Editing is a political act: changes to reply to Observer transphobe free speech letter

So, last week’s letter defending the right of transphobes and whorephobes to impose themselves on audiences at will received a response.

It turned out that the transphobes’ letter had been edited, and the same is true of the response. I am willing to believe now that the editing of both letters was done in the Observer’s offices, and that therefore the signatories of first letter didn’t know that its transphobic and whorephobic rant would be watered down; similarly, the sentiments of the reply have been watered down.

I thought it might be illuminating to go through the changes to the reply, and see what impact they have on the meaning.

Here’s the changes I noticed as I went through the letter in its original and published versions:

– – –

Opening & 2nd para rephrased.

Cut: concerned about politics, not just inaccuracies, in the transphobes’ letter.

Added: clarification of some of the inaccuracies, specifically of Greer and Smurthwaite incidents.


We believe that this is part of a worrying pattern of misrepresentation and distortion that serves to benefit some of the most privileged and powerful outside of and within feminism at the expense of the most marginalised and excluded.


In the published version, para 3 is re-ordered to follow para 4 of the original. Also, the 3rd, 4th and 5th paras are combined into a single paragraph.

3rd para.

Cut: “The letter also works to obfuscate and distract from real and crucial struggles that are currently taking place on campuses around the issue of freedom of speech.”

Cut: “Many academic staff are deeply complicit in these processes; the signatories of the original letter would do well to reflect on this.”

4th para:


“without being held accountable or challenged for their complicity in systems which are damaging to those whose lives they speak about.”

rephrased as

“without being held accountable or challenged for their complicity in oppressive systems”

Cut: “No one is entitled to disseminate their views on university campuses without opposition.”

Cut: “Decisions taken to exclude or counter some voices from some discussions at some specific times and places are democratically made, politically legitimate and do not amount to censorship.”

5th para:


There is a long history of women positioned on the margins of feminist discourse engaging critically with mainstream feminist ideas and politics and the damage they can do.


ideologies which not only perpetuate hateful myths about trans people and sex workers but also have the potential to influence policy precisely due to the platform(s) of those who advocate them. Some of these myths – the ‘toilet panic’ around trans people, the claim that all opposition to sex work abolition is funded by a ‘pimp lobby’-

Which leaves only the following,

It is disappointing to see so many people with institutional power and prominent platforms take sides against grassroots feminist organising, including transfeminisms and sex workers’ rights. There are some very harmful ideologies circulating under the banner of feminist “debate”, some aimed at removing vulnerable people from public space and discourse.

Final para:


We will continue to organise against those debates and the politics they promote, and we call on other feminists to support us.

– – –

I noticed as I went through these cuts that almost all reference to the political concerns were removed, and similarly, all reference to the direct and indirect harms that transphobic and whorephobic politics and policies cause. Anything referring to actual people being harmed was trimmed away by the editor. Similarly, discussion of privilege and marginalisation disappeared.

Only when workers’ rights were compared with trans rights and sexworkers’ rights do we see a substantial passage remaining, and the key point of that (that academics and co-signatories of the original letter are complicit in the erosion of university workers’ rights) was also cut.

The effect of the Observer’s cuts is implicitly to keep this all in the realm of the theoretical, a “debate” between two more-or-less equal sides, rather than a struggle of a marginalised groups to survive against an assault on their existence and their presumed right to exist.

I am willing to accept that, if this letter is to be published in the print version as well as online, that it needs to be cut for space. The same no doubt was considered true of the transphobes’ letter last week.

However, the choice of what to cut, and how to cut it is down to the editor. The substance, and the core meaning, of the original version of the reply was, “This does actual harm to living people. Stop it.” It is precisely this message that the editor chose to remove or weaken, in deference to theoretical debate. The radical, even revolutionary, language is left out in favour of a sweet, liberal, middle-class acceptable “debate” over “free speech”.


About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
This entry was posted in Economics, Gender, Politics, Writing about writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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