Why The Guardian Censored Judith Butler on TERFs

‘Habitual bigots online are going to do their thing, and usually respond to pieces without even reading them.’
September 8, 2021, 2:38pm
Judith Butler
Image: Target Presse Agentur Gmbh/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the Guardian published an interview with the American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler, which included a scathing critique of so-called “gender critical” transphobes and trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), who don’t believe trans women are women, and oppose the right of transgender people to exist in gendered spaces, such as a bathrooms.

“The anti-gender ideology is one of the dominant strains of fascism in our times,” Butler said. “So the Terfs will not be part of the contemporary struggle against fascism, one that requires a coalition guided by struggles against racism, nationalism, xenophobia and carceral violence, one that is mindful of the high rates of femicide throughout the world, which include high rates of attacks on trans and genderqueer people.”

Advertisement

Hours later, this section of the article, including a question from the interviewer Jules Gleeson and three paragraphs from Butler, were removed. The only explanation is a cryptic note at the end of the article, stating: “This article was edited on 7 September 2021 to reflect developments which occurred after the interview took place.” Screenshots of the deleted section of the interview have gone viral on Twitter.

According to Gleeson, who provided Motherboard with a written statement, the Guardian’s editorial team, and in particular its team based in the UK, “folded” under pressure from readers who took issue with the article and decided to “censor” Butler.

judith.png

“Habitual bigots online are going to do their thing, and usually respond to pieces without even reading them,” Gleeson wrote in a statement sent to Motherboard. “What’s been more unexpected was how quickly the publication folded. I was expecting the Guardian US to stand by me as a writer, and while I have received apologies from their side, this has been a draining and consuming episode that I didn’t expect.”

Gleeson told Motherboard that Judith Butler has also emailed the Guardian about its decision to remove that section of the interview, but has not heard back.

Gleeson said she last heard from the Guardian last night, and that her editor said “there’s not much I can do” because a decision has already been made. 

“I have not encountered anything like this,” Gleeson said of the Guardian’s decision. “A few people I’ve spoken to, including at the Guardian US, said this is unprecedented.” 

Advertisement

When reached for comment, a Guardian spokesperson sent Motherboard the following statement:

On 7 September 2021, the Guardian edited a Q&A with Judith Butler as one question, posed by the Guardian, failed to take account of new facts regarding the incident at Wi Spa, which emerged late last week after the interview took place and the piece was written.

In light of those developments, the question regarding Wi Spa in the interview should have been reviewed again prior to publication, but this did not happen. This is a departure from our usual editorial standards.

We have not censored Judith Butler but addressed a failure in our editorial standards. This particular question omitted the new details that had come to light, and therefore risked misleading our readers. For that reason we decided to remove both the question and Judith Butler's answer. As it was only this one question that referred to the Wi Spa incident in LA, the rest of the Q+A remains in place. Judith Butler has written for us several times in the past.

The Guardian remains committed to reporting on the rights of trans people in the US and globally, including the worrying attacks on trans people and their allies by far right groups.

According to Gleeson, within a few hours of the Guardian publishing interview, she was forwarded a message from the Guardian’s “reader complaints” department. According to Gleeson, and responses that were critical of the interview on social media, the issue was not in what Butler said, but how Gleeson asked the question. 

In the original article, Gleeson asked: “It seems that some within feminist movements are becoming sympathetic to these far-right campaigns. This year’s furore around Wi Spa in Los Angeles saw an online outrage by transphobes followed by bloody protests organised by the Proud Boys. Can we expect this alliance to continue?”

Advertisement

The Wi Spa incident Gleeson was referring to started as a viral video of a woman at a spa in Los Angeles complaining that she saw someone’s penis in an area of the spa intended for women only. As the Guardian itself wrote on July 28, “The massive media attention resulted in two weekends of chaotic rallies in LA this month, in which anti-trans and trans-rights protesters fought in the streets, and women carrying ‘protect female spaces’ signs paraded alongside members of the far-right Proud Boys.”

The problem, as some readers said and the Guardian’s editors apparently agreed, was that the question didn’t mention that, last week, the Los Angeles Police Department charged the person who was the subject of that video for indecent exposure. There is an arrest warrant for the 52-year-old, who is now facing five felony counts, according to court records reviewed by Motherboard. According to the police, this person has been a registered sex offender since 2006 and has a history of indecent exposure charges. 

Advertisement

“I was of two minds about mentioning Wi Spa, as at this point it mostly seemed like a Pizzagate style conspiracy: starting online without clear sourcing, then spilling into IRL violence (including Proud Boys stabbing antifa counter-protestors, and at one point even each other),” Gleeson said.

As Gleeson notes, news of the arrest warrant does not negate her description of the incident as a “furore” which is largely fueled by “Gender Critical” activists and the far-right. The Guardian covered this fallout as well.

“However with all this said, I can see why the new developments took Wi Spa from a weak example to a counter-productive one,” Gleeson said. 

Gleeson said that while the piece initially received glowing feedback, the criticism from some readers escalated “‘up the chain’ of Guardian editorial hierarchy (and out of Guardian US control). Apparently it became something of an editor’s pile on, with a ‘long discussion’ that I didn’t get to see unfolding.”

Gleeson suggested to retract the question and replace it with something more timely, like the recent Texas abortion law. She offered the following revision, “free of charge:” 

It seems that some within feminist movements are becoming sympathetic to these far-right campaigns. In 2019 NBC news reported that the US right wing lobbying group The Heritage Foundation had hosted 'gender critical' feminist perspectives. Remarkable given the Heritage Foundation is pushing for restrictions on abortion, as seen in Texas.

“I explained that while I wasn’t attached to my question, and was happy for that to get revised or removed, I could not endorse removing Judith Butler’s answer,” Gleeson said. “Unfortunately, the Guardian editors decided to go ahead with their decision to censor Judith Butler.”

It is exceedingly rare for long passages to be cut from articles with such a cryptic update note, and is even rarer for a question-and-answer to be deleted from a high profile interview without any real explanation to readers. 

Advertisement

“I'm not uncompromising here, I informed your editors that my question was flexible, but Judith's answer was essential,” Gleeson said in an email to John Mulholland, editor of the Guardian US. “To me it seems perfectly clear that the 'gender critics' should not be beyond criticism, any more than the rest of the 'anti-gender' movement. And no discussion of the topic today can ignore them.”

Judith Butler did not respond to a request for comment. 

Gleeson said that she expected publishing an interview with Judith Butler at the Guardian would be a “live wire” given the Guardian UK’s “editorial stance” on trans issue and Judith Butler specifically. Gleeson notes that the Guardian’s US editorial team has taken issue with the Guardian’s stance on trans rights in the UK. She also notes the Guardian regularly publishes editorials that are critical of Butler. 

“Thirty years ago, academics were all high on Jacques Derrida. Now a lot of them appear to be drinking the Kool-Aid that is Judith Butler, high priestess of gender theory,” Rachel Cooke wrote in a Guardian story last month, for example. 

“My impression is that there are two different teams, the U.S. team and the UK team,” Gleeson told Motherboard. “I know it’s not a totally different publication, but I expected some editorial autonomy from the U.S., which simply was not there.”

“I’m loath to make an appeal to our identities at this point, but it seems a fine state of affairs when an intersex woman interviewing one of the few non-binary philosophy professors in the world is decried online as ‘misogyny,’” Gleeson said. “One last question for the editorial teams at The Guardian: why should 'Gender Critics' be beyond criticism?”

Update: This story has been updated with comment from the Guardian.