Welcome to the age of ironic bigotry, where old hatreds are cloaked in woke new language

If you understand why “Zionist” has become an anti-Semitic codeword, there’s no excuse for calling women “terfs”.

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Do you remember GamerGate? I wish I didn’t. In 2014, an online and offline harassment campaign was waged against prominent women in video-gaming. It claimed to be a fight against journalistic malpractice, but it was really a culture war between reactionaries and progressives. And it spawned a new generation of gamers, who were keen to distance themselves from the genre’s grim reputation.

One of those is 21-year-old Dominique McLean, who is arguably the best (and certainly the highest paid) e-sports player in the world. “I guess I just gotta say that I’m gay, black, a furry – pretty much everything a Republican hates,” he told the audience at the Game Awards in Los Angeles in December. Being a furry – a community who variously like to dress as animals, identify as animals, or have sex as animals – McLean accepted the award as his alter-ego, a blue fox.

A gay, black furry, then: what could be more progressive, more 2019, more two-fingers-up at the prejudices of the past? Except on 28 April, McLean posted a Twitter video of him playing Mortal Kombat 11. It was captioned “What I do to terfs” and featured a male character striking a female character so hard in the neck that her skin came off. Every time a blow fell, McLean shouted “terf” into his headset mic.

For those lucky enough to have avoided this debate, “terf” is – according to those who use it – a neutral description, meaning “trans-exclusionary radical feminist”. Now, there are some radical feminists who could be described as trans-exclusionary. They don’t believe you can change gender: a man cannot become a woman, or vice versa.

However, as I’ve written before, the word is now used more broadly. It is regularly applied to those who, say, question why there has been a sudden spike in young females reporting to gender clinics (when traditionally, far more biological males sought to transition). It is disproportionately used to describe women, and as the linguistics professor Deborah Cameron has written, it is used as an insult. On her blog, she cites examples such as “round up every terf and all their friends for good measure and slit their throats one by one”. Cameron concludes that this usage as a slur means that “the time has come to look for a replacement”. Despite this, “terf” is still used by mainstream left-wing writers.

So why are some progressives still defending the word? I’ve finally worked it out. They still feel the old impulse towards woman-hating, but won’t admit it, and have convinced themselves they are only chastising the impure. Witch-finders did something similar in the 17th century.

The text-based nature of the internet, and the way that multiple communities bump into each other online, facilitates this. We live in the age of ironic bigotry, where the “real” meaning of a phrase is wilfully obscured. The idea that the “OK” hand signal – thumb and forefinger pinched together in a circle – was a white supremacist gesture  started as a silly way for 4chan types to troll the media (“those guys think everything is racism now!”) before it was taken up by real white supremacists. The Christchurch shooter made the gesture in court.

The best analogue for the way “terf” functions is another word which is wildly popular on social media: “Zionist”. Ostensibly, it’s merely the description of an ideology – and ideologies can and must be open to criticism. But, with a knowing wink, it is understood to mean “Jew”. In the same way, “shouting at women you don’t like” is reframed as “legitimate criticism of transphobia”. The intended audience knows exactly what’s being said, but the speaker maintains plausible deniability. 

As it happens, I told Dominique McLean that his use of “terf” was a glorification of misogyny. He responded by calling me a “terf”. Another user added: “fuck off back to Mumsnet, terf”. (But I don’t even have any children to complain about there?) The ensuing wave of abuse included an image of an anime character pointing a gun at the screen, with the words “shut the fuck up, terf”. Twitter ruled that post did not violate its abuse guidelines, and neither did McLean’s video. (It relented after I went public.)

I wrote about GamerGate in 2014. Everything I received for calling out McLean was identical to the vitriol I got then, just with a new epithet meaning “woman” attached to it. “Shut up, bitch” is now “shut up, terf”.

Misogyny mutates. The creation of “terf” has been a boon to sexists everywhere. It looks woke: you’re against transphobia! It can be defended as a neutral ideological description: it’s just an acronym! And it evades social media guidelines which forbid attacks on protected minorities: “terf” doesn’t mean woman, duh! Even better, it is isolating. Who wants to complain about it, and risk being called a terf themselves?

A former quiz show champion called Arthur Chu used his opposition to GamerGate to launch a career opposing geek misogyny. For $1,500, e-speakers will set you up with a keynote by Chu to give your company “a vocabulary for describing the sexist attitudes baked into our popular culture”. Looking at McLean’s video, though, Chu could see no issue: “Yeah, the optics would’ve been better if he’d been playing a female character when he made the clip,” he tweeted. “But I’m not going to tell the 2018 e-sports player and furry queer icon of the year to change up his main [account] to appease terfs.” Well said. The guy is rich and famous. He wears a fur suit in public. No way should a bunch of whiny old harpies be allowed to question his online behaviour.

So this is where we are. The people who were opponents of GamerGate five years ago are now proponents of its successor. The language is different, but the impetus remains the same. Women are talking, and we don’t like what they are saying. So they should shut the fuck up – or else.

Helen Lewis is associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape

This article appears in the 03 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, A very British scandal