Wings over Scotland blogger Stuart Campbell took Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale to court after she accused him of sending ‘homophobic tweets’ in her weekly newspaper column. The court decided in Dugdale’s favour but what was interesting is that the focus of this case was on the accusation, rather than the content of Campbell’s original tweet.
In many cases being accused is not about the veracity of the accusation. Instead, accusations are made with a certain knowingness that the accused is not the ‘thing’ they are labelled.
The act of accusation reframes the situation. Calling someone a ‘misogynist’ packs a punch and casually moves attention from the original claim (what was actually said to warrant the accusation of misogyny) to an expectation that the accused will respond to this accusation.
For high-profile targets, this invites them to repudiate the accusation:
‘I am not a racist.’
‘I am not a misogynist.’
‘I am not a homophobe.’
These utterances bring into being the very thing they stand against, they now become linked in observers’ minds with the spectre of the ‘racist’, the ‘misogynist’ and the ‘homophobe’.
This speech trap is nothing new. In Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 Hunter S Thompson wrote about an earlier election campaign in Texas that involved future US President Lyndon B Johnson. The story noted that the race was very close and LBJ instructed his campaign manager to start a rumour that his competitor was having sex with his farmyard pigs. The rumour was not based on any evidence, LBJ simply wanted his competitor to publicly deny that he did not have sex with pigs.
What has changed since the mid-twentieth century is the vortex of contemporary media coverage, which can whirl repudiations into stories that become detached from the original incident. ‘Senior politician protests - ‘I am not an anti-Semite’’ will invite the interest of online readers, even if the story’s foundations are shaky or non-existent.
As discourse around equality, diversity and inclusion evolves, and increasingly departs from a base in evidence or reality, we need to remain mindful of the speech traps laid by our opposition and ensure that the power of the accusation does not lose its meaning.
Dr Kevin Guyan is based in Edinburgh and works as an equality, diversity and inclusion researcher. He is writing in a personal capacity.