Not My Issue: Angela Nagle and Germaine Greer

Angela Nagle's book Kill All Normies, released last year, created a stir on the left. It was featured in Chapo Trap House, Jacobin, and even Vice. In it she describes the "culture of struggle sessions and virtue signalling [lurking] behind a therapeutic language of trigger warnings and safe spaces"[1] and positions it as a cause of the subsequent meteoric rise of the alt-right[2].

Kill All Normies has made waves again this May: Mark Harman published an article detailing Nagle's supposed plagiarism on libcom, which Charles Davis further elaborated in his article for The Daily Beast; Zero books has responded, and libcom has expounded their criticsms. This reignited conversations many of us had thought we had settled when we read and discussed the book last June.

Independently of the question of plagiarism, there are two paragraphs in Chapter Five (page 77, specifically) that I think are worth examining closer:

At the height of all this Germaine Greer was announced to speak at Cardiff University about ‘Women & Power: The Lessons of the 20th Century’. The women’s officer at Cardiff University Students’ Union, Rachael Melhuish, decided that Greer’s presence would be ‘harmful’.

[...]

[Her] petition was signed by over 2,000 people and Greer was transformed overnight from a leading veteran figure who worked for her entire life for the cause of women’s liberation to a forbidden and toxic TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist), whose name was dragged through the dirt. As far as this new generation of campus feminists was concerned, Greer may as well have been on the far right. Greer had not published any comment about transgenderism for over 15 years, which was ‘not my issue’, she later told Newsnight. In response to the controversy, Cardiff University’s vice-chancellor pandered to those attacking Greer, saying: ‘discriminatory comments of any kind’ and how it ‘work(s) hard to provide a positive and welcoming space for LGBT+ people’.

Nagles makes three claims here: that Greer had not published any comment about "transgenderism" for over fifteen years, that she claimed that "transgenderism" was "not her issue", and that the vice-chancellor of Cardiff University "pandered" to the authors of the petition. All of them are misleading.

First: Cardiff's vice-chancellor spoke unambiguously in favor of permitting Germaine Greer to speak. His October 22nd statement:

Our events include speakers with a range of views, all of which are rigorously challenged and debated. This event will be no different. Our commitment to our LGBT+ students and staff members is unwavering and we fully recognise the tremendous benefits having such a diverse community brings to Cardiff University. At Cardiff University we work hard to provide a positive and welcoming space for LGBT+ people and we are in consultation with student and staff groups to ensure that the views of LGBT+ people are represented at our events. We in no way condone discriminatory comments of any kind.

And despite some reporting[3], Greer did give her speech. There doesn't seem to be a recording[4] or a transcript, so some context is lost, but an article a week after in The Guardian confirms that.

Second: Greer never said that "transgenderism" was "not her issue". This seems to be a misunderstanding or a misconstrual of the interview Greer gave to BBC's Newsnight about the response to her announced speech at Cardiff:

Greer: I think a great many women don't think that post-operative or even non-post-operative transexual m-to-f people look like, sound like, or behave like women. They daren't say so.

Inteviewer: But just because they daren't say so, it doesn't mean that that person can't feel like that and feel more comfortable with themself.

Greer: Yeah, but so what? That's not my issue, I don't even talk about it. Not everybody does feel comfortable, by the way, post-operatively. There have been a couple of cases I've found very interesting, where the actual acceptor of the procedure has felt that it's been a disaster[5].

Greer isn't saying that "transgenderism" isn't her issue: rather, she's saying that the feelings and comfort of trans women aren't her issue[6]. This is consistent with other representations Greer has made of her beliefs, where she argues that a trans woman's experience is irrelevant to her womanhood[7].

And Greer had definitely been making remarks about trans women before her speech at Cardiff was announced. The "15 years", apparently taken from a 2015 Claire Lehman article[8], refers to Germaine Greer's 2000 book The Whole Woman: Chapter 4, "pantomime dames", is devoted to the topic of trans womanhood. This was not the beginning of Greer's anti-trans-womanhood activism: in 1997, when a trans woman was appointed a fellow of the women-only Newnham College at Oxford, she argued to have her removed[9]. In 2009, well within those "15 years", she provoked dozens of blog posts[10] by penning an article for the The Guardian ostensibly about an intersex Olympic athlete wherein she refers to trans women as a "ghastly parody, though it isn't polite to say so".

Leading up to[11], during[12], and after[13] her speech at Cardiff university, Greer made comments about trans women. Angela Nagle's paragraphs give the impression that Greer had not spoken about trans women, but if she had read any of Greer's statements around her speech at Cardiff she would have known better.

So why is Nagle representing Greer this way?

One explanation: sloppy copy-pasting. It does appear that Nagle borrowed her phrasing, as Davis points out, from that article by Claire Lehman[14].

But I think this is more significant than careless rephrasing. Nagle brings up Greer to make a point, and only includes the context that lines up with her point. Her research was motivated towards building the narrative she had already decided on. It's slanted analysis. We can't base our understanding of the alt-right, the so-called Tumblr left, or the phenomenon of campus no-platforming on Kill All Normies when it makes mistakes like these.


  1. Kill All Normies, back cover:

    Recent years have seen a revival of the bitter and heated culutre wars of the 1990s but this time its battle ground is the internet. On one side the "alt right" ranges from the once obscure and bizarre neo-reactionary and white separatist movements to geeky subculutures like 4chan to more mainstream mainifestations such as the Trump supporting gay libertarian Milo Yannopolous. On the other side of the war, a culture of struggle sessions and virtue signalling lurks behind a therapeutic language of trigger warnings and safe spaces. The feminist side of the online culture wars has its equally geeky subcultures right through to its mainstream expression. Kill All Normies explores some of the cultural geneaologies and past parallels of these styles and subcultures, drawing from transgressive styles of 60s libertinism and conservative movements and to make the case for a rejection of the perpetual cultural turn.".

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  2. Kill All Normies, page 68:

    There are many potential explanations for the emergence of a new right sensibility among a younger generation, which rapidly shifted the range of acceptable discourse further to the right than anyone could have imagined. One is that long before it bubbled up to the surface of college campuses, and even Twitter and YouTube, it developed, in oppositions to its enemy online culture of the new identity politics typified by platforms like Tumblr. They tried to move the culture in the opposite direction by restricting speech on the right but expanding the Overton window on the left when it came to issues of race and gender, making increasingly anti-male, anti-white, anti-straight, anti-cis rhetoric normal on the cultural left. The liberal online culture typified by Tumblr was equally successful in pushing fringe ideas into the mainstream. It was ultra- sensitive in contrast to the shocking irreverence of chan culture, but equally subcultural and radical.

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  3. An October 24th 2015 article on The Independent started with

    Germaine Greer has said she will not attend a planned lecture at Cardiff University after a petition called on her to be barred because of her “misogynistic views towards trans women”.

    This appears to based on something ambiguous Greer said in her October 23rd interview with BBC's Newsnight (transcription here):

    KW Finally – if your safety is guaranteed, will you go to Cardiff?
    GG I’m getting a bit old for all of this. I’m 76, I don’t want to go down there and be screamed at and have things thrown at me. Bugger it. It’s not that interesting, or rewarding.

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  4. The Guardian's reporting mentions that Greer seemed to want to avoid recordings.

    She paused when she spotted a microphone in the audience and demanded to know if the woman holding it was recording the lecture. The woman told her she was a helper and the microphone was to ensure that people could be heard during the question-and-answer session.

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  5. This section of the interview is available on the BBC website. I transcribed the quoted part, starting around 1:20, myself, but there's also an "amateur transcription" available. ↩︎

  6. The Guardian article after the lecture does quote her saying something similar:

    They [trans people] are not my issue. It should be perfectly clear why not. I think 51% of the world’s population is enough for me to be going on with. I do agree that calling people names may add to their misery but it happens to old women every day.

    The context isn't totally clear, and the editor rephrasing it doesn't help. I expect that she was making a similar point: that the feelings and experiences of trans women are irrelevant to her analysis of gender, which, numerically speaking, mostly applies to cis women. In lieu of an actual recording or transcript I think that's a fair interpretation.

    But in any case, Nagle unambiguosly refers to the interview in Newsnight. ↩︎

  7. E.g., chapter 4 of Greer's book The Whole Woman, "pantomime dames", also referred to just below. ↩︎

  8. Davis notes this in the Daily Beast article:

    Nagle also recounts news events based on the retellings of right-wing columnists. Nagle’s account of a 2015 “no-platforming” incident at Cardiff University involving Australian writer Germaine Greer uses the same structure, facts and phrasing as Claire Lehman, a conservative author not credited in Nagle’s account.

    The Lehman article expands on the "15":

    It is important to note that while Greer has answered questions on transgenderism during interviews and panel discussions, she has not published any comment about transgenderism for over 15 years. It is "not my issue", she says.

    While Greer is indeed famous for being a feminist activist, she is also a serious scholar who specialises in early English literature. The last time she broached transsexualism was in her 1999/2000 book The Whole Woman, and her most recent book was about the restoration of rainforests.

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  9. Reported in The Independent:

    Meanwhile, the feminist academic, Germaine Greer, who is a member of the college's governing body, is horrified at the decision to admit Dr Padman as a Fellow of the college because the statutes insist that all fellows must be women. She is considering calling an emergency meeting of the governing body to discuss the controversy. Only Newnham's principal, Dr Onora O'Neil, knew that Dr Padman had undergone a sex-change operation to become a woman in 1982. Dr Greer and other fellows had had no idea of Dr Padman's history. "We have driven a coach and horses through our statutes and I can't believe we did it," she said. "It's disgraceful that Dr Padman has been placed in this situation. I makes me very angry."

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  10. E.g., by Kate Bornstein, Anna North at Buzzfeed, and by a Cara at Feministe. She was also glitterbombed. ↩︎

  11. Greer was interviewed by BBC's Newsnight, a portion of which is available on the BBC website entitled "Germaine Greer: Transgender women are 'not women'". ↩︎

  12. The Guardian reported on the speech at Cardiff:

    During the lecture at Cardiff University, Greer insisted in the bluntest of terms that she did not accept that post-operative men were women. “I don’t believe a woman is a man without a cock,” she said. “You can beat me over the head with a baseball bat. It still won’t make me change my mind.”

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  13. From an interview with The Update, of which I've transcribed a part around 5:40 as follows:

    Interviewer: Why are we still seeing gender roles in the media and why does society stand for it?
    Greer: Because most of society is learning your gender role. We're wedded to sex roles, we love them. And the interesting thing about transgender is they're not fighting against the sex role. They started off as one, they started off as Ken, and then they want to become Barbie, but actually we live in the middle. And we quite like our roles to be less sharply differentiated. So that we didn't all have to be, for example, feminine. And so that unfeminine behavior didn't cause people to look at us askance, or say that she's a dyke, or whatever. Um, if we take big strides, we take big strides, tough.
    Interviewer: So, do you believe that there are any overlaps between the injustices felt by the transgender community and the female community?
    Greer: Now the transgender issue, of which I'm mighty tired, frankly, because I haven't said anything about it for years and years, but it's all become, it's a bit like [?], it's the equivalent of climbing on the roof of the queen's [?]. The interesting thing to me is this: there are men who've been married and had children, and who believe they've been women all along. I don't believe them. Sorry, you can hold a knife to my throat, I don't believe you. But nowadays after they've had surgery and they've had gender reassignment, if they accept gender reassignment which means changing their sex on their passport, then marriage is annulled. Now that's not even just ended, that's annulled. What that says it that there was never a marriage. The wife is dumped and the children are bastardized. That's the law. I can't get over that. That was never discussed. I didn't know it myself til a week ago. And I've had women writing to me, saying that they've been dumped in this way and they've got nothing. They've got no comeback, they can't claim child support or anything. So obviously something has to happen there. Somewhat[?], and they expect me to represent them. I don't think I want to do it, because it's now become this silliness. They just, it needs to be just workaday. It should probably be fairness. [?] should take it on and just examine the [?] because to my mind something is shocking. These women made their vows in complete innocence, and now suddenly bang. However there's another issue, which is much more important, which is genuine intersex. Which is something else again. Which is where a baby is born with ambiguous genitalia. For whatever reason. The council of Europe has found and you can only believe them that to inflict surgery on newborns because their genitalia don't match up to some idea of what is correct for one sex or the other, to operate on them is completely unethical, because they then have to deal with the [?] that operation, which they never had the chance to choose, and the [?] of that. Hundreds of these operations occur at all times. So if you're talking transphobia, in my mind, that's it, that's it right there. Intersexphobia. It means you cannot leave their child alone.

    and another part, around 11:12, as:

    Interviewer: And finally, so your name has appeared recently in the medias as a result of student protests at Cardiff university against a talk you planned on giving. So disregarding the topic of those protests, what's your opinion of the culture that's erupted recently on college and university campuses where they protest and shut down talks given by or about people whose opinions the students believe to be wrong?
    Greer: The idea of no-platforming people, meaning because you have a view we don't agree with you're not allowed to talk about anything, that's ridiculous. And it's especially ridiculous at a university, because the soul of universities is debate. And someone has to take the side, the devil's side, they have to be the devil's advocate. Even and more when it's an unpopular view. It's important that your view's expounded and people get to understand it. In my case my critique of transsexualism as it's currently being demonstrated is you go from one stereotype to another, and therefore it's actually against a stereotype itself. So that the notion of blessed womanhood that is accepted by most transsexuals is not one that I agree with. I think it's profoundly wrong.
    Interviewer: Thank you for your time and most importantly your activism. Thank you for being here.
    Greer: It's a great pleasure to be here, actually!

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  14. Here's Nagle's phrasing, again from page 77 of Kill All Normies:

    As far as this new generation of campus feminists was concerned, Greer may as well have been on the far right. Greer had not published any comment about transgenderism for over 15 years, which was ‘not my issue’, she later told Newsnight. In response to the controversy, Cardiff University’s vice-chancellor pandered to those attacking Greer, saying: ‘discriminatory comments of any kind’ and how it ‘work(s) hard to provide a positive and welcoming space for LGBT+ people’.

    Compare Lehman's:.

    It is important to note that while Greer has answered questions on transgenderism during interviews and panel discussions, she has not published any comment about transgenderism for over 15 years. It is "not my issue", she says.

    While Greer is indeed famous for being a feminist activist, she is also a serious scholar who specialises in early English literature. The last time she broached transsexualism was in her 1999/2000 book The Whole Woman, and her most recent book was about the restoration of rainforests.

    In response to the embroilment, Cardiff University's vice-chancellor Professor Colin Riordan offered platitudes about how the institution did not tolerate "discriminatory comments of any kind" and how it "work(s) hard to provide a positive and welcoming space for LGBT+ people".

    The key similarities are

    • Using "over 15 years" (even despite the time difference between the publication of both pieces).
    • Quoting "not my issue" with regards to "transgenderism" (and the use of the word "transgenderism" at all, which is not common).
    • The selection of the same two phrases to quote from the vice-chancellor of Cardiff University, and in particular rephrasing "work" to "work(s)".
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